This lecture is called Virtue as a Necessity. And the reason I gave it that title is because virtue, ethics, morality isn’t a field of study. It’s a mode of being upon which all fields of study rest. It’s also a mode of being upon which everything you do in your life rests.  The way you understand yourself or fail to, the way you understand other people or fail to. And more deeply than that, what role it is that you play in your life in the world.

One of the things I’ve learned for example, being a clinical psychologist (I’ve spent thousands of hours helping people sort out difficult problems), is that lack of virtue makes people ill. I’m not saying that my clients themselves lacked virtue, I suppose some of them do and some of them don’t, but to the degree that they’re embedded in a network of relationships where virtue is fundamentally absent, they’re tortured and tormented and they’re unable to find firm ground.  And that’s not a biological problem, although biologically fragile people might be hurt more by a lack of virtue.

A lot of what you do in a real relationship with people, and at least to some degree in a clinical relationship is supposed to be real, is to provide a forum where people tell the truth. And that’s hard because people don’t like to tell the truth particularly – the truth is difficult. It’s difficult for a variety of reasons.

When I first thought about this lecture, I had a slightly different title. The title was Virtue as an Existential Necessity. And that’s a bit philosophical so I modified it. But there’s a reason for that because the concept of virtue means to be virtuous; existentialism is the study of being. I think that you can’t really understand what makes up virtue until you modulate or modify your notion of what constitutes being. This is a hard thing to do.

Modern people are fundamentally materialistic. And there’s some utility in that: we’re masters of material transformation. And the fact that we’re materialist in our scientific philosophy has made us extremely powerful, maybe too powerful, for our morality. Extremely powerful from a technological perspective, but it’s blinded us to certain things. And I think one of the things that it’s really blinded us to is the nature of our own being. Because we make the assumption that the fundamental constituent elements of reality are material. We fail to notice that the fundamental constituent elements of our own reality are not material. They’re emotional, they’re motivational, they’re dreams, they’re visions, they’re relationships with other people. They’re conscious: they’re dependent on consciousness. And self-consciousness. And we have absolutely no materialist explanation whatsoever either for consciousness or self-consciousness. And we don’t deal well, from a materialist perspective, with the qualities of being. And everyone knows those qualities exist, I mean for most people there’s nothing more real than their own pain. Pain transcends rational argument in that you can’t argue yourself out of it: it’s just there. And, materialist or not, there are very few people who are willing to allow the claim that their pain is merely an epiphenomena of some more fundamental material process. Pain is fundamental. Consciousness is fundamental. And I think that unless you understand that, you can’t think properly about virtue.

So I might start the discussion about virtue with a discussion about being. Well, what does human being look like? Well, the Buddhists say life is suffering – that’s the first fundamental Buddhist dictum. And I suppose a modern person would tend to think of that as a very pessimistic claim. But I found when I shared that information with my students, once they understand what it means, it’s actually a relief because people run around madly, suffering  away, and all of them inside their little shell think ‘Well, there must be something wrong with me because here I am suffering and that isn’t how things are supposed to be.’ Well then, you might say ‘Who says that’s not the way things are supposed to be?’ The Buddhists say life is suffering. So what that means is, if you’re not suffering, that’s a good thing, that’s lucky, that’s fortunate, that’s not the way of the world. That may be something to be grateful for, ecstatic about even.

And of course in Christianity, the central symbol of Christianity is the crucifix, which is not a positive symbol in any way: it’s a symbol of betrayal by friends, opposition from the state and mortal vulnerability. It’s about as powerful a symbolic representation of the idea that life is suffering that you could put together, which is of course why the power of that symbol extends across several thousand years.

Judaism: I don’t think it’s going to come as a shock to anyone in the audience that Jews are acutely aware of the suffering that’s involved in life. So it’s useful to know, to understand what it means that life is suffering. It’s a fundamental ontological truth. It’s a fundamental statement about the nature of being. And there’s a reason for that, it’s not incomprehensible, it’s perfectly comprehensible. We’re finite. We have a lifespan that’s bounded temporally, we have maybe a hundred years and that’ll pretty much be it.

And then there’s other forms of extreme limitation that are imposed on you that have very little to do with you. They’re arbitrary facts of being. You’re a certain height, you’re a certain weight, you’re a certain amount of attractive, a certain amount of intelligent, you’re a certain amount of athletic, you’re a certain amount of mentally ill, you’re a certain amount of pre-disposition to cancer. And it’s frequently the case that people like to attribute those vulnerabilities to some flaw in their own nature, but what they are instead is conditions of existence.

Human being is predicated on a kind of fundamental limitation in that we are what we are and we’re not other things. And so that means inevitably that the awareness of human being comes along with suffering. And life poses the question: ‘How to conduct yourself in the face of suffering?’. Not only yours, but everyone elses. And it’s an inescapable question, except maybe you’re fortunate and you’ll have periods of time where something absolutely horrible isn’t happening to you.

Now you think about this, because you might this is pessimistic, but it’s not pessimistic. It’s actually one of the most freeing things that you can realize. Maybe there’s nothing particularly wrong with you at the moment, but there’s a high probability that you have a family member that has something seriously wrong with them. And there’s a very high probability that if you don’t, you will soon. Maybe you have a partner that has something seriously wrong with them. And to know this frees you from the false illusion that life can be conducted without suffering.

Suffering’s an integral part of being. Well, why is that? Who knows? It’s a metaphysical question, but I have some ideas about it that have helped me and there are things that I have read. I read for example an old Jewish commentary about the reason for creation. It’s like a zen koan, this idea. You take a being with the classical attributes of God: omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience, a totality. And the question is: what does a being with those attributes lack? And the answer is limitation. And then you think, well what’s so important about limitation? If you can be anything or do anything at anytime whatsoever, there’s no being. Everything is one thing. There’s no differentiation between things. So something that’s absolute and total has no being, it has to be parceled out into limited being. And you know this because you all play games, you play video games, you play games with other people, you may play games you don’t even know you’re playing. And when you play those games you put limits on yourself, you play by a set of rules. And the reason you do that is when you limit yourself, arbitrarily in some ways, whole new worlds of possibility emerge. And so there’s a powerful metaphysical idea that being is not possible without limitation.

So that’s an interesting idea. So you say well what’s the price you pay for being? The price you pay for being is limitation and the price you for limitation is suffering, so the price you pay for being is suffering.

So what’s the problem with that? Well, suffering makes people question the validity of life. Everyone does that. If something terrible is happening to you, you’re going to wonder why you? That’s for sure.  Why not you might be a better question because it’s inevitable, but you will wonder that: why you and you’ll wonder is it worth it? Especially if what’s happening to you is terrible and prolonged. Is it worth it? Does that cost that you have to pay for being justify itself? And therefore is being justifiable? And everybody asks and answers these questions. In fact the process of asking and answering those questions underlies everything you do all the time. Because you’re answering when you act one answer which is yes, being justifies itself. You’re answering a different way sometimes when you act which is no, being does not justify itself.

And the question then might be, what happens when you answer one of those two ways. Well, to untangle this, the first thing I want to do is talk to you about the antithesis of virtue because it’s always struck me that when you’re talking about something that could conceivably be regarded as optimistic, it’s difficult for people to fundamentally believe you. You know, if I stood on stage and said “Well, the purpose of life is to be happy.” you might find that vaguely comforting, but there’s no chance in the world that you’d believe it if you have an ounce of sense because if you’ve lived you know that there will be periods of time where happiness is not your state. And so there has to be more to life than happiness because there’ll be a lot of your life that isn’t happy.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn,  who wrote the book The Gulag Archipelago, that was one of the axes that brought down the thick tree of communist utopianism said the idea that human beings are made for happiness , that’s a philosophy that’s undermined by the first blow of the work assigner’s cudgel. And what he meant by that was, if you find yourself in a particularly terrible situation (you’re enslaved for example by malelovent utopians). And they’re pushing you into a form of slavery and they’re beating you to attain their ends. The idea that you’re made for happiness is not going to be of much comfort under those circumstances. And so, Solzhenitsyn’s point was you’re weakened by your belief that life is for happiness because that philosophy cannot sustain any sustained challenge and you will for sure encounter such a sustained challenge.

I do think that modern people can believe in virtue, but not easily, because virtue sounds religious in  a sense and we have real trouble, whether we’re religious or not, with religious preconceptions because our scientific forms of knowledge and our fundamental materialism has really radically undermined our ability to believe in any transcendent being.

But one thing that modern people can believe in, I think without much difficulty at all, is evil. Solzhenitsyn said, for example, that the most important event of the 20th century, as far as he was concerned, was the Nuremburg judgement. And you may know, you should know, that after World War 2 a group of National Socialists from Germany, who were deemed particularly responsible for the absolute horrors of the final solution and the mass factory genocide that accompanied it, were put on trial. And a standard defense for their actions was ‘Well, I was ordered to do it.’ And the Nuremburg decision denied human beings, regardless of their ethnicity or national background or beliefs, the legal right to use that as a defense, under certain limited circumstances.

And the argument was that there are some things that are so self-evidently not good, not virtuous, that if you engage in them you’re existentially guilty. You’re guilty outside the bounds of your culture.

There’s a transnational and transethnic morality. We don’t know what it is, but we know what it isn’t. It isn’t pointless torture and genocide.

At minimum to be virtuous is to live your life in such a way that the probability that you would engage in such actions, given the opportunity, is minimized.

Now people think, well they’re already doing that. If they were in Nazi Germany they would have been a rescuer, not a perpetrator. But that’s wrong. You could take this audience and put them back in 1939 or thereabouts and 90% of you, 95% of you, 99% of you would either be in the perpetrator class or the going along with the perpetrator class. And you may sit and believe you’d be in the one percent, and maybe you would because how do I know, but that isn’t how the historical facts sort themselves out.

And it turns out that it’s not that difficult generally to put people in a situation, normal people, where they’ll do something that really doesn’t look very good. Those of you who are familiar with psychology know about the Milgram experiments, for example. You know about the Zimbardo prison experiments: you take perfectly normal college students and put them into a situation that they know is a dramatic farce, they know isn’t real, give some of them the power of prison guards and make some others arbitrarily into prisoners and in three days you have to shut the whole experiment down because the prison guards have turned into Nazis and they’re enjoying torturing the prisoners even though they know (whatever know means) that they’re innocent.

That says something about the manner in which people conduct their existence. They’re very susceptible to malevolent action.

If you look at Genesis, a very old book, a very influential book. There’s a strange sequence of events that befalls Adam and Eve. It’s in two sentences. A snake gives them an apple. And that wakes them up. Well, there’s a good book by a southern California primatologist that was just published last year that suggested the reason that humans have such great vision, way better than most animals except for raptors (birds), is because our visual systems were designed to detect predatory snakes. And the way she discovered that was by comparing the populations of predatory snakes around the world to the visual acuity of the primate groups that lived in those areas. And what she found was essentially a one to one correspondence.

Our visual system, which is the ability to see, and to be enlightened let’s say (because enlightenment for example is associated with vision) – the snake gave that to us because we had to pay attention to predatory things that were after us for tens of millions of years.

And fruit, that’s interesting. We have colour vision because we were fruit eaters. Our colour vision is precisely evolved to detect ripe fruit.

So that part of the story is right. There’s a story that involves women too, but I’m not going to tell that one today. You have to be awake to outsmart women. That’s the story. And so that’s why they’re tangled in there with the serpents and the fruit.

What happens when Adam and Eve wake up? It’s a series of strange things. The first thing that happens is the scales fall from their eyes so they can see, all of a sudden they’re awake in a way they weren’t before. And the next thing that happens is that they realize they’re naked. Now one of the things that people have nightmares about is being naked on a stage. Which is often why when you see people on a stage they don’t tell you anything they think. Because they don’t only not want to be physically naked, they don’t want to be metaphysically naked either. And they protect themselves from the inquiring eyes of the audience. No one likes to be naked on stage. Why?

Well to be naked is to have your defenses stripped from you. When the Soviets wanted to really torture the hell out of you at two o’clock in the morning, they’d cave in your door and then they’d strip you and shave you when they got you to prison because once you were exposed in all your suffering catastrophe, then you were much easier to torture.

To be naked, to realize you are naked, is to realize that you’re vulnerable. That’s why Adam and Eve immediately cover themselves up. They realize they’re naked, they cover themselves up: it’s a story about culture. Once people woke up and realized their limitations, their mortal limitations (which is also their knowledge of death), the first thing they do is cover themselves up.

And the second thing that happens is they know the difference between good and evil. And that’s a strange thing. It’s not good and bad. It’s good and evil specifically. It’s also something that animals don’t know. And I think, I thought about this really for 20 years, what does that mean? And then earlier this year I think I figured it out, what it means is you don’t know how to torture people until you realize that you’re vulnerable. As soon as you’re self-conscious of your own vulnerability, then you can take what might only be a predatory act, say on the part of a wolf because a wolf will bring down a moose or something like that and eat it, and drag that out into three months of artistic torturing.

And so that means that your recognition of your own vulnerability immediately allows you to determine what’s evil.

Then you might ask yourself under what conditions would you be likely to manifest that drive? I think that’s easy to figure out if you watch yourself. If you watch yourself without presuppositions, which means to watch yourself honestly, or to watch yourself as if you’re someone you don’t know. Because you don’t know yourself because you’re too complicated to know yourself anyways, so you might as well just come right out and know that. One of the things that’s kind of useful about recognizing your capacity for evil, if you can do that without traumatizing yourself, is that it’s the pathway for recognizing your ability for good. You don’t get to one without the other. Because you have no idea what you’re like before you know how terrible you can be and not only that, you won’t take yourself sufficiently seriously. If you know you’re a loaded weapon, and an unstable loaded weapon, then you’re much more likely to pay attention to what you do.

But that means you’re not particularly nice. And it means that if you were given the opportunity, maybe you would have been a Nazi prison guard.

In Genesis, the first thing that happens after Adam and Eve wake up is that thay have two sons, Cain and Abel. And Cain, who’s Abel’s brother, he doesn’t get along very well with God. Now I don’t really care if you believe in God, because I don’t really know what people mean when they say they believe in God anyways, but the story goes that Cain doesn’t get along very well with God and the reason for that is Cain keeps doing things and they don’t work. Everything Cain touches turns to ash whereas his brother Abel, God likes him (God only knows why) , and everything goes really well for Abel. So Cain is kind of a failure and Abel’s a smashing success and not only is he successful at everything he does, but he’s a good guy too, which is really rude because if you’re really successful at things you should at least be wretched intrapersonally so that people can forgive you.

So Cain takes this for a decade or two and then he’s just had it, he’s had it with God. He thinks ‘How can God make this sort of universe where I’m breaking myself in half here and getting nowhere and my brother – doors open for him left, right and center.’ So he goes and complains to God and he says ‘Look, what’s going on, what sort of reality did you conjure up here? Abel has it good, I’m having a miserable time, maybe you should do something about it.’

And you think, that’s pretty interesting you know, that Cain would think that, because you have to ask yourself what sort of presumption does Cain have to assume that the dismal quality of his being is attributable to God? Because what Cain does in that instant is to make himself the judge of being. And I would say that you should be cautious about making yourself the judge of being because there’s always the possibility that there’s a few things you don’t know.

So God sort of let’s Cain in on the secret. He says ‘Look, the fact that you’re suffering miserably away actually isn’t my fault, it’s your fault.’ He says to Cain ‘Sin crouches at the door like a predatory cat ready to jump on you, but if you wanted to, you could overcome it.’ This is not what Cain wants to hear. Cain wants to hear that he’s an innocent character and he has nothing to do with his own misery and it’s all God’s fault and God says instead straighten the hell up, you know you could do it. And even though you know you could do it you won’t. And so that’s that for Cain. He was upset when he first went into the discussion, but after he got this little piece of news that his suffering was to be laid at his own doorstep, then he’s out of the realm of human and the story says ‘his countenance falls’, which means he’s angry and upset.

And the first thing he does is run off and kill Abel. Why? Well, it’s revenge. Abel is God’s favourite and Cain has already judged being and found it wanting. The best way he can express his desire for revenge is to find someone who’s having a pretty good time of it and to arbitrarily eliminate them. And it might be of some interest to note one of Cain’s grandchildren is the first persons who makes weapons of war.

So that brilliant little story, so long ago associates the moral failings of the resentful individual who’s unwilling to take responsibility for the nature of their own being, directly with atrocious acts of social conflict. And that’s another thing to know, because if you’re going to be virtuous you have to take yourself seriously. And if you start to understand that you’re networked with other people, that you’re not one little dot among seven billion, you’re networked with other people. So you know a thousand people and they know a thousand people and so you’re two people away from a million people and three people away from a billion people. You’re in a causal network and all your actions matter.

And Solzhenitsyn said there’s as many centers of the universe as there are individual consciousnesses. That’s a very interesting way to think and why can’t it be that way? We don’t know anything about consciousness and certainly seems to be how it feels if you’re one of those conscious centers and so maybe it is that what you do matters.

I think that often people come to the conclusion that life is meaningless because that’s a better conclusion to come to than the reverse. Because if life is meaningless, well then, who cares what you do. But if life is meaningful, if what you do matters, then everything you do matters. And that puts a terrible responsibility on the individual and I think that people are generally unwilling to bear that.

So life is suffering. What does that do to people? It makes them resentful. These are pitfalls of being. Except being has a structure. One of its fundamental structural elements is suffering. But suffering produces other characteristics of being: resentment is a characteristic of being. People feel resentful when they believe that they’ve been taken advantage of. And if you feel resentful, it may be that you are being taken advantage of.  It may also be that you should screw your head on straight and look at things properly. And it may also be that you should talk to somebody to find out if you’re being taken advantage of or if your head just isn’t screwed on straight. But to talk to them then you have to tell them the truth and in order to tell them the truth you have to have practised being honest. Because if you haven’t practised being honest, then you’re not going to have a friend that you can talk to and even if you did, you’re not going to be able to tell them what the problem is. And then they won’t be able to help you sort out whether or not you’re being taken advantage of or whether you’re a little bit insane.

If you’re resentful then maybe you have to tell the person who’s taking advantage of you that they should stop doing that. And maybe you have to tell them in a way that will make them stop, which is no easy thing. Or maybe you’re resentful because you’re a nasty little bit of the world and you have a chip on your shoulder and no matter what people do with you you’re resentful, in which case you have some internal restructuring to do. And you might ask, why should you do the restructuring? And my answer to that is resentment, along with hopelessness and nihilism and all sorts of other moral pitfalls, puts you on the road to cruelty and atrocity. Misery loves company. And if you feel that things are fundamentally unjust and that the slings and arrows of being are aimed specifically at you, why should you treat anyone else with compassion or justice? Because things are fundamentally unfair. And even more deeply, why shouldn’t you conclude that things should be eradicated because fundamentally they’re unfair.

I think that’s what Hitler concluded. I also think that’s what Stalin concluded. And the evidence suggests that Stalin was gearing up for the Third World War, he had hydrogen bombs, he’d already killed 30 million people. He had his practise trials.

And you know, there’s an old psychoanalytic idea and the idea is that if you can’t understand the motivations for the behavior, look at the outcomes and infer the motivations. And so Hitler killed a 100 million people if you include the whole Second World War and God only knows how many Stalin killed and Mao killed more than Stalin.

Why? Well their cover story was Utopia. And I guess people believed that. Well, why? It didn’t look very utopian when all those millions of people were dying. I think all those people who participated in those processes used their rational utopianism as a cover story for their willingness to particpate in the atrocity. Because what they wanted to do was participate in the atrocity, they didn’t give a dam about Utopia.

And you ask yourself, well, how much do you try to force the world to behave according to your terms?

Now the Catholics have always had trouble with rationality and modern people, especially the sort of hyper-atheists that you hear from now and then. They don’t like that because they believe that rationality is the highest virtue and that’s wrong. I mean it’s a terrible thing to say in a university, except maybe the university isn’t here to teach you to be rational, maybe it’s here to teach you to be virtuous. And those aren’t the same thing.

The rational person says, well I understand and having understood I impose an order and then I work to make that imposed order a reality. That’s what every ideologue does, it’s what every utopian does.  It’s convincing and I think the reason people do that is well, it’s complicated, partly they want an explanation for their being. But more importantly than that they want a mask that covers up their tendency to atrocity with the appearance of virtue. And most utopian thinking is of that sort, even though the mask can be very well argued.

And you ask me why I believe that and the reason I believe that is because we had a hundred years of it and that’s how it turned out.

One of the things that was terrible about living in the Soviet Union was that you couldn’t suffer because things were perfect. So if you were suffering and you even admitted it, then you were instantly an enemy of the state. So if you’re an ideologue, your own suffering makes you a heretic. You undermine your belief in your own bloody system by suffering. Well, then that’s fine. If your own belief can stop you from suffering then more power to you, but if you’re still suffering a bit, or a lot, or a tremendous amount, then you can ask yourself ‘Maybe there’s something I don’t know?’

Here’s an existential exercise. And this is not rational. Let’s say that virtue is worth pursuing. And it’s worth pursuing because a virtuous path is the only path that justifies being to itself. That’s the definition of virtue. A virtuous path justifies being to itself. Being is suffering. So you need a justification for your suffering. So then you might ask yourself ‘Are there times in my life when I feel that my suffering is justified?’ And this is a good question. And you could ask yourself the reverse question too, which is ‘are there times in my life when my suffering is clearly not justified?’

And I could say, well watch yourself for three weeks. Just watch like you don’t know anything. And see when you’re somewhere that justifies itself. Now, you might say ‘How do I know?’ and I’d say ‘Okay, here’s some hints. You’re not self-conscious.  You know it’s not good to be self-conscious, right? It loads on neuroticism. It’s a negative emotion. We think of it as a higher order cognitive function, but people find it unpleasant. You tend to be self-conscious when you’re false or ashamed. If you’re deeply engaged in something, your self-consciousness disappears. So engagement in something meaningful appears to make self-consciousness vanish. It also makes time vanish, right? Because if you’re doing something that is intrinsically meaningful, then the sense of passing time disappears. And so that temporal limitation that plagues you, vanishes.

And I could say maybe you’re having a miserable time of it and you’re only spend two percent of your waking hours in that condition. And maybe you don’t even know when that is. But you could watch. You could see and say ‘Hey, look – I spent ten minutes there and I hardly even noticed and I felt that the nature of my being justified itself.’ Well maybe you wouldn’t say that to yourself, but you could. You could say ‘That was worth it.’ And then I could say ‘Well, practise that.’ Above all else, forget about everything else.

And then there’s an alternative exercise. Pay attention and figure out when absolutely you’re being does not justify itself. That’s even easier. Because that’ll happen whenever you do something that you immediately regret or are ashamed of or even more precisely, makes you feel disintegrated and devalued.

Nietzsche said people betray themselves for the sake of their good name all the time. You can feel this, it seems to center in your solar plexus. When you say something or do something that is not virtuous, then you’ll disintegrate and then you’re weak and you can feel that. And then you’ll cover it up with a bunch of rattling arguments trying to convince yourself and other people that what you were doing was actually okay. But you know. And it’s your rational arrogance and authoritarianism that forces you to not drop your stupid presuppositions and just pay attention to what your being is revealing to you.

We don’t think that way. We don’t think being reveals things. It reveals things all the time. We just don’t pay any attention. Why? Well I think we really don’t want the responsibility. I really believe (I thought about this for a long time), I really believe that that’s the case.

Here’s a quote from the Toa Te Ching, I have a great translation of this book, it was written by Loa Tse years and years ago. It’s one of the world’s classics of literature. The person who wote this wasn’t a philosopher, the person who wrote this was a master of being. That’s a different thing because a philosopher thinks, but a master of being doesn’t think because thinking is a tool and being is something that supersedes any tool.

He said ‘It is by sheathing intellect’s bright light that the sage remains at one with his own self, ceasing to be aware of it. By placing it behind, detached, he is unified with his external world. By being selfless, he is fulfilled, thus his selfhood is assured.’

I show my students in my Maps of Meaning class Pinocchio. Pinocchio’s a very complicated story in the Disney version and in the previous versions, with a deep mythological base. One of the things that happens in Pinocchio (a lot of strange things happen that people just swallow, right? There’s a puppet that turns into a human being, there’s talking cats, there’s blue fairies, there’s stars, there’s whales that eat people) and everyone swallows that with no problem, right? You go to see Pinocchio you don’t even notice that a puppet has just gone into a whale and you know, what the hell’s going on? And the reason you don’t notice that is because it means something and you don’t know what it means but you know that it means something and you’re willing to ride on it. Weirdly enough, because it compromises your rational principles completely. It does. These are religious experiences that people have in movie theatres, they suspend disbelief, they go along with it. It’s not rational, but they believe it. If someone says ‘But that’s not real.’ you say to them ‘Maybe you could shutup so I could watch the movie.’

You don’t want their rationality interfering, it’s the wrong time for it, it’s the wrong place for it. Geppetto wishes that his pet puppet could become real. It’s a very unlikely wish, which is something he says, very unlikely to happen. Actually I think Jiminy Cricket says that. To have that happen, Geppetto has to wish on a star. It’s a strange idea. The star is something that partakes of the divine. You could say that if you look at the night sky, where you can really see it, you know that, right? You look at the night sky and infinity opens itself up before you and there’s nothing to say except…there’s nothing to say.

And to wish on a star is to put your eyes above the horizon and to pick a transcendent point and to wish for something, to want for something that’s beyond the concrete and immediate. And to become virtuous and not be a puppet is to aim at something transcendent. I could say, well at least it’s the absence of evil, that’s something. Well, maybe it’s even more than that. Maybe it’s virtue in and of itself.

There’s a line in the Sermon on the Mount (it’s a very strange sermon) and the line is ‘Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil therof.’ It’s a very strange piece of advice, it sounds completely impractical, right? Limit the focus of your consciousness to the day and leave the worries alone. It means something meditative I think. When I do therapy with people, I try to do this, I don’t think because I don’t know if…I do sometimes, but I shouldn’t… I don’t necessarily know what their problem is or what they should do about it. But I can listen and if I listen (and maybe I learned this in part from Carl Rogers’ writings), if I listen then thoughts will occur to me. I’m not thinking them, it’s different. I’m letting the thoughts come up. I tell my clients, ‘Try to tell me the truth and I’ll try to listen without being too much of a son of a bitch and maybe, you know, maybe we can work something out.’ And then they’ll say something to me and maybe I’ll think ‘Well that thing you said now and that thing you said half an hour ago don’t seem to be coherent, so maybe you could straighten that out’ or you know, it seems more like I’m tracking what they’re saying and when I’m listening to them I’m in the same place they are. We know the neural mechanisms for that. You are in the same place as someone when you really listen to them. And then thoughts come up and I tell them what they are and it’s impersonal because I’m not trying to get them to do anything particularly. I’m just aiming maybe at helping them figure out what’s going on and having a little bit less suffering. It’s not the imposition of an ideological structure. And the idea behind this particular piece of advice is, you can try this too, you wake up in the morning and you think okay, this could be a good day (whatever that means). You don’t know, right, what a good day is? But maybe you’ve had a couple and they’re not so bad and so maybe you think you could have another one. But you don’t know and you think, okay – you ask yourself, and this is meditative ‘What is it that I need to do today so that this would be a good day?’

And your brain will tell you. It’ll say ‘You know that bill that’s hiding under five pieces of paper on your desk? You should haul that sucker out and pay it.’ Or there’s something you’re avoiding that makes you anxious that your brain will pick up on right away and say ‘You have to do these whatever number of commitments today, and if you do them then you’ve fulfilled your obligations.’ And the idea behind this piece of advice is that if you fulfill your obligations everyday then you don’t have to worry about the future. And that’s a very interesting idea. It’s predicated on the notion that there’s a wisdom inside of people that’s deeper than mere rationality. And I believe that to be the case because we’re far older than mere rationality from an evolutionary perspective, from any perspective you want. We’re deeper than rationality.

And we know, psychologists have learned in the last 20 years, rationality is bounded ridiculously in all sorts of different ways. It’s not the master, it’s a servant. It’s an unruly servant, even though it can be a very powerful one.

The totality of you, the wisdom that’s embodied in the totality of you, far outstrips rationality. And if you listen to yourself, and do the difficult things that your self tells you to do, the idea is you don’t have to compute the utopian future because it’s following whatever  you tell yourself to do every moment is the best path to whatever the best outcome is.

It’s a strange way of thinking because if you’re a utopian and a rationalist you already know what the right outcome is. Then you have to run around pointing guns at people to make bloody sure they do the right things so that the outcome you’ve computed occurs. And that doesn’t seem to work very well.

And so you see this idea in Daoism too, the idea is to give up the end. Because you don’t know what it is. And you don’t – it’s an admisison of ignorance. Where are you headed? You don’t know. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be headed somewhere.

Follow your moral intuitions. Stop doing the things that make you feel weak. I’m not talking about following a moral code, although that can come into it if you really don’t know what the hell you’re doing at all. Then following a moral code is a good idea because it’ll at least get the ball rolling. It’s a form of apprenticeship.

So, you know, not doing the obviously bad things is a form of discipline. It isn’t the notion that I’m talking about now, this is a different thing. This is pay attention to what’s meaningful because you can see what that is. You may find you’re terrified of it because everybody’s got this little secret wish…’I really love doing…’ I don’t know what it is. It’s different things for different people, but they’re afraid to do it, because as soon as you do what you really love, then you expose your nakedness, right? You say this is what I really like. Instead you just shove that under the bed and do something you don’t care about at all and then if people judge you, it doesn’t matter.

But the problem with that is there’s no life there. There’s no force. There’s no you. And without that the suffering will do you in and then you will become a bad person and that’s not a good thing.

So you have to see what it is that you find meaningful, whatever that is. And then you have to fight for it. You have to fight against yourself, you have to fight against other people because what do they know about it? You have to fight against nature maybe even to stand up for what it is that sustains you. And that takes courage. It also takes honesty. Partly because if you’re not honest you can’t trust your own intuitions. And this is an important thing. Think about this and this is why virtue is a necessity.

If you lie to yourself or to other people, then you corrupt the structure that you use to interact with being. You corrupt it. And if you corrupt it, then if you listen to it, it will guide you to the wrong way. Or maybe it’ll be so corrupted you can’t listen to it at all and then you’ll have to listen to somebody else. And that might not be a good thing, especially if you’re already corrupted. Because then you’ll listen to the person who tells you to do what you really want to do but won’t admit it to yourself.

And that explains how Hitler found all his followers. They had abandoned they’re own mode of being, it made them bitter and resentful, and empty and hollow, and weak and cruel. And then they trained their leader to tell them what they wanted to hear.

If you’re honest, which is painful, you see that a lot of the things that you say aren’t real. You’ll see that a lot of the things that you do make you weak. You’ll see that a lot of the people that you associate with are probably not good for you. And then you have a lot of difficult choices to make.

You can stop with the obvious lieing. That’ll clear things up for you a lot. And you can start communicating with people. One of the things I teach my clients is if you’re resentful say something about it. Say something about it. You tell the person ‘Look, what you asked me to do is making me feel resentful.’ Now, if they’re your wife or husband or someone you love, you should listen to them because they might say ‘Well, grow up. Take your dam responsibility and leave me alone.’ And maybe they’re right. Or maybe they’re a bit of a bully and you have to say ‘Quit pushing me around.’ Maybe you have to have an argument with them. An honest argument where you say ‘Look, this is what’s happening to me’ and they say ‘Look, this is what’s happening to me.’ And you battle it out until you reach some sort of settlement and then you don’t have to be resentful anymore. Then you won’t be mean and cruel and vicious. And you have to be honest in order to do that.

Here’s a way of thinking about error. You don’t exactly know what you’re doing, so how do you get to the point where you know what you’re doing? I think follow your internal intuitions and be honest about it. What’ll happen is a star will appear and guide you. And the star is whatever makes your life meaningful. And maybe you’ll take some tentative steps in that direction and you’ll get a little ways and you’ll think ‘No, that’s wrong.’ And then the thing that makes your life meaningful will appear over there. And then you take a few tentative steps in that direction. But as you step and walk towards these things you change and as you change you get wiser. And what happens is, you keep following these things that make your life meaningful, then you correct yourself across time.

You see the thing there and that’s wrong and you see it there and that’s wrong and you see it there and that’s wrong but you keep chasing it and as you chase it you move forward. And as you move forward and as you do things you learn from your mistakes because you’re honest and you’re watching. You get wiser and wiser and the consequence of all those mistakes is you’ll self-correct the mistakes and twenty years down the road maybe you won’t be making so many mistakes.

They say it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert at something. So you would need 10,000 hours of practice following what it is you need to follow.

I’m going to close with two things. I’ve come to the conclusion, as a consequence of studying the things I’ve been telling you about, that belief has a religious substructure. If you go all the way down into someone’s belief structure, right to the bottom, what you find are religious presuppositions. The person might not agree, but I don’t think that matters. I think generally people don’t know.

Here’s an old religious presupposition, older than Christianity, though I suppose Christianity is the most powerful proponent of this viewpoint. There’s a heaven and there’s a hell and you should live your life so that you end up in one of them. What’s happened to Christianity is that that’s an afterlife thing. I don’t think it is an afterlife thing. I think it’s a now thing. I see people who are in hell all the time. And you can see them if you walk down Bloor St. I’m not kidding, it’s no joke.  If you walk by someone in hell, you can’t look at them. You won’t look at them, you’ll give them a wide berth. And if you look at them and you really look at them, they’ll either become aggressive or ashamed because they do not want you to see where they are because they don’t want to see where they are.

And by the same token, heaven’s a real place too and now and then and you don’t notice because you don’t believe in it.

There’s an old gospel, a gnostic gospel, that was dug up in 1957 – the Gospel of Thomas. And in the Gospel of Thomas Christ says ‘The kingdom of heaven is spread out on the earth but men do not see it.’ And I don’t think that’s a metaphor (or maybe it is a metaphor, it’s a deep metaphor). It means that life, human life, is very expansive and we live in the middle. It’s kind of a mediocre middle often. And at one extreme there’s hell and the other extreme is heaven and we bounce back and forth between them without really noticing.

And I could say, well here’s something to consider: If the things that you’re doing are landing you in hell, stop! Unless you want to be there. And you know if you think, all you have to do is think about your life over the last year. You can be certain that you can call to mind times when you would have rather’d that did not happen. And so the lesson from that is clear: don’t set up those conditions anymore. And by the same token, if you watch yourself you can tell when you’re where you want to be and I could say, well, if you’re where you want to be then that’s really the right place and all you should ever do is practice to be there.

The kingdom of heaven is spread out on the earth but men do not see it.

So this is what I would say about virtue. Virtue first, is the attempt to see that heaven. And it’s a questioning thing. And I’m not saying that it’s the same for everyone. I don’t believe that all because people are individuals. Just to see it.

And the second thing is to attempt to live in it. And I truly believe, I truly believe, that there is nothing that you can do that’s better for being (not only for yourself but for everyone that you interact with). None of you know your potential. People are amazing creatures.

You know that people can be abysmally awful. But they can be as remarkably good as they are abysmally awful. I think it’s rare, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. What’s a human possibility? Well no one knows. Maybe it’s near infinite. We know nothing about our own being or our relationship with the totality of things.  We may occupy a more important place than we all think. And the consequences of our actions, our virtues or our lack thereof, echo, may echo, far beyond what we want to believe.

So I would say try to find out what’s good for you. Just watch. Don’t listen to anybody else. Or maybe you should. Maybe they’ll give you some hints, you know. But you’ve got to sort it out for yourself. And when you find out what’s good for you and what isn’t, do the things that are good for you. Until you like being alive, until you’re thrilled to be alive. See what happens.

And I would also suggest there’s nothing you could possibly do that will be more profound and useful than that.

That’s all.

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