Q: Tell me, why do people do what they do and what should they do?
A: They do what they do acting out a particular spirit and what they should do is to live in a good spirited way.
Q: So what does that consist of? What does it mean, to live in a good spirited way?
A: To live in a good spirited way means to fulful one’s potential in the service of the common good.
Q: How do you regard “the common good” in this context?
A: The common good means the creation of the conditions that optimise the possibilities for everyone to live in a good spirited way.
Q: So it might coincide with secular pro-social action or it might be other things.
A: Yes. It all depends upon the situqtion and the people concerned.
Q: So does living in a good spirited way have a further purpose beyond itself?
A: No, not really. To act in a good spirited way is always sufficient in and of itself. We can point to its good consequences and acting in a good spirited way does mean acting with a sincere intention to foster the good, but doing so is self-sufficiently good in itself. You cannot measure it by utilitarian outcomes.
Q: This must mean that what is ethical for one person is not necessarily what is ethical for another.
A: Yes. To act in a good spirited way is to use one’s potential but different beings have different potential. We can say that potential is a function of form. A lion has one form, a walnut tree another. According to their inherent form, so their potential or telos. However, the form of a lion is not merely the body of the lion, it is the living life of the lion in the savannah. The form of the walnut is not separate from the forest in which it grows. Similarly, the telos of a person cannot be separated from the context within which that person has his life. The individual good and the common good are not serparable.
Q: So is acting in a good spirit related to duty?
A: A person has a work to do. Insofar as he does it well he fulfils the purpose of his life.
Q: How does a person know what his purpose is?
A: He uses his intelligence. However, you are implying that a person has some kind of being, as a knowing being, that is outside of his form, which is not the case. A person does not have to know his purpose before he can fulfil it. He fulfils it by living fully in a good spirit. He may also be able to reflect upon his life and so sometimes see what it is that he is doing, but this may be after the fact rather than before it.
Q: If a person is not led by his intelligence, what is he led by?
A: By his perception. We act toward things according as we construe them. If we contrue them in wholesome ways we are likely to act in wholesome ways toward them and, in so doing, we act in a good spirited manner.
Q: So how does a person maintain wholesome perception?
A: By having a wholesome faith. Humans live in relation. The things they relate to are hierarchiclly ordered by value. Whatever a person implicitly holds as highest value is what that persopn worships. According as he worships, so forms the spirit of his life.
Q: So the important thing is to worship what is good.
A: Yes, in one way or another. This may be something that a person has some conscious control over, but to a large extent what a person really worships is a function of the way that their life has evolved. There are many hypocrits who ostensibly worship love, truth and beauty who live mean, dishonest, ugly lives.
Q: So would you say that there is an equivalence between religionss?
A: There are many, but what is important about a religion is not the things that usually hold people’s attention. It does not matter what the god is called or whether there is one god or many, personal or abstract, or that sort of thing, nor does the mythology about how the world began or ends matter very much. What matters is whether the religion itself is permeated with the right spirit. By living in the right spirit people contribute to creating the right religion and the right religion then becomes the container that enables people to sustain such a spirit in their lives.
Q: But what if there is no religion?
A: There is always religion. All communities of people have shared beliefs and myths that support a certain spirit of life. Sometimes the religion is high and noble, sometimes hollow and base, but there is no community that is not held together - which is what re-ligio means - by such a shared spirit.
Q: Isn’t religion just a personal matter?
A: No. are there any purely personal matters? People identify themselves by iudentifying with something. If they do not worship love, truth and beauty in some form or other, they are soon worshipping tribal gods or falling into narcissism. Narcissism, however, is not really an alternative, as it simply makes them vulnerable to fashion and some tribal fashion soon comes along to sweep them up. Only by having faith in something higher can one be protected from such degenerate corruption.
Q: So how does one find faith?
A: Seek what is ultimately true, what is ultimately good, what is ultimately beautiful. You will not identify it as a specific, but it is a direction one can go, just as one cannot reach the pole star but one can go north. If one’s life is spent travelling in such a wholesome direction, one will have lived in a good spirit. What is true is true for always. what is good is good for all beings. what is beautiful is beautiful in all worlds. Thus one lives in eternity and universality. One may call this Buddha, Tao or God or whatever Name one holds holy.
Q: Are truth, goodness and beauty one thing or three, and what about love?
A: Whether they are three or one is a metaphysical question with no accessible answer. Sometimes one may experience them as one, sometimes as a multiplicity. It is good not to get too hung up on doctrine. To live in a good spirit does not mean to cling tenaciously to one idea. If your idea of oneness is inclusive then it is OK. One can say that the Tao embraces all three, but there is a danger in thinking that thought can embrace everything. Better to say the Tao embraces everything and more. Is the Tao one or more than one? Or more than more than one? Don’t get trapped in small ideas. As for love, again, the word can mean many things. Perfect love would be unconditional, but we live in a world of conditions. Such a perfect love would be true, good and beautiful. One could therefore call living in a good spirit living in a loving way. It is fine to think these things, but don’t ever think that such a formulation closes the matter down, or brings one to an end point. keep travelling.
Q: So living in a good spirit one can change - one can make mistakes?
A: In the sense that one is constantly discovering that things are not what one thought and do not work out as one planned, one is making mistakes all the time. It is often fear of making mistakes that closes one’s heart and limits one’s scope.
Q: This is different from “Know what is right and what is wrong”, then.
A: Right and wrong are situational. We can have precepts and they can be helpful, but they never fit all situations. One can easily think of conditions in which it is in the right spirit to tell a lie or break a social convention.
Q: But isn’t there still something about good and evil that is universal?
A: The spirit of it is universal, but one has to enter into that spirit, not work out intellectual formulas. Life is full of invidious situations where there are several options, none of them good in all ways. At such points one has to commit one’s life, all the while knowing one might look back later and judge that it would have been more profitable all round to have chosen a different option.
Q: How does one get the hang of this?
A: Today you follow a rule. Tomorrow you make an exception to the rule. The following day you forget the rule. When you try to follow the rule you learn something about yourself. When you make an exception, you learn something about the world. When you forget the rule the gods protect you.
Q: What if you never followed any rules?
A: A quick path to Hell.
Q: So there have to be rules?
A: No, Hell is a good place to learn things fast. But who dares?
Q: Is it essential to go through Hell?
A: People do. What matters is not so much what country you go through as what spirit you travel in.
Q: Which brings us full circle to where we started.