On 礼

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

‘Li’, variously translated as ‘ritual’ or ‘propriety’ – written 禮 in the traditional form, and礼 in the simplified form – represents the third of the five Confucian virtues, and the one most often typically associated to some ‘Chinese’ spirit. Before delving into the Confucian texts, and basing myself on pure generalisation, I considered this relationship to ritual as the condition of possibility for a certain eccentricity that I noted among my Chinese friends. If external behaviour is not about expressing an authentic inner truth but performing a ritual, then in areas that are not strictly determined by ritual, it is possible to be radically free.

However, when I started reading Confucius more closely, I realised that this interpretation was somewhat superficial. “When Confucius entered the Grand Temple, he asked about everything. Someone said, “Who said Confucius is a master of ritual? He enters the Grand Temple and asks about everything!” Confucius, hearing this, said, “This is [precisely] ritual.” [3-15] (子入大庙、每事问。或曰。孰谓邹人之子知礼乎。入大庙、每事问。子闻之、曰。是礼也。). The linguistic form of 礼is not imperative, but interrogative. 礼 is also, therefore, present and relational: it emerges in the course of an interaction between two people. There is a certain naïve, post-romantic way of understanding ritual as a pure act of mindless repetition. This may be ritual in the 19th century, but it is certainly not 礼.

I practiced the virtue while on a work trip in Stockholm. I was living in a friend’s home with four other people, and working with a multicultural team on a major global forum. Questions of protocol needed to be resolved in both settings, and I had little immediate cultural understanding to guide me. I embraced 礼, and asked. This I realised: at first, I imagined that the purpose of this questioning was for the other to share their predetermined understanding of what was expected – allowing me, then, to comply. But instead, often, the question elicited a new form of shared understanding on matters that had not been properly thought through. This was the case at home, but also during the forum. There was no mastermind holding every detail of what should happen and how. Rather, knowledge of rules and rituals required by the event were distributed in the team. There was no proper way to behave that existed as a preconceived idea to follow: proper behaviour – 礼 – emerged as a shared conscious decision through the act of questioning.

There is a measure of collective magic to ritual. “If you govern the people legalistically and control them by punishment, they will avoid crime, but have no personal sense of shame. If you govern them by means of virtue and control them with propriety, they will gain their own sense of shame, and thus correct themselves.” [2.3] (子曰。道之以政、齐之以刑、民免而无耻。道之以德、齐之以礼、有耻且格。) If we know that our behaviour is exposed to questioning, self-regulation emerges naturally – and both parties eschew selfishness for mutual benefit. This understanding of ritual, in turn, opens a new way to understand justice. ”The Master said: “The noble man takes justice as essential. He actualizes it through propriety, demonstrates it in humility, develops it by truthfulness. This is the noble man!” [15.18]  (子曰。君子义以为质、礼以行之、孙以出之、信以成之。君子哉。。 ) Justice actualized is precisely the collective construction of a shared world.  Eliciting assumptions as to the right action in a certain circumstance, and making assumptions as to the right behaviour conscious, is a way to surface underlying patterns and reveal the underlying order of this shared world.

礼 does more: it allows us to stand firm. “Structure yourself with propriety” [8.8] (立于礼) encourages Confucius. We all run the danger of becoming trapped in our own nature. “Studying liberal arts broadly, and disciplining yourself with propriety, it is easy to stay on the narrow path.” [12-15] ( 子曰。博学于文、约之以礼、亦可以弗畔矣夫。) )“The noble man who studies culture extensively, and disciplines himself with propriety can keep from error.” [6:27] (君子博学于文、约之以礼、亦可以弗畔矣夫 。) 礼 frees us from tyrannical self-attachment, and the associated risk of drifting off into self-delusion. Ritual reveals the structures of the world -– the bones of social relationships – and thus makes flexible practice possible. “In the actual practice of propriety, flexibility is important. This is what the ancient kings did so well— both the greater and the lesser used flexibility. Yet there are occasions when this does not apply: If you understand flexibility and use it, but don’t structure yourself with propriety, things won’t go well.”[1:12] (有子曰。礼之用、和为贵。先王之道、斯为美、小大由之。有所不行。知和而和、不以礼节之、亦不可行也。)

Ritual does more: it not only makes practice possible, but provides a sense of historical continuity,whereby practice gains meaning. “Zi Zhang asked whether the state of affairs ten generations hence could be known. Confucius said, “The Shang based its propriety on that of the Yin, and what it added and subtracted is knowable. The Zhou has based its propriety on that of the Shang and what it added and subtracted is knowable. In this way, what continues from the Zhou, even if 100 generations hence, is knowable.” [2:23] (子张问:十世可知也 子曰。殷因于夏礼、所损益、可知也。 周因于殷礼、所损益、可知也。其或继周者、虽百世、可知也。) Here again, however, careful reading is required, and yields a surprising interpretation. Rituals do not evolve over time in a Darwinian fashion, shedding elements least adapted to the circumstances through the pure passage of time. Rather, ritual past and present is an act of ongoing questioning and emergence: so it was with the Yin, so it was with the Shang, so it was with the Zhou, and so it is with us. We are at great risk of projecting perfection on the past. There is no reason to believe that the past was any less chaotic than the present, nor that our ancestors – and with them, any people we think of as representative of an ‘old culture’ – simply repeated an inherited script, while we moderns are living in an age of free collective decision, where the sense of ritual got lost. No, what 礼 reveals is that all human societies – past and present – are at equal risk of chaos ,unless we make the concerted effort to build a common world through the questioning act of ritual. And by keeping this in mind, we are protected from the dangerous myth of a golden age.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller

 

 

 

On 义

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

‘Yi’ , with a falling tone, variously translated as justice, righteousness or fairness, is written义 in simplified Chinese. The traditional form of the character, 義, represents a lamb – 羊 – over the character 我, ‘I’ – which itself represents a hand holding a spear, image of the self fighting for its own survival. Justice, according to certain etymological interpretations, could therefore be understood as a form of behavior where the self adopts the role of a sacrificial lamb – ready to forego life itself in the interests of truth and harmony.

In the dialogues of Confucius, 义 is consistently defined as opposed to 利, a character typically translated as ‘advantage’, and interpreted etymologically as representing a knife cutting down a stalk of wheat. At 4:16, I read ‘君子喩于义、小人喩于利。’ (The noble man is aware of fairness, the inferior man is aware of advantage). Justice, then, as a defining attribute of nobility, is about keeping self-interest at bay: the just are those who relinquish the never-ending fight for individual survival. On reading this, I am reminded of a passage from Journal of Felicity by Romanian philosopher Nicolae Steinhardt, defining the cornerstone of the entire legal system as the willingness of constitutional judges in the higher courts to put their own lives on the line in order to uphold the law.

Through the Analects, 义– and its contrasting opposite 利 – is consistently associated to the same verb, 见, ‘to see’, in two distinct constructions. At 2-24, I read ‘见义不为、无勇也.’ (If you see what is right and fail to act on it, you lack courage) – echoing my reflections of last year on justice and fortitude, and the complementary need for both virtues. But more interestingly, I find another contrast at 14-12 (见利思义) (When you see an opportunity for advantage, think of what would be the right thing to do.), and again in the same structure at 15 :18 (见得思义), and 19:1 (见得思义). Justice, here, is a form of resistance – a cognitive cog in the wheel of self-interest, guiding us towards the right action when we’re exposed to the lure of advantage. I grew up in a family context where ‘cunning’ was praised consistently (with a few life-saving exceptions), and those who were reluctant to press their own advantage on ideal grounds were mocked. I was able to observe that this attitude often came with a certain narrow mindedness, and – if one was to be harsh – a level of stupidity. I found a potential explanation for this at 16-11, where I read ‘行义以达其道’ (I act with fairness to penetrate the Way). Following the call of justice – resisting the sole path of self-interest – is how we perceive the complexities of the world, understand patterns of interwoven causality – and therefore, hope to exert a deeper systemic influence.

On the basis of this interpretation, over the second week of my engagement with justice, I decided to deliberately pay attention to the consequences of my actions every day. In a radical phrasing, I chose to ask myself who needed to die so that I could occupy a certain plot of land? And who suffered so that I could enjoy this particular moment, product, service, or space?

The practice led to mixed feelings of guilt and boredom, but mainly revealed how little I understand about the rippling consequences of my everyday actions. My daily life is apparently benign – I spend a lot of time in front of a screen or a notebook, reading, watching, writing – sometimes speaking with people – from home, at cafes, or in a nearby studio. I eat, mostly vegetarian food. I drink, mainly water, tea and coffee. I throw my waste in the bin and let my partner take it down the building. I understand and vaguely know that every element in this benign existence is part of a complex network rippling across time and space. That I can occupy a certain area of land in Melbourne, as do the shops and businesses I engage with, because indigenous people were displaced and massacred two centuries ago, and their descendants never properly compensated or even acknowledged. That the computer systems I use and the endless amounts of images, videos, music and text I stream on the Internet are not simply ‘there’, that people made them, maintain servers, and protocols, and browser codes, and long networks of cables – which, in turn, entails pollution in remote parts of the globe and exploitation of many workers. That my whole existence depends on access to cheap electricity, locally provided by brown coal, with unmitigated consequences on the global climate. That people had to grow, process and package the food that I eat, and most of them probably received a comparatively low level of payment for it – leaving me with greater disposable income. That the milk and eggs I consume came from cows and chickens who do not enjoy comfortable circumstances. That the waste I put in the bin – paper, plastic, scraps of food – does not simply disappear, but will somehow float off into the oceans, or fill in a plot of land that could have found better uses. But all this is vague, and quickly disappears into some sort of grey mist: if I look too long too far, all I experience is a vague form of seasickness – and so, I try not to think about it too much, and rather, encouraged by the culture I live in, focus on my advantage, convenience, price, quality, which offer a much nicer and clearer picture.

And thus I reflected – the distinction between justice and advantage may not be purely one of appeal, but rather, of complexity. The world of advantage deceptively simplifies things: here is a stalk of wheat, I shall cut it, I will eat the grain, and let nature deal with it. Isn’t it simply the way things are and should be? The world of justice, by contrast, entails extreme levels of complexity: it requires that we consider chains of cause and consequence extending into further and further into the depths of time and space, until the vision blurs, and nothing is clear anymore. And thus, the paradox unfolds – whereas advantage can be seen clearly, justice cannot – it is a certain shapeless feeling in our heads that interferes with the fascination of advantage. Led by that vague feeling, in the absence of perfect clarity, justice is a thing we do, an action, a statement, a withholding often, that in turn, has power to change the course of things – and in that movement, reveals the deep hidden patterns of our common world.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller

 

On 仁

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,义,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

仁 – pronounced rén with a rising tone – is  variously translated as benevolence, kindness, or humaneness. Popular etymology describes the character as composed of the key for ‘man’ (亻) and the number two (二) – therefore identifying 仁  as the virtue that manifests when two people come together. This first arrested my attention. 仁is not about guidance from a higher being or a set of rules that the self should follow: it is anchored in concrete human relations. From the very start of the Analects, this relationship is presented as defined on the basis of seniority: “孝弟也者、其为仁之本与” (are not filial piety and obedience to elders fundamental to the actualization of fundamental human goodness? Analects 1:2). In a later commentary, 仁 is said to manifest itself in the person who rescues a child playing on the margin of a well. 仁 informs each relationship not on the pure basis of our joint humanity, but also based on each parties’ lifespan – and therefore, the same virtue will manifest as a different behaviour in each situation. This, I thought, addresses a point which I often hit upon when thinking about morals and ethics: when exactly should a child be considered ethically mature? 仁 offers a lateral way to think of the answer: when the child finds themselves in a situation where the relational duty demands that they be the adult, on the basis of their seniority to the person they interact with.

The word仁has another unrelated meaning: it refers the kernel of an apricot pit or the flesh of a shrimp. Is it therefore, I wondered, the warm rich human core that lies inside the social shell, and acts as the principle of movement? 仁 cannot be deducted from external behaviour, as this long passage indicates:  “孟武伯问子路仁乎。子曰。不知也。又问。子曰。由也、千乘之国、可使治其赋也、不知其仁也。求也何如 子曰。求也、千室之邑、百乘之家、可使为之宰也、不知其仁也。赤也何如 子曰。赤也、束带立于朝、可使与宾客言也、不知其仁也。(Meng Wu Bo asked Confucius whether Zi Lu was a ren man. Confucius said, “I don’t know.” He asked again. Confucius said, “You could direct the public works forces in a state of 1, 000 chariots, but I don’t know if I would call him a ren man.” Meng again asked: “What about Qiu?” Confucius said, “Qiu could be the governor of a city of 1, 000 families, or of a clan of 100 chariots, but I don’t know if he is a ren man.” Meng asked: “What about Chi?” The Master said, “Dressed up with his sash, placed in the middle of the court, he could make conversation with the guests, but I don’t know if he is a ren man. Analects 5:8). Instead, it can be captured through patterns of subtle harmony that are experienced aesthetically: “里仁为美。” (As for a neighborhood, it is its ren that makes it beautiful. Analects 4:1) “人而不仁、如乐何” (If a man has no ren what can his music be like? Analects 3:3). In turn, the collective enjoyment of a world infused by 仁 can trigger a positive spiral where aesthetic refinement nurtured by 仁brings together people who, through their relationship, strengthen each other’s 仁: “君子以文会友。以友辅仁。” (The noble man uses his refinement to meet his friends, and through his friends develops his ren. Analects 12:24)

What mainly struck me when I read through the words Confucius was a seeming paradox inherent to the virtue. On the one hand, 仁 is presented as an always available option “仁远乎哉。我欲仁、斯仁至矣。”(Is ren far away? If I aspire for ren it is right here! Analects 7:30). And yet, we consistently fall short of it, and few can maintain it for any period of time: “囘也、其心三月不违仁、其余则日月至焉而已矣。” (Hui could keep his mind on ren for three months without lapse. Others are lucky if they can do it for one day out of a month. Analects 6:7).

In line with this observation, when I developed a practice that would help me cultivate 仁, I decided to focus on deliberate attention: at least once a day, when I found myself in a public setting, I would pause and think about my relationship with every person present. I would do this in two stages: first establish common humanity, then consider our respective status based on age, and how this should inform my behavior to each person around, should I interact with them.

The practice revealed a few things about myself. As a gay man, I noticed how skewed my attention is to people of different gender – and how little attention I spontaneously pay to women in public places: another confirmation of unconscious bias, and its rippling effects. As a 40 year-old, I noticed how time has passed, how most people are now slightly younger than me, and how I should therefore start adapting my default behaviour. I also noticed how solitary my professional life can be – how much of my time is spent ‘alone in company’ or even entirely on my own.

The practice was strangely transformative. When I was looking at people sitting or standing in a group – friends, families, co-workers – through this deliberate relational attention, I entirely stopped thinking of them as ‘another group’, a ‘them vs me’, but rather, each of them became part of a consistent human web that I also belonged in. Through the practice of仁, I feel that I was able to expand my circle of empathy: most likely by offering a simple framework that allowed me to think of my relationship with every other human as concretely defined by age – the length of time we spent alive, and how this determines a certain type of duty. This also made it more possible for me to see the world from the perspective of others, and in their company, feel a sense of calm and beauty.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller

 

On Envy

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

In French, the word ‘envy’ became synonymous with desire before I was born. It is therefore highly difficult for me to natively think of it as a sin. I can hear the voice of parents and friends asking me ‘Qu’est-ce qui te fait envie?’ literally ‘what makes you envy’, meaning, ‘what would you like?’ I can hear the lyrics of an 80s rock song that played on the radio through my childhood: ‘On m’a trop donné, bien avant l’envie – qu’on me donne l’envie, envie d’avoir envie’ – and though the song is about the exhaustion of desire in a consumerist world of material abundance, a word-for-word translation would read ‘I’ve been given too much, way before envy – let somebody give me envy, envy to have envy.’ It’s an odd reversal of values when the radio broadcasts an aspiration to sin.

The lyrics of that song echo my experience of material abundance as an only child of wealthy divorced parents. Toys and games rained over me – both parents, I guess, and parts of the broader family vying for my affection through gifts. I had more things, I think, than any kids at school. I remember moments of envy, when one of them had a toy that I didn’t – but this never lasted very long: either I came back home and appreciated how superior my collection was, or I was able to acquire the plastic object of my desire.

Material abundance protected me from material desire, but a different and deeper form of envy characterised elements of my life that compared unfavourably with others. I envied the children of married parents, who didn’t have to shuffle around from one apartment to the other, nor act as mediator in the financial and emotional struggles of adults. When my father left for the capital, I envied anybody whose two parents lived in the same city, and were spared a fortnightly plane commute. Later still, I envied kids without hostile or manipulative step-parents. Envy led me to regular bouts of despair, a belief that my family situation would make it impossible for me to reach happiness, ever – while others around, though materially less fortunate, were given all the right emotional and spiritual circumstances to lead balanced happy lives. And I became incapable of seeing the good in my own situation.

At school, struggling with my own romantic attraction to men, growing up in a period when gay was not OK, I envied couples of male platonic friends who shared a clear mutual desire to spend time together. Some times, instead of letting new friendships and attachments emerge, I let myself be possessed by envy, targeted and seduced – soon resulting in embarrassment, or even harm.

Envy lost its grip on me when I came out and moved out of home. But the possibility to do this depended on so much – high levels of privilege, a scholarship system, decades of activism from LGBT groups, and the sheer luck of remarkable encounters leading to friendships and romantic relationships that, I hope, were mutually nourishing. And so, when I look back at my own experience of envy, I sense how difficult it is to curb its power, and how dangerous it is for all communities and social relations.

Tragedies of the commons are all based on envy. Prisoner’s dilemma: what if I was to reduce my carbon emissions, and others don’t. Why should I work harder for lower benefits? Why should less developed countries – hey, China – get a right to burn more cheap coal and save money to buy beef, while we must forsake immediate satisfaction to build more expensive insulated buildings and wind farms? Why should future generations be protected, and live in a world of greater potential abundance than us? Why should I go to the effort of looking after the public good, if the public does not look after my interest?

Envy squares greed: while greed is a perverted relationship to the material world, envy looks at other people and their possessions or attributes, seeking discrepancies, and aiming to get even. Envy derives from a scarcity mindset: you have more of something than I do, whether brains, looks, money, relationships, or attention. Envy wears a mask of heroic justice – I would rather risk both of us losing everything, than let such inequality continues. But the same person, here, is both judge and party.

I am writing this – the last of my reflections on sin – on Easter Day. Judah betrayed for greed, but envy led the Pharisees to condemn and kill Christ: why should this man receive such attention – yay, claim to be son of God – rather than us? I would rather take the chance of killing the Messiah than let this uneducated man steal the love and respect of the people from us. Easter, however, is not a revenge story. The judges and executors simply disappear, while abundance returns for the believers who did not let envy possess them. And on this day, at least, it is possible to dream of a future community where envy does not exist, and a genuine sense of abundance prevails.

On Wrath

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

Late on Tuesday, I found myself looking at Facebook. A friend had shared an article on a new proposal from our immigration minister, to give white South African farmers exposed to violence at home a fast-track to an Australian visa. The same minister had previously opposed increasing visa numbers because of the burden on Australia’s welfare system and the risk to Australia’s jobs. At 11h30, I shared the piece on Facebook with a flaming quote: “For a moment, I thought that our present government had something against refugees, and I felt ethically challenged. But as it turns out, I was wrong this whole time – they’ve got nothing against refugees, just brown people. Now that’s a government I can proudly stand behind!” At 1am, I still couldn’t sleep – I was excited by my act of righteous boldness, curious to see reactions, ready to go and overthrow the government. What happened in the end? Nothing more than a few likes and comments – I deprived myself of time I could have used more productively, literally burning it in the fires of wrath.

My first long piece of writing explored wrath: it was a verse tragedy called The Sirens about the death of Patroclus and the wrath of Achilles. The Illiad is the a cornerstone of the Western canon. Achilles, Greece’s foremost warrior, incensed by some internal slight with another general, is overtaken by wrath and refuses to fight. His lover Patroclus goes in his stead and is killed on the battlefield ,shifting Achilles wrath against the Trojans. The version I wrote opens and closes with Achilles’ mother, the sea-goddess Thetis, and her choir of sirens, calling her son to rejoin her in the shapeless ocean. At the beginning, Achilles, tired of the war, dreams of dissolving back into the maternal waters with his lover. The guile of Greek generals sends Patroclus to the battlefield – he’s not the son of a Goddess, and could only stand on equal footing with demi-God Achilles through the glory of heroic battle. The death of Patroclus prompts a change in Achilles: the only way that he now can unite with his lover is by rejecting murky death by water, and instead, join him on the funreal pyre of heroes.

Wrath is the fiery twin of depression. It is a form of moral perfectionism, an allergy to the corrupt world. It is a mask of strength hiding internal weakness. It is not a last resort resistance to evil, but violence let loose. Wrath is possession: alienated freedom. And so wrath is always a form of self-destruction. Every time we give in to wrath, we reproduce on a small scale the actsof a suicide bomber.

But wait – I hear you say – is not God himself wrathful? Here may be the crux of it. In wrath, all human doubt and frailty vanishes. We know what is right, and if we just let the powers of wrath take possession of our bodies and souls, we feel that we could bring order to the world. Is this not a sacrifice worth making? So wrath is ultimate temptation, inviting us to be like God: the most harmful and seductive form of hybris.

On Greed

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

As I read through the notes I took for this post over the past two weeks, this is what I noticed. There is a lot about the current state of the world, capitalism, economic systems, theory, change. Nothing about myself. Lust evoked shame – greed, abstraction and righteousness.

I could write pages about the systemic greed of our society. Capitalism, consumer culture, negative externalities. Reagan, Thatcher, Trump. Boomers in McMansions, SUVs and cruise-ships, burning away gas, oil and coal, destroying ecosystems for their immediate enjoyment. No fair go for future generations. I could write about the people who produced and promoted single-use plastic bags and forks and cups – disposable pens, razors, printers – and the piles of waste that their fortune was built on. I could mention the start-up world, where success begins at 9 zeros. The slave merchants of past centuries. Colonists over the globe, destroying cultures and land everywhere. All this unpunished, for greed.

I could write about this conversation, last year, on a Facebook thread with a guy contending that ‘everyone’ should put aside four million dollars for retirement: that’s how much you need to secure adequate returns, and you couldn’t possibly start eating up your capital, because what if you lived up to 100? I could reflect on greed as a sin of old age, often based in fear. Then I could look for causal chains, how individualism, consumerism and the loss of intergenerational solidarity nurtures greed. If all incentives are for each of us to look after themselves, the result is irrational collective behaviour, Tragedy of the Commons, and its pending catastrophe.

I could write more about all of this, but would I understand anything about greed as a sin? What if, instead, I wrote about myself. How I live a very comfortable life in a very wealthy country, yet hardly give anything to charity, and only part with money for my own future self through super – and even then, with difficulty. How I know very well that animal farming and large-scale fishing are wrecking our environment, yet struggle to wean myself off meat, fish, eggs, or dairy. How I pass by homeless people every day, yet would rather spend my dollars on cakes and coffee for myself than share it with them.

I do try to moderate my appetite – because I know greed to be dangerous, and because I see the connection between simpler needs and more freedom. But as soon as I got a larger income, a few years back, I started upgrading. The better jam, the better yoghurt, the better peanut butter. The box of fresh vegetables and fruit delivered once a week. The regular coffee outside. The books bought online, rather than borrowed from the library. And when I needed to travel, ubers and taxis, my own airBNB, and the better airline. Because I was working hard, and therefore should be compensated with greater comfort.

Greed is about refusing death, greed is about infinite growth, greed is about placing the self above others. But greed is also that insidious voice in our head, whispering ‘you’re worth it’, and hoarding objects in our cupboards, cash in our bank accounts, consumable experiences in our memories – and piles of waste all over the place.

 

On Lust

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation. 

As I try to write about lust, I encounter an immediate block. Sharing personal encounters with pride, sloth or gluttony seemed easier than sharing my encounters with lust. The sin comes with an ambivalent combination of shame – revealing details will bring embarrassment – and righteousness – as an aunt once famously said, ‘do whatever you like with your ass’. After decades of sexual revolution, our current social agreement seems to be that lust is fine, as long as it stays in the shadows. Indeed, there is a very high taboo on the public consumption of lust. Polite society welcomes pride, greed and envy  more than it does sex.

Lust has been described as the most minor of all sins, and the root of all sins. I turned and turned around this in my head, until I landed on the concept of scandal. In its original meaning – and in the Gospel – a scandal is, literally, the little stone that enters the shoe. With each step, the scandal digs deeper into the foot, causing pain, and eventually preventing further forward movement.

The question, then, is this: would it be possible to think of lust, the most minor of all sins and the mother of all sins, as not evil in itself, but in its consequences. This I found in Chesterton, articulating the radical nature of Christianity – that no thing in creation is evil in itself, but evil is always spiritual: it lies in the nature of our relationship to that thing. Such is physical pleasure then – orgasm – or the bodies of other people as a source of pleasure. Nothing there is evil in itself, but our relationship to the thing may be sinful.

As a little stone digs into the sole, softening it, increasing sensitivity to pain, and eventually limiting the capacity to walk – so lust digs into the soul, softening it, increasing sensitivity to pain, and eventually limiting the capacity to walk. There is nothing intrinsically bad about the pleasures of the flesh – whether strictly sexual, or more broadly the many pleasure of soft fabrics, elaborate foods, and sophisticated service, that cushion our encounter with the outside world. But each of those makes a little mark that grows larger and softer with each encounter, until we find ourselves unable to deal with harsher circumstances, or bear the absence of a physical comfort. Then freedom disappears, replaced with addiction to pleasure.

Another concept, then, is useful to think about lust: comfort, the milder side of lust, or endless desire for higher and higher levels of cushioning from the world.  Addiction, then, could be the more common manifestation of lust. Here, pleasure is no longer found in resolute and coordinated activity, but in pure consumption. As the need for comfort increases – whether in the form of sexual pleasure, cocaine, booze or thick carpets, in higher and higher doses – other people and, indeed, the entire natural world become nothing more than a means to an end, providing me with the comfort I need in order to keep on living.

All forms of abuse ensue – harassment, exploitation, slavery, rape, of individuals, of natural ecosystems. But abuse is equally directed inwards. Our bodies primarily become a means towards pleasure. We curate images of ourselves intended to get us more sex; we sacrifice entire days to recover from a big night out drinking; we sell off our time and energy to the most evil masters in order to get the money that will pay for the luxuries we can no longer live without.

An entire system develops on the back of this boundless appetite, whose only task is to satisfy our addiction: drugs and prostitution. Business class lounges. Chocolate bar manufacturers. Barrista Coffee. Consumer-driven capitalism. And as the system grows, it feeds upon itself: it needs people to maintain it, and those people, irritated by the many scandals of the system, need more comfort to move forward.

‘You should not test your God’ is one of the most important statements of biblical wisdom. We are, after all, largely mechanical creatures – freewill, if ever within our reach, requires immense concentration. We can, at best, only build better habits, and use their momentum as a path towards virtue. If yielding to lust opens the door to gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, pride and wrath, should we – then – concentrate all our efforts on resisting lust, and virtue will naturally follow?

Among angels, maybe – but not in our present world. The many scandals of a failing system dig from all directions in our souls – public advertisement, addiction to comfort trained from childhood, coffee shops, wine bars & dating apps. Comfort has a calming effect, even if temporary. Giving in to lust puts a balm on our wounds, it relieves us from temporary paralysis, allowing us to take a few steps ahead and – maybe – by doing so, saving us from worse evil. Lust is the mother of all sins, but also the lesser one. Giving in, therefore, rather than firmly resisting, may be prudence: we acknowledge our weakness, and humbly choose a lesser evil.