keeping it real

But there are some people, nevertheless–and I am one of them–who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether in the long run, anything else affects them.

Thus G. K. Chesterton in his 1905 work, Heretics. Those words struck me the first time I read them, probably in my 20s, but it has been only by slow degrees that I have come to see how much I share his point of view. I now realize, and am glad, that I am a member the group that he denominates with the pronoun we.

For as I work on my various projects—my literary theory, a philosophy of politics with respect to the environment, and of course my novel in progress The Mission—I keep rediscovering that everything else depends on one’s “view of the universe”. My hunch is that the most intractable conflicts in life are ultimately due to differences in this view. They are intractable because they are hard to grasp and hard to communicate, but, most importantly, they are intractable because they are often unconscious.

Technically, Chesterton’s “view of the universe” and “theory of the cosmos” come under the heading of cosmology, which is one branch of the philosophical field called metaphysics, the other two branches being ontology, or the theory of being, and epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. The word metaphysics itself comes from the title of a treatise by Aristotle concerned with those topics. The word literally means “after physics”, and it referred to the fact that this treatise followed Aristotle’s treatise on Physics, which examined the structure of the natural world. The world of nature is the world that can be observed with the senses; but metaphysics addresses itself to those aspects of reality than cannot be observed in that way. Metaphysics is concerned with the nature of reality itself as such. What do we think is real, and why?

I remember reading an intriguing observation by William James, I think it was in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), that people regard as real what provokes the strongest emotions in them. Our strongest emotions impel us to action, and we always take action with the intent of having an effect on the world—an effect on reality, if you like. But this brings to mind a traditional Buddhist image that illustrates how this very behavior is actually mistaken and a never- ending cause of trouble for us: the image of a rope which we take to be a snake.

Imagine stepping into a dim, cluttered room, and seeing a big, fat snake coiled on the floor right before you. You feel a jolt of adrenaline; maybe you scream and jump back involuntarily. You scramble to escape, and reach to snap on the light so you can see the snake better. But when you do, you see that it’s just a rope lying coiled there. It’s inert and harmless, and all your panic was for nothing.

According to the Buddha, our emotional responses to life—all of them—have exactly this same basis. They are “panic” responses to a reality that is fundamentally not the way we think it is. Everywhere, we see snakes; and everywhere, it’s just ropes.

In the Buddhist view, the “snake” in question is, in the first place, our own ego, which we mistakenly take to be fundamentally existent; and, in the second place, all the objects of sense, which we equally take to be fundamentally existent. If we saw them as they are, that is, as not fundamentally existent, then our actions and reactions would become truly realistic; we would treat the coiled rope as a coiled rope, instead of as a snake.

A vivid example of this “panic” response always returns to my mind. It was from watching a TV documentary. I forget the exact subject of the documentary, but one segment featured an interview with a man who was serving a life sentence in a California prison for murder. It had happened in traffic. Another motorist had done something to anger this man, so he pulled a handgun from his glove compartment, and, intending to scare that other motorist, took a shot at him. But the shot, aimed to miss, hit the man and killed him. So the shooter drew a 20-year sentence. He spoke calmly during the interview, but he made the point at the end, for those who are provoked to anger in traffic or elsewhere: “Don’t do it—walk away, it’s not worth it.”

Such was the calm, sober opinion of one who knew whereof he spoke. He had felt that he had been subjected to an injury and an injustice in traffic, and he had the means to address those things, so he thought, in his handgun. Everything had seemed clear, real, and urgent—just as with a snake nearby. Later, when his emotions had calmed, he saw that he had been mistaken. Too late.

It seems that while we treat those things that provoke strong feelings in us as real, the truth seems to be almost the reverse. We’re much more likely to see things as they really are when our mind is calm and cool.

This calm, cool frame of mind is what is cultivated by meditators, such as Buddhists, and by philosophers generally. For our problem is not just in knowing what other people’s views of the universe are—our lodgers’, our enemies’—but in knowing what our own view is. And if it’s important to know what others’ views are, how much more important is it to know our own?

For we all have a metaphysics. We all have deep-seated beliefs about these things, on which we act. We just don’t know, by and large, what those beliefs are. But they are there to be found. We just need to get calm, and to think. Maybe to read—and even meditate.

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