30 April 2010

"As if it should be necessary either to offend or to be offended"

And thus the desire of defending liberty caused each to prevail [raise itself] in proportion as they oppressed the other. And the course of such incidents is, that while men sought not to fear, they begun to make others fear, and that injury which they ward off from themselves, they inflict on another, as if it should be necessary either to offend or to be offended.

Niccolò Machiavelli.[1]

Machiavelli identified this problem in the sixteenth century. His solution was that states ought to limit the power of individuals. As we will see the Buddha looked at this same problem very differently.

I'm writing these words in the middle of a UK election campaign which is characterised by character assassination attempts by members of all three parties on each other. Media pundits happily join in this schadenfreude-fest. It's not enough to shine, one has to tarnish one's opponents. Of course our elections are a zero-sum game, i.e. win-lose is the only possible solution (hung parliaments not withstanding). During the second live leader's debate I watched the live blog comments on The Times website for a while. It was almost as if the comments were being randomly generated. "Love politician X; hate him. He makes sense; he doesn't make sense. He is sincere, he is insincere." People watching the same debate, and hearing the same speeches, were coming out with radically polarised views - and given that The Times is famously right-wing the reader/viewer comments were surprisingly evenly spread across the spectrum of possible reactions. In effect the comments were incoherent and irrational. And this is how we choose our government! (One can only hope that Winston Church was right and this is less worse than other forms).

Note that Machiavelli's observation is of people concerned with "defending liberty". We so often make war for peace, don't we? The US and UK take out Saddam Hussein (unerringly referred to by politicians and the media by his first name 'Saddam' which I think reflects a kind of ongoing ritual humiliation and infantilisation) because his of (fictitious, as it turns out) weapons of mass destruction and failure to abide by UN resolutions made him a danger to world peace (meanwhile other states with nuclear weapons have become untouchable!). In our long history of defending liberty our governments have invaded countries, toppled legitimate governments and installed puppet dictators whenever it suited them and they thought they could get away with it; and ignored atrocities and injustices when that suits them; and more recently they have even knowingly tortured prisoners. Having read about history of interference by UK/USA governments in Iran recently I found myself sympathising with their pursuit of the one weapon that they see as preventing them being at the mercy of the cynical West ever again! [2] Isn't it funny that the media never seek to contextualise the hostility of Iran towards the west by pointing out why the Iranians legitimately distrust our governments?

Machiavelli observed "that injury which they ward off from themselves, they inflict on another, as if it should be necessary either to offend or to be offended". "AS IF IT SHOULD BE NECESSARY" Why do we think like this? I've pondered this question over many years. Scholarly debates tend to reduce this question to one of "nurture or nature". I suspect that something in our make-up as humans (especially as humans living the way we do - see Why do we Suffer?) makes us tend towards a zero-sum approach. On the other hand, whatever our make-up it is clear that conditioning plays a part in the person we become. When all of our role models behave a certain way we are apt to ape them. When they say one thing and do another we learn not to trust them (incidentally this theme is addressed brilliantly in the BBC TV sit-com Outnumbered).

So. Some combination of nature and nurture instils in us the idea that life is a zero-sum game. Or at least that in defence of ourselves it is permissible to injure another. One of the great ironies of our age is that the USA puts "in God we trust" on their money when they patently do not trust in God, but are constantly second guessing him and meting out what they think is his will (to the point where George Bush appeared to say that God spoke directly to him). So as Buddhists how can we operate in this kind of world? Human nature/nurture being what it is, nothing much has changed since the Buddha's day and he did leave some comments behind to contemplate. Compare for instance Machiavelli to this verse from the Dhammapada (v.201):
jayaṃ veraṃ pasavati dukkhaṃ seti parājito
upasanto sukhaṃ seti hitvā jaya-parājayam
Conquering gives rise to hatred, the defeated dwells in misery;
Abandoning victory and defeat, the peace-lover dwells in bliss.
The Buddha sees the same behaviour around him, but rather than seeking to limit individual power the Buddha's radical solution to the zero-sum game is simply not playing the game of conquest and defeat at all. I would venture that few of us give serious consideration to not playing. Most Buddhists, including me, flirt with it, or take it on partially. This is not intended as a criticism - the Buddha lived a lifestyle almost unimaginably different from anything we see around us now - having no family ties, no home, no possessions, no safety net other than what his good reputation provided (and we need to be clear that the Buddha and his followers were a minority and not universally admired despite what the Buddhist texts tell us). We stay in the game, I think, because we see not playing as a kind of loss, or letting other people win. As I've said before [Martyrs Maketh the Religion] being homeless, for instance, is seen as a very low fate indeed.

If we take Nietzsche's metaphor of man being a tightrope stretched between animal and übermensch (over-man) then, stretching the metaphor, most of us don't believe we can operate without a safety net. Which brings to mind the recent movie "Man on a Wire" - it's possible to operate without a safety net only with dedication, excellent preparation, intense self-awareness and focus. Which is not far from what the Buddha said about life.

It's interesting to note the declining interest in our Order for the more radical forms of living and working arrangements pursued in the 70's and 80's; and the rise of having families, developing careers and saving for pensions. I suspect that playing the win-lose game is a bit like casino gambling. The house always wins. By playing the game at all, one tends to lose to the establishment.

So if we play this game we generate hatred which will eventually come back to bite us. We cause other people to live in misery, or we ourselves live in misery. As I've already observed there is no shortage of food in the world - it's just that some of us are greedy! The Buddha's solution is to go beyond just saying it isn't necessary. He calls 'time' on the game itself. He simply does not play any more. His advice was to not get entangled in the world, in families, in careers, in politics. Focus on what's important (Dhp 183):
Sabbapāpassa akaranaṃ kusalassa upasampadā
sacitta-pariyodapanaṃ etaṃ buddhānaṃ sāsaṇaṃ

not doing any evil, doing the right thing
purifying your own mind, this is the edict of the Buddhas.

  1. Niccolò Machiavelli. The Discourses on the first Ten (Books) of Titus Livius. 1.46. www.intratext.com.
  2. See for example: Wheen, Francis. How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions. HarperPerennial, 2004.

image: Machiavelli, detail of an oil painting by Santi di Tito; in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence Alinari.
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