Wednesday, 30 November 2005

An Essay On "Universal Harmony"

Below is a slightly edited version of a paper I had to write for one of my classes. I think it fits very well on this blog:

Western thought, in great part, has been shaped by the ideals of Christianity. But Christianity was strongly influenced by Stoicism, the philosophical view held by most educated Romans of the early Christian period. It was from the Stoics that we inherited many of our notions of what constitutes “rational thought”. The Meditations by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is one of our best sources of information on Stoicism. One of the notions he most frequently touched upon was the Stoic idea that humans should live in harmony with nature, as evidenced by the passage below, taken from an English translation of his book:

All things are interwoven with one another; a sacred bond unites them; there is scarcely one thing that is isolated from another. Everything is coordinated; everything works together in giving form to the one universe. The world-order is a unity made up of multiplicity: God is one, pervading all things, all law is one (namely, the common reason which all thinking creatures possess) and all truth is one—if, as we believe, there can be but one path to perfection for beings who are alike in kind and reason.[1]

The Stoic ideal of universal harmony is the central tenet of their philosophy. According to the Stoics, everything in the universe—living and inanimate, earthly and spiritual, even good and evil-- is united and has a place within the overall scheme of things. To the Stoic, to live in harmony with nature was absolutely crucial, and that reason and virtue would follow as a result—and that many evils are the result of the inability to live in accordance with nature.

The idea of universal harmony is a thought that has been espoused by many of humankind’s most enlightened thinkers throughout nearly every age and nearly every civilization in the history of the world—despite the fact that such thinking has rarely been very popular, especially in the West. Judeo-Christianity, as well as Islam, pushed aside the Stoic ideal of universal harmony in favor of the notion that God is separate, and greater than, the physical world—and that mankind has been placed in a position of rulership, or dominion, over the world. As a result of this kind of thinking, many of us see ourselves as something apart from, and superior to, every other living creature on the planet.

These “dominionist” ideas have led us to the current environmental crisis we are now faced with—species are dying out at an alarming rate, the ozone layer is disappearing, and the global warming is causing the ice caps in both the Arctic and Antarctic to melt. As a result, hurricanes and other types of storms are becoming more powerful and destructive, and normal climatic patterns across the globe are changing. Some researchers feel that the sharp rise in occurrences of some diseases, such as cancer and asthma, is due to pollution more than nearly any other factor—and that we may be in more danger than ever from microbial and viral pathogens than ever, since the changing environment means that these microorganisms will mutate into forms we have no natural resistance or immunity to.

Despite the teachings of the Judeo-Christian religions, we cannot deny that we are interlinked with every other living creature in the world. Genetics science has recently uncovered several DNA clusters called “homeobox” genes which every plant, animal, microbe, and human being in existence shares. Nor can we truly claim that certain races or ethnic groups are superior to others—scientists have traced the ancestry of every living human being in the world back to one woman who lived in Africa about 100,000 years ago, and that the rest of our genes came from a small pool of perhaps 10,000 individuals.

Thus, it has been scientifically proven that we are the kinfolk of every living creature on earth. It would stand to reason, then, that the Stoic philosophy of universal harmony, would better serve the interests of the environment as a whole than the “dominionist” ideal—which allows us to justify the destruction of the environment, and does not require us to bear any responsibility for the well-being of other living things in the world affected by our actions.

The religiously rooted idea that we are destined by God to rule the world has reared its ugly head in the West on many occasions—and still manifests itself today. Our attempts to “Americanize” the world are built upon the philosophical belief in Manifest Destiny, which began as the conviction that God wanted North America to be ruled by Americans—a conviction that compelled us to invade Canada after the Revolutionary War, and helped to push the United States westward. Although America would not be what it is today if we had not settled the areas of North America we currently inhabit, we committed many sins against the Native Americans already living on the land. To this day, we have yet to grant them US citizenship, and many Native Americans still live in deep poverty.

Many people the world over have criticized the West, and in particular the US, for attempting to instill our philosophical ideals on other societies across the globe. Again, our notions of Anglo-Saxon superiority have wreaked havoc across the world, in the form of the deepening poverty in South America, and the rise of sweatshops in China, to name a few examples. In addition to the economic problems we have caused, we have also been responsible for the destruction of many cultures, some thousands of years old, by way of our attempts to “christianize” them, and by marketing our cultural values all around the world. Our meddling in the affairs of other nations, and our attempts to instill our values upon them, has almost certainly done more harm than good.

The notion of Western superiority has displayed itself in the atrocities of Hitler, the enslavement of blacks, the Crusades of the Catholic Church. In nearly every instance in which we have acted upon our notions of superiority, we have been responsible for an enormous amount of human suffering and evil. When has civilization as a whole benefited from our inability to live in peace with those who are different from us racially or ethnically? Never. Once again, the ideal of universal harmony between nations as a whole wins out as the wisest standard of thought and action. In an age of terrorism, combined with the ability of many nations to produce nuclear and biological weapons, achieving world peace takes on a new urgency.

The racial tensions we experience in the United States are another example of our inability to live in harmony with others. The riots in Cincinnati a few years ago were more than simply acts of criminality—they were the natural products of racism and oppression. We have yet to learn that there is a price we must pay when we refuse to live in harmony with others—that it always leads us to eventual social strife and disorder in society as a whole. Perhaps if we tried to understand the viewpoints of others, we would find ourselves in such situations less often:

Enter into the ruling principal of your neighbor’s mind, and suffer him to enter into yours.[2]

We have failed to recognize the fact that every human being has value, and that each person, regardless of their station in life, serves some purpose. We have a tendency to disregard the abilities and contributions of those with disabilities in this country—to many people, it is a major fiasco if they are required to install a ramp in a school or business establishment in order to accommodate people in wheelchairs. We are especially hard on those who are mentally disabled in some capacity, and as a result, many of these individuals end up living much of their lives locked away in mental institutions, and are regarded as having little use to society.

We tend to forget that sometimes, the weaknesses of those who are disabled can be a source of strength for them in some situations, and that they can sometimes achieve things that would be nearly impossible for a “normal” person. A few years ago, I heard a story about an autistic man living in Oklahoma who managed to rescue a teenage boy and a toddler from a burning mobile home. According to the tale, he had been released from a psychiatric hospital where he had spent much of his life—apparently, the fact that he has very low tactile sensory levels made it difficult for his family to care for him, since he was constantly injuring himself without being able to feel it. In this instance however, his weakness became his strength—he supposedly walked through the burning home and tossed the two children out a window, and then walked back out of the house. According to the story, he suffered several burns, but had little sensation of actually being hurt. If it were not for this man, the two boys he rescued would have died, as they were unconscious from smoke inhalation, and probably would not have awakened. I don’t know if he received any kind of award or recognition for what he did—but no one can say that he never served any good purpose within his community.

Almost every religious group or secular institution in the United States claims that its ultimate goal is to better their communities, the nation, or mankind as a whole. And yet they spend as much, or more time, bickering among themselves as they do actually performing acts they feel will help others. A prime example is the philosophical battles which have occurred between scientists and fundamentalist religious groups over everything from the study of psychology to the theory of evolution. If the goal of so many groups is to better mankind, why do they fight among themselves so much? Why can’t they accept the differences in their philosophies, and at least leave each other alone? Imagine what the many public service, scientific, and religious groups in this country could achieve if they would adopt the Stoic ideal of universal harmony—within a few generations, at most, they would most likely manage to eradicate poverty throughout the world, and could likely make the entire world a much better, safer place for everyone to live. In fact, Marcus Aurelius touched upon this idea in the following passage:

Men exist for each other. Then either improve them, or put up with them.[3]

To live in harmony with nature means to take what comes our way in life with good grace—and yet we live in a society which values youth, beauty, and money over intelligence and moral fortitude—in fact, many people feel that those who are not wealthy, smart, and properly dressed are less moral than everyone else! People have committed suicide because they feel they have failed to live up to our shallow, materialistic standards. Thousands of women and girls suffer from anorexia and bulimia because of our distorted views of beauty. Far too many people are willing to gamble away their life savings in order to have a shot at being the next big lottery winner.

We are completely out of touch with the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. Pregnancy is not seen so much as a natural process as much as it is seen as something that must be tightly regulated and controlled. We expect doctors to insure that we will have perfect, healthy babies each and every time, regardless of the health or age of the mother. Aging is seen as something one should almost be ashamed of—how many of us spend inordinate amounts of money in order to hang on to our youth for as long as possible? We have devoted incredible amounts of money and research into finding ways to prolong human life as long as possible—death and aging are coming to be seen as diseases to be cured, instead of a natural part of existence.

Everything that happens is as normal and expected as the spring rose or the summer fruit; this is true of sickness, death, slander, intrigue, and all other things that delight or trouble foolish men.[4]

We have a difficult time forgiving others for making mistakes—we Americans live in the sue-happiest society in the world. We sue even if the person who hurt us did it completely by accident. As a result, we have learned not to trust each other—allowing a child to attend a two-day summer camp requires a stack of paperwork half an inch thick.

Ultimately, even evil may serve a higher purpose—it tends to instruct many about what a person, or a nation, should not do. In this way, perhaps we sometimes learn not to repeat certain mistakes made by others.

To accept the world, and each other, is the key idea we must incorporate into our everyday thinking, into our religions, and into our politics. We have seen what intolerance and arrogance does for us—nothing, except make things worse. All thing are interconnected—our intolerance for certain individuals in our own societies can ultimately lead to unrest and war on an international scale. Nearly everything we do affects the world outside ourselves, in ways both large and small.

We must accept the idea that no one ethnic group or race is superior to any other, and that all people, regardless of their wealth or religious practices, have the right to exist. An idea that may not occur to an American might easily occur to an African bushman, because of the differences in their experience. Diversity is part of the natural order—and a diversity of ideas is what fuels human creativity and advancement.

In addition, we must realize that all human beings have value, and that even the most unlikely among us may serve some higher purpose—like the autistic man who became a hero. That plain Jane living next door may one day invent a cure for cancer. And likewise, we must accept the fact that all of us possess the capacity to commit evil—no one is absolutely perfect and without flaws. Instead of valuing people for shallow, materialistic reasons such as money or good looks, we must instead learn to appreciate individuals as a whole.

To once again quote Marcus Aurelius:

To a reasoning being, an act that accords with nature is an act that accords with reason[5].

The Stoic ideal of “harmony” is not just a lofty philosophical notion—in every respect, it is a practical notion that serves the best interests of the world at large in an all-encompassing way. The notion of universal harmony may be the only thing, in the end, which can save the human race from the path of self-destruction we have set out upon. Unless humanity as a whole can come to terms with the fact that the actions we are presently taking are sure to destroy us, and perhaps the entire world, there is little hope for our long-term survival—sooner or later, we will do something that is the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Honors 101

[1] Taken from Book Seven, verse 9 of The Meditations., translated by Maxwell Staniforth. Penguin Books. ©1964. All quotations in this paper are from this edition.
[2] Book Eight, Verse 61.
[3] Book Eight, Verse 59.
[4] Book Four, Verse 44.
[5] Book Seven, verse 11.

No comments:

Post a Comment