Almanac: Confucius

I really wish that people would stop mythologizing other human beings. Just because you respect someone, and just because they were wise, does not mean they are infallible. This is true of anyone; from Jesus to Gandhi to Confucius. In fact, I think that holding our heroes up as paragons of humanity is THE single best way to fall short of their (as well as our own) ideals.

The point of my preamble is this: I have a very, very deep respect for Confucius. However, I am not a Confucian, in that I do not venerate him as a religious figure. However, I do find his philosophy and reasoning to be sound enough to study him, so you could call me a Confucian in that I consider myself a student of his. By the same token you can call me a Christian or a Buddhist, since I am a believer and studier of many of Jesus and Buddha’s philosophies, as well.

I hope that people reading my writings will receive some of the messages I’ve imbued in them. One of the central themes of all of my works is that everyone’s knowledge will always be incomplete. Omniscience is impossible, but it is still an ideal worth striving towards. I think that learning can be a wonderful thing, so I don’t find it tragic in the slightest that we’ll always have something new to discover. After all, to quote Confucius, “Isn’t it a pleasure to learn, and put to practice what is learnt?”

Most of Confucius’s teachings are attributed to him by the Analects, a collection of of his dialogues and other orations. In the Analects, Confucius weaves an ancient form of humanistic philosophy. He, of course, spoke the Golden Rule: “Do not do unto others that which you would not have done unto yourself.” He believed, as I do, that sincerity, education, and patience were some of the greatest keys to living a meaningful life. Of course, he believed in the Chinese folk religion of the time, but as I mentioned before I don’t believe this holds much relevance. So long as you have a basic understanding of human nature, I couldn’t care less what you believe. I also happen to think that no matter how intelligent or wise you are, if you grow up in a religious community, you will tend to be converted (at least initially) into that religion.

One thing I find fascinating about Confucius is that he was considered a “troublemaker” during his own time. His contemporaries believed that he was corrupting the minds of the youth, which closely mirrors the opinions of Socrates’ and Jesus’ contemporaries. Confucius was sent away from a royal court for counseling the monarch against living a hedonistic life, then he proceeded to teach what knowledge he had gathered.

People have always complained about the youth and their new ideas, and have been distrustful of change. That is the way it has always been; there are no “good old days.” Hedonism and backlash against painful truths are things that have always been with humanity. I believe that philosophers of the past are worth studying, not because we should go back to what their times were like, but because they gave examples of how one might find happiness and fulfillment even in such counterproductive circumstances. I am of the belief that mankind has always had the capacity to do the right thing- and that mankind’s nature is to search for another way, because the only way to do the right thing is very difficult.

I doubt that there’s a “secret” to happiness in the traditional sense; the “secret” people are searching for is nothing more than a way to cut corners and move more quickly in a process that is, and can only be, very slow and gradual. This is why I believe patience is such a tremendous virtue; happiness is a journey, not a destination. It is something you must work for at all times in order to maintain it. It might sound trite, or cliched, but that’s because it’s true, as well as something that we humans have always known.

More important than patience, I think, is honesty. Since Confucius’ time, the cultures based on his teachings- Japan and China, notably- have elevated nearly to the point of godhood, and as such have lost sight of his teachings. Or rather, they never had sight of them to begin with, and now that Confucius is dead they can wring any meaning from his words without being corrected by him.

I don’t believe they’re alone in this, however; the Christians of the US are guilty of these sins, as well. Despite the fact that Jesus was more critical of the cruel, hypocritical, and exploitative than anything else, those who purport to follow him often preach hate and intolerance in his name. Greed is all too common among religious leaders, and hypocrisy is par for the course. I wish to say to fire-and-brimstone preachers, “If you want to see depraved, evil men; if you want to see someone who’s going directly to hell; if you want to see someone who is doing the Devil’s work, look no further than your nearest mirror. You are more of an asset to Satan than the vast majority of Satanists are. You spread cruelty and injustice in this world. You make lives worse and create needless suffering here on this earth. If the God you preach of is real, he is the SINGLE evilest thing to ever exist, and you are nothing more than a pawn for his malice.”

Humility is another virtue that Confucius taught. Be humble enough to admit that you don’t know everything, and don’t pretend that you speak on behalf of God. God doesn’t need you to speak for him. God doesn’t need anyone to speak for him. We have the tools necessary to discover the secrets of the universe ourselves; in our hands, eyes, ears, and minds. I am countercultural because cultures are based on dogma; we humans should abandon our cultures and simply search for what the truth is, welcome change, and be willing to admit it when we are wrong.

I deeply respect Confucius and Gandhi and Jesus; not because they are venerable, but because they knew how to achieve happiness. I know because I’m happy, even though my childhood wasn’t. Dogma and fighting over details distracts from the spirit of the ultimate truth: that we are all brothers, and that kindness, wisdom, and patience are the one and only path to happiness and fulfillment.

Here’s to Confucius; a man who, like many other men, uncovered the secret of happiness.

Almanac: Religion Introduction

As a philosopher, few topics inspire as much fascination for me as religion. As indicated by a previous article, I’m an anti-organized religion agnostic ultimate atheist. To go a little more in-depth, I’m firmly of the conviction that nobody should worship anything and that people should pursue their spirituality independently without allowing others to tell them what to believe. In other words, one of my greater life philosophies is phrased thusly in Assassin’s Creed II:

“Do not follow me, or anyone else.” – Ezio Auditore

However, though I strongly oppose organized religion, I can see many benefits to religion in and of itself:

The first (and perhaps most obvious) is that religion has produced an enormous amount of astonishingly beautiful art. A good first place to begin showing this, I think, is the religious texts themselves; for instance, the King James Version is a poetic, quality translation of the Bible that has become one of the best-selling books of all time. This, to me, makes sense; Christianity is the world’s most prominent religion, and English books are the best-selling. Why though, one might ask, would this particular translation rise to the top?

King James Bible

Well, of course, there’s the fact that it saw a pretty freaking wide distribution in England, and therefore when the English came to the United States it’s the one they brought along with them. However, that still leaves the question as to why England basically recycled it over and over again for centuries rather than making any new translations when it grew archaic. In my opinion it’s because not only is it (reportedly) a good translation, it’s also beautifully written. Of course, I might just be a sucker for flowery early modern English resembling Shakespeare’s (it probably helps that Shakespeare was supposedly one of the translators), but a sign of quality writing is memorability, and we have a long list of common phrases from this translation, including:

“Bottomless pit,”

“Den of thieves,”

“God forbid,”

and “Holier than thou.”

These are phrases that have been stuck in our heads for half a millennium now. Only the universally-recognized genius Shakespeare has had such a huge impact on English. That’s some damn good writing right there.

Another such enormous literary achievement is, of course, the Quran. As I said before, memorability is a pretty good sign of quality writing, and the Quran had to be memorable; according to Islamic tradition, Mohammed was illiterate and had to recite it for others to memorize and write down. Assuming this is true, I can only assume it’s pretty memorable. It’s been compelling enough to become a religious text for over a billion people, and it’s had an even bigger impact on Arabic than the KJV has had on English. As for my take on it, although I don’t know Arabic I’ve read an English translation and found it to be quite pretty. Of course, this could simply be a translation far outshining its source material, but as I understand it this is pretty hard to do. Until I can read the original Arabic text myself, I feel rather confident assuming it that it is, in fact, a literary masterpiece.

Quran

While we’re on the subject of the Islamic world, let’s talk about their calligraphy. Muslims are insanely good at calligraphy. If you don’t believe me, take a look:

Student Islamic CalligraphyIslamic Lamp

Working Title/Artist: Leaf from a Qur'an manuscriptDepartment: Islamic ArtCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 07Working Date: 13th-14th century photography by mma, Digital File DP238067.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 5_31_12In this Thursday, Jan. 26 2012 photo, Palestinian calligraphy expert Adel Fauzy practices at his studio in the West Bank town of Hawara, near Nablus. Parchment, feathers and "qalams," a pen made of dried bamboo, are still used by sophers Jewish scribes and khattats Muslim calligraphers. AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)Tell me these writings aren’t drop-dead gorgeous. Because the Islamic people venerate the Quran so enormously and they’ve had a general aversion to graphical images due to their strict laws against idolatry, they’ve naturally become perhaps the world’s best calligraphers, rivaled only by the Chinese. After all, constraints foster creativity.

And of course, buildings. Religion has produced what are (in my opinion) the world’s most beautiful buildings. Here are some mosques, temples, churches, and other awesome, awesome buildings from an assortment of religions:

Notre Dame de Paris

Buddhist Temple

Shinto Temple

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Need I even mention the paintings that religion’s produced?

da Vinci John the Baptist

Creation of Adam

Or the sculptures?

Buddha

Pieta

Yeah. Needless to say, religion inspires unbelievably amazing art.

But then why, you might ask, do I oppose organized religion so strongly? For the answer to that, look up the Spanish Inquisition. Or the Crusades. Or the Salem Witch Trials. Or the September Eleventh Terrorist Attacks. Even if you think those are  overly dramatic examples of religion’s harm, go look at Jehovah’s Witness deaths over (lack of) blood transfusions or LGBT suicides over bullying.

Now, I want to make something abundantly clear: I do not think it’s religion’s fault these sorts of things occur. After all, the world’s most genocidal man was an atheist. Rather, I believe that it’s the problem of mankind itself; I believe that humans are basically evil and that kind, virtuous people are rare (and by the way, before any of you start shouting that I’m even more full of myself than I am, I don’t count myself among the decent; I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for one second that I am one of them). I think that rather than allowing passion or conscience to drive them, people allow fear to be their primary emotion, and that religion simply accommodates and (potentially) amplifies this.

Therein lies my greatest criticism of religion: I think that, taken literally, it’s almost invariably fear-based. People even readily admit this; notice how common the phrase “God-fearing” is. Especially with Abrahamic religions, ethics essentially boils down to “carrots and sticks;” do good, and you’ll be rewarded. Do evil, and you’ll receive punishment. In my opinion, this way of viewing the world is deeply misguided and cowardly.

Of course, I think that religion can do great things, as well; in my opinion, the wisest of all men were deeply religious (Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Fred Rogers, etc.) and religion has inspired a great deal of charity, warmth, and brotherhood.

The reason I believe religion is capable of causing such tremendous evil is because it can make people act in fear of the ultimate retribution: eternal suffering. The reason I believe religion is capable of inspiring such tremendous compassion is quite simple: people are very visual creatures.

To explain what I mean by this, think of the method of loci or Oriental abacists. People are able to memorize staggering amounts of information and make enormous calculations by visualizing imaginary locations and objects. By the same token, we use stories to teach lessons; with Hansel and Gretel, we use the vivid imagery of being eaten alive and burning in a furnace to teach the lesson of not trusting strangers. With the Lion and the Mouse, we get an obviously highly contrasted pair of characters to demonstrate for us the potential self-benefitting nature of altruism. Wise religious leaders have thoroughly understood this; Jesus framed his lessons as parables, one of the most famous being the Good Samaritan, establishing that all men are brothers and should show compassion and kindness to one another (as a brief aside I think it would do Islamophobic Christians much good to recall this parable).

What I’m ultimately saying is: we need stories in order to learn, and in many respects religions have the most potent stories, and therefore the most potent lessons. After all, it’s hard to get loftier and more vivid than lakes of brimstone and fire or a parting sea or being raised from the dead. This is where I believe the benefit of religion lies: it has perhaps the most powerful images and ideas with which we can learn and understand the world.

By this standard I am in a way deeply religious myself; I use books to shape my morals and the characters therein to be the personifications of my ideals to be emulated.

However, once again, I would advise against organized worship, or even worship altogether; when it comes down to it, my thoughts on whether or not there’s a God (or gods) is: I don’t care. If none exist, I’ll live the best I can with the time I have. If one does, I acknowledge it as nothing more than another being with greater power than myself and I will continue to attempt to live ethically and happily, regardless of what it tells me or threatens to do. Anything that wants to be worshipped doesn’t deserve to, and anything that deserves to be worshipped wouldn’t want to, and therefore I worship nothing.

Although I believe that it would ultimately be better for people not to worship anything, I believe that so long as people are kind to one another and strive to make the world a happier and more peaceful place it ultimately doesn’t matter what they believe.

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” 

Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso