Honour, Empathy and the Question of Suffering
Can you explain in more detail the relation between honour and empathy and how this relates to the question of suffering?
Empathy may be said to be the essence of what I have called The Numinous Way – empathy with life, with Nature; with other human beings; with the very Cosmos itself. From empathy arises compassion – the desire to cease to cause suffering, the desire to alleviate suffering – and honour is how we can do this, how we can restrain ourselves and so do the right, the moral, the empathic, thing.
That is, in an important sense, personal honour is a means of living in an empathic way – how we can be compassionate, and empathic, in our lives, in our interactions with other human beings, and indeed with all other life. For the basis of personal honour is the desire to treat other people – other living beings – as we would wish to treated. Having manners, modesty, being polite and gentle, are part of honour, because these things enable us to relate to people in a moral, empathic, way.
What about animals? You have written about respecting all life and not causing suffering to animals – does this mean you accept that animals have rights?
In respects of animals, it is a question of respect and empathy, of knowing and feeling the connexion that we, as individual human beings, are with all manifestations of life, human, animal and otherwise. We should treat animals as we ourselves, as individual beings, would like to be treated. Would we wish to be subject to pain? To suffer? Would we wish to be captured, and held in captivity, and experimented on, and breed for food and for slaughter? No, of course not. In an earlier essay of mine, I gave an analogy concerning a race of aliens – sentient extra-terrestrial life-forms who possess technology far superior to ours – who come to Earth and who treat us as we treat and have treated animals: as property; as some commodity. Such an analogy should place us, and other life in the Cosmos, in context – providing us with the new Cosmic perspective, the new Cosmic ethics, we need, in place of the ego-centric, human-centric, arrogant perspective and ethics of the past.
Thus, we need to feel and know – to accept – how we are but one small manifestation of Life, connected to all life in the Cosmos. What we do, or do not do, has consequences for ourselves and for other Life. To have empathy – to be empathic – is to be an evolved and evolving human being: it is to be and behave as an adult, a rational human being rather than as the children we have been for so many thousands of years with our tantrums, our squabbles, our pride, our need to fulfil our own desires regardless of the suffering we might or do cause to others, to animals, to Life.
As for “rights”, that is an abstract concept, imposed upon Life, and like all concepts, it distorts what-is, and encourages conflict and suffering because it posits some ideal which it is believed can and should be striven for. Correctly understood, it is empathy which is important – not such an abstract concept as “rights”. From empathy there is compassion, and personal honour, for such honour, as I explained earlier, sets the practical limits of our personal behaviour, and thus prevents us from going beyond the boundaries which empathy sets.
In essence, therefore, empathy takes us far beyond the classification of concepts and the sterile, rather uncompassionate debates that revolve around such concepts as “rights”. Thus, there is no need to debate, for example, whether some or all animals are sentient, or whether they are “intelligent” according to some abstract criteria, for such questions are irrelevant, from the perspective of empathy, from the perspective of the matrix of the Cosmos. We have – or can develope – an empathy with life; an appreciation of Life itself; an understanding of the possibilities that life presents.
But we are encumbered by the dead-weight of our own arrogance, our hubris, our belief we are “superior” to some other life on this planet.
You have written recently that you regard The Numinous way as fundamentally a-political, more of a spiritual way of life. Has this fundamental change in your beliefs been the result of your own experience these past six or more years, since surely you previously agitated for political, revolutionary change?
There certainly has been a fundamental change, as a result of my thinking, and my experiences, some of which have been deeply personal, and occasionally tragic. In essence, I have come to feel, know and understand the value and importance of empathy, compassion and human love, and to realize how abstractions – be they political, religious or even social, and be they forms, constructs, ideas or ideals – undermine and are contrary to the empathy, compassion, love and personal honour that are the essence of our humanity. All such abstractions cause suffering. This is the inescapable reality. For adherence to such abstractions, the pursuit of such abstractions, always results in conflict and suffering, and as I have learnt, and remarked in recent essays, good intentions are no excuse, for it the cessation of suffering that is the most important thing, not some abstraction, not some ideal, not some cause, not some vision or dream of the future.
For decades, I myself in my error, in pursuit of some so-called glorious vision or some ideal, pursued such abstractions, and in the process contributed to, and caused, suffering. For year after year I made excuses, controlling my natural empathic nature, my instinct for compassion, by believing that “sacrifices” have to be made – that it was acceptable, in order to have a better future, to use violence, to encourage struggle, and war, and conflict: that if people had to suffer and die to preserve “this”, or create “that”, then it was necessary; harsh, but necessary. That view, however, is morally wrong; reprehensible. We should no longer make excuses for ourselves, for no cause, no abstraction, no ideal, no construct, is worth even one person’s suffering, pain and death. Morally, we are only ever justified in defending ourselves on an individual basis in a personal situation – that is, it is only honourable for us to defend ourselves, and those of our relatives or family, who may be near us, if we or they are attacked. This personal defence can and may involve force sufficient to cause injury to the attacker or attackers, or, as a last resort, it may involve their death if there is no other option available. However, this use of force cannot morally, honourably, be abstracted out from such a personal, direct, situation or confrontation.
For centuries we have mistakenly, arrogantly, pursued such abstractions as “nationalism” and we have gone to war to defend an abstraction called our nation, as we have killed others, and caused suffering. Millions upon millions of people have been killed. Millions upon millions of people have been injured, and millions upon millions have endured hardship and suffering. This is and was morally wrong; it was and is dishonourable.
Previously, we pursued such abstractions as Empire, or we followed some leader or ruler or some King who desired to conquer, or rule, and who in the pursuit of such things again went to war and again indulged in killing and again caused suffering. We have also pursued religious abstractions, and fought, and suffered and died, in the name of such an abstraction, such a faith. Now, the rallying cry is or seems to be for “democracy” and “peace” – and in the pursuit of these abstractions, people regard war, invasion, the occupation of lands, the killing of so-called “enemies”, as acceptable and indeed necessary, as the price which has to be paid. As I said, this is morally wrong; it is reprehensible; it is inhuman.
Not so long ago, some politician said that “if we want peace, it has to be fought for”, by which he meant people had to suffer, be injured and be killed in the striving for this mythical peace, which he incidentally never bothered to define.
Such an attitude, such a belief, is uncivilized: a sign of immaturity; a sign in truth of barbarism, of inhumanity. It is de-humanizing. True peace can only ever be attained by means which do not cause any suffering and by means which do not contribute to any suffering, for true peace is within each and every one of us – it is not some mythical or abstract “thing” which can be attained at some future time through violence, hatred, struggle, suffering, killing or war, just as true peace cannot be attained through some law, or be given by some political party or government or leader or ruler. Neither can it be legislated into existence by some piece of paper (a constitution) or by a particular type of government, such as democracy.
The simple compassionate, empathic, honourable truth is that to attain peace we must change ourselves; we must become empathic, compassionate human beings. We must reform, evolve, ourselves through accepting a Cosmic morality that does not depend on amoral, inhuman, abstractions and which does not claim to have been revealed by some deity. For it is the struggle for abstractions, for abstract ideals – the struggle to implement such things – which is inhuman, which always leads to suffering, however noble and fine such ideals or abstractions might seem, and our foremost, fundamental, principle must be to alleviate suffering, to cease to cause suffering to any human being, or to any living thing.
The politician who made the aforementioned statement has been responsible, as head of the British government, for many tens of thousands of people being killed in various parts of the world; for the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people, for the maiming of tens upon tens of thousands of people, and directly or indirectly, for the torture and humiliation of thousands upon thousands of peoples. Yet such a person – and those who support such a person – finds and find such things acceptable; acceptable, but, they say, regrettable, and they will write and say this because they have placed some abstraction, some ideal, some mythos, before human suffering, and are prepared to inflict suffering in the name of this ideal, this abstraction, this mythos, this belief. This is fundamentally wrong. It is immoral.
For decades I myself made the same mistake, in my pursuit of some political idea, or some religious belief. As I keep writing and saying, we must at last grow-up, and become truely human: that is, empathic, compassionate. We must cease to cause suffering. All we have to do is change ourselves – and let-go of the abstractions we have brutally imposed upon Life, upon human beings.
Are you optimistic about the future?
Vaguely. I used to be very optimistic, but not any more. I hope I am wrong. But it does appear that we human beings are incapable of learning from our errors, from our experience. The names we give to our abstractions change, as do some of the excuses we make for killing and causing suffering, but our basic nature does not seem to change very much. My own life is an illustration of our human stupidity, of our forgetting – for I myself failed to learn, for decades; failed to change myself; continued to make excuses for continuing to cause suffering, and continued to forget the sometimes painful lessons I learned along the way.
We have thousands of years of history to learn from; thousands of years of literature, of Art, of music; thousands of years of personal examples – of people who strove to do what was moral, honourable, who understood the truth regarding the cessation of suffering; who understood the wisdom of compassion. Sometimes, we have honoured such people – more through rhetoric, through platitudes, than following their example. And yet still the suffering goes on – still we follow and strive for and adhere to some abstraction, or we follow our own dishonourable passions.
That is, we have failed to develope the empathy we need, the empathy which we must have if we, and the life on this planet, are to survive, and if we human beings are ever going to evolve, ever going to grow up. It is empathy which is the key, which is required, which is the beginning of our change into genuine, civilized, compassionate, beings, and this requires us to have the perspective of the Cosmos, of all Life: an appreciation and understanding and feeling for how all such life is connected, and how we are but one finite, temporal, nexion, and of how we can, through such empathy, reach out toward a more evolved existence beyond the spatial temporality of this Earth.
As some people have remarked, all this does seem rather like Buddhism. Would you agree?
There are certain similarities, but a great many differences. A difference such as that of personal honour. A difference such as that of empathy – as manifest in the perspective of the Cosmos; in the knowing of The Numen, and the presencing of The Numen through such things as music, Art, literature, and the immediacy-of-the-moment when we feel the beauty, the joy, the potential, of Life within us.
Thus, while there is suffering, there is also – and can be and should be – great joy; great beauty. A knowing of beauty so great that we are momentarily removed from our own often mundane lives and transported to another more numinous realm of existence. Hence there is the prehension of the moment – a living-in such a moment, rather than the somewhat turning-away from the world, from life, that exists in Buddhism when so many moments are used to end the presencing of the moment, through such a technique as meditation.
The Numinous Way is essentially both a new and an old way of living. New, in that we are consciously aware of the need not to cause suffering and so can, because of honour, restrain ourselves and reach out with empathy, love and compassion. Old, because there is or can be wu-wei. New, because there is a going-beyond each and every abstraction to the essence which is of ourselves as one finite, temporal nexion; old, because there is a feeling for the moral allegories, the lessons, of the past. New, because there is a knowing of the possibilities which await if we can but use empathy and honour to change ourselves.