4.3 Type III: Philosophical Paganism. Ancient philosophers in Greece and Rome provided philosophical defenses and interpretations of Pagan practices in the same way that our modern philosophers provide defenses and interpretations of Christianity. The resulting religion was somewhat different from the popular religion, and the philosophers held that it was what was really intended in the popular religion. They tried to show this by providing allegorical interpretations of the popular myths.
That this was what was really intended is an interesting claim. It suggests that the popular religion has a function in guiding our lives, and if we allow our lives to be guided by it we will develop and change over time, and as a result of this maturation, we will come to a different understanding of the doctrines and myths, and the purposes of the rituals and other practices of the religion, than we had in the beginning. This mature understanding gets it right, the less mature understanding being useful as a way onward, but not strictly correct in itself. Philosophers often approach religion in this way. The alternative is to say simply that the popular religion is wrong, and to offer one’s own views as an entirely different religion or world view. Philosophers friendly to their native religions don’t generally see themselves as doing that. They are trying to make sense of something they are committed to but find difficult to understand rationally. So when they do make sense of it, their new views are seen as the fulfillment of the popular religion, not a replacement for it.
One feature of the philosophical religion was an emphasis on ethics. So Plato and the Stoics, when they talk about the after-life, argue that it will be a place where those who are ethically upright will be rewarded, and the others will be punished. They emphasize that the Gods regard this matter very seriously and cannot be bribed, or prevailed upon to loosen up the rules for their favorites. It was generally imagined that these sanctions would be temporary, and eventually a person would be reborn as a human being, the rebirth being in keeping with the ethical character of their last life. Many of the myths attributed unethical behavior to the gods (so Zeus was a great womanizer, and had killed his own father), and these had to be given allegorical interpretations, and their literal truth denied.
The philosophers tended to be monotheists, and to think that the one highest god, of whom the lower gods were but aspects, had produced the best possible world. They did not agree with the popular notion that many gods were simply unpleasant fellows unconcerned about human welfare. This world falls short of perfection, however, because the god was limited in what he could do by the fact that he had to make the world from matter, which would not take on just any form, and tended to decay into disorder if left to its own devices, and because the world had to contain many competing beings, who made trouble for one another. Moreover, they generally regarded the natural laws that governed matter as eternal and unchangeable, even by God, so that God was limited in how he could design living beings. The Stoics thought that a virtuous soul would survive until the end of the current world cycle, when all things are absorbed into the one World-Soul or God. The soul is not exactly destroyed here, but it loses its individuality. They thought less virtuous souls tended to fall apart, since they lacked the necessary strength to hang together, vice leading to internal conflict in the soul.
Later Pagan philosophers critical of Christianity considered its greatest absurdity to be the notion that God could set aside natural laws and perform miracles. To their mind this was a belief only prevalent among the ignorant and superstitious. Natural laws could not be avoided, and God in his wisdom was concerned for the welfare of the whole, which is why he often seemed unconcerned for the welfare of the individual. He certainly would not set aside the wisely contrived natural order for the sake of benefit to an individual in a particular case, any more than a wise civil magistrate would set aside the law of the community for the benefit of an individual in a particular case. Natural laws, they thought, enjoyed an absolute necessity, and were not contrived by God, and so the Christian/Jewish notion of a supernatural God that made the universe, along with its natural laws.
The general approach to the problem of cosmic evil found in Type II religion is followed here as well. The key to salvation is to recognize one’s place in the world and become reconciled to it, because one sees that one’s own suffering is necessary for the good of the whole, and to accept one’s civic and ethical duties. The system of nature which makes it impossible for people to be immortal, to avoid old age and disease, and so on, is accepted as something neither the gods nor anyone else can do anything about, so that it makes no sense to get upset about what cannot possibly be changed.
Thus, for the Stoics, the world is seen as a natural order that gives rise to a universe with an animating soul. This natural order works always toward the best inasmuch as it gives rise to the world-soul, but it also limits what can be accomplished by the world-soul. The natural order behind the world-soul is non-personal, and neutral towards good and evil. It is simply necessary natural law.
It is pointed out here that as long as one does not get upset by what cannot be changed, she will be free of self-inflicted psychological pain, and will receive due rewards for her ethical behavior in the afterlife. It was generally held that evil-doing was due to a corrupt or diseased personality, so that even in this life the evil-doer was dominated by passions that made him miserable, anger, insatiable desire, and the stubborn refusal to recognize his rather humble place in the world, while the good person, enjoying true mental health, lived a happy life even in this world, despite the fact that he might be taken advantage of by the evil-doer. In particular, a good life is possible only if one identifies with the communal good, and gives up selfish desires, replacing them with a reasonable love for all rational beings.
It should be noted that critics of Type II religion were to be found among Greek philosophers (and in India, and no doubt everywhere else, too). There were even a few pure naturalists who rejected the existence of the Gods and the rationality of religion. But most philosophers recognized something right in the religious impulse, and tried to give an account of it which would purify what was right from the contamination of superstition.
4.3.1 Type IIIa: Naturalistic Paganism: This is the name I give to developments out of Paganism, particularly in China, in which the general approach to salvation is maintained, and various high level philosophical doctrines are adopted by different intellectuals, but in which the worship of deities more or less disappears. The prime example is Confucianism. Here a strongly ethical way of life, with an emphasis on playing one’s hereditary role in the community, and especially one’s proper role in the family, is argued for on the ground that it is beneficial to oneself and the community. Harmony within the community is aimed for, and is held to depend on a proper subordination within the established social order, to be maintained through the use of art (music and poetry) to train one’s emotions, and ritual to shape one’s habitual behavior. The old sacrificial ritual is maintained only in the form of state offerings to an abstractly conceived supreme force or deity, “Heaven,” which is held to govern the destiny of the Emperor’s dynasty, and to send disaster when there is discord in the community. The idea is that discord and improper relations in the community will be reflected in the natural world. Punishment for ethical violations is held to occur by a kind of law of nature, but it is also argued that true peace of mind can only be obtained by being ethical and meeting one’s duties. The central problem in personal salvation is seen to be getting proper external behavior to mesh with a person’s internal mental states, so that he does what is right and proper sincerely and with perfect naturalness, not merely because he knows he has to or expects to profit. Sincerity is the central virtue in the wise man. There is a strong emphasis on the proper behavior of government officials, who maintain the Confucian cults, and it is held that Heaven will “remove its mandate” from those governments that do not care for the welfare of the lower classes, but there is no hint of recognition that any government other than an aristocratic monarchy can possibly be natural. So the upshot is that this form of religion is quite similar to Type II Paganism, but it gets rid of the stories about supernatural beings, and converts the Gods into a single, very abstract deity, Heaven, which seems to be nothing more than natural law at work. This natural law, however, is such that if one lives rightly one can live well, so the world is not intrinsically an evil place, and all the worst evils are due to our violations of nature.
The problem of personal salvation in Confucianism is rooted in the fact that human beings are so clever that they tend to abandon their own nature, contriving artificial roles and artificial selves to obtain their often artificial desires. Daoism in particular emphasizes returning to what is natural and abandoning cleverness. In its more extreme branches it attacks the Confucians, and holds that it would be best if there were no states or rules at all, and everyone simply lived naturally and ignorantly. This is an ideal that could only be followed by a few individuals, of course, and the Confucians continued to run the community. Their view was that a person inevitably drifted away from virtue due to intelligence and cleverness, but then could make his way back again by proper training of the emotions and habitual responses. The cultivated man who has attained to sincerity will act quite naturally in the right way after surveying the situation to which he has to respond, due to his long training. There is a good deal of respect for old people in this religious culture, for Confucius himself claimed to have reached perfect sincerity only after a lifetime of training. About time we are retiring, the Confucian figures talented and hard-working individuals reach the point where they can really take on serious duties. So there is a kind of fall from grace due to our awareness and intellect (as with Enkidu in the Gilgamesh story), but once one becomes a sage, he is far finer, due to his understanding of what is required and his deliberate efforts to acquire it, than any animal who never fell from grace in the first place.
4.4 Type IV: Monistic Idealism. The Greek and Roman Neoplatonists, in later Antiquity (after 200 ce), held to views very like those of the more intellectual sort of Hindu religion. In both cases these views developed out of a polytheistic background through philosophical reflection, probably independently. The key idea lying behind this view is that the soul is actually made up of a certain kind of stuff, say fire, which is the same stuff the World Soul is made up of. Indeed, the individual human soul is a bit of fire broken off from the world soul, and living well consists in maintaining the fire of one’s soul in as pure and hot a form as possible, and maintaining contact with the world soul, which is the fire pervading and directing all things, which is at its purest in the heavens. (For the earliest example of this sort of view in Greece, see Heraclitus, a philosopher of the sixth century bce) This view, in all essentials, was adopted by the Stoics in their philosophical reading of Paganism.
Not everyone accepted this view. The Epicureans, for instance, rejected it, holding that souls were made up of fire, but denying the existence of any overarching world soul. The fire in individual humans disperses when we die, it is not rejoined to God. They held that their view was much closer to common sense, and traditional religion (which it was). They thought the Gods were admirable beings that lived in the vast empty spaces between worlds, and so were very long-lived, since they encountered nothing else that might destroy them. We know about them because they emit images that our souls detect sometimes in dreams or in trance. But the Gods, if they are admirable, do not take care of human beings, and care nothing for the good of beings in this world. If they did so, that would spoil their blessedness, since there is little or nothing they can do to help, and they would suffer in sympathy with us. But the Gods’ providence, the Epicureans thought, was not a traditional religious view, and so they took the philosophical religion to involve a flat rejection of traditional Greek religion, though it is to be noted here that they tried to explain why people might have believed this traditional religion, referring to the visions of the Gods, and people’s natural wishful thinking and desire that the supernatural would help them, as well as the profits to be made by a charlatan playing on the fears and desires of others. The one element they wanted to retain from traditional religion was the admiration for the Gods, and they thought it not unreasonable to maintain a religious cult, in particular because one reminded oneself in the performance of the cult duties what a truly admirable life was really like—it was a matter of independence from pain, so that one who kept this in view would avoid entanglements with others, or the development of desires, that would likely bring them pain in the future. The Epicureans may not seem very attractive to someone raised on the ideal of Christian love and involvement, but Christians also hold that a certain emotional distance should be maintained from others, even when we love them, for in the end, we should love God above all, and this means we should trust God and be happy in his love no matter what happens to our friends. So perhaps the Epicureans were not so distant from the Christians after all.
The next step in the development of Monistic Idealism was the introduction of Idealism, which is the view that everything that is real is somehow mental, either itself a mind, or the action or thought or awareness of a mind. When we speak of physical things, according to an Idealist, we never actually encounter such a thing in experience, but only conscious states, sense impressions, by which we make judgements as to what statements about physical things are true. So, if I say the cat is in the living room, I really mean only that certain cat experiences are to be had in the living room, but not elsewhere in the house. If I say the cat is a Siamese, I mean that these cat experiences will be of a certain sort. Ordinarily we suppose that our sense experiences are caused by physical things, but the idealist argues that this cannot be, that the mind must somehow be producing it itself. The Monistic Idealist will argue that there is one world of physical objects and an objective truth about it because there is only one mind, producing all the sensory experiences anyone might enjoy. This can be adapted to Christian views, and so Bishop Berkeley, a notable Irish philosopher of the 18th century, argues that God produces sense experiences in our minds, and does so according to a regular plan, producing a kind of virtual reality, and the creation of the world amounts to God’s production of these sense impressions in our minds. But Berkeley was not a Monist. He does not think that the minds in which God produces sense impressions are part of God. These Monistic Idealists do. They take it that one’s mind is a part of God’s mind, or is somehow the same as God.
4.4.1 NeoPlatonism: Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, claimed that everything that is is mind, and the same mind, so that everything is, in the end, identical with what he called the One. The lower beings arise from the One (through “emanation” in Plotinus’s metaphor) when the One becomes aware of itself. The primal split into multiple different (and so partly negative) beings is the split into the subject that thinks and the object of thought. (In reality, all there is is the thinking, and to view it as subject or object is just to look at the process of thinking from different angles. The One is aware of, or thinks, itself in a way that does not result in its bifurcation (as does everything else that is self-aware), but this thought is not in terms of concepts, but is a bare, immediate awareness of self. The One next sees itself as Good, so that the Form of the Good arises (it just is the thought of the Good), and Mind arises, contemplating the Form of the Good, and all the various ways in which a thing can be good to one degree or another. In effect, it is looking at aspects of its own thought of the good, and each aspect is another Form. So there is a Form of donkey, for one kind of good life is the donkey’s life, the Form of pine tree, and so on.
In this way the Intellect arises below the One, and is distinguished from the one because its intellectual activity consists in an immediate and eternal awareness or understanding of the Forms, not in an immediate awareness of itself. It is aware of itself only as Good, as One, etc., that is, through the Forms, by means of concepts. Somehow this manner of thinking cannot identify itself as, or even be aware of, the higher manner of thinking of the One, and so it is other than the one, though really it is just the One thinking of itself. In the next stage Soul arises. Here the new sort of awareness involves not the intellectual understanding of the various Forms, but rather the identification of oneself with the Form of the Good. But once this identification of oneself with a form is made it is possible for Soul to split into many different individuals, for there is also a way of thinking which cannot grasp the Form all at once, eternally, but must grasp it through activity in time, that is, as one grasps mathematical Forms such as the form of triangle through proofs (which take time to execute and present), or the form of an animal by understanding its life history and activities. Moreover, such beings can only be themselves through activity in time (one is oneself by contemplating the Form of oneself, i.e. through self-awareness, and these beings must receive the thought of their own Form stretched out in time). So such Forms become gradually what they are through development, that is, they have a life history.
The highest of such Souls found in time is the World Soul, which identifies itself with the Form of the Good. But some of these souls are such rudimentary thoughts of the world of Forms that they identify themselves with some single Form falling under the Form of the Good, and so we have turtles, who know nothing except turtle (“every thought of turtle is turtle” as the poet said), and all the various particular things in the world.
The best way to understand this, I think, is in terms of multiple personalities. That is, a person is sometimes aware of certain facets of what he has done, and sometimes of others, and to some extent his mood determines what he is aware of. So a person may not be able to recall any of her good thoughts about a friend while she is angry with her, and recall what it is that is nice about her friend only after she cools down. If this sort of isolation of some of the things we know from others by our mood is pushed to an extreme, we can get multiple personalities that are (some of them at least) unaware entirely of what is done when the other personalities are running the show. By a kind of selective attention to oneself, a limited awareness only of certain aspects of one’s feelings, beliefs, memories and the like, one actually splits up (nearly) into several persons. It is that sort of thing that happens here. The things that are lower on the scale of being are really just the One as it is aware of itself in some very limited way. We are little splintered pieces of mind, then. Not that our final bliss does not consist in merging with the One. Rather, we must remain our individual selves, and we would not if we re-entered the One. (Consider the fear the multiple personalities might have of a cure being effected. They would see the re-integration
E THE ONE (self-aware non-conceptually)
E becomes aware of itself under concepts, as The Good, and
R so arises
A THE INTELLECT (aware of, understands, The Good and the Forms under it)
L (that is, aware of itself as Good, including all the possible kinds of
incomplete goods that might arise from itself)
THE SOUL (aware of itself as an individual, at least potentially
separate from other individuals—i.e. it does not just understand
the Form of the Good, but identifies itself with it.)
“THE FALL” INTO TIME
Individual souls, each aware of and identifying with, living out just one possible
T life falling under the Forms of the Good, each related to all the other
E individual souls and able to interact with them because they are,
M in the end, all the same, i.e. all THE ONE
O Beings with Intellect (Human beings, Gods) with awareness like Intellect
R Beings with the Senses (Animals) with awareness like Soul
A Beings with awareness only of their own form, not sensory nor intellectual
L Matter = the mere possibility of some kind of Being.
The Return to the One
by those Souls that have an intellectual life,
That is, by increasing awareness, not just of oneself, but of other souls through
the senses (animals have this), and the of all possible Forms of the Good
through intellect, and finally of what is beyond the Good, through pure
non-conceptual awareness of oneself=THE ONE.
of personality as their own deaths.) What we do to attain bliss is to become aware of our connection to Mind and the Forms (we can think all the Forms, if only one by one, so we can become aware of the whole), and see how we figure in the universe, which is a perfect expression, in finite terms, of the perfect Goodness that is the One.
Plotinus takes it that the contemplation of the One is the end of human life, though this contemplation cannot be intellectual since the One does not conform to the Forms, but stands above them. To have this vision of the One, though, a person has to strengthen his intellect first, through a thorough knowledge of the Forms, and this means he must learn about eternal things, i.e. mathematics, and then rise to a contemplation of the Form of the Good itself, and then, after separating the soul from the body as much as one can through proper ethical behavior and a moderate asceticism, turn to a contemplation of the One, which is a sort of meditative trance, it seems, in which no discursive thought occurs, and all awareness of the temporal world is temporarily lost. One’s real self is the One, and the One is, of course, perfectly blessed and perfectly good. So there is no evil, really, according to Plotinus. Evil is a mere absence of what ought to be there, and in the end it is scarcely even that, for one only sees evil as long as he takes a partial view of things, thinking only of himself and not how he fits into the whole. From the view of God, or of one who has attained the vision of God, there is no evil in the world. This view of evil as unreal, an illusion arising from lack of connection to the whole, is typical of Monistic Idealism.
Later Neo-Platonism, after Plotinus, dabbled a good deal in magic and such stuff in its more popularized forms. The idea was that all things communicate with one another more or less directly through the One, and so one could bypass physical law to accomplish an end through sympathetic magic. Sympathetic magic acts out ahead of time the thing desired, making sure that those who are to bring it about are somehow made present at the pre-enactment. Thus one might act out the shooting of a deer, and do so on a trail where deer are known to run, thus assuring success in the hunt. It is much older than philosophy, of course, but here philosophy provides a justification for the practice. This later popular Neo-Platonism ultimately lies behind most of the “ancient traditions of magic” and the like that one runs into today, though, of course, today’s versions are much elaborated and developed over the intervening centuries. The Neoplatonists stoutly defended the traditional Paganism as a way of approaching the realization of one’s union with the One. (Notice how the many traditional Gods are aspects and powers of the One God.)
4.4.2 Indian Systems. The Vedanta philosophy of Shankara in India (8th–9th century ce) does not work from the notion of Forms. Forms are thoughts in the mind of God which all things imitate, which makes things intelligible to us. They are what they are only because they already correspond to a concept which we find within us as we search our deeper selves (for we are God). Shankara does not entertain such a theory, but considers instead the issue what it is that really experiences things. Whatever it is that does the experiencing, he argues, cannot be one of the experiences or one of the things experienced. But that means that it cannot understand itself through concepts at all. It is aware of itself in a kind of non-conceptual self-awareness. This is all rather like Plotinus’s One (or the description Aristotle gives of God in his Metaphysics, Book XII). Now Shankara notices that if we focus on this thing which is self-aware and is the subject of all other awareness, we find that what is aware of your experience is indistinguishable from what is aware of my experience, or what is aware of anyone else’s experience. If we try to make out a distinction, we always find that we are making a distinction in what is experienced, not in what does the experiencing. The “I” or atman, the self, is this underlying, pure self-consciousness. This self-consciousness is present in every other consciousness of anything outside the self, but is without content (else it would be a consciousness of that content, not of itself). In every case, the thing that is aware, the real self, fails to fall under any concept or description other than “subject of awareness”, and so all the different subjects of awareness are indistinguishable from one another—they are “non-different” as Shankara puts it. Perhaps there are a number of different such subjects because they are located in different places? But place belongs to body, which is an object of awareness, not the subject of awareness. One is aware where one’s body is in relation to other bodies, perhaps, but the center of awareness itself should not be identified with the body. So there is only one center of awareness. This atman, then, turns out be blissful, eternal, entirely unaffected by other things (free), and is the one thing that is truly valuable, for ultimately only conscious beings, considered as such, are truly valuable and proper objects of ethical, or any other, concern.
The three principal philosophers of the Vedanta (interpretation of the Vedas) tradition take three different positions on the relation of Brahman to the perceived world. Shankara argued that the perceived world is not real, since its “reality” consists only in its being perceived, and it is nothing over and above our perceptions of it. So it is precisely like illusion or a dream, except that it is more organized and coherent, and is a kind of dream shared by multiple centers of personality. These multiple centers are the only reality, though, and since the contents of their dream are merely dream, there is nothing in the dream that can distinguish them from one another. So they are, as we have seen, non-different, and the only reality is the one consciousness. He does not want to say, I think, that the subjective side of the experience of the world is unreal, but rather that there is no thing outside us which is experienced. If we treat our subjective experience (including our experience of ourselves) as though it was an experience of some reality, then we suffer from ignorance. (Note how close this is to Buddhism—except that Shankara refuses to go the last step—he does not reject even the experiencing self as “unreal.”) If one viewed one’s experience as something generated by Brahman (i.e. the experiencer), as the dream of Brahman, not as something produced by an external reality distinct from the experiencer, then one would be free of ignorance, and it is possible, through meditative practice, to arrive at this way of experiencing one’s own experience. Clearly, the reality, Brahman, will not be subject to causal laws, for they apply only within the illusory world of appearance, to the ‘virtually real’ objects of perception and thought. The experiencer transcends the natural world.
Ramanuja (11th century ce) reacted against Shankara’s thought, claiming that Brahman is the one reality, but that he is identical to the world. This may look like a retreat to the Pagan view that God is the soul of the world, but it may also be viewed as an attempt to give the Buddhists their due. Either we have to admit that the Self is no more real than the experienced world, Ramanuja thinks, which means we become Buddhist heretics who reject the Vedas, or we have to admit that the experiencing selves and the experience experienced by them are equally real, equally Brahman. This latter view is consistent with the Vedas, and so must be adopted. As for the relation of yourself to the Brahman, he compares it to the relation between a person’s self and its body. Brahman is, as in Stoicism, the Self of the universe as a whole, and the individual self is a mode, a way of being, belonging to Brahman. Ramanuja holds that one’s individual self is real, then, not an illusion as Shankara said, but that it is not an underlying thing, but rather a modification or mode of such a thing, there being many other modes of the same thing which are other selves. Shankara insisted that the self was no mere mode of something else, but was a self-standing, independent thing in its own right, and since the only thing with that status is Brahman (= self-consciousness), that means that the individual self is an illusion, and one’s real self is Brahman. (In the West, something very like this is maintained by the Jewish philosopher, Benedict Spinoza in the 17th–18th centuries. These different positions are natural ones to explore, starting from the religious orientation, and people in different cultures hit on very similar views.)
A third school of Vedanta was begun by Madhva (13th century ce, contemporary with Thomas Aquinas), who argued for a straightforward dualism, making Brahman a distinct thing from the world of individuals to which we belong, although Brahman “pervades” the world (is omnipresent). The most conclusive proof that we are not Brahman, Madhva thought, is the fact that we are subject to suffering, and Brahman, of course is not. Suffering is real, and at least one of the properties Buddhists identify with selves does not belong to us. In fact, he postulate a number of different things: Brahman, different selves, and matter. His view is in fact a Transcendental Monotheism of considerable philosophical sophistication, and falls under Type VII described below, except that Madhva does not make the world something created by Brahman, or assert omnipotence of Brahman, for that is too close to suggesting that Brahman is part of the natural world of causally related things. Still, in some, non-causal, way, he holds, the world depends on Brahman, and Brahman depends on nothing. (Madhva was influenced by Jewish and Muslim philosophy.)
The doctrine of Shankara and Ramanuja is connected with a practice of meditation in which one sits quietly and attempts to identify one’s true self. One proceeds by recognizing every content of which one is aware as not one’s true self, since one’s self is the thing that is aware, not the content of the awareness. One recognizes after a bit that even the animal or mind we think of as aware of things is actually a content of awareness—I think of sensory awareness, say, and think of the body, with its eyes, as what is aware of visual representations. But this is wrong, of course. Every awareness involves a kind of primitive self-awareness at its core which is empty of content and is our truest self. Since this self is blissful, and eternal, the problem of cosmic evil is resolved. It should be noted that the Hindus thought that we go through endless reincarnations, at best attaining to heaven temporarily until our merit is exhausted and we are reborn in lower realms. As the Buddhist tradition puts it, “we have drunk already, whole oceans of mother’s milk.” This endless round of suffering with only temporary relief, always returning, is viewed by Hindus (and Buddhists) as something to be escaped from. We are accustomed to viewing death as the ultimate evil, but an eternal life always returning to suffering is viewed by the Hindus as the ultimate evil. The only way to escape from this life is to somehow escape from our individuality, Shankara thought, and we can do this if we recognize that our individual selves are unreal, our real self being the universal self that experiences all things. Ramanuja has a similar solution in mind, except that we recognize that we have mistaken individual selves for the true self, the ultimate reality which is Brahman, when they are really only an aspect of Brahman. By identifying with the world, rather than with something unknowable and not to be experienced outside the world, we are saved. Perhaps in practice the outcome of such a belief and the meditative practice associated with it is a certain detachment from the affairs of our lives. We see that they do not concern our true selves, and so it does not really matter, in the end, how they turn out. This will bring a certain peacefulness, and a life focused on experience of the beauty of the world and the like rather than activity (a “contemplative” rather than an “active” life, in accord with Greek terminology).
It should be immediately clear that these philosophical religions are difficult and complex intellectual structures, and I have only sketched an outline of them, without dealing at all with the philosophical arguments presented in their defense, or the various clever answers to the deep problems that arise in them.
4.4.3 Neo-Confucianism. In the Chinese sphere we find similar developments as the ancient culture matures. A metaphysics associated with Daoism, the search for immortality through alchemy, and the courtly craft of divination, was wedded to the Confucian tradition of Mengzi, and Buddhism, which entered China from India and took on a Chinese form particularly in Chan Buddhism, also provided elements in the syncretist mix called Neo-Confucianism. The Neo-Confucian thinkers assumed that all things had evolved from the Great Ultimate, which first gave rise to Yin and Yang (the passive and active principles in things), and then evolved further into the five Phases, water, metal, wood, fire and soil, which govern the processes of the natural world. The Great Ultimate was conceived as a perfect unity free of oppositions beyond linguistic description, and the work of the Sage was conceived as a return to the great ultimate, from which all action and thought should arise. Good and evil only appear in the world due to human understanding and will, which makes human beings capable of a self-conscious adherence to the correct standards built into the world, or error and deviation from them. The sincerity of the sage involves his turning himself back to a natural expression of human nature, undisturbed by culture and desires, which arise from awareness and language, and lead one to resist and oppose natural processes. Following Mengzi in the Confucian tradition, the Neo-Confucians identified in the natural, untutored impulses arising prior to the formation of desires (which are conceived much like the Buddhist’s attachment and grasping) the source of the virtues, and strove like Buddhists and Taoists for a return to the original mind, before obsessive desires formed. There is a monism of sorts here, though the metaphysics is not strictly Idealist, but instead looks in the Great Ultimate to a kind of stuff, the breath of the world, from which all else differentiates itself. To act as a Sage is to respond to the particular situation one finds oneself in, identifying it correctly as to the stage of development things are in so that one acts appropriately. The situation is constantly changing, and so one must continually adapt, always remaining alert and aware, and avoid becoming fixed or rigid in one’s responses. The return to the state of the Great Ultimate, a unity without opposites, is the key to this, for once one distinguishes opposites and clings to one of them while avoiding the other, obsession and delusion arise. On the other hand, we must act in the world, and so one must be capable of resting in the Great Ultimate while nonetheless acting spontaneously in a natural way that will naturally realize the good of the whole world. In the human Sage one finds the highest development of nature, and the Neo-Confucians, unlike some Daoists, but following the lead of Chan Buddhism, held that the world fulfills itself in the Sage, and that the development of the natural world out of the Great Ultimate is a good thing, despite the opportunity it provides for error and evil to enter on the scene.