Tag Archives: philosophy

The examined life…

More Chinese Wisdom: Confucius and Council

AnalectsI was reading The Analects, this weekend, in the recent Penguin Classics edition translated by Annping Chin, a book I acquired on my recent mini-vacation in Toronto (one of about 30 books I purchased – a good trip for me). Confucius – Master Kong – is remarkable for his relevance to today’s politics and his insight into human behaviour, especially in a bureaucracy. Chin’s version is wonderfully clear and accessible, and her notes help clarify the passages where Westerners like me might find difficulty in understanding context (historical and cultural).

My purpose in reading The Analects this time is to seek the wisdom in these ancient words that can apply to today’s politics, with particular emphasis on local council politics. I’m going to quote some of the sections in her work and try to explain why I feel they have local resonance. For anyone interested in philosophy, politics or Oriental studies, I highly recommend her translation. I have also added alternate translations from Muller’s excellent online version because they add clarity.

And, of course, I recommend everyone in politics read them. No one can ever learn too much about how to behave.

9.25: A person should stay close to those who do their best and are trustworthy. He should not befriend those who are not his equals. And when he makes a mistake, he should not be afraid to correct it.

Muller translates this as, “Base yourself in loyalty and trust. Don’t be companion with those who are not your moral equal. When you make a mistake, don’t hesitate to correct it.”

In other sections, Confucius warns his followers not to judge a person by his or her popularity (or unpopularity), no matter how many people like (or dislike) the person. What matters is their trustworthiness, their respectability, their honesty, their uprightness. And here he again advises people to judge others on their trustworthiness.

People who lie, spread gossip and rumour, defame others are not trustworthy. They are not your equal. And if you make them so, you only lower your standards to their level. People are judged by the company they keep.

These lines are the same as the last three lines in 1.8. However, in that section, it also says:

If a man of position does not have integrity, he will not inspire awe. And when he tries to learn, he will not persevere to the end.

Residents are willing to forgive mistakes and flaws in their politicians, as long as they believe those politicians have integrity. If politicians make a mistake and admit it, people respect them. If they try to cover it up, ignore it, gloss over it, they will lose public respect.

Integrity, he adds, is also linked to perseverance. The person who does not persevere in learning has no integrity. People expect their politicians to learn to do their job properly. That means study and reading, not just showing up to meetings. That means learning all the Acts that govern them, too.

Similarly, in 16.4, it adds:

It would do you harm to be friends with those with practiced manners, an affected sweetness, a glib tongue.

Muller translates this as: “Friendship with the deceptive, friendship with the unprincipled, and friendship with smooth talkers are harmful.”

We all know people with attributes like these; they include some former politicians who, like spiders in their webs, still try to influence local politics from the shadows. They appear outwardly likable, affable, loyal and trustworthy, but it’s a sham. They are false friends, seeking only to further their own interests and ensnare others. The charming manners are a thin patina on ugly self-interest, dishonesty and lies. They will betray your trust because their interest lies not in your welfare, nor in the community’s well-being, but in their own goals and agendas.

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How Many Virtues?

cardinal virtuesThe Greeks had but four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage (or fortitude). To this, many centuries later, the Catholic church (notably Aquinas) added three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (or love). These are the seven basic virtues of Western culture. But they’re not the only ones.

In 410 CE, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius listed seven ‘heavenly’ virtues in his religious poem, Psychomachia: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

Writing in the New York Times recently, David Brooks said.

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

Brooks adds: “Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

In that sense we have two ‘resume’ virtue lists: the one we present to others, make an ostensible show of and tell people these are the virtues we pursue, even when we do not – and hope these become our eulogy list. And we have a private list of virtues we know we actually believe in, we actually practice in daily life.

But what are those virtues? Are they the four, the seven, or are there more?

Buddhists have two, intertwined lists of virtues. The first is the eightfold path:

  • Right view
  • Right intention
  • Right speech
  • Right action
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right mindfulness
  • Right concentration

The second list of ten virtues comes from the Natha Sutta:

  1. Sila: good conduct; keeping moral habits;
  2. Bahusutta: great learning;
  3. Kalyana mitta: good company; association with good people;
  4. Sovacassata: amenability to correction; meekness; easy admonishability;
  5. Kingkaraniyesu Dakkhata; willingness to give a helping hand; diligence and skill in managing all the affairs of one’s fellows in the community;
  6. Dhammakamata; love of truth;
  7. Viriyarambha; energy; effort; energetic exertion; making effort; being industrious in avoiding  and abandoning evil actions, and cultivating the good;
  8. Santutthi; contentment;
  9. Sati; mindfulness; the ability to remember what one has done and spoken;
  10. Panna; wisdom; insight.

There are other sutras that list Buddhist virtues (also called perfections, or paramitas) like the Ten Perfections of the Buddhavamsa and the Six Perfections  of the Lotus Sutra, but they are essentially the same list as above.

On the virtuescience page, 119 virtues are listed, including wonder, thrift, thankfulness, respect, responsibility, sobriety, loyalty, honesty, generosity and discretion.  A similar, list can be found on virtuesforlife and similar sites (such as the wikiversity site). In the one-upmanship often found online, there are even longer lists (up to around 160) with terms like prayerfulness, resilience, health, beauty and assertiveness.

Are all of these really virtues? Or merely attributes or qualities: behavioral traits? That depends on how you define virtue.

Loyalty, for example, is relative: like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder. Loyalty is only a virtue in someone else if they are on the same side or in the same party as you are. It’s a vice in others of different political, religious or cultural beliefs. History is replete with cases of blind loyalty where it was a character flaw, not a virtue. Think of the SS or the Soviet commissars in WWII, the Red Guard in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. None of the victims would consider their loyalty a virtue. Loyalty to a small cause can equally be disloyalty to the greater good.

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Atheist Spirituality?

Penguin PublishersAndre Comte-Sponville’s elegantly-written book, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, has occupied much of my thoughts and reading time these past few weeks as I try to grapple with his message. I find I need to re-read sections of it, perhaps more than once, to digest and weigh all of the ideas presented.

I’m more accustomed to the polarizing polemics of Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins, and their militant atheism; French philosopher Comte-Sponville’s reasoned and gentle approach quite threw me off guard. Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins may be right (and righteous) in their arguments, but they can be caustic and grating. Comte-Sponville – who also calls himself an atheist – is more conciliatory and willing to concede points to religion that the others are not, particularly in the areas of heritage and culture.

And in death, where Comte-Sponville says religion holds the better hand in dealing with mortality, offering “not only the possibility of consolation, but also a sorely-needed ritual…” that helps us humanize and even civilize death. “The power of religion at such times,” he writes, “is neither more nor less our own powerlessness in the face of the void.”

In the wake of the death of my own mother, mortality has been on my mind somewhat more than usual. Which is one reason, I suppose, I am turning to philosophy with greater frequency to try and make sense of the world.

Calling oneself an atheist has long been a form of rebellion: to challenge three millennia of society, to storm the ramparts of conformity. But only in the last century has that declaration been made without punishment or at least ostracism. No it’s almost chic to do so, like wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.

Each generation has to find its own centre anew, and each older generation has to agonize over that choice. But what happens when the rebels become the establishment, when the challenge becomes the new conformity? Do we repeat the cycle again from the other side?

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Chinese Wisdom

AnalectsAs I promised in an earlier post, here are some of the epithets and sayings found in some of the Four Books of the Chinese canon. I think these are particularly relevant to politics, especially local politics. Hence my commentary after several of them.*

Wikipedia gives us an overview of Confucius’ political philosophy in the Analects:

Confucius’ political beliefs were rooted in his belief that a good ruler would be self-disciplined, would govern his subjects through education and by his own example, and would seek to correct his subjects with love and concern rather than punishment and coercion.
“If the people be led by laws, and uniformity among them be sought by punishments, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among them through the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own accord.” (Analects 2.3; see also 13.6)**.

So how good is the example set for us by council so far? Are the people led by virtue and propriety? Let’s look at the record, so far:

Raising your taxes. Raising your water rates. Giving themselves a raise. Giving $40,000 of your taxes so one of their own could pursue personal political ambitions out of town, with no benefit to this community. Conflicts of interest both material and perceived. Approving sole-sourced contracts to family members. Vengefully bringing back old political grudges (a formerly-rejected IC report) then protesting when the decision applies to one of their own. A standing committee system that operates too often out of the public eye and appears secretive. Backroom negotiations and lobbying emails. Ideological block voting. Letting staff control the budget and other meetings. Accepting damaging and flawed consultants’ reports. Claiming per-diem expenses for regular committee and board meetings. Breaching their oath of office and their code of conduct.

Hardly setting a good example for anyone to follow. And that’s just in the beginning of this term.

Perhaps they have other attributes that would fit the Confucian model of a good ruler, something not yet manifest in the public eye. Something hidden deep inside that needs must be coaxed out slowly. So let’s look at what Confucius and other Chinese philosophers said about government and politics.

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The Four Books


ConfuciusFor many centuries, the core of Chinese education was focused on four classical works from the Confucian school: The Analects, The Great Learning, The Mencius, and Maintaining Perfect Balance. This didn’t really change until the arrival of the West and the industrial era was forced onto China in the 19th century.

These were sacred books and intimate knowledge of them was considered the mark of a literate, civilized person the same way knowledge of the Bible reflected the literate and cultured Christian in medieval times, as Daniel Gardner mentions in his introduction to his translation of The Four Books (Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, 2007). He also describes how Chinese literati shifted their attention from the earlier canon of The Five Classics to the new canon of The Four Books over many years.

Early this week I stumbled across a small treasure trove of books about Confucianism in a local bookstore, including translations and studies of these four books. One of these was the translation of the Analects by Arthur Waley; a book that had once been in my possession, now long departed. Plus I found a translation that includes selections from all four titles. This was timely: I have been meaning to study Confucianism and read its texts for the past year or two, but was always sidetracked by some other interest or hobby.

Like many Westerners, I grew up with a Charlie Chan-inspired image of Confucius as a caricature: a wise-cracking master of the one-liner, a Chinese Will Rogers, whose humourous words often concealed real wisdom, if you dug deeply enough. That impression was erased in the late 1960s and early 70s when I studied Eastern philosophy and religion more seriously. And with such knowledge, grew respect, if not necessarily wisdom.

Over the intervening years, my attention focused more specifically on Buddhism and I let my understanding and appreciation of other schools of thought lapse. Now, semi-retired, I have the time to rekindle my interest and restore my studies.

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Master Shih Te’s Words

I see a lot of silly folks
who claim their own small spine’s
Sumeru, the sacred mountain
that supports the universe.
Piss ants, gnawing away at a noble tree,
with never a doubt about their strength.
They chew up a couple of Sutras,
and pass themselves off as Masters.
Let them hurry and repent.
From now on no more foolishness.

This is poem XI* from Master Shih Te, a hermit on Cold Mountain; contemporary of and close friend to the Tang dynasty poet, Han Shan. This verse is translated by J. P. Seaton from his book, Cold Mountain Poems (Shambhala, Boston, Mass, 2009).

Only 49 poems attributed to Shih Te (also written as Shi De or  Shide) survive; most have distinctly Buddhist themes, but like this one, have metaphorical resonance outside the strict religious or spiritual framework.

This particular poem struck me as particularly relevant, when I read it in Seaton’s collection, this weekend. How much some people  think their own view alone gazes from the highest mountain, and all the rest of us are below them. How they think their own words are akin to scripture, and those of others are dross. But, as Shih Te says, they are merely ants gnawing at the bark of the great tree of truth, thinking their tiny jaws will topple it.

Foolishness,  he says, just foolishness.

~~~~~
* James Hargett translated it thus:

I am aware of those foolish fellows,
Who support Sumeru with their illumed hearts.1
Like ants gnawing on a huge tree,
How can they know their strength is so slight?
Learning to gnaw on two stalks of herbs,
Their words then become one with the Buddha.
I desperately seek to confess my sins,
Hereafter, never again to go astray.

** Sumeru, or Sineru, is the central peak in Buddhist cosmology and mythology: Sumeru rises above the centre of a ‘mandala-like complex of seas and mountains.’ We use a similar metaphor when we speak of the ‘Everest’ of things.

How Marx Presaged Today’s Canada

“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country,” wrote Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, in 1848, in the Communist Manifesto.

I came across this paragraph in Prof. David Harvey‘s book, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, recently and the quote from the Communist Manifesto struck me as very modern; one that presaged our current internationalism and the changes affecting Canada today.

No one on this continent has been unaffected by the rampant, unchecked, corporate globalism that has seen thousands of North American factories closed, jobs discarded, and production moved to Asia in order to render more profits for shareholders and bigger bonuses for CEOs. This utterly ruthless and unrestrained capitalism is the one politicians on the right proclaim as the only viable economic policy to pursue.

We think of this as a recent trend, and yet Marx warned about this more than 160 years ago:

…it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.

Doesn’t that sound like something written about modern globalization? It’s important to understand what Marx meant by capitalism, too: production and trade for the sole source of accumulating wealth (capital). He wasn’t criticizing the market economy, the buying and selling of commodities, the exchange of goods, and a free market. It has nothing to do with your ability to buy a flat screen TV or an iPad or a $250 pair of running shoes.

I’m not sure what he would make of eBay and Kijiji, but I suspect he would have approved of the ability of the individual to adopt and survive in this sort of commodity market where the ‘use-value’ of any items was determined by a mutual agreement between buyer and seller rather than determined for the amount of profit it would make for the elite.

I was struck by a piece in the Toronto Star this weekend by Thomas Walkom, titled, How to save Canadian capitalism from itself:

The economy is not working. A new one needs to be built.
It is not working on a global level, where the world continues to falter.
It is not working at a national level, where incomes stagnate, unemployment persists and good jobs are outsourced abroad.
As a study released Friday by the United Way shows, it is not working at a Toronto level.
That study makes the point that, even within Canada’s premier city, the gap between the rich and poor is growing.
Experts may tie themselves up in knots over the precise trajectory of inequality, depending in part on what is measured and when.
But the general point is beyond dispute: On its own, the free market is providing increasingly less equal rewards.

Which is exactly what Marx predicted would happen: the gap between haves and have-nots is widening. Walkom adds:

Failing a social revolution (which, I suspect, most Canadians don’t want), the alternative is to save capitalism from itself.

Marx predicted social revolution as the inevitable result of this growing inequality, but in this he has been proven only partially correct, and arguably even wrong at times. Cultures in Western nations have a natural inertia against revolution. We tend to be easily swayed by material comforts and convenience. Marx didn’t foresee the internet or 500-plus TV channels, didn’t foresee pornography, game consoles or other things that distract us from thinking about Big Ideas, let alone social upheaval. A culture that is too lazy to walk three blocks to a store for milk is not likely to rise up.

Marx’s communism simply doesn’t work here – at least no implementation has to date. But neither, it seems increasingly, does our unrestrained capitalism. There has to be some reasonable place between them, some place where capitalism’s more predatory urges are blunted, yet its entrepreneurial tendencies are not. As Azar Gat wrote in Foreign Affairs:

Capitalism has expanded relentlessly since early modernity, its lower-priced goods and superior economic power eroding and transforming all other socioeconomic regimes, a process most memorably described by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto. Contrary to Marx’s expectations, capitalism had the same effect on communism, eventually “burying” it without the proverbial shot being fired.

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The Maxims of La Rochefoucauld

Certain good qualities are like senses: people entirely lacking in them can neither perceive nor comprehend them.

MaximsYou might think that was written about local politics, or a comment on the local blogosphere. But no, it was written in the mid 17th century by Francois, du de La Rochefoucauld. It is number 337 in his famous book of Maxims, a work that stands beside other timeless classics of advice, reflection and epithets; like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and Balthasar Gracian’s The Art of Worldly Wisdom. I found a copy in a local used book store recently and have been digesting his words of wisdom.

La Rochefoucauld published five editions of the Maxims in his lifetime between 1665 and 1678. During that time he edited, deleted, added to and rewrote much of it, refining it every time. But as he did so, he found more and more to say, stretching from 317 maxims in the first edition to 504 in the last.

Later editors took more from his other writings; his unpublished notes and his memoirs, raising the total to 647 or even more (647 in the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Leonard Tancock, published first in 1959; mine is the 1984 reprint ).

France went through a lot of change and catharsis in the 17th century, from the brutal and exhausting civil way of La Fronde to the renaissance of Louis XIV, the Sun King, and a blossoming of art, culture, theatre and literature. It was the age of Moliere and Cyrano de Bergerac, the great salons of Paris, the Musketeers (about whom Dumas would write his great novels, two centuries later). It was also a time of great political upheaval, war, shifting allegiances, treachery and violence.

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