Friday May 29, 2009
The New Scientist dropped onto my doormat this morning, and – now that all my marking is done and I have a bit of free time – I settled down with the cat on my lap and a coffee in my hand, and decided to spend an hour or so reading. On the contents page, the following caught my eye: “Messages from the Dead: Recovering the Wisdom of the Ancients.”
The article, unfortunately, said nothing about wisdom, whether ancient or otherwise, and was instead an whirlwind tour of various undeciphered scripts: the Indus valley script, Linear A, and so on. It was an interesting enough article (I’ve been interested in the Indus Valley ever since, almost twenty years ago, I shared an evening meal in the Salt Range of Pakistan with a scholar who worked on the Indus Valley civilization), but what took my attention was something rather more peripheral: the question of why the copy writer for the New Scientist decided to talk about ancient wisdom. Why not ancient foolishness? Or – given that the content of all these various bits and pieces of texts is still unknown, and thus it is far too early to tell if what we are dealing with is wisdom or with foolishness – simply ancient writing.
Here there is something interesting. Why – almost without being able to help ourselves – do we locate wisdom in the past like this? Why do we assume that there is a connection between the deep past and deep wisdom?
The idea that we live in an age of decline is such a common complaint that we almost take it for granted. And the evidence seems to be that people have repeatedly succumbed to this idea in very different times and in very different places. Two and a half thousand years ago, over in China, Confucius looked back to the past and the great sage-kings Yao, Shun, and Yu, and – wondering what had gone wrong – thought “My, wouldn’t it be good if rulers today could be like them?” These days, now that Confucius is himself an ancient, we look back at him and think, “My, wouldn’t it be good if sages today could be like him.” Meanwhile, in India, certain early Buddhist texts make the same complaint: things aren’t what they used to be. The world is already in a state of decline. And today Buddhists look back and say to themselves, “Well, folks back then were really pretty splendid… We’re just not up to it.”
It appears that the ancients are much more magnificent figures than we ourselves are or ever could be. Such dreams of magnificent ages of wisdom located in the deep past are seductive. When we succumb to them, we might even allow ourselves to think (but perhaps not to admit too freely) that back then, if we had been around, we’d probably have been magnificent too. But then we shrug. What can we do? We are necessarily the children of our age.
Whilst I think that this tendency to overestimate our forebears is largely unhelpful, I do however think that there is a connection between wisdom and the past, although it is not necessarily the connection that we might think it is. Wisdom – or the kind of everyday wisdom that is worth wanting – may not have been any more prevalent in the past; but wisdom may turn out to depend upon some sense of the past. Here I’m thinking of Walter Benjamin’s definition of wisdom: counsel woven into the fabric of everyday life. Stories, accumulated experiences, attention to the world… these are the things that we weave together into the fabric of our lives to find counsel. The forgetting of the past does us no favours if we cherish wisdom (as philosophers claim they do); but this does not mean that folks in the past were in general any more or less wise than we are now. And if they seem so, the reason is probably that they are, in a very real sense, fictional characters. Failing to see this leads us into the trap of thinking that way back then, everything was somehow suffused in a holy and unworldly glow. This, in turn, can lead on the one hand to a kind of dismal perspective on the present, and on the other hand to unreasonable expectations of what the limits of human possibility might be.
Let me suggest a corrective to this nostalgia for the wisdom of the ancients. Whilst the stories are full of such starry-eyed stuff, if we turn to more mundane documents, we find that the picture looks rather different. In terms of the traditions of Buddhism, the Vinaya texts – texts that relate to the monastic code of conduct – act as an invigorating corrective to such dreams of golden ages long gone. Take, for example, the Vinaya’s accounts of sexual practices amongst the monastic community. Here we find that, far from being paragons of wisdom and virtue, some of the ancient Buddhist sangha were up to all kinds of things: from masturbation, to sex between monks and nuns, to sex between monks and monks and nuns and nuns, to rather more inventive behaviours, such as copulation with monkeys, corpses and decapitated heads.
“Now at that time, a certain bhikkhu living in the Great Wood at Vesālī, having befriended a monkey with food, engaged in sexual intercourse with it. Then, dressing early in the morning and carrying his bowl and outer robe, the bhikkhu went into Vesālī for alms. A number of bhikkhus wandering on a tour of the lodgings, went to the bhikkhu’s dwelling. The monkey saw them coming from afar and, on seeing them, went up to them and wiggled its rear and wiggled its tail and offered its rear and made a sign. The thought occurred to the bhikkhus, ‘Undoubtedly this bhikkhu is engaging in sexual intercourse with this monkey.’ So they hid off to one side.
“Then the bhikkhu, having gone for alms in Vesālī, returned bringing almsfood. The monkey went up to him. The bhikkhu, having eaten a portion of the almsfood, gave a portion to the monkey. The monkey, having eaten the almsfood, offered its rear to the bhikkhu, and the bhikkhu engaged in sexual intercourse with it.
For those with an interest in the full details, the admirable Access to Insight translation project, from which the extract above comes, has the relevant passages (complete with illustrative stories and forensically detailed semi-legalistic analyses).
The above, needless to say, is not one of the stories that is read out to inspire the faithful in Buddhist centres across the world. But texts such as this are important because they act against any tendencies we might have towards romanticism. If things were really that great in the old days, one has to wonder why the compilers of these texts went to such trouble to document things such as this. The pious might protest – unconvincingly, I think – that the compilers were making up hypothetical cases to simply cover all bases and all possibilities. But the texts certainly present themselves as accounts of actual happenings and responses within the monastic community to such happenings; and whilst it is always wise not to approach texts too naively (are monkeys really that knowing?), and to be aware that there may be many things going on here other than just reportage, such accounts of bawdy behaviour certainly take the shine off the idea of the wisdom of the ancients just a little.
This, I think, is no bad thing. If we allow ourselves to be seduced by stories of incense-perfumed ancients who drift around soft smiles, beaming out rays of light that reflect their perfect virtue, then we are at risk of finding ourselves aspiring to a kind of wisdom that is – and never has been – possible. In aspiring to something that is essentially make-believe, we might find that we overlook those things that may help us to attain to a degree of actual wisdom, here in the world, the kind of wisdom that may make us, for example, refrain from doing things with monkeys that we ought not be doing or that we might later regret. In realising that the ancients, as we ourselves, were as often as not stumbling around, trying and often failing to make sense of things, frequently baffled and confused, often misguided, sometimes downright cruel, we might be able to re-read the past and, in this endeavour, find ways of going about the real work of weaving what counsel we can find, both in the past and in the present, into the fabric of our lives.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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