Focusing On What's Right With Us
By Mitch Bogen
Karma, said Lou Marinoff, is traditionally understood as “the ripening fruits of action.” In Cambridge on September 21, 2012, to celebrate the publication of his new dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda, The Inner Philosopher: Conversations on Philosophy’s Transformative Power, Dr. Marinoff observed that “this book is the very ripe fruit of a lot of little actions” that were taken over the last few years. During his presentation, he reflected on the book’s creation and offered a vision of philosophy based on twin commitments to the alleviation of suffering and the practicing of virtues.
Speaking to an overflow crowd of more than 150 Boston-area attendees, Marinoff opened by describing the book project’s genesis and journey to completion. In 2003, Professor Marinoff was invited to Tokyo to engage in a dialogue session with Center founder Daisaku Ikeda. Though the session ended up being extended from two to three hours, both men felt they had many more questions for the other. The result of their continuing dialogue was the book Tetsugaku Runesansu No Taiwa (Dialogue On a Renaissance in Philosophy), published in Japan in January 2011. The Inner Philosopher is the book’s English-language debut, and includes many updates and additions.
To introduce the book’s core themes, Marinoff turned to Raphael’s masterpiece of 1510, “The School of Athens.” This painting famously places Plato and Aristotle at its center, but it is the two statues that tower on either side of them that provide the first clue to Raphael’s intentions. Behind Plato is a statue of Apollo, the god of healing, shown playing a lyre, a stringed instrument of Greek antiquity. Behind Aristotle is Athena, the goddess of virtue. The inscription on the pedestal beneath her reads, “May your virtues be upon the clouds.” All the philosophers, then, are gathered under the banner of healing and virtue, said Marinoff.
He continued by drawing comparisons and making connections between the great Western philosophers and the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. One strong connection is suggested by Raphael's depiction of Plato. Plato points to the sky, representing his belief that the mind is unshackled and therefore free, said Marinoff, “to range the cosmos,” apprehending the pure forms of beauty and justice and the like. Plato’s vision, observed Marinoff, resonates closely with Mr. Ikeda’s statement in The Inner Philosopher that “the Buddha exists eternally, not as an individual, but as a principle of enlightenment.”
Aristotle is next to Plato pointing forward, reminding him, in Marinoff’s words, that “we are embodied beings and as such we can’t just think, we also need to act.” Apprehending good doesn’t make us good, Aristotle believed. We become good through good actions, the kind that result when we “are governed by virtue,” said Marinoff.
Next, Marinoff focused on two passages of classical wisdom that figure centrally in The Inner Philosopher. The first is this from the Stoic Epictetus: “People are disturbed not by things but by the views they form of them.” This insight presupposes that we humans have some will and some choice, Marinoff said. “Circumstances will impinge on us whether we like it or not,” he continued, but “the inner philosopher can form a view of them that is salutary.”
When in Japan, Marinoff discovered that a 40-foot silkscreen rendering of “The School of Athens” hangs in the main auditorium at Soka University. He asked himself: Why does this depiction of Western philosophers hang here in Tokyo, where the riches of Asian philosophy are so present? His answer was this: Plato and Socrates held that we cannot teach or give wisdom or any other virtues to others. Rather, the philosopher is a midwife who helps give birth to that wisdom, as Plato reports Socrates saying in the Theaetetus, and as Plato himself says, “Everyone is pregnant with wisdom.”
Looking through the lens of Mahayana Buddhism, we can see this midwifery as a bodhisattva practice, Marinoff suggested. Helping people bring forth their inner virtue is akin to helping people tap into their inherent Buddha nature. So it is quite interesting and inspiring, he continued, to see the great Western philosophers celebrated at Buddhist-inspired Soka University.
Marinoff then transitioned into an extended look at the nature of healing and humanistic responses to suffering. The question of healing is so central to The Inner Philosopher that this quote from Epicurus adorns the book’s back cover: “Vain is the word of the philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man.”
Marinoff’s analysis builds on the differences that exist between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. As we know, the left side is analytic and logical while the right side tends to be holistic, creative, and intuitive. For Marinoff, the left is the diagnostic side, and asks: What is wrong with you? The right is humanistic, and asks: What is right with you?
To show that this diagnostic tendency is deeply ingrained in Western culture, Marinoff drew a broad schematic tracing the metamorphosis of our deficit thinking from St. Augustine’s Christian vision of innate sinfulness to Freud’s theory of innate neurosis to our present assumption of innate chemical imbalance, as promoted by the major drug companies and large swaths of the medical establishment.
“If we throw billions at the diagnostic culture” in order to “medicalize the human condition and start tracking all the possible things wrong, you’re going to come up with a pretty big book!” Marinoff questioned the wisdom of this approach, saying, “Sometimes what is wrong with you is not spending enough time on what is right with you.”
Focusing on our positive capacities is vital in an age when we suffer from an excess of what Marinoff calls “lifestyle maladies.” He shared Daisaku Ikeda’s observation from The Inner Philosopher that “though our society is awash with material goods, the human spirit is being progressively impoverished.” This “paradox of well being,” said Marinoff, results in a range of problems, including eating, anxiety, attention deficit, and dissociative disorders.
Philosophers provide a great way of perceiving and acting upon what is right with us, he said. Aristotle focused on our innate capacity for virtue, Epictetus and the Stoics on our innate capacity for serenity, and Shakyamuni Buddha on our innate capacity for awakening. If we are willing to take a chance on not being “over-medicalized,” said Marinoff, we might find that our innate assets can overcome many more of our problems than we now might suspect.
Dr. Marinoff concluded his presentation with a consideration of two creative, humanistic responses to suffering as demonstrated by Bach and Beethoven, the favorite composers of Marinoff and Ikeda, respectively. First, Marinoff played excerpts from the composers’ famous works to illustrate their differing temperaments and aesthetics, with Beethoven’s work “erupting like a volcano” and Bach’s pouring forth “like a waterfall – a relentless cascade of voices.”
Next he turned to Bach’s “Chaconne in D Minor,” written in response to the sudden and unexpected loss of his wife, Maria, who died while Bach was away from home for musical performances. Marinoff played portions of violinist Yehudi Menuhin’s version, which moved from passages of searing anguish to major key passages of serenity, optimism, and joy. This transformation, said Marinoff, embodies as well as can be Athena’s benediction, “May your virtues be upon the clouds.” Bach did nothing less than turn his grief into something transcendent and beautiful to share with others, a type of achievement we all can aspire to, said Marinoff.
Having lived through the carnage of the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815), to say nothing of his own deafness, Beethoven responded with many great late works, including his 9th Symphony, loved for its ecstatic concluding section in which vocalists sing words taken from Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” This poem celebrates the brotherhood and unity of humankind. After listening to the symphony’s conclusion Marinoff said that “there is something fundamentally human about us that unites us,” adding that “our unity is what’s right with us.”
Dr. Marinoff closed his presentation, saying, “Be joyous; may your virtue be upon the clouds.”
Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue