Gods & Kings for Modern Times
by Gaylon Ferguson
After a recent visit to my doctor for an annual physical exam, I thought about the anxiety-reducing effect of receiving an insightful medical diagnosis. Even before beginning a course of treatment, there is often some relief in just being told what the problem is, its underlying causes, and the best course of treatment.
Ancient spiritual teachings were often grounded in penetratingly accurate diagnoses. Consider, for a famous example, the Buddha’s four noble truths, which could be summarised this way: Being immersed in a painful process of getting and losing is the illness; its root causes are diagnosed as craving and fixation; and the recommended cure is a mindful approach to living (the eightfold path). There is inspiration in so clearly seeing the challenges of living a good human life.
All Things Shining and To Uphold the World provide contrasting forms of approaching some very large questions: How are we doing collectively? What are the possibilities for increasing, not only our personal sanity and happiness, but global harmony and justice? Can we find valuable resources for restoring contemporary communal health in classical Indian and Greek societies?
In All Things Shining, philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly sing the praises of the sacred world vividly evoked in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey: “The intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s Greeks, and the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante’s medieval Christian world, both stand in contrast to our secular age. The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away.”
Their name for this modern ailment is nihilism, the sense that nothing grounds the choices we make. In the modern world, we have a wider range of choices than ever before — choices about who to become, how to act, and with whom to align ourselves — and we feel a lack of genuine motivation to choose one option over the others. “Far from being certain and unhesitating,” say Dreyfus and Kelly, “our lives can at the extreme seem shot through with hesitation and indecision, culminating in choices finally made on the basis of nothing at all.”
Dreyfus and Kelly distinguish trivial, everyday questions such as “Shall I hit the snooze bar again?” or “Is this shirt too wrinkled?” from deeper choices such as “Is it time to move on from this relationship or job?”; “Shall I pursue this opportunity or that one, or none at all?”; “Shall I align myself with this candidate, this coworker, this social group?”; or “Shall I choose this part of the family over the rest?”
Deeper choices can feel as though they cut to the core of who we really are and can seem so familiar to us that we assume that human beings everywhere, at all times in all places, were subject to the same dilemmas. Not so, according to these passionate professors of culture and history. “Although the burden of choice can seem inevitable,” they say, “in fact it is unique to contemporary life. It is not just that in earlier epochs one knew on what basis one’s most fundamental existential choices were made: it is that the existential questions didn’t even make sense.”
In the medieval Christian West, for instance, people could not help but experience themselves as created and determined by God. In a thoroughly religious culture, theology comfortingly grounds one’s identity, authoritatively telling us who we are: the children of God who should act accordingly, obeying His laws. This suggests some of the appeal, even for many today, of religious faith and some forms of fundamentalism, despite the extensive rational critique of religion by “new atheists” such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.
Dreyfus and Kelly identify the widespread illness of the contemporary world as “not just that we know the right course of action and fail to pursue it; we often seem not to have any sense for what the standards for living a good life are in the first place. Or said another way, we seem to have no ground for choosing one course of action over any other.” This is the disease of cultural nihilism, the anxious sense that nothing beyond our own sheer willfulness underwrites the values and choices we make every day.
Most of All Things Shining is the story of how culture shifted “from the fixed certainty of Dante’s world to the existential uncertainty of our own.” Dreyfus and Kelly are lively storytellers, narrating in a persuasive fashion the decisive tipping points and transitions over the last three millennia. The crux of the matter seems to have been the radical diminishing of human connectedness to the natural world and sacred powers, until, after Descartes, we have come to experience ourselves as isolated, autonomous individuals, fundamentally separate from the reality of a dead world around us. I may be attracted to the beauties and wonders of my surrounding world, but the choice to move toward someone or something is, we feel nowadays, entirely my own. Not so in the stories of Homer’s Greeks. There is a divine force called Aphrodite that moves Helen to fall in love outside her marriage, and a martial energy called Ares that brilliantly motivates Achilles as a warrior in action.
There are modern examples of being strongly motivated by something larger than ourselves, and Dreyfus and Kelly want us to take such moments seriously. These amazing upsurges of being moved to action manifest in inspiring political speeches, stellar achievements in sports, and the compassionate actions of contemporary heroes like Wesley Autrey, the New York “subway hero.” In 2007, Autrey dove onto subway tracks and saved a stranger who had fallen between the rails during a seizure, holding him down as a train screeched to a halt inches above them. He commented afterwards that he didn’t feel like a hero, just simply someone doing what had to be done.
The experience of certainty about the significance of events is what both distinguishes and links life in Homer’s Greece and ours in the twenty-first century. “The most important things, the most real things in Homer’s world,” say Dreyfus and Kelly, “well up and take us over, hold us for a while and then, finally, let us go. If we had to translate Homer’s word physis, then whooshing is about as close as we can get. What there really is, for Homer, is whooshing up: the whooshing up of shining Achilles in the midst of battle, or of an overwhelming eroticism in the presence of a radiant stranger… These were the shining moments of reality in Homer’s world.”
The key to experiencing whooshing up is gratitude, appreciation, and a sense of wonder in everyday life. In this way, it is related to mindfulness. Mindfulness releases us from the mental prison of taking the ordinary details of life for granted, from the sense of if you’ve seen one breakfast before work, you’ve seen them all. When we wake up to the sensuous details of this morning’s yogurt and orange juice — plus the kindness of our companion across the table from us — we discover a new world in the old, whooshing up in the midst of our everyday life.
In Bruce Rich’s history of Indian emperor Ashoka in To Uphold the World, we see the violence and destruction that often accompanies martial whooshing ups. Ashoka, whose grandfather Chandragupta Maurya is said to have met Alexander the Great, was born more than 2,300 years ago into the reigning Maurya dynasty. Ashoka’s armies slaughtered more than a hundred thousand people in a famous victorious battle to unify his empire. Saddened by the sight of such violence and hearing the Buddha’s teachings on loving-kindness and compassion, Ashoka renounced violent conquest. His name literally means “not sad,” since after his conversion he rejoiced in propagating a nonviolent way of life. The Oxford History of India characterised Ashoka’s bloody conquest, his remorse, and conversion to a new ethos as “one of the decisive moments in the history of the world.”
Rich’s journey with Ashoka begins at the battle site of Dhauli in Orissa, India, where, as the Dalai Lama says, “Ashoka changed his mind.” Rich, an attorney and author widely known for his work on global environmental and development issues, explains that when the British deciphered the Ashokan rock inscriptions found there, “they were astounded to find that they commemorate not a victory but the king’s conversion to a state policy of nonviolence and the protection of all living things. The king declares his ‘debt to all beings,’ announces a halt to almost all killing of animals on his part for rituals and food, and proclaims the establishment of hospitals for both humans and animals. He declares religious tolerance for all sects and sets forth principles of good governance.”
What is the relevance of this ancient king for our own time? Rich notes that “after September 11, 2001, more thoughtful observers began to link the violent eruption of fundamentalist terror with growing disjunctures in the global system.” Philanthropist George Soros calls our attention to “an overarching message from 9/11 that world politicians still are mostly ignoring.” Here is Soros’ succinct geopolitical diagnosis and cure: “We have global markets but we do not have a global society. And we cannot build a global society without taking into account moral considerations.”
Ashoka faced a similar dilemma. On the one hand, there were advocates for an amoral, ruthlessly efficient political economy; on the other hand, there was the clear necessity for a humanely ethical basis for society. Rich is critically realistic in his assessments yet unwaveringly optimistic about the enduring value of Ashoka’s reconciling aspiration:
Ashoka’s shorter-term goal of a unifying ethic for his empire was perhaps foreordained to eventual failure. But like all the great ethical teachers of humanity, he consciously left a message for all times, and here paradoxically he has succeeded. Certainly Ashoka’s attempt to put into practice over a huge empire an ethos of nonviolence and pacifism — imperfect in practice, and not always applied though it was — is one of the most astonishing events in history… The beauty and simplicity of the Ashokan Dhamma is that the principles of protection of human rights and environmental protection all flow from a secular application of the Buddhist/Jain principles of nonviolence, ahimsa, and respect for all sentient beings.
When Ashoka heard the Buddha’s teachings on compassion, says the Dalai Lama in his afterword to Rich’s book, he became convinced that nonviolence and service to others was the path to a meaningful life. “It is my hope and prayer,” the Dalai Lama says, “that readers today may be inspired by this tale of a powerful ruler, who was such a force for good throughout ancient India, to find ways to contribute to making the world in which we live a more just and peaceful place.”
All Things Shining and To Uphold the World look back to two ancient visions of a good life — Homeric Greek and Ashokan Indian — and shed light on how we can move forward in our own perilously challenged times. As always, it’s up to us. Once again we are called by these cultural diagnoses to mindfully engage the challenges of personal and communal, national and global transformation.