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Friday, December 2, 2016

Aristotle, Buddha, Success

Confession: I saw “Hamilton” after Thanksgiving. Like everyone else, I was blown away by it. Of course, I’ve been steeped in the soundtrack for a year, thanks to my kids, so I was able to follow the lyrics  - and they are terrific lyrics. Ahead of time, I was worried that the show might be an anticlimax, but I have to say, it was better than expected. It was great. But I’m not here to add yet another rave review to the pile. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius, no doubt - and like the most successful geniuses, he has a team of like-minded others, also known as collaborators, to work with and to egg him on to success. But I don’t really want to talk about that right now, either. 

Here’s the thing I want to say. Before I saw“Hamilton,” just the soundtrack made me cry a little - his life cut short by that duel with Aaron Burr, his potential wasted - but watching it in our current political climate, I cried a lot. Of course a show about the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution and ideals and sacrifice is bound to stir up patriotism. Well, mine was stirred. It may have fallen out of fashion, patriotism, but I have a deep well of it. So comparing the heroism and bravado of what went into founding a country with the country we have today led me to some sorry, sad tears. What we have now, Trump and his merry band of bankrupters, is an embarrassment. I’m pretty sure the country will survive; but it will take a lot of time and collective recalibrating of ideals to make it flourish. 

Speaking of ideals brings me to the magazine I bought recently, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. I bought it because I was waiting in line at the Honest Weight Food Coop and it was that or a homeopathic tablet for relieving anxiety. Anxiety? Who’s feeling anxious? 

Anyway, the cover article was about living an authentic life, which reminds me of another plank in my scaffolding of success: live according to what you value. But the article that most interested me was about the intermingling of Buddhist and Western ethics in our culture. Ethics, if I recall correctly, being a code of behavior. "Principles of right conduct," says my American Heritage Dictionary. Heady stuff, I know, but bear with me. Western ethics equals Aristotelian, according to the author of this article. Let’s not debate the guy (and yes, the author is a guy, bien sur, c’mom, womens, let’s get heard more MORE more. But I digress) let’s grant him that, even if it's reductionist. He’s talking about Aristotle’s eudaimonia, or human flourishing, the principle of living so that one expresses and develops oneself to the fullest potential. This is apparently Aristotle’s Good. Kind of like a Martha Stewart Good Thing, in the ethical realm as opposed to in the household management realm. I’m up for it. Or down for it. Yes, more down. I’ve been feeling kind of down. Which is repetitive, but it does tie into my theme.

As I was saying, the article says “the general Aristotelian notion that a life dedicated to the cultivation of virtue and the contemplation of wisdom is the best and happiest kind of human life is one that has been readily transplanted into Buddhism.” Western ethics have infused into Buddhist ethics so that we have replaced the ideal of living in a manner that will lead to “surcease” of suffering and the end of reincarnation with the ideal of eudaimonia, or human flourishing. In other words, the Aristotelian idea of human flourishing is an idea “so pervasive in Western culture that Westerners are often unaware of its source.” 

Indeed. I thought it was Buddhist. But it was Aristotle, brought to me by a bunch of Jewish seekers who went to India in the late 1960s to study Buddhism and returned to awaken the masses in America. Everything old is new again and old again and circuitous again. But never mind. One thing I definitely value is eudaimonia. 

Another point of the article is that for Westerners - and for many, if not most, Easterners - the Buddhist ideal of attaining nirvana and ending the cycle of rebirth and suffering doesn’t stand up to modern science and other influences. This essential of the Eastern strand of Buddhism just doesn’t work for we cynics. We are not used to living in a caste society where our roles are defined for life. We are not accustomed to resignation about this life and to therefore work on our selves to prepare to come back in the next life as something a little more evolved on the spectrum of life. We are not into delayed gratification if the delay is of multiple lifetimes. Nope, that is definitely not Western. We are focused on this life. And many of us, whether we practice Buddhism or another kind of self-improvement, hope to achieve a quintessential Western ideal. Human flourishing. And we all assume that we all agree that the flourishing of all humans is the goal. 

Or at least we did, until we realized the Conservative movement has steadily, over the last thirty years, while we were improving ourselves, swept us all up into a giant burlap bag, and with this election, pulled tight and knotted the drawstring over our heads. We are now like a bunch of kittens stuck in a sack about to be heaved over the railing and drowned in the river of life by a bunch of white dudes who have apparently didn't agree with us that human flourishing is the greatest good. 

So maybe we need  to start believing in rebirth and so on. Because maybe there’s not much we can fix about this life. 

Oh, gosh, I’m sorry. Did that last paragraph skew too bleak? I’m trying to move away from politics. Politics, after all, is the rearranging of the deck chairs on the ship of state. It’s the trajectory of the ship we need to think about most. 

So what constitutes human flourishing? This is the big question. We keep thinking flourishing depends on ever-increasing piles of money. Yet we are proved wrong about that again and again. We do need enough money to feel like we’re flourishing, but it’s not as much as we think, and there are other things we need to flourish. We need to feel like we are helping others. We need to feel part of a community. We need to have ways to center ourselves. We need to have purpose. We need external supports, which is where government and community come in handy. We also, as a psychologist I recently spoke to said, need to do the inner work to improve our lives. 

And also, we need to call our elected representatives and let them know what we think about those deck chairs, and we need to try to arrange them so that everyone can have a good seat. 


  1. So glad that Connie reposted this and I got to read it. You touched on multiple themes that interest me. Nicely done!

    1. Thanks for this comment. I'm sorry I didn't see it until today 1/20/17. Strange!