Archive for April, 2014

Last night I had a long conversation about ‘altruism.’ What is altruism? Are there any truly altruistic people? Are any behaviors truly altruistic? One of the topics that emerged was focused on the connection between altruism and the Golden Rule.

Many, I mean many, faith-traditions, philosophic traditions (e.g. Confucianists, Buddhists) and humanistic-traditions espouse what is known as the Golden Rule. The version that seems to be the most cited is ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you’ [Gentle reader you might ‘google’ the Golden Rule and read the different versions and note their similarities].

This ‘Rule’ is often cited as if it were a ‘core’ rule that a moral person would follow (the ‘law’ does not always support this rule nor do a variety of ethical decision-making processes – thus one could act within the law or ethically and still not embrace this ‘moral’ rule). This ‘Rule’ is cited as being ‘core’ in that a moral person, to the best of his or her ability will not betray it by acting against it.

HOWEVER, as important as this rule has been to many traditions (Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Confucianists, Buddhists, Baha’is, etc.) there are times when those who espouse these traditions will choose not to follow it (for legal reasons, for ethical reasons) in spite of the moral implications (as you, gentle reader, will soon see).

When would one, in fact, when does one choose not to follow the Golden Rule or support one who does? Let us start with the second part of this: When would we tend not to support a person who espouses and lives out the Golden Rule? Take a minute or two and see what emerges into your consciousness before you read on. . .

Time’s up. Example: Fred is a masochist. He wants folks to whip him till it hurts. Given this, he feels free to whip others till it hurts (the Golden Rule in action). How many would say that, indeed, Fred is living by the Golden Rule?

Here’s another example. You are driving along following a winding river. You stop along the side of the road to admire the beauty of the river. You then notice a young child playing in the water….WAIT A MINUTE SPARKY…you look closer and see that the child appears to be drowning…you jump out of your car and run to the edge of the river. You stop. You are wearing your new suit and three hundred dollar shoes…do you, an excellent swimmer by the by and a trained life-guard, walk away. Probably not – you would jump in and attempt to saver the child. Nice!

There are ethicists and moralists however who would say that the ‘real test’ of the Golden Rule would be NOT TO BUY the three hundred dollar shoes. It would be to purchase shoes that were comfortable and significantly less expensive and send the other, say $250 dollars to a relief fund that would then purchase clean drinking water for two children for a year. Now, that would be following the Golden Rule to a tee (not a tea) as most of us desire to have clean drinking water for ourselves.

When I stop and reflect upon it I can quickly emerge into my own consciousness many instances when I choose not to follow the Golden Rule. The questions, for me, that lie behind the ‘Rule’ is: ‘Am I truly my brother’s keeper?’ ‘Who is my brother?’ ‘What does it mean to be my brother’s keeper anyway?’ What I do believe as I type these words today is that the Golden Rule is powerful, has been around for thousands of years, and is a daunting challenge to actually live into and out of. The Golden Rule, like compassion, forgiveness, unconditional acceptance and unconditional love, is nice in theory and oh so challenging to live out.

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Think not forever of yourselves…
nor of your own generation.
Think of continuing generations…
and of those yet unborn…
– The Peacemaker…the Iroquois Confederacy, Circa 1100 A.D.

The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, one of the world’s oldest democracies, emerged somewhere between 1100 A.D. and 1150 A.D. [two researchers put the date of 31 August, 1142 as the date because the Iroquois said that the law of the Five Nations was adopted by the Senecas (the last of the five nations to ratify it) shortly after a total eclipse of the sun and in New York between 1100 A.D. and 1150 A.D. the total eclipse occurred on 31 August, 1142].
The Iroquois Confederacy along with the government of Iceland and the Swiss cantons are the oldest continuously functioning democracies on earth. All three precedents have been cited as forerunners of the United States system of representative democracy. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy functions today in Upstate New York; it even issues passports.

The journey of Deganawidah (The Peacemaker – see his famous quote above) and Hiawatha (yes, THAT Hiawatha) in support of the Great Law had begun about a quarter-century earlier with the Mohawks, at the “eastern door” of the Confederacy, about 25 years earlier. “Haudenosaunee” means “People of the Longhouse.” “Iroquois” is a French term for the united nations of the Haudenosaunee, who also were called the “Six Nations” by English colonists. The five original nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca) were joined by the Tuscaroras about 1700 A.D.

The Iroquois believe that there are three kinds of ‘humans’ – all members of the five, then six, nations were considered to be ‘humans.’ The first is the human that uses the body only; the second is the human that uses the body and the mind; and the the third is the human that uses the body, the mind and the spirit.

For many reasons, ‘fire’ was of prime importance to the Iroquois [note, when I refer to ‘Iroquois’ I am referring to the five, then six, Nations that make up the Confederacy]. When a man or a woman was able to light and sustain the fire without – the fire that could be seen – AND the fire within – the fire that could be felt but not seen, the fire of love that burns from within but does not consume but nurtures, the fire that warms and nurtures all so that members would love one another, and when this person was a ‘human’ at the third level, then this person was deemed to be ‘The Peacemaker.’

The Peacemaker would travel from Nation to Nation teaching the people about Peace and helping them resolve issues that would be brought before him/her. The issues were resolved through conversation; this conversation was rooted in the Peace Treaty [The Great Law] that each Nation had signed when they joined the Confederacy.

When the Chiefs of each Nation gathered to decide ‘policy’ issues, The Peacemaker was ‘first among equals’ – the Primus inter pares. It is also important to note that the Chief was not a ‘Chief’ for life…he could be voted out by his Nation if he did not serve the people. Although the Chief of each Nation was a man, The Peacemaker, who was not a chief, was either a man or a woman.

A few of our Nation’s Founding Fathers spent time with the Iroquois in order to learn about and understand their form of democracy and brought some of their learning and understanding to the framing of our own Constitution.

To what extent do we, today, embrace the original Peacemaker’s counsel: Think not forever of yourselves. . .

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Epictetus continues: Getting an education means learning to bring our will in line with the way things happen – which is to say, as the ruler of the universe arranged. He arranged for there to be summer and winter, abundance and lack, virtue and vice – all such opposites meant for the harmony of the whole; and he gave us each a body and bodily parts, material belongings, family and friends.

It is with this arrangement in mind that we should approach instruction, not to alter the facts – but in order to learn the nature of what concerns us, and keep our will in line with events. Can we avoid people? How is that possible? And if we associate with them, can we change them? Who gives us that power? What is the alternative – what means can be found for dealing with them? One that ensures that we remain true to our nature, however other people see fit to behave. That’s not what you do though. No, you gripe and protest against circumstance. If you’re alone, you call it desolation, if you’re in company you describe them all as swindlers and backstabbers; you curse your own sparents, your children, your siblings and neighbors. When you are by yourself you should call it peace and liberty… When you’re with a large group you shouldn’t say you’re in a mob or crowd, but a guest at a feast or festival – and in that spirit learn to enjoy it.

What is the downside for those who refuse to enjoy it? To be just as they are. Is someone unhappy being alone? Leave him to his isolation. Is someone unhappy with his parents? Let him be. . .Is someone unhappy with his children? Let him be a bad father. ‘Throw him in jail?’ What jail? The one he is in already.. .Socrates was not in prison because he chose to be there.

…You forget the virtues of character you have in reserve, just when problems that they can control present themselves, and you could use their help.

You should thank the gods for making you strong enough to survive what you cannot control, and only responsible for what you can. . . .[the gods] made you responsible only for what is in your power [to control and change]. So why take on the burden of matters which you cannot answer for?

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I have decided to quote at length from Epictetus’ ‘Discourses’ and so I invite you, gentle reader, to join me and reflect on his words and wisdom. Epictetus writes:

On the subject of the gods, there are those who deny the existence of divinity outright. Others say that God exists, but is idle and indifferent and does not pay attention to anything. A third group says that God exists and is attentive, but only to the workings of the heavens, never affairs on earth. A fourth group says that he does attend to earthly affairs, including the welfare of humanity, but only in a general way, without worrying about individuals. And then there is a fifth group, Odysseus and Socrates among them, who say that ‘I cannot make a move without God’s notice.’

Before doing anything else we need to examine these views separately to decide which are true and false. Because if the gods do not exist, what sense can be made of the command to ‘follow the gods?’ And how can it be a sensible goal if they exist, but do not have any cares? Even supposing that they exist and care, if that care does not extend to people, and, in point of fact, to me personally, it is still no worthwhile goal.

The intelligent person, after due consideration of the question, will decide to submit his will to the ruler of the universe, as good citizens submit to the laws of the state.

Education should be approached with this goal in mind: How can I personally follow the gods always and how can I adapt to God’s government, and so be free? Freedom, you see, is having events go in accordance with our will, never contrary to it.

Well – is freedom the same as madness? Of course not. Madness and freedom are poles apart. ‘But I want my wishes realized, never mind the reason behind them.’ Now, that’s madness, that’s insanity. Freedom is something good and valuable; to arbitrarily wish for things to happen that arbitrarily seem to you best is not good, it’s disgraceful.


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Human beings, it seems, loves ‘freedom’ (although as Fromm noted, ‘man seeks to escape from freedom – see his book, ‘Escape From Freedom’); perhaps what man really seeks is ‘license’ which is ‘freedom to choose without constraint.’ Freedom of individuals in a ‘society’ requires regulation (restraint) of conduct; the first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute (license) and freedom dies amidst chaos running amok [AN ASIDE: It seems to me that ‘guns rights advocates’ are ultimately seeking license, not freedom, for they are advocating ‘non-restraint.’ – but I digress…or do I?]

Consider that a prime task of government is to establish order. History shows us, if we pay attention, that organized central force is the sole alternative to incalculable and disruptive force in private hands [the hands of a few]. Power, history teaches us, converges to a center, for it is ineffective when divided, diluted, and spread. . .hence, the centralization of power in the monarchy (see France under Richelieu and Germany under Bismarck). A similar process has centered power in the federal government in the United States; for our Founding Fathers it was of no use to talk of ‘states rights’ when the economy was ignoring state boundaries and could be regulated only by some central authority.

History also teaches us that Monarchy seems to be the most ‘natural’ kind of government, since it applies to the group the authority of the father in a family or of the chieftain in a warrior band. If we step back and notice and judge forms of government from their prevalence and duration in history we should have to give the nod to monarchy; democracies, on the other hand, have been, at best so far, hectic interludes.

Consider Rome: Edward Gibbon (of the famous ‘decline and fall of the Roman Empire’) observed that “If a man were called to fix the period during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the accession of Octavian to the death of Marcus Aurelius (31 B.C. to A.D. 180). Their united reigns are possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of the government.” During this period, the Roman emperor transmitted his authority not to his offspring but to the ablest man he could find; he adopted this man as his son, trained him in the functions of government, and gradually surrendered to him the reins of power. Sadly, for Rome, Marcus Aurelius had a son, Commodus, who succeeded him because the philosopher-king failed to name another heir (although, it seems he did have someone in mind); soon chaos, once again, was king.

But, over all, Monarchy was at best mediocre (another lesson of history). Historically, most governments have been oligarchies – ruled by a minority, chosen either by birth, as in aristocracies, or by a religious organization, as in theocracies, or by wealth, as in democracies. It is ‘unnatural’ for a majority to rule, for a majority can seldom be organized for united and specific action, and a minority can. If the majority of abilities is contained in a minority (one cornerstone of the theory of democracy), then minority government is as inevitable as the concentration of wealth and power; the majority can do no more than periodically throw out one minority and set up another. Today, for example, our nation is split between ‘red’ and ‘blue’ and at this time in history there are more ‘blue’ than ‘red’ and in general elections (for President) if the ‘blue’ turn our in force the ‘blue’ will win. In each state there tends to be a majority of either ‘blue’ or ‘red’ and if in state, congressional and/or senatorial elections if the majority turns out to vote then the ‘blue’ or ‘red’ candidate wins (once in a while, as recent history has taught us, if one side puts up an obvious non-electable candidate the minority party in that state can actually win an election. It does not appear as if this pattern will change anytime soon. If more minorities are given the vote and if they then turn out and vote, it could well mean that the President will be ‘blue’ more often than not. It does appear as if the goal of each party is to defeat the other party and not to govern well; sad for us [but again, I digress].

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