We return to the questions of our first installment: “Can there be a non-religious spirituality? and, If so, what might be its forms?” However, I’ve altered the terms of my promissory note regarding the discussion of philosophical spirituality in the works of Pierre Hadot and Martha C. Nussbaum, postponing that treatment until our next and third post.
In our first post we talked about New Age religiosity which, by design or default, is set apart from religious traditions as traditions (yes, I know, some traditions, like Sikhism and the Bahá'í Faith, are of recent coinage, hence the interest in ‘invented’ traditions’). These traditions include the so-called religions of Abraham or the Semitic monotheistic traditions on the one hand, and on the other, the religions traditions with origins in both classical Indian and Chinese civilizations that survive into our own time. Most of these traditions stem from what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age (800-200 BCE). And while Islam is an exception, it sees itself in continuity with Judaism and Christianity (commencing with the prophet Abraham) in recognizing other prophets prior to Muhammad as well as the earlier revelations of Judaism and Christianity, and thus it is conspicuous for its monotheistic belief that “there is no god but God.” One tradition, Zoroastrianism, appears to have at least some historical connections to both an early Semitic religion: Judaism, and an early Asian worldview: Vedic Hinduism, although it barely persists into the post-modern period owing its comparatively small number of adherents.
I would not rule out the possibility of there being at some time in the future “new religions,” nor do I want to dismiss or belittle tribal, “folk,” or aboriginal (indigenous) religions. With regard to the latter, not a few of the beliefs and practices from such religions have permeated the so-called world religions (ergo, no religion is wholly ‘discrete’ in a strong sense for this and other reasons) and our knowledge of these religions has often been distorted by uncritical attachment to certain assumptions, features, or consequences of modernity (e.g., imperialism, the geopolitics of the nation-state, instrumental reason (especially in law and political theory), a ubiquitous and crude utilitarianism, an economism of values and the corresponding commodification of culture and social life, unrestrained technological development, and scientism).
We also briefly if not cursorily touched upon the attempt by two contemporary philosophers, Owen Flanagan and Julian Baggini, to articulate a non-religious form of “naturalist” or “materialist” philosophy, one that does not shy away from the urgency and centrality of questions of meaning and value(s). In so doing, they proffer philosophical worldviews that intend to compete more or less on equal footing with conventional religious worldviews, and thus in this respect they serve as a refreshing alternative to the narrower if not naïve polemics of the “new atheists.” We might therefore classify these worldviews as emblematic of sincere attempts to develop a non-religious form of spirituality, provided we endorse Cottingham’s generous definition of the “spiritual dimension” as capable of embrace by even the most adamant atheist, conceiving this dimension “to cover forms of life that put a premium on certain kinds of intensely focused moral and aesthetic response, or on the search for deeper reflective awareness of the meaning of our lives and of our relationship to others and to the natural world.”
By way of a prelude to our discussion of a different and far older form of philosophy as non-religious spirituality (also with roots in the axial period), I’d like to highlight a few facts about professional philosophy in the Anglophone if not Anglo-European world that make the efforts of philosophers like Flanagan and Baggini exceptions to the rule (i.e., the practice of philosophy sans spirituality). Admittedly the Continental tradition of academic philosophy is likewise a source of exceptions, but here too such cases help entrench the rule, the rule being the abandonment of what Cottingham refers to in Philosophy and the Good Life (1998) as “synoptic” ethics or philosophy. And the fairly wholesale and inexcusable exclusion of both Chinese and Indic worldviews (wherein the boundaries between ‘philosophy’ and ‘religion’ are far more fuzzy and permeable than in the West) from academic philosophy, which only today is being remedied in fits and starts, is not unrelated to these historical changes (and this in spite of simultaneous developments in international law and processes of economic and other forms of globalization that perforce expanded the circumference of humanity in a cosmopolitan direction). Cottingham cites some of the key causal variables that contributed to defining the compass of modern (and postmodern) philosophy, one that finds, for example, questions of human fulfillment, including the meaning of evil, suffering, life and death, and the nature of goodness or the Good addressed within the rubric and context of an overarching worldview or philosophy of life (or ‘grand narrative’), on the periphery or even outside the circle of professional philosophical practice in the Ango-European world:
By the turn of the twentieth century, it started to be possible to discern a steady retreat from the traditional aspirations of ‘synoptic’ philosophy to provide firm guidance on how human beings could find fulfillment. Some of the important philosophical battles had in fact been fought much earlier (David Hume being a leading protagonist) [For one compelling discussion of such battles, please see Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, 1993]; but there was also a series of broader influences which affected how philosophers now saw their role. In the first place, with the explosive growth of scientific knowledge, the very idea of philosophy as a fully unified system of knowledge began to seem hopelessly ambitious. As science itself became more specialized, and as each specialization became institutionalized into the fragmented structures of the modern university, the concept of an overarching mathesis universalis, a universal template for knowledge, began to look naïve and simplistic. And in the second place, philosophers themselves started to adapt their own subject to the new institutional models, and increasingly came to present themselves not as generalists but as specialists, defending their professional patch. The rise of the ‘new’ logic of Frege and Russell was but one manifestation of a rising conception of the subject as a special academic discipline which could boast as much rigour as any of the physical sciences; and in the application of new logical techniques to problems of meaning, truth, and knowledge, there began to emerge a notion of philosophy as ‘pure analysis,’ aiming not at grand theories of the cosmos or of human welfare, but confining itself instead to second order clarifications, or to puncturing the pretensions of earlier philosophizing. In the new academicized subject, there was not room for overarching visions of the good life.
Conceding the unduly circumscribed compass of academic philosophy vis-à-vis its forbears does not entail an attempt or a desire to diminish the intellectual significance of “analytic philosophy” within its self-circumscribed philosophical territory, for there remains a fairly well-defined corpus of traditional topics and problems within the various branches of philosophy. And insofar as “anything goes” applies to the possible subject matter of philosophy, the analytical approach admits of a bountiful pluralism. Finally, in the light of recent changes within the discipline (Consider Avrum Stroll’s conclusion to his book Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy (2000): in addition to the ‘democratization’ of philosophy documented by Nicholas Rescher, notes Stroll, ‘there is a growing feeling, especially among younger academics, that the field should move on to deal with present-day moral, political, and social difficulties.’), and assuming a motivation other than professional insecurity, disquiet within academic philosophy (cf. Avner Cohen and Marcelo Dascal, eds., The Institution of Philosophy: A Discipline in Crisis? (1989)) may betoken a different kind of philosophy on the horizon, one closer in significant respects to classical Greek and Asian philosophies insofar as it might address existential, moral and political issues within the broader terms of what it means to live a “good life,” in terms of living a life in deference to the Good, that is to say, in the deeper and more inclusive terms of a synoptic philosophy descended (in the West) from and inspired by Aristotle and (in particular) Plato and shortly thereafter the Hellenistic philosophical schools. Speaking to her fellow members in the guild of philosophy, Amelie Oksenberg Rorty writes in her contribution to the Cohen and Dascal volume (above) that “we rarely even ask questions about the most basic and fundamental features that shape our lives.” Which brings us back to Haldane:
What we have in contemporary academic philosophy is a good deal of necessarily technical epistemology and metaphysics, some of it deployed in metaethics; a fair amount of subtle moral theory; and considerably more applied ethics. In almost none of these areas taken individually or collectively is there scope for, let alone evidence of, anything that begins to look like spirituality.
I can well imagine those who identify with religious worldviews not being too troubled by this state of affairs, after all, perhaps it reflects a necessary or convenient division of labor, one in which faith is the ruling principle for some and rationality the regnant rule for others. All the same, I would think those of religious persuasion would see the value of a non-religious, philosophical spirituality among those who are, for whatever reason, unable to commit to the practices and strictures of any existing religious tradition and yet possess an intuitive if inchoate appreciation of and longing for the Good, in addition to their daily struggle with the sundry frailties and vulnerabilities that afflict all of us. In other words, and with Iris Murdoch, “I think there is a place both inside and outside of religion for a sort of contemplation of the Good….”
Haldane realizes there is substantial number of people that might prove receptive to such spirituality:
Thoreau wrote that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. This is a sad thought, and though it is difficult to assess its truth there is evidence provided in imaginative literature, in the press, in doctors’ surgeries, through personal acquaintance, and by knowledge of one’s own circumstances, all of which suggest that many people are ill at ease with the human condition as they experience it. Many of us are desperate and many of us are sad, and the sources of our distress are not easily removed.
Certainly many privations may not befall one but their very possibility casts a shadow across human lives. Those who are betrayed or bereaved, those who long for recognition or for love, those who experience rejection, those who fear their own impulses, those who are ill or dying, those who are clinically depressed, those who fear creeping insanity, those who feel used, those who labor with mental or physical handicaps, or who struggle with sufferers, those who are victims of injustice, all are in a position to see the frailty of the human condition, and to see beyond the possibility of immediate and temporary relief to the facts of unredeemed suffering, weakness, solitariness and death. In the face of all this human beings often ask whether there is any spiritual truth that might counter, alleviate or otherwise help deal with these facts, and they often suppose that it might be the task of non-religious philosophy to identify such a truth or show that there is none. Clearly this supposition is related to the still popular belief that philosophy has something to do with the meaning of life. Such, however, is the growing ignorance within the profession of the broad history of the subject, and such has been the extent of specialization with accompanying technicality, that many philosophers are genuinely puzzled when they encounter these expectations. The fact that ‘philosophy’ means ‘love of wisdom’ (philo-sophia) will be set aside as purely antiquarian interest.
The experience of being “ill at ease” with the human condition is the Buddhist equivalent of the diagnosis of dukkha (S. duhkha) as the first of the Four Noble Truths and is plausibly construed as the converse of both ataraxia (inner peace or tranquility) and eudaimonia, subjectively defined as human happiness and more objectively and less misleadingly rendered as human flourishing. As Haldane explains, ataraxia was a paramount concern among the Stoics, although “their diagnosis of its causes, the form of their remedies and the understanding of good psychic health” differed from other Hellenistic philosophical schools that shared a therapeutic focus on ataraxia and eudaimonia.
Our next post will discuss non-religious spirituality as philosophy in several books by Pierre Hadot and Martha C. Nussbaum. Their work covers classical Greek philosophy and the Hellenistic schools that emerged after Plato and Aristotle. As Hadot’s writes, in classical Greece, “at least since the time of Socrates,” philosophical activity was inextricably and intimately intertwined with “the choice of a way of life.” In which case “philosophical discourse…originates in a choice of life and an existential option” (emphasis added).
The image, of Jina Mahavira (?) (850-900), is courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.