contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Virtue Theory

ETHICS AND ‘CIVILIZATION’

In his Reclaiming Civilization (1), modern Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers asks three questions: What is civilization? What is wrong with it? What should we do about it? As part of his work with the third question, he looks at ethics. He starts with the proposition that a flourishing life is ethically desirable and good. This proposition may seem simple and obvious, yet it has not been a reliable quality of ‘civilization’ as we know and have known it.

Myers goes on to describe virtue ethics as the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity. To live a flourishing happy life, we need to install ways of understanding, responding to, and acting in the world that will tend to support it. These are the virtues. Through the process of identifying and working with virtues, we reach towards the person we want to be and the world we want to live in. Myers implies a necessary inner work, when he speaks of “the possibility of a greater depth of life-experience that can appear when I am willing to let go of my illusions, willing to risk harm and despair, in pursuit of a more honest relationship with reality” He then presents his own list, offering his virtues as ways of responding to three ‘immensities’: earth, interpersonal otherness, and solitude/death.

For earth, the virtues are “those ways of being in the world that enable you to look upon the earth, in all its beauty and danger yet feel no need to own it all, nor to destroy it … but to explore it, play with it, know it. Myers recommends “virtues of wonder: including imagination, creativity, open-mindedness, aesthetic taste, and curiosity”. He adds that this does not preclude practices such as farming but does call for them to be “conducted in careful (as in full-of-care), sustainable and co-operative ways”.

For interpersonal otherness, the virtues are “those ways of being that enable you to look upon your neighbor, however strange or different she may be, and feel no need to make her conform to your demands, nor a need to send her away (such as, to her death) … the virtues … enable you to see another earth, in a manner of speaking … your neighbor’s eyes are another way of looking upon the earth … you have another way of exploring it”. Here, Myers recommends “virtues of humanity” – care, courage, friendship, generosity and the “Seven Grandfathers of Wisdom, Truth, Humility, Bravery, Honesty, Love and Respect”.

For “the immensity of solitude, and of death”, the virtues are qualities that contradict any need to avoid solitude and death at “any cost, however destructive to yourself and others”. These, for Myers, are “virtues of integrity: including reason, consistency, dignity, Socratic wisdom, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness, mercy, the will to establish a legacy, and the will to let go”.

When I reviewed Reclaiming Civilization last year (2) I knew that I would want to return to it and examine its ethical approach more closely. What I like about this approach is that it avoids both a ‘follow your bliss’ vagueness and a rigid prescriptive system. It fits very well with my sense of a Sophian Way. It suggests principles and a method and then challenges us to develop our own list. Here, we have an ethics that asks for close attention, questioning and (I would suggest) a continuous work of understanding our chosen ‘virtues’ and checking them out in practice. For me, the notion of a flourishing life for ourselves and others has to extend to the biosphere. A purely human approach no longer serves even we humans ourselves. I also like an approach that (without being partisan) has political implications. It is not just an ethics for private life. Myers provides a tool for living the ‘good life’, and perhaps, identifying possible contributions to reclaiming (and re-framing) ‘civilization’ – the central theme of Myers’ book and the context for his ethical discussion.

(1) Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: A Case for Optimism for the Future of Humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

(2)  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/book-review-recl…ing-civilization/ ‎

 

 

VIRTUES AND VOWS

Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers describes virtue ethics as the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity (1). To live a fulfilling and happy life, we need to install ways of understanding and being in the world that support our aim: these are the virtues. Specifically, he talks about the virtues of wonder, such as open-mindedness, curiosity, creativity; the virtues of humanity, such as care, courage, respect and generosity; and the virtues of integrity, like reason, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness and the will to let go.

The approach of the Buddhist inspired Center for Mindful Self-Compassion – https://centerformsc.org/ – is remarkably similar. The Center teaches a process for identifying “core values”, where we ask ourselves what values we embody that give our life meaning. Center suggestions resemble those of Brendan Myers, and include compassion, generosity, honesty, courage, family, loyalty, service, curiosity and nature. The designers of my Four Noble Truths course – https://learn.tricycle.org/ – are on a similar track. Stephen Batchelor says: “Buddha’s vision was centrally ethical. I’m not referring to the moral precepts here”, but rather a way of life in which “you try to become the person you aspire to be and try to create a world that you aspire to live in”. He says more about this in a series of podcasts taken from a seminar sponsored by the Western Chan Fellowship in Bristol, England on 4 March 2017 and available on YouTube.

I’ve been prompted to look again at my MSC course in June/July of this year. I found the work on vows very valuable and wrote about it in a blog post at the time – https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/making-personal-vows/ . I have developed them a little more. I continue to find the process of identifying core values very helpful. But in all cases I went straight to a ‘doing’ statement. I didn’t isolate nouns that nominate virtues. These, even words like love, courage and wisdom, can seem both static and vague. These are the vows:

  • May I honour and enjoy the gift of life – through sensation, feeling, thinking, and intuition
  • May I be loving and compassionate towards myself and others
  • May I experience abundance in simplicity
  • May I work for the welfare of all beings, using the loving forces that work from individual to individual, as well as supporting larger projects

In terms of organized spiritual movements, I find myself in a debatable zone between neo-Paganism and modern Buddhism. It’s just as well that both traditions have open borders, able to accommodate people who are not signed up. The four vows to myself are the product of multiple influences, as well as my inner sense of direction.  The first owes much both to C. G. Jung and to modern Druidry (especially OBOD – www.druidry.org -); the second to the Buddhist tradition; the third and fourth to all the above. In the last vow, I owe the piece about ‘using the loving forces that work from individual to individual’ to the late C19th/early C20th American psychologist William James at a time when he was fed up with public life.

These vows are a work in progress, and will guide me in my inquiry going forward.

(1). Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017 See also https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/book-review-reclaiming-civilization/

 

BOOK REVIEW: RECLAIMING CIVILIZATION

Publication date 25 August 2017. Highly recommended. Contemporary Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers offers a nuanced and reflective discussion of civilization, its evident dysfunction, and how to respond. Overall, he takes the view that: “civilization is not an unambiguously good thing. The ‘shining city on a hill’ is a mirage. It lessens the suffering of one group by entrenching the suffering of others; and it promises things to the protected and privileged that it can never entirely deliver. Nevertheless, civilization may yet be a salvageable enterprise”.

Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity is a study of the sacred, from a socio-political perspective. The book is presented musically, with an overture leading on to three movements punctuated by interludes. The overture – a ‘meditation upon a lake’ begins with a personal question: ‘why should I return to the city?’ given that this entails going back to debts, responsibilities and ‘absurdities’.

These absurdities go well beyond the personal level. they include: modern working and consumerist lifestyles; rampant economic inequalities; double-speak in politics and religion; a pervasive sense of alienation and division; war and the effects of war; and the accelerating effects of climate change. So Myers’s first, personal, question leads on to three other, general ones: what is civilization? what’s wrong with civilization? What, if anything, should be done for civilization? These questions are explored in the three movements that follow.

To answer the first, Myers looks at human innovations like fixed houses, settled farming and the domestication of animals, and the subsequent appearance of cities and their walls – designed to keep some people out and other people in. He suggests that ‘civilization’ has been a long experiment by which we resolve what it means to be human “not by discovery, but by invention”. Civilized people are those whose qualities are their civilization’s virtues. Myers calls civilization humanity’s ‘most metaphysical project’ – humanity ‘realizing itself’ (for some people) by living up to a ‘civilized’ ideal.

The second, ‘what’s wrong’, question identifies the intensification of social hierarchy and domination with increasing economic surplus overall. Myers discusses the accompanying ideology in terms of “illusions which exalt us” (i.e. those of us who are ‘winners’). These include: the permanent self; notions of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ men and of the virtuous prince; the devious enemy; the self-made man; a human birthright of dominion over the earth. In part, such illusions enable exploitation with an easy conscience. More deeply, they help to fend off nihilism and despair – themselves not an “existential condition of human life” but “a feature of reason and rationality”. There has been something essentially distressed about civilization as a project. Its distortions aren’t just accidents or mistakes.

Myers’ response to the third question (‘what should be done’) makes political suggestions, supported by the author’s ethical lens. Virtue ethics is the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity. To live a fulfilling and happy life, according to Myers, we need to install ways of being in the world that support this aim: these are the virtues. For Myers, we develop virtues in the face of existential ‘immensities’. Awakening to the earth, we respond with the virtues of wonder – and take a stance of open-mindedness, curiosity and creativity. Awakening to people and relationship, we respond with humanity – with care, courage, respect and generosity. Awakening to solitude and the certainty of death, we respond with integrity – reason, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness and the will to let go.

Myers is encouraged by what he calls four lamps:

  1. Human nature is malleable – so culture and society can and do change.
  2. Empathy, co-operation and compassion are among the qualities that are embedded in our species and have helped to build civilization so far.
  3. Casting away illusions is hard, yet on the other side of despair lies a greater depth and life.
  4. We are already doing most of the things we need to do.

Reclaiming Civilization is a valuable addition to our literature. If the above account has stimulated any interest in the questions, I recommend getting the book. The issues are more fully explored, and Myers also shares something of his personal journey, especially in the Interludes.

Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

ETHICS AND THE ENDLESS KNOT

Exploring ethics through contemplative trance and active imagination

In Clear and Present Thinking (1) a book about logic, Brendan Myers includes a Chapter on Moral Reasoning. In this chapter he talks about Virtue Theory as one “where the weight of moral concern is on the character and identity of the person who acts and chooses, as well as the habits he or she develops and discharges through her actions and their consequences”.

Some days after reading this, I found myself in my inner sacred space, a heart space, the garden of the Goddess. I was not doing any formal practice. I was just there. When the garden first emerged, it was specifically as Sophia’s garden. And so it was this time.

There was a banner hanging from a tree branch, hawthorn I think. It was red, with a gold pentangle inscribed on it. I recognised it as the heraldic emblem from Gawain’s shield in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2). In this 14th century English poem the pentangle is introduced as a token of fidelity first devised by King Solomon. It is unbroken anywhere, and known in England as the ‘endless knot’. The poem involves an interrogation of ‘virtue’ as understood both in King Arthur’s Camelot and in the older world of the Green Knight far to the north. Gawain will have to navigate both physical perils and moral ambiguities.

Why did I find this device, as a spontaneously emerging image, in Sophia’s Garden? Firstly, I had been thinking about virtue ethics as described by Brendan Myers. Secondly, the pentangle in this form has been a significant image for me ever since I encountered the poem in my late teens. I’ve revisited it from time to time ever since, and this includes the reading of John Matthews’ Sir Gawain: Knight of the Goddess (3) which makes the link with Sophia. “In the Gnostic system, Sophia, the divine emanation of the Godhead, would not permit anyone to enter her Realm of Light, unless they were in complete balance, and bore the sign of the pentangle upon them”.

The offered meaning, as I see it, is that when addressing virtue ethics, I can’t rely on reason alone. Virtue ethics is up close and personal, more than an abstract principle or set of rules. I need to mobilise more of myself. In Sophia’s Garden I’m in a deepened form of awareness, and can contemplate the imagery using heart and intuition as well as rationality. They all work together.

Allowing the vision, I entered a light trance, with the image firmly in mind. I lay down with pen and paper near. I fell asleep for a short period – not part of the plan, but cleansing and useful. On waking I had words: Love/Wisdom. Sophia is Goddess of Love/Wisdom. The love is the greater quality, and it is an Eros fuelled love, for Sophia is the emanation of the Divine who ‘fell’ and then recovered (4). There must an opening up and movement towards someone or something, however slight and tentative, for it to be ‘love’. Whereas I owe justice and a pre-supposition of basic good will towards sentient beings, love is in my experience beyond command and does not result from a conscious act of will – though I can certainly work at expanding my potential to be a conduit. Wisdom is connected to this love, acting as a detector of distortions – empty or ungrounded sentiment, unaware compulsion, possessive attachment, ‘spiritual’ love as world rejecting flight, or driven and reckless forms of generosity lacking in self-care.

But love modifies wisdom too. Wisdom here is too energised to be altogether prudential. Counting the cost may make sense, but it’s not the only criterion. Wisdom uses the head yet is lodged in the heart. At the same time, wisdom also knows that ‘Love’ and ‘Wisdom’ as words can begin to solidify into things, always a problem with ‘nouning’. They can become wooden idealisations devoid of context and process, accessories to self-image, identity performance and external reputation. They can become alienated and commodified. They can even turn and be turned against us. So wisdom guards herself and love by guarding against too much reference to ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Love’.

At this stage I’m thinking again of the pentangle and wanting to use it to bring the virtues into relationship with each other rather than separating them out. I’m feeling happy about using this traditional framework so long as I can be playful with it. For I understand this to be the Sophian Way – with solemnity seen as having a stupefying effect, anaesthetising awareness. So in this ethics of the endless knot, I place love at the apex of the pentangle as I look at the banner, I move down to the base on my right, igniting the love/wisdom link.

Then, moving diagonally up left from the base I come to justice, for love and wisdom need justice in the world for the sake of their own flourishing: injustice inhibits the free flow of love and wisdom. I’ve already named justice, and fairness, as something I owe to all on a personal level, based on a presupposition of basic good will. I’m also clear about the need to work for justice in the wider world. On this, my vision is of a justice is careful of its methods, or it risks licensing revenge, both in power and opposition. Care about language and imagery are themselves a work for justice. Injustice wants to constrain and police these great resources. It seeks to close down their emancipatory magic. Working for justice is rational activity in service to love and wisdom. Sophia has always cried out against injustice, false justice and no justice. She has an ambivalent relationship with the law.

The classical virtue following on from justice, as I move in a straight line from left to right, is courage. What kind of courage am I looking at? For me it’s not about ‘warriorship’, with its theatricality and somewhat militaristic associations, however reframed for current values and conditions. (Perhaps that’s why my pentangle is inscribed on a banner rather than a shield.) Rather, it combines resilience with witnessing. Early Taoism captures the resilience aspect: “true goodness is like water … it goes right down to the low loathsome places, and so finds the way” and “the hard sword fails, the stiff tree’s felled. The hard and great go under. The soft and weak stay up” (5). I understand witnessing in a ‘truth to power’ sense and link it to my notion of care about emancipatory, life and world-expanding language and imagery and the need to guard them. This witnessing courage, to be honourable, may involve the willing loss of recognised honour and standing in a world that is formally virtuous. So it depends on a strong inner authority and a willingness to go against tribal custom. This is the courage I would tie in with love, wisdom and justice.

Moving down diagonally from courage, we come to the base of the golden pentangle on the left hand side, where I place temperance. In the course of its long history, ‘temperance’ has tended to shift from ideas of moderation to ideas of abstinence, as culture and religion have changed. Here and now, I have a resonance of ‘treading lightly on the earth’, in two senses. One is about limiting demands on material resources for the health and flourishing of the earth and its inhabitants. The other is about an ultimate non-attachment to material goods, contents of consciousness and the self-image they create. For me, there is a balance here which is why the word temperance comes in. I can love my possessions, my ideas and visions, my loved ones, my neighbours and my sense of who I am. But I am not fundamentally identified, not wholly immersed, in them. For these forms of love, if they are to flourish, demand some space around them, and there is a sense in which I am alone even within these nourishing interconnections. In another sense I am not. For I can go back to the simplicity of aware being and loving, timelessly arising from the fertile latency of the void. In this way I complete the endless knot.

This vision and reflection are only a beginning. I intend to continue engaging with this ethical approach, integrating it into my contemplative inquiry.

References

  1. Brendan Myers, Charlotte Elsby, Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray & Nola Semczyszyn Clear and Present Thinking: a Handbook in Logic and Rationality, Version 1.1 (21st May 2013) Available via brendanmyers.net or Amazon/Kindle
  2. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License – see creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/3.0/
  3. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight edited with an introduction, prose translation and notes by W. R. J. Barron. (Revised edition) Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1998
  4. John Matthews Sir Gawain Knight of the Goddess (Revised edition) Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1998
  5. Pistis Sophia: a Gnostic Gospel translated into English with an introduction and annotated bibliography by G. R. S. Mead. Blauvelt, New York: Spiritual Science Library, 1984 (New Foreword for American Edition by Richard K. Russell
  6. Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: a Book about the Way and the Power of the Way Shambhala: Boston & London, 1998 (A new English version by Ursula K. LeGuin)
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