The Three Gifts of the East, the West, and Ancient Greece

Some epigrams may, if we don’t dismiss them as mere caricatures, reveal to us certain truths about the East and the West. So the American poet and deep ecologist Gary Snyder: “The mercy of the West has been social revolution. The mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.” So D.T. Suzuki translating, in 1906, some lectures by Reverend Soyen Shaku delivered before an American audience: “Generally speaking…, the West is energetic and the East is mystical.”

While I believe that Rev. Shaku and Gary Snyder are bringing out something special and important about these differences, I want to add a third dimension to this picture. The East is mystical; as such, it’s been concerned with self-transformation (vita contemplativa). The West, being energetic, has been focused on social transformation (vita activa). But what of Ancient Greece? Its focus was human excellence. Here is Pindar: “[H]uman excellence grows like a vine tree, fed by the green grass, among men wise and just, raised up to the liquid sky.” A schema:

  • The Christian and secular west: justice.
  • The East: oneness.
  • Ancient Greece: human excellence.

To riff on Snyder, we need all three.

But what has happened instead? To begin with, in the West, the justice telos, good so far as it goes, has become hegemonic, with the result that meditation has become instrumentalized or therapeuticized and rightful human excellence villified. Furthermore, the corruption of human excellence in the form of power has reared its ugly head. With these two points, I’m talking about the deep and persistent conflict between the entrenched left and the entrenched right. Third of all, all these final aims have been corrupted.

The corruption of justice is two-fold: victimhood and, in Nietzsche’s sense, decadence. The latter refers to what happens to the human spirit when, under conditions of great comfort, it lacks struggle, exertion, fight. I have sometimes call this bourgeois.

The corruption of oneness is two-fold: retreat (witness the ways in which retreats have sprung up as forms of escape from, say, the world of total work) and the cult of personality (the creation and worship of infallible gurus).

The corruption of human excellence is two-fold: power (so, not to be great or masterful at some craft for its own sake, not to be a truly excellent or fine human being but to wield power over others, i.e., to be Great) and spectator sports (the shift from art to sport and the creation of the spectator as the passive consumer of others’ excellence).

How to bring together all three teloi in their uncorrupted forms is not an easy question; I don’t pretend to have the answer. As I see it, there will be contestations, negotiations, and local priorities. Yet the point still stands: neither justice nor oneness nor excellence can become hegemonic, claiming to be the “only game in town,” and we desperately need all three in order to have a good society.

Experience Junkies and Experience Machines

In my philosophy practice and in my daily life, I keep coming across what my wife Alexandra has aptly termed “experience junkies.” Some experience junkies want to have a steady flow of moderately pleasant experiences. Others want to have supreme highs. Others, actually, want to experience the greatest highs and the deepest lows of human life. As one man put it when we were speaking, he used to want to have the “high highs and low lows.”

What is wrong with this picture of a human life? What is missing from it?

To begin with, it’s a form of hedonism, but this doesn’t yet mean much. Many have thought that hedonism is a good, indeed, the best way to live. In his book Anarchy, State, Utopia published in 1974, the American philosopher Robert Nozick tried to show why experience junkies should want not to be experience junkies because they are indeed missing some crucial features of a well led human life.

It’s important how he frames the question, and it’s also the way that I wish to frame it: “What matters other than how people’s experiences feel ‘from the inside’?” From here, he invites us to imagine that we could plug ourselves into an ideal experience machine. I’ll let Nozick describe this contraption:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience that you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences, we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences for, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank, to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?

Whether you want a steady flow of moderate pleasant experiences, a set of violent experiences, an intermittent mix of intense bliss followed by nearly death-inducing sorrow, or whatever is up to you. The machine will provide.

Now, Nozick thinks we would not plug in. (I wonder whether his would not should be replaced with a should not.) He supplies us with three reasons. “First,” he writes, “we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. In the case of certain experiences, it is only because first we want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them or thinking we’ve done them.” He goes on, “A second reason for not plugging in is that we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person. Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob.” Both reasons sound Aristotelian, the first underscoring the claim that we care about activities which require our agency, our efforts, our contributions to what we experience (rather than just the passive experience itself), the second pointing up the value we place on the cultivation of our characters, on our being (or becoming) certain kinds of persons. Passivity doesn’t make us agents, and blobs are not, and cannot be, persons.

While his first two reasons are good, I want to dwell for a short while on the third reason he gives. He believes that “plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct. There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated.” Everything of the greatest importance hinges on those words actualcontact, and with. For I do think that there is a deep spiritual urge for us to be in contact with reality, and that contact becomes impossible if one is only concerned, “from the inside,” with how one feels. And that, plainly, is not just subjectivism but nihilism: experience junkies are manifestly nihilists yet ones unwilling to face up to this fact.

The important question needs to be dredged up for it has gone missing: how do we come into contact with actual reality and thereafter live our lives so as to accord with actual reality? The structure across the religious traditions with which I’m most familiar does not vary much (though the direction can go from “inside” to “outside” rather than from “outside” to “inside,” as I’ve presented it below):

  1. There is something outside of me. It goes by the name God (in Christian mysticism), Dao (in Daoism), or sunyata (the Void or Emptiness in Buddhism).
  2. It is that which is outside of me that, through meditation or prayer, comes to pierce me so that the outside is no longer just outside but comes to be through me.
  3. Next, it strikes me with the force of deep insight that what is outside and through me is actually in me.
  4. But to say that what is outside is also through me and that what is through me is also inside of me is to say that This is everywhere. It is. There is nowhere that It is not, nowhere that It cannot be.

Henceforth, one’s orientation toward life gets “flipped,” totally “turned around.” Actual reality manifests itself everywhere and every-when, especially in us as pure awareness, and it is that to which we need, as Alexandra put it recently, to tune in and thereafter to keep tuning into. How one tunes in is, for instance, relatively clear in Daoism where the Daoist sage has learned, in virtue of being ever with and through and in and of the Dao, to act wu wei, to have his powers energized and flowing in effortless yet supremely responsive and supple action. He is an active vessel for the ever-present, flowing, unfolding movements of the cosmic process.

All this is absolutely impossible to envisage, let alone to be englobed by for experience junkies. For them, we should feel not pity or contempt but deep, deep compassion. They know not what they miss.

Irreversible Consequences

We’re all familiar, I presume, with the idea that our actions can lead to unintended consequences. Some of these unintended consequences become almost immediately recognizable, and in a small number of those cases the actions are reversible. But what about the actions that set in motion consequences that cannot be seen by the living and that, partially due to their invisibility, end up being irreversible?

When I was younger, I read a fair number of Ian McEwan novels. Most of these were centered on a transfiguring event, an occurrence that radically transforms the life of an individual or a couple so that life after becomes, almost in a flash, radically different from her or their life before. Tragedy has, since Aristotle, often been concerned with the sudden, perhaps irreversible loss–of a loved one, social standing, place, cultural identity, and of other supremely valued objects. Hence the Renaissance interest in the “tragic fall.”

But what about the slow and steady tragic decline? Here, I reckon, is a different, and perhaps far stickier, predicament. When James Watt invented the steam engine in 1781, he could not have foreseen how in a little over 200 years he would have contributed to setting in motion an industrial civilization the unintended consequences of which have been widespread and irreversible climactic changes of the kind that future generations will be grappling with for as long as they and those after them live. Relatedly, in his book Collapse, Jared Diamond tells plenty of stories about how a current illiterate generation, one whose memory didn’t extend back far enough, takes some source of food or supply of food to be extraordinarily abundant and are not able to see that current tribal members are slowly depleting this resource at a rate that will ultimately lead future generations to face peril, even collapse.

The examples of the sort of slow-moving yet irreversible tragedy I’m discussing are not just social, political, or economic; they’re also existential. If we think about our lives, we’ll soon recognize that some action we performed, or neglected to perform, some 20 years ago set up a causal chain of events that has made it impossible for you to go back, to “do over,” to make amends. Perhaps it is as simple as overusing your knees when you were young to the point at which not in an instant but over a few decades you come to find that your knees are shot. Looking back, you might say now, “If only I had known that doing X would cause me such pain, then I would have avoiding X,” yet, while that is true, you’re also missing something more basic and profound, perhaps, about the possible lack of human foresight built into the human condition: might it be that there just are certain things that, in virtue of our cognitive limits, will inevitably lead us, at some point in the future, into situations which we will just have to learn to live with? Might it be necessary for us to let go of the belief that all our decisions and actions are reversible? And, knowing this while keeping it fixedly in mind, might we come to discover an even greater sense of reverence for the power we wield every time we act, especially when it comes to our actions whose consequences can affect others, possibly for life, possibly in ways that they won’t be able to see themselves until two or three decades later?