Tag Archives: metaphysics

The Exorcist: A Middle Way Interpretation

Spoiler Alert: This isn’t a synopsis or a review but I will reveal certain, important, plot points.  As such, if you haven’t yet seen it yet – and would like to – you may want to stop reading now. 

Cursed. Obscene. Scary. Nauseating.  Pea Soup.  These are just a selection of words associated with William Friedkin’s 1973 film, The Exorcist (adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name).  The Exorcist tells the story of the Exorcism of 12-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil, who has been possessed by a malevolent force.  It is set in affluent 1970’s Georgetown USA, where Regan lives with her atheist mother, who also happens to be a famous actress.

Even in the early 1990’s, when I was at school, this film had a reputation as being the most disgusting and frightening film ever made – which of course meant everybody wanted to see it.  This desire was only intensified by the fact that The Exorcist had been banned in the UK since 1984; a few friends and I even attempted to watch a pirated copy of it on VHS, but our excited anticipation was soon extinguished once we realised that the video quality was so bad as to render further viewing impossible.  In 1998 the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) lifted the ban, and The Exorcist was released – with much fanfare – in cinemas across the country.  Many of my peers came back with reports of disappointment and boredom.  ‘It’s not scary at all.  I didn’t jump once’ they’d say, or ‘I don’t know what the fuss is about, nothing even happens for most of the film’.  I was worried.  I’d recently read the book and really enjoyed it, but wasn’t sure how it would be translated into the ‘Scariest Film Ever Made’.  Could this really be the same film that had caused people to faint and vomit while watching it?  I knew loads of people who’d seen it the first-time round and refused to even talk about it, let alone watch it again.  Perhaps it hadn’t aged well?

When I did eventually get to see it that I could understand why my peers were confused about the reputation it had achieved.  I’m not the kind of person that finds Horror films particularly scary anyway, but I had expected The Exorcist to be an exception.  It wasn’t.  In this respect, the length of time that had passed since its original release did seem to have had an impact.  Horror films throughout the 90’s had a tendency to reject the kind of subtle psychological techniques used in the 60’s and 70’s in favour of ‘jump scares’ and ‘gore effects’.  Therefore, that is what any teenager going to see a Horror movie at this time would be expecting.  That’s not what they got with The Exorcist.  There’s hardly any ‘gore’ and it is almost entirely void of ‘jump scares’.  In addition to this, much of imagery was much less shocking in the 90’s than I suspect it would have been to a 70’s audience.  With these considerations in mind I can understand many of my peer’s sense of disappointment – in this respect it had not lived up to the hype.  However, as much I wasn’t scared in the cinema, I loved it.  I found it absorbing in a way that few films had been and was surprised by the skilful way in which it created an atmosphere.  The deep layers of meaning hidden within the imagery and narrative demanded repeated viewing.  It is a deeply unsettling film and I found that it stayed with me (as the book had) long after I’d left the cinema; something that did not happen with contemporary horror films such as ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (which is instantly forgettable).  While it wasn’t what the hype had lead me to believe it would be, The Exorcist, as a film, had aged very well indeed.

After a period of about 10 years, where I watched it quite a lot, I spent a further 10 years without seeing it at all.  That is, until a few months ago, when I heard Mark Kermode (film critic and Exorcist expert/ super-fanboy) discussing it on the radio.  With some trepidation – I feared that it really might have aged badly by now – I sought out a copy and sat down to watch it again.  I needn’t have worried, it stands up incredibly well & I enjoyed it just as much (if not more) than I had before.  More importantly for this blog however, I also realised that it related, both stylistically and narratively, to the Middle Way.

Watching The Exorcist is a physical experience.  I know that watching any film can be described as a physical experience, we are embodied beings after all, but The Exorcist goes further.  You can feel the cold of Regan’s bedroom.  You can smell her necrotic breath as she lies, unconscious on the bed.  I don’t understand what cinematic tricks are used to create this effect but I suspect that it has as much to do with the sound as it has with visuals.  The ambient sound is hypnotic and the groaning rasp that accompanies Regan’s breathing creates a powerful and absorbing effect.  There are other scenes where the combination of visuals and sound work together to create the experience of embodied physicality, such as when Regan is made to undergo a range of intimidating and painful medical tests.

On the surface, The Exorcist is a fairly standard tale of good versus evil; light overcoming darkness.  During the first scene – where an elderly Jesuit priest, Father Merrin, is seen attending the archaeological excavation of an ancient Assyrian site in northern Iraq – the contrast between quiet contemplation and loud commotion is jarring.  While the scene is set within the suffocating glare of the desert sun, it is also pierced with dark imagery.  It’s within this context that we finally see an increasingly disturbed Merrin wearily, but defiantly, facing a statue of the Assyrian demon Pazuzu.  It is no coincidence that this scene brings vividly to mind the Temptation on the Mount, where Jesus overcame Satan’s attempts to divert him from his holy path to righteousness.  I’m sure that this premonition of the battle to come, is constructed and representative of several Jungian archetypes, but I’m not familiar enough to identify them all.  However, I’m confident that there’s the Hero, the Shadow, God and the Devil; the latter two also being representations of two metaphysical extremes: absolute good and absolute evil.  The key point however is that Father Merrin is not God (or even Jesus) and the statue is not the Devil (or even Pazuzu), they are both the imperfect embodiments each.

Understandably perturbed by her daughters increasingly disturbing behaviour, Regan’s mother seeks the help of neurologists and then physiatrists.  Both fail to identify a cause and both fail to succeed in their interventions.  Eventually, the perplexed psychiatrists suggest that Regan’s exasperated mother enlist the services of a priest, to which she reluctantly agrees.

The priest that she finds is a man called Father Damian Karras.  Karras is unlike Merrin, whose background is not really explored, in that he is clearly a conflicted and complex character.  We see him caring for his elderly mother, when no one else seems willing to, and we also see him, dressed in his Jesuit regalia, turn away from a homeless man who asks for his help.  Karras, then, is not a bad person, but neither is he that good.  The viewer is left to wonder the nature of this priest’s faith.  When we add to this the fact that he is a scientist (psychiatrist) as well as a priest, we start to see the depiction of a complex, multifaceted individual who struggles, in all aspects of his life, through the messy middle in which we all exist.

Karras, who is not qualified to perform the Exorcism ritual, convinces the Church of Regan’s need and Father Merrin is subsequently called upon.  The moment when he arrives at the house and looks up at the room which contains the possessed girl is inspired by The Empire of Light, a series of pictures painted by René Magritte in 1953-4.  As with the opening sequence, we are shown our archetypes juxtaposed in preparation for battle; this striking image was also used as the now famous promotional poster (which I used to have on my bedroom wall).  The clichéd battle between good and evil begins.  Except it doesn’t… not really.  Like the statue of Pazuzu, Regan is not an absolute representation of evil; she has been embodied by evil but is not the embodiment of it – she’s a 12-year-old girl.  Father Merrin is not the embodiment of good, he is just a representative of Christ (and therefore God).  This is made explicitly clear (if it wasn’t already) in an extended scene where the two priests desperately shout, ‘the power of Christ compels you, the power of Christ compels you’ over and over while throwing Holy water on the levitating girl.  A lesser film would have Merrin eventually defeat the demon and save the girl, but this is not what happens.  The elderly Exorcist dies during the gruelling exchange and Karras is left facing the demon alone.  Again, a lesser film would have Karras take up the role of Exorcist and overcome the evil force against all odds.  This is not what happens.  Religion, like science before it has failed and Karras appears to be in a hopeless predicament.  In the heat of the moment he takes the only course of action that he feels is available to him; he grabs Regan and shouts at the demon, ‘take me, take me’.  The demon gladly obliges and, a now possessed, Karras – who already exists somewhere between good and evil – is able to throw himself out of Regan’s window, where upon hitting the ground he falls down a flight of steep stairs, where he dies, presumably taking the demon with him and leaving Regan to make a full recovery.

Science, religion and the explicitly archetypal forces of good have not triumphed over evil and, in this muddled mess, appeals to authority do not always provide the promised solutions.  Instead our Middle Way hero, who’s able to hold onto his beliefs lightly, is left to address challenging conditions as they arise.  The solution he finds, I would like to suggest, seems remarkably like an extreme example of the ‘two donkeys’ analogy that is a favourite of this society.  By integrating competing desires, he is able to overcome conflict, albeit at great cost to himself.

 

Is dogma adaptive?

Why do human beings so often get stuck in fixed beliefs that are no longer adequate to the situation? Why do we have metaphysics at all? This is a question I have been considering for a while, not in expectation of ultimate answers, but particularly thinking in terms of the model offered by evolutionary adaptation. Whilst I don’t think evolutionary theory can explain everything, and there are disputable variations within it, it does seem to provide a good explanation of some key conditions. In evolutionary terms, then, human dogma must have some sort of adaptive value. Yet central to my thesis in Middle Way Philosophy is the idea that metaphysics and dogmatism are maladaptive – not in purely evolutionary terms, but certainly in terms that should have some sort of relationship to evolutionary theory. How can I account for this tension?Evolution_1

I have been stimulated in thinking about this recently by reading The Embodied Mind by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. First published in 1991, but I suspect since then largely ignored by a scientific and philosophical world whose models it seriously challenges, this extremely interesting book is one of the few I have come across that explicitly uses the Middle Way in a way that is directly applied to modern scientific and philosophical debates. It does so in relation to both cognitive science and biology, which it juxtaposes with some direct bits of traditional Buddhist material about conditionality. Though the Buddhist bits are treated in an uncritical way somewhat at variance with the extremely thoughtful use of scientific models, the result is nevertheless well worth a read. However, I’m not focused here on fully reviewing this book, more with pulling out a few useful elements.

One of the sections I found interesting in this book is concerned with the whole question of what adaptivity consists in. An unreflective approach to adaptivity by a scientific cognitivist is likely to make two major assumptions, both of which are questionable:

  • That ‘adaptation’ by either an individual organism or a species occurs against an environmental background that is understood in isolation from the organism’s adaptation
  • That ‘adaptation’ should be understood in terms of optimal fitness. The optimally fit organism will survive better than the less fit one.

Both of these assumptions involve the idea that scientific theory just represents a state of affairs ‘out there’, rather than fully taking into account the complex and indeterminate relationship between models, actions and feedback as an organism not only responds to the world it encounters, but also shapes that world. The scientific observer similarly shapes the world of theory in the process of creating the theory. Adaptation, then, cannot just consist in fitting into an environment well, but also changing mental models of that environment and the environment itself. This adaptation also cannot just be a matter of finding one possible optimally ‘fit’ solution. There a lots of possible solutions, and evolutionary pressures may well operate much more negatively just by weeding out the grossly unfit, leaving both the highly adapted and the mediocre to reproduce and flourish. Genetic variation is often apparently random and results in changes that are evolutionarily neutral, or the side effects of complex interplays of genes may result in helpful adaptations being accompanied by maladaptations.

Varela, Thompson and Rosch give a good analogy for this. Imagine that a man goes to buy a suit. If we think only in terms of optimal fitness, he will just go to a bespoke tailor and get the ideal suit that completely fits him, in the ideal style that fits the social conditions. However, anyone who has ever bought a suit will know that it’s more complex than this. Bespoke suits are very expensive, so we are more likely to go to a department store and buy a ready-made cheaper suit in more or less our size, that more or less suits us. The suit that the man buys (given that he is not rich enough to buy a bespoke suit) will be sub-optimal, one of a number of possible solutions in a situation of complex economic, social and corporeal conditions. He could have bought any of a number of possible suits, and he ended up with one that was OK. The authors suggest that evolutionary adaptation is much more like this than like bespoke tailoring.

So, to return to the question I started with: how might dogma be adaptive? I would suggest, because it was, and still is, one of a number of suboptimal solutions that more or less fitted an environment. The kind of environment that it sub-optimally fits is one dominated by group consciousness. A group of hunters in pursuit of deer, or even a group of footballers on a team, do not want too much innovation: above all they want loyalty and reliability. So this kind of situation creates pressures towards fixed models of our environment, because this model will reliably correspond with that of our fellows. Metaphysics is born – first in predominantly religious and political forms that help to maintain the power of leaders, then later in negative forms such as scientism, that help to maintain group loyalty even in a group that is theoretically devoted to rigorous investigation.

However, at the same time, there is another kind of sub-optimal adaptation in human history. Original thinkers who are prepared to create different models may also sometimes have their day. They may, for example, recognise an impending climatic catastrophe or the likely loss of a food source and prompt their society to make effective preparations for it. Later on, they may be Aristotles or Galileos or Einsteins, offering a new model that differs greatly from what preceded them. These people also benefit their societies, so societies that at least tolerate them, and sometimes listen to them, are more likely to be successful in the long run.

So far in human history, though, I would hypothesise, it is the first kind of sub-optimal adaptation that has had the upper hand. The faster the environment changes, though, and the more we contribute to changing it through innovation, the harder it becomes for the metaphysical world view to be effective. There have been times in the past – such as the Buddha’s India or Ancient Greece – where individuals have been able to come to the fore and challenge group-consciousness, and where the balance and integration between brain hemispheres (as tracked by Iain McGilchrist) improved. We may also be in such a position now, where it is flexible individual thinking capable of defying metaphysical assumptions that is most needed so that we can address rapidly changing conditions. Flexible, integrated thinking does not result in ideal solutions, but it does improve what we have, and may be crucial to our survival.

This is a repost, originally posted on the Middle Way Philosophy blog on 2 Comments on the original post.

Picture: Evolution 1 by Latvian (Wikimedia Commons) CCSA.

Excavating agnosticism

You may think you know what agnosticism is, but I think there is far more to it than meets the eye once you start digging. I have just finished producing a series of videos in which I try to make a comprehensive case in digestibly-sized chunks. Agnosticism

First of all, agnosticism is a practice, not a failure of decision. It is not just about God, but God just happens to be a particularly well-known example of a pair of metaphysical opposites (theism and atheism) to which agnosticism offers a third alternative. It does not involve hanging onto impossibilities, but rather coming to terms with them. Far from being passive, it involves an effort not to be sucked into the absolutizing extremes that dominate discussion (the diagram here, though it may remind you of a football referee, represents the potentially isolated position of the agnostic between dominant groups).

If those points surprise you, you will need to start by looking at the introductory video on agnosticism.

But there’s much more to be said after this. What, after all, is wrong with the extremes in the first place? I want to argue that it’s not simply a dogmatic failure of justification that’s wrong with it (though that is bad enough), but much more seriously, the role of metaphysical (i.e. absolute) beliefs in repressing alternatives, and thus constantly limiting the new conditions we can address, as well as creating conflict. In ‘what’s wrong with metaphysics’, I argue that metaphysics should not be confused with basic or prior claims (a common move by philosophers), that absolute metaphysical claims cannot be held provisionally, and that their only function is to maintain unconditional loyalty to groups or authorities. Metaphysics is a power ploy rooted in a past era when it may possibly have been necessary – but it now greatly hampers us. It’s geared for ancient armies, not modern democracies. That’s why we really need to be agnostic.

But after showing what’s wrong with absolute belief, it’s then very important to rescue the meaningfulness of absolute terms. Terms like God, truth, Satan, nature, beauty etc. should not be objects of absolute belief, but they can still be fully appreciated as archetypes with crucial meaning in embodied human experience. That means that we really can have our cake and eat it: we can participate in religious life without compromising our integrity or triggering the repression and conflict that often accompanies religious ‘belief’. Metaphysical belief is in no way necessary to what religion has to contribute to human experience. All we have to do is separate absolute belief from archetypal meaning.

The practice of agnosticism also demands clarity about what it is we’re avoiding, and the balanced treatment of positive and negative kinds of absolute claim as equally unhelpful. This is the subject of the final two videos. ‘Sceptical slippage’ deals with the tendency to slip from agnostic to negative positions. It offers some explanations as to why we tend to do this, and thus why agnosticism is so unfairly treated in much dominant thought. The final video, ‘Even-handedness’ offers some practical principles for maintaining a clear balance so as to be able to practise agnosticism without giving too much weight on one side or the other.

Confidence and the conditions of life

There’s a dominant tradition in our culture that there are certain absolute assumptions we have to make to think about our experience at all. This is ‘metaphysics’ in the sense that many philosophers use it: but this is not just a matter for philosophers, as this tradition also affects our thinking about everyone’s immediate practical beliefs. If you see this dominant tradition in the light of embodied meaning and in a recognition of the specialised roles of the two brain hemispheres, though, it can be recognised as narrow, unnecessary and unhelpful rather than inevitable in the way it presents itself. I want to argue that the conditions of our experience and thought are not absolute, and that the assumptions we make about it, though pervasive, are embodied ones. They are a matter, not of necessity, but of confidence.

What are these absolute assumptions that we are supposed to be making? They are assumptions about space and time; about our own existence and that of objects and others; about numbers, maths and logic; about causality and the regularity of ‘nature’; and perhaps even about our freewill and values. I cannot sincerely doubt the existence of the table in front of me, it is claimed, nor even that when I communicate with others (as I am doing now), these others have minds. Once absolute assumptions are supposedly established in this way, it becomes easy enough to apply them to other areas by further reasoning. For example, if I can’t help assuming absolutely that nature is regular, it’s a short step to assuming the independence of ‘facts’ or even values based on an appeal to ‘nature’. Dogmas line up in mutually supportive positions with a click.

To show this whole approach to be basically wrong does not need convoluted reasoning so much as a little reflective bodily awareness. Take a short walk across the room, or whatever space you happen to be in now. What is ‘space’ as you’ve just experienced it? It’s something you move through and relate to through your body. What is ‘time’? It’s experienced in relation to your pulse, which may have raised slightly as you moved from a sitting position to walking. What are the ‘existent’ objects you encountered? The ones you presumably avoided bumping into in the space you traversed. What are ’causes’ as you experienced them? The movement of your muscles set off by nervous impulses, which in turn led you to move across the room.balance beam gymnast

As you move across the room you were, I hope, confident in these assumptions. From long practice of walking you were confident in your ability to stay upright, avoid obstacles, traverse space and reach your immediate goals. These are not abilities we generally reflect upon. We take them for granted as part of our embodied experience, but nevertheless they have a basic meaning in that experience rather than anywhere beyond it. Our early childhood experience helped to form that confidence.

Nevertheless, embodied confidence is not absolute. Indeed, the reason we can be confident is because it’s not absolute. That’s because it involves not just a representation in the left hemisphere of the brain (which may seem to be absolute at a particular moment) but also an alertness in the right hemisphere (which specialises in responding to new stimuli). It’s just possible that as I walk across the room, I may encounter an unexpected obstacle: perhaps it could be something as mundane as a child or pet’s forgotten toy that I might slip on, or perhaps a sudden and unexpected weakness in my body may stop me being able to walk across the room in the way I expected. My body retains the capacity to respond to such surprises. Of course, the biggest threat to my experience of time, space, existence and so forth is death, and that may also come unexpectedly, removing all these taken-for-granted conditions at a stroke.

I am justified (again in an embodied, not an absolute sense) in my day-to-day confidence. However, if I insist on absolutising that confidence and turning it into metaphysics, I am not at all justified. The conditions of time, space, existence etc. may or may not be absolute in any sense beyond my experience – but since I can only experience things through my experience, I have no possible way of knowing. These things may just be constructions of ours, or they may not. However, it seems obvious that the absolutisation of them is just a construction of our left hemispheres.

This matters because it provides a constant basic reinforcement of our tendency to give a disproportionate and absolute status to the facts or values we believe in and identify with at the moment. Perhaps I believe that my love for my partner will be eternal, or that Tories are the scum of the earth, or that Buddhism is the ultimate true religion. We may have some evidence from experience to support any of these sorts of beliefs, but to absolutise them and make them a basis of conflict, we wheel in metaphysics. These truths, we assume, are self-evident. Well, I’m afraid that whatever your ‘truths’ are, and however self-righteous you are feeling about them, they are subject to sceptical doubt, Staying in touch with that doubt is important for arguing your case confidently rather than dogmatically.

 

Picture: gymnast on balance beam by Volker Minkus (CC-BY 3.0)

Middle Way Thinkers 5: John Stuart Mill

“It was in the autumn of 1826. I was in a dull state of nerves…unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement….In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself, ‘Suppose that all your objects in life were realised; that all the changes in institutions and opinions that you were looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?’ And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered ‘No!’ At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down.”

This is how John Stuart Mill, writing in his autobiography, tells us about the great crisis in his life: what we might now call a nervous breakdown. Mill is one of philosophical history’s great infant prodigies. Urged by his pushy utilitarian father, he was also intended as a living demonstration of the power of a rationally ordered way of life in pursuit of utilitarian objectives. Famously, John Stuart Mill started to learn Ancient Greek at the age of three. By the time of his breakdown at twenty, he had already been through a high pressure education and become a utilitarian campaigner. We can guess, however, that in this pressurised environment a great many other feelings were repressed. As repressed feelings tend to do, they made themselves unexpectedly, distressingly and disruptively manifest.

What makes Mill such an inspiring figure is the way that he dealt with this inner conflict. He neither tried to repress the inconvenient feelings further, nor did he entirely give way to them. Instead he learnt from them and modified his view of the world. He seems, in fact, to have integrated the conflicting desires, meanings and beliefs that lay behind this inner turmoil, by working through them in his philosophy. What had started off as a narrow, puritanical utilitarianism was broadened and modified in an attempt to recognise the importance of emotional and aesthetic experience. Mill became especially known for his essay On Liberty, the key founding text of liberalism and a hugely creative advance in the political thought of the time. In addition, with the collaboration of his wife Harriet, his essay On the subjection of women also became a key early text in the attempt to persuade the repressive male-dominated nineteenth-century world that women should also share men’s liberty as equal partners.

As with any other thinker one might identify as making an important contribution to our understanding of the Middle Way, Mill found a balance in some ways more than others. For example, Mill’s interpretation of Utilitarianism moves beyond the narrowness of his early mentor Jeremy Bentham, it still has the limitations of Utilitarianism in general.  Bentham wanted to reduce moral decision-making to a ‘hedonic calculus’, in which the pleasures and pains likely to result from different possible actions would be quantified and weighed up in a notionally mathematical fashion. In the scales of this calculus, Bentham argued that every pleasure weighed equally, and should be measured only by its intensity, duration and other quantitative features: in his famous phrase “Pushpin is as good as poetry” (pushpin being a fairly mindless game played in pubs at the time). After his breakdown and recovery, Mill began to argue that some pleasures were better than others. However, he did not really have a convincing account of why poetry was better than pushpin that went beyond the weight of social consensus. That poetry might have benefits in terms of the meanings it offers us is too intangible an idea to fit easily into a utilitarian framework.john mill

It is in  On Liberty that I find Mill at his best and closest to the Middle Way. The utilitarianism is nominally there, but fades into the background beside Mill’s passionate argument for the freedom of expression and action. If you allow people to express unorthodox views and behave in unconventional ways, Mill argues, society as a whole will benefit, because these people will be able to develop and test out new and better ways of thinking and acting. Adults should thus be allowed to act as they wish provided they did not harm others in the process. Mill challenged those who thought they knew the truth as to whether they thought themselves (and the socially accepted view) infallible: if not, he argued, the possibility of error needed to be tested out in a free discussion in which better justified views would become evident. Mill here gives a very practical expression to the Middle Way in the recognition of basic uncertainty, and draws out its implication of tolerance that allows people to reach their own autonomous, but justified, conclusions.

Mill goes on “Even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it be suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but…the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason and personal experience.”

Mill here puts his finger on some of the key features of metaphysical dogma. By repressing alternative views, it not only prevents debate and experiment that might help us address conditions more effectively, it also represses emotions and creates conflicting psychological states that inhibit creativity and well-being. Personal experience may give rise to new ideas and beliefs, but these potential innovations must be crushed at source in order to ensure social conformity with the dominant beliefs. Unhappy individuals and rigid, fragile societies are the result. So much of nineteenth century literature is about this: the struggles of individuals to find sustenance and fulfil their vision in a stiflingly conventional society. But before the nineteenth century society was no less dogmatic and conformist. It was due to people like John Stuart Mill that awareness of the possibility of an alternative began to spread in a way it had not existed before.

Perhaps many people in the twenty-first century take this as old hat. We take tolerance of harmless individual differences for granted, at least in theory. Mill’s liberalism in its turn has now become the basis of a kind of social orthodoxy, which sometimes just goes through the motions of supporting creative individual freedom, but sometimes also genuinely does support that freedom to great positive effect. The Middle Way has now become much more a question for individuals, because dogmas can be carried around with us inside as well as laid on us from outside. But the fact remains, that without that basic degree of liberalism, our ability to find a Middle Way is severely curtailed by social pressure and control. That, perhaps, is why modernity is a much better context to practice the Middle Way than the traditional and hierarchical societies of the Buddhist East, even though these societies transmitted the Buddha’s idea of the Middle Way for many centuries.

 

Link to index of other posts in the Middle Way Thinkers series