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Hello everyone, and welcome to the month of June!
Those cheerful faces you see above were photographed at a dinner gathering last Friday near the start of my intensive in-person philosophy workshop in Vancouver last weekend. We celebrated the end of our first day of discussion at Dock Lunch, a charming little gem in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood.
Nine of us gathered for five two-hour sessions between Friday afternoon and Sunday afternoon to discuss the relation between life and narrative. Do our lives have a story-like shape? Or do we essentially misrepresent them when we try to put them into narrative form? We also considered the ways in which life narratives can be disrupted or undone by cultural upheaval or death.
I really enjoy leading philosophy classes online but there’s something special and irreplaceable about face-to-face conversation. And this was a particularly pleasant group to converse with.
This week, I return to online teaching. In fact, the first introductory class meeting takes place later today! We’ll spend ten weeks discussing modern responses to the question of how we might lead meaningful and fulfilling lives. We’ll be accompanied on our journey by thinkers as diverse as Albert Camus, Iris Murdoch, Simone Weil, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Nuu-chah-nulth hereditary chief E. Richard Atleo. The first full week of classes isn’t till next week, so it’s not too late to sign up if you want to take part!
In my past two newsletters I mentioned my experience of serving on a jury at the end of March. At the beginning of May, I published a short article about the experience in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. Participants in last summer’s course on the philosophy of love and friendship will recognize the nod to Aristotle’s conception of political friendship.
My month of May was bookended by trips to the Gulf Islands off the coast of British Columbia. I spent yesterday with family on Galiano Island. And at the start of the month, I hiked up Mount Gardner on Bowen Island, which affords terrific views over the Greater Vancouver area to the east.
Ten hours of discussing life and narrative last weekend was food for a lot of thought. I’ll share one reflection that came to me concerning a curious similarity between a remark by a chief of the Crow nation and a phrase that recurs in the Buddhist canon of Pali suttas.
Among our workshop readings was the first chapter of Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Lear takes as his starting point a remark by the Crow chief Plenty Coups, who late in life recounted his story to a white writer. “When the buffalo went away,” he said, “the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”
Plenty Coups is describing the period in the late nineteenth century when the entire Crow way of life came undone. Due to encroachments by white American settlers and the domination of the Great Plains by the American military, the buffalo was hunted nearly to extinction, intertribal warfare was forbidden, and the nomadic Crow were confined to reservations that constituted a tiny fraction of their traditional lands.
Lear invites us to take Plenty Coups at his word when he says that, after this time, “nothing happened.” What counts as something “happening,” asks Lear. The ebb and flow of Crow experience, he says, was defined by two dominant activities: the buffalo hunt and warfare with the Crow’s traditional enemies, notably the Sioux. Crow warriors would “count coups” by performing feats of bravery and warlike virtue. They would also recount coups—they would tell tales of battles, horse raids, and buffalo hunts.
All of Crow reality was structured by these activities. What it meant for something to “happen” in traditional Crow life—from the Sun Dance to food preparation—was understood in terms of how it fit into that pattern of hunting the buffalo and clashing with enemies.
When that pattern was abruptly wrenched away from the Crow, it was no longer possible for anything to “happen” in any meaningful sense. Of course Crow people continued to live, but their activities lacked any overarching coherence. They suffered a kind of living death, in which their lives became unintelligible to them.
Part of what made Plenty Coups a great chief, Lear argues, is that he had the “radical hope” to lead his people toward a new self-understanding on the far side of this cultural devastation. But what struck me this past weekend was the echo I heard in “nothing happened” of a different kind of positive development.
The suttas of the Pali canon are the earliest Buddhist texts. They record the teachings of the Buddha, and in several of them, the Buddha describes the moment of his own Enlightenment. The suttas use a stock phrase that expresses his understanding at this moment: “Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.”
To put it a little too bluntly, after the Buddha’s Enlightenment, nothing happened. This overstates matters, of course: we have thousands of pages of material recording the activities and teachings of the Buddha from this moment on. But that moment of Enlightenment represents the end of the path for the man who set spiritual liberation as his goal. “What had to be done has been done.” The suttas recount discourses of the Buddha that are pivotal moments in the lives of others, and in the history of the world, but the Buddha’s own story is already complete. One common epithet of the Buddha, Siddartha (Sidattha in Pali), means “he who has attained his goal.”
For the Crow, nothing happens beyond a certain point because the very framework within which happenings unfold for them has been snatched away. For the Buddha, nothing happens beyond a certain point because he has achieved his life goal so definitively that there is nothing left over to strive for.
These extremes are the points at which stories end. For both the Crow and for the Buddha, there’s nothing left to be told. For the rest of us, life carries on in between these extremes. We have stories to tell because we have not been confronted with total devastation or total liberation.
The idea that humans occupy an in-between state is familiar in Western philosophy. Aristotle portrays us as an amalgam of animal body and divinely rational soul. Nietzsche figures the human condition in the form of a tightrope walker making the perilous journey from animal to Übermensch. These conceptions of human nature picture us as suspended uneasily between the subhuman and the superhuman.
The thought that struck me this weekend is that that human state of in-between-ness is the state of the storyteller. The Crow, stripped of the markers of meaning in their lives, were reduced to an existence without stories. The Buddha, elevated above human striving, has done all there is to be done, and so has no more stories that are properly his own.
Narrative is one of the primary means by which people find and make meaning in their lives. Which stories we tell, and how we tell them, goes a long way toward articulating who we are and how we understand ourselves. If that’s so, then “the story of my life”—the stories I tell about myself, the broader history I fit into, the events I recognize as having “happened”—is intimately connected to the meaning of my life.