Category Archives: philosophy

joys and limitations of phenomenology

Very close descriptions of human experience can move us by provoking empathy for the person who offers the account and by reminding us of the complexity and richness of our own inner lives.

We are evolved animals, composed of things like cells and liquids and electrical charges, yet some of our experiences seem elusive and mysterious. I am thinking of phenomena like the passage of time, an awareness of another’s thought, or a free-seeming choice. Maybe it’s only due to our cognitive limitations that these experiences appear complex; another kind of creature could easily analyze and describe our condition.* Yet our halting efforts at self-understanding make the world seem elusive and mysterious.

My dog knows things I cannot, like the significance of the smells on all the tree trunks on our block. But he also has tangible experiences that point beyond his ken. For instance, that tag that jingles under his neck says the name of our town, which is why he is allowed to play off-leash in the local park; and our town’s authority derives from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He is not wired to be able to understand much of that. In similar ways, when we investigate phenomena like our own consciousness and choice (no matter how skillfully and effectively), we are exploring the edges of things that we are not well designed to comprehend. I find this difficulty and mystery consoling. It helps to re-enchant the inner life.

It is one gift of certain fictional and poetic texts. Lately, I have also enjoyed works by the classic phenomenologists Husserl and Heidegger. Yet I am worried about two methodological limitations (which must be already discussed at length in secondary literature): social biases and the influence of socially constructed vocabulary.

For instance, Heidegger offers an 89-page-long analysis of boredom, presenting it as a door to fundamental truths about time and being and an opportunity to discover one’s existential freedom (Heidegger 1930/1995 §19-38; discussed by Slaby 2010).

(Yes, the idea of voluntarily reading many pages by Heidegger--about boredom!–invites parody, but the material is actually quite interesting.)

Heidegger builds his account on three successively “profound” examples of boredom. In the first, the narrator is bored while waiting for a train “in the tasteless station of some lonely minor railway.” Time, which is usually invisible, painfully drags. In the second, the narrator experiences a perfectly pleasant social evening, during which time passes normally. “We come home quite satisfied. We cast a quick glance at the work we interrupted that evening, make a rough assessment of things and look ahead to the next day—and then it comes: I was bored after all on this evening.” Here time does not perceptively drag, yet there is a retrospective appraisal that time was lost and wasted, which hints at insights about the person’s whole life. Third, one makes a judgment without actually going through the experience at all, as in the general statement: “‘it is boring for one’ to walk through the streets of a large city on a Sunday afternoon.” Close inspection of these examples poses the question “Has man in the end become boring to himself?” (Heidegger 1930/1995, §23a, §24b, §30).

Heidegger writes about the boring railway station in the first-person plural: “We are sitting [“Wir sitzen] … We look at the clock—only a quarter hour has gone by” (Heidegger 1930/1995 §23a, emphasis added). The grammar seems inclusive; the reader is expected to be part of the “we.” In fact, the test of the validity of a phenomenological analysis is whether it feels familiar.

However, the writer happens to be an increasingly famous philosophy professor whose experiences will become more engaging soon after the train ride is over. In short, he is privileged. His bias emerges in passages like this:

Is not every station boring, even though trains constantly arrive and depart and crowds of people throng? Perhaps it is not only all stations that are boring for us. Perhaps, even though trains constantly enter and leave, bringing people with them, there is still a peculiar sense of something more in these stations which anyone who passes tenement blocks in large cities has experienced. One could say that, while it may be like this for us, some peasant from the Black Forest will take enormous pleasure in it, and therefore boredom is a matter of taste

(Heidegger 1930/1995 §23d).

Evidently, neither the reader nor the author lives in a tenement house or identifies as a peasant.

Compare a type of experience that is prominent in early 20th century modernist literature by women (of whom Virginia Woolf is the most famous). Here, boredom “can appear as emptiness or deadness, a lack, or simply passive dissatisfaction.” In this feminist literature, the word “is used, sometimes interchangeably, with a number of other terms defining psychic, spiritual, moral, and physical states in which the self has difficulty accessing authenticity, productivity, and desire—all qualities attributed to one’s success as an individual” (Pease 2021, vii).

This kind of boredom involves long periods of time (months or years) in which not enough of perceived value occurs to make the individual feel satisfied with life. The hours may be filled with specific activities and events that make time pass so that it is not unpleasant or perceived to drag, but boredom is the subject’s appraisal of a whole period of life. It’s like never being able to leave Heidegger’s dinner party (which is not a problem that he encounters).

Since academic research is, almost by definition, conducted by people who hold currently bourgeois roles–albeit often precarious ones–it is crucial not to let first-person phenomenology supplant literary criticism and social science. Researchers and professors need to learn what an experience feels like to other kinds of people.

The other problem involves language. Phenomenology typically connects an inner experience to a word or phrase that names it. The word in question may have a history of being used in diverse ways. A feeling, such as boredom, that we experience as immediate and direct is socially constructed insofar as it has a name with well-known implications (Goodstein 2005, 4). Therefore, changes in the meaning of words may affect our experiences.

Classic phenomenologists sometimes tried to avoid the ambiguous and inconsistent connotations of existing words by coining new ones, which is one source of the difficulty of their texts. But one cannot write with neologisms alone. We need phenomenological accounts of widely used words, in order to reason about how best to use those words.

Heidegger emphasizes the literal root of the German word for boredom, Langeweile, or “long-while” (Heidegger 1930/1995, §19). This etymology will not influence an English-speaker who reflects on being “bored” or a French speaker who experiences ennui. The French word may suggest a degree of superiority, since it comes from the Latin odio, to hate, as in Horace’s famous “Odi profanum vulgus et arceo” (“I hate and shun the vulgar crowd”).

It is difficult to reconstruct the experience of boredom before the English word emerged (only ca. 1750), but it must have been different from today’s experience, if only because in those days it was unnamed and lacked conventional moral connotations. Today, a child who is taught that it is bad to be bored may experience boredom with guilt, resentment, or both.

Goodstein argues that “modern boredom” has loose connections with older ideas, such as melancholy and acedia (spiritual apathy), but “it can be identified with none of them. … Each of these forms of discontent is embedded in an historically and culturally specific way of understanding human experience—in which I call a rhetoric of reflection.” For instance, the pre-modern word “melancholy” assumed that humors could get out of balance: a disease model. Acedia implied that the sinner had become estranged from God. Modern boredom—“the experience without qualities”—is “the plague of the enlightened subject, whose skeptical distance from the certainties of faith, tradition, sensation renders the immediacy of quotidian meaning hollow or inaccessible.” Individuals suffering from modern boredom are out of harmony with society and alienated from their “own doing and being” (Goodstein 2005, 4, 10). Modern people who see themselves as bored are liable to be conscious of their individuality and alienation. They might perceive others as also bored: that is a common experience in school. Even so, all those individual students are alienated from the institution.

In short, Heidegger’s “we” is limited by both his social position and historical period. He has an idiosyncratic and not very empirical understanding of history, and virtually no awareness of his limited social perspective.

Like other works of phenomenology, Heidegger’s account can move us and inform us by resonating with our own experiences, but we must be careful to not to attend only to people who resemble ourselves.

*Heidegger explicitly disagrees that the “particular difficulties” of understanding Being are “grounded in any shortcomings of the cognitive powers with which we are endowed, or in the lack of a suitable way of conceiving—a lack which seemingly would not be hard to remedy” (Being and Time, H.16, Maquarrie & Robinson trans.). But he dismisses the validity of scientific research on human beings, and I think that’s a mistake.

Sources: Heidegger, M. 1930/1995.The fundamental concepts of metaphysics: world, finitude, solitude, trans. W. McNeil & N. Walker. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995 Heidegger. 1930/1983. I also consulted some passages in Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik: Welt—Endlichkeit—Einsamkeit, in Gesamtausgabe (collected works) 1923-1944, vol 29/30, Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1983. Also: Goodstein, E. S. 2005. Experience without qualities: boredom and modernity.  Stanford University Press; Pease, A. 2012. Modernism, feminism and the culture of boredom. Cambridge University Press; and Slaby, J. 2010. The other side of existence: Heidegger on boredom, in Jan Söffner, Sabine Flach, eds, Habitus in habitat II: other sides of cognition. Bern: Peter Lang, 101-120. See also: introspect to reenchant the inner life; nature includes our inner lives; and a Husserlian meditation.

Cuttings: A book about happiness

I began blogging on this site on Jan 8, 2003: twenty years ago. I’ve posted 4,114 short essays since then. To celebrate, I have selected 70 posts that I think retain some value, and all of which relate to one issue: happiness. What does it mean? Is it attainable? Is it the best objective? If we should pursue it, how?

I have edited, trimmed, and organized these 70 posts into a book, entitled Cuttings, that I’m making available here as a draft or version 1.0. I hope to revisit and expand this draft in the years ahead (which is one reason that I am not seeking a publisher for it).

You could download a PDF version of Cuttings, click to view an un-editable Google doc, or download an .epub version, which looks better in readers like iBook and Kindle. If you want an .epub version emailed to a regular email address or directly to a Kindle, please enter that address here.

Because Cuttings assembles short essays that address closely related topics without explicit connective arguments, it resembles–in its genre, although certainly not its quality–the aphoristic works of authors like Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. It fact, it begins with a mini-essay about why aphorisms are apt for describing the “unwedgeable and gnarled oak” of human nature.

Very few of the entries are original, and some could be described as advocating cliches. In numbers 27-29, I reflect on the moral pitfalls of striving to be original and the benefits of absorbing well-worn ideas.

Most of the entries wrestle with texts in some way. Michel de Montaigne gets the most frequent and positive attention. I am happy to see him play that role, although he is a better guide to individual happiness than political justice–a topic for other books. I also frequently address the Hellenistic schools (Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism) and classical Indian authors whom we classify as Buddhists or, in one case, possibly a Jain. These authors from the Mediterranean and India practiced what Pierre Hadot called “Philosophy as a Way of Life”: that is, philosophy as a set of meditative practices closely related to abstract arguments. I treat selected modern philosophers in a similar way–whether or not they would appreciate that treatment.

Many of the remaining entries comment on poems. Ovid, Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Anne Carson are among the poets I consider at length.

As always, comments–including critical ones–are appreciated and are really the best reward.

(By the way, this 20th anniversary might be an appropriate moment to advertise that you can subscribe to this blog as a weekly email, just like a Substack, or follow it on Mastodon, Post or Twitter.)

there are tears of things

One of the most famous–and notoriously ambiguous–phrases in all of Latin literature is Virgil’s “sunt lacrimae rerum” (Aeneid 1, 462). In his response to the Covid pandemic, Pope Francis interprets the phrase in an environmentalist spirit:

If everything is connected, it is hard to imagine that this global disaster is unrelated to our way of approaching reality, our claim to be absolute masters of our own lives and of all that exists. I do not want to speak of divine retribution, nor would it be sufficient to say that the harm we do to nature is itself the punishment for our offences. The world is itself crying out in rebellion. We are reminded of the well-known verse of the poet Virgil that evokes the “tears of things”, the misfortunes of life and history

(Pope Francis, 2020, 33)

Others have equated the phrase with the Japanese motto mono no aware, which Dennis Washburn defines as “an intuitive sensitivity toward the sublime, sad beauty that inheres in mutable nature and transitory human existence” (Washburn, 2016). In turn, mono no aware can express the First Noble Truth of Buddhism–the essential pervasiveness of suffering (Saito 1997)–or it can be an alternative to that view, a way of collecting and relishing representations of impermanence and loss.

Very literally, Virgil’s three words mean “there are tears of things,” but that statement makes little sense in English and requires expansion–using other meanings of the Latin nouns and/or additional connectives. English translators have proposed phrases as various as “The world is a world of tears (Fagles) or “They weep here / For how the world goes” (Fitzgerald), or even “The universe has sympathy for us” (Stewart, 1971, p. 119).

Gawin Douglas was the first to translate The Aeneid into a relative of modern English (Renaissance Scots), producing a version that Ezra Pound particularly appreciated. Douglas wrote:

Thir lamentabyll takynnys [condition] passit befor
Our mortal myndis aucht to compassioun steir.

The context is important for understanding these words’ sense. The Aeneid begins in medias res with Aeneas, the sole important survivor of defeated Troy, trying to sail from there to Italy. The goddess Juno, who hates him and all Trojans, arranges for a terrible storm to scatter his ships and maroon him on the coast of Libya. Aeneas’ mother, Minerva, appears in the guise of a hunter and directs him to Carthage, which is under construction. He wanders into a temple of Juno, where the art illustrates the Trojan War, depicting Aeneas’ comrades, his enemies, and even himself in battle. Since this is Juno’s temple, we might guess that the paintings are supposed to celebrate Aeneas’ defeat. However, the sight gives him hope–the text says–and he blurts out:

"Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi;
sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
Solve metus; feret haec aliquam tibi fama salutem." 

"Even here praiseworthy deeds have their rewards;
There are tears of things, and mortal matters impress the mind.
Let fear go; this fame will also bring you some benefit." 

Aeneas sees his own story as depicted by human artists, provoking thoughts of loss and sorrow but also pride. He utters a concise but mystifying phrase that pairs the words for “tears” and “things.” I imagine a companion following up with questions:

Do you mean that things are intrinsically or fundamentally sad?

– Yes, that is what I feel right now.

Or that these paintings are objects that make people cry?

– That too.

Are you somehow happy to see these sad events depicted?

– I suppose so.

Yet they make you sad?

– That is what I am happy about.

Do you want people who hear about your suffering to be sad?

– Yes, but I want them to relish that sadness.

In the end, I don’t think the original poem really provides a basis for interpreting the phrase as a statement of existential wisdom, comparable to mono no aware or to modern environmentalism. I suspect Aeneas is mostly interested in being depicted heroically in art. “This fame will bring you benefit” is his main point. However, the words “sunt lacrimae rerum” jump out of their context and can translate ideas from remote traditions.

Sources: Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti: Encyclical Letter on Fraternity and Social Friendship, English version (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2020); Dennis Washburn, introduction to Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016); Saito, Yuriko. “The Japanese Aesthetics of Imperfection and Insufficiency.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 55, no. 4, 1997, pp. 377–85; Douglas J. Stewart, “Sunt Lacrimae Rerum.” The Classical Journal, vol. 67, no. 2, 1971, pp. 116–22; Gawin Douglas, The Aeneid translated into Scottish Verse. See also David Wharton, “Sunt lacrimae rerum: an exploration in meaning.” Classical Journal 103.3 (2008): 259-279. And see: Nostalgia for Now; Arachne; The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis; The Laughter of the Gods; and compassion, not sympathy (on Seneca).

Montaigne the bodhisattva?

Several influential philosophical traditions assert that everyone is equally important. Since other people outnumber each of us–by billions–we should count ourselves and our interests for almost nothing.

That is a direct implication of classical utilitarianism. Sam Bankman-Fried endorsed it in an interview with Adam Fisher, conducted while he was actually stealing money for himself. (But hypocrisy does not invalidate a moral principle.) Another crisp statement comes in Shantideva’s classical summary of Buddhist ethics, probably written in the 700s CE. Shantideva recommends that we

meditate intently on the equality of oneself and others as follows: ‘All equally experience suffering and happiness. I should look after them as I do myself. … When happiness is liked by me and others equally, what is so special about me that I strive after happiness only for myself … Without exception, no sufferings belong to anyone. They must be warded off simply because they are suffering. Why is any limitation placed on this? If one asks why suffering should be prevented, no one disputes that! If it must be prevented, then all of it must be. If not, this goes for oneself as for anyone … This is why Supushpacandra, although undergoing torture at the hands of the king, did nothing to prevent his own suffering out of sacrifice for many sufferers. … Those who have developed the continuum of their mind in this way, to whom the suffering of others is as important as the things they themselves hold dear, plunge down into the Avici hell as geese into a cluster of lotus blossoms [to save the souls condemned there.]

Shantideva, 8.90, 8.95, 8.102-3, 8.106-7.

Michel de Montaigne acknowledges that “most of the world’s rules and precepts do adopt such an attitude, driving us outside ourselves and hounding us into the forum in the interests of the public weal.” These philosophies advise “that one should forget oneself on behalf of one’s neighbour and that, compared to the general, the individual is of no importance” (Montaigne, “On Restraining Your Will,” 1580, III, 10, p. 1137). Montaigne even says that his father held this view, and it motivated the elder Montaigne to be a devoted public servant.

Nevertheless, Montaigne dissents. He acknowledges one good thing about trying to treat every other person as just as important as ourselves. It teaches us not to be overly attached to our private interests, just as a “bowman, … to hit his target, raises his sights way above it”–or just as “to straighten a piece of bent wood we bend it right over backwards” (p. 1138).

In other words, striving to count ourselves for almost nothing counters the fault of caring for ourselves alone. But our real target should lie between the extremes of self-negation and self-love. For …

the true degree of love which each man owes to himself is … not false love which makes us embrace glory, knowledge, riches and such-like with an immoderate primary passion, as though they were members of our being, nor a love which is easy-going and random, acting like ivy which cracks and destroys the wall which it clings to, but a healthy, measured love, as useful as it is pleasant. Whoever knows its duties and practises them is truly in the treasure-house of the Muses: he has reached the pinnacle of human happiness and of man’s joy. Such a man, knowing precisely what is due to himself, finds that his role includes frequenting men and the world; to do this he must contribute to society the offices and duties which concern him. [C] He who does not live a little for others hardly lives at all for himself: ‘Qui sibi amicus est, scito hunc amicum omnibus esse.’ [Know that a man who feels loving-friendship for himself does so for all men – Seneca] The chief charge laid upon each one of us is his own conduct: that is why we are here. For example, any man who forgot to live a good and holy life himself, but who thought that he had fulfilled his duties by guiding and training others to do so, would be stupid: in exactly the same way, any man who gives up a sane and happy life in order to provide one for others makes (in my opinion) a bad and unnatural decision.

Montaigne 1580, p. 1138.

Montaigne’s position requires a defense. After all, every person is equally valuable, in an objective sense, so why shouldn’t we act accordingly?

First, Montaigne argues that to promote everyone else’s welfare requires ambition. It means climbing the ladder of authority in order to influence the social order. Montaigne is highly skeptical of ambition, seeing it as a snare. Most people who attain high office are actually unable to accomplish much, yet they are quick to take themselves far too seriously:

Most of our occupations are farcical: ‘Mundus universus exercet histrionem.’ [Everybody in the entire world is acting a part — Petronius]. We should play our role properly, but as the role of a character which we have adopted. … I know some who transubstantiate and metamorphose themselves into as many new beings and forms as the dignities which they assume: they are prelates down to their guts and livers and uphold their offices on their lavatory-seat.

Montaigne, 1580, pp. 1143-4.

Those who enter the fray to improve the world also become partisans for particular positions. They take views about how things should be and are prone to disparage their opponents. Montaigne, on the other hand, strives for intellectual humility and uncertainty, and he looks for value in all views. “I am firmly attached to the sanest of the parties but I do not desire to be particularly known as an enemy of the others beyond what is generally reasonable” (p. 1145). After all, “A good book does not lose its beauty because it argues against my cause” (p. 1144).

But why do we need authority or ideology to improve the world? Why not humbly give away most of what we possess? Perhaps Montaigne should have done that–and perhaps I should now. Although he doesn’t directly address this issue, he does argue that wealth is unrelated to happiness. “Metrodorus lived on twelve ounces a day, Epicurus on less; Metrocles slept among his sheep in the winter and, in summer, in the temple porticos; ‘Sufficit ad id natura, quod poscit.’ [What nature demands, she supplies –Seneca.] (p. 1141).

Montaigne acknowledges that people want more than the bare minimum of worldly goods, but that is because we have become habituated to surplus and are averse to losing it to other people. “If I lack anything which I have become used to, I [foolishly] hold that I truly lack it” (p. 1142). Better not to obtain it in the first place. That implies that sharing one’s surplus with others would do them little good.

But Montaigne’s main point–throughout his work–is that happiness is hard to accomplish. Fear of death and other human frailties beset us, regardless of our social circumstances. “We are never ‘at home’: we are always outside ourselves. Fear, desire, hope, impel us towards the future; they rob us of feelings and concern for what now is, in order to spend time over what will be – even when we ourselves shall be no more” (Montaigne, I:3, p, 11). We can address such faults, but to do so requires introspection and self-care. If everyone devoted themselves to helping everyone else, no one would accomplish happiness.

Since I began this post with Shantideva, I should present his probable rejoinder. He would agree with Montaigne that suffering is universal, and the only solution is inward. “Since I cannot control external events, I will control my own mind” (5.14). However, this Buddhist monk would recommend a different path from Montaigne’s. The more we fully grasp the suffering of the vast number of other sentient beings, the less space we have left to care about our own private interests. Caring about our interests–experiencing desire or craving–is the source of all unhappiness. Therefore, setting one’s aim, like an archer, at the good of all sentient beings is actually the best way to liberate oneself from suffering. “Whosoever longs to rescue quickly both himself and others should practice the supreme mystery: exchange of self and other” (8:120)

This doesn’t sound exactly like Montaigne. As I have noted, he rejects the advice to “forget oneself on behalf of one’s neighbour.” He famously retreated from the world’s struggle to read and write in his private tower, making himself his only topic. “My business, my art, is to live my life” (p. 425, from “On Practice”). Also, Montaigne claims modestly that he has not achieved “noble Stoic impassibility” (p. 1153), because he hasn’t accomplished his inner peace by exercising any kind of discipline. Instead, he just happens to be easy-going by temperament.

Still, Montaigne’s writing radiates curiosity and empathy for the vast variety of human beings whom he has encountered in books and life. He abhors cruelty. He offers gentle advice aimed at liberating us from attachment. For instance: “There are so many awkward passages that the surest way is to glide rather lightly over the surface of this world. We should slide over it, not get bogged down in it. Pleasure itself is painful in its deeper reaches” (p. 1136).

And perhaps his essays are a gift. “Here you have not my teaching but my study: the lesson is not for others; it is for me. Yet, for all of that, you should not be ungrateful to me for publishing it. What helps me can perhaps help somebody else” (p. 423, from “On Practice”). This is Montaigne’s way of plunging into hell as a cluster of lotus blossoms.

Sources: Michel Montaigne, The Complete Essays (1580), translated by M.A. Screech (Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition); Shantideva, The Bodhiicaryacatara, trans. by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (Oxford University Press, 1995). See also: compassion, not sympathy; two criticisms of Effective Altruism; “you should be the pupil of everyone all the time”; was Montaigne a relativist?; John Stuart Mill, Stoic; introspect to reenchant the inner life; Emerson’s mistake; the sublime is social; Buddhism as philosophy; etc.

The Kural

The Tirukkural (or Kural, for short) by Thiruvalluvar is one of the acknowledged highlights of the Tamil literary tradition, which spans 25 centuries. The new English translation by Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma has been highly praised, and I recommend it.

I usually find “wisdom literature” (didactic, aphoristic poetry) hard going, regardless of its background or main teachings. But The Kural is widely reported to be subtle, paradoxical, allusive, and lovely in Tamil, and Pruiksma’s English has those virtues. For instance, here is a paradoxical verse about renunciation:

Hold to the hold of one who holds nothing—to hold nothing
Hold to that hold [350]

And here is an example of a memorable metaphor:

Riches attained by those without kindness—like milk
Soured by its jug [1000]

I don’t know another unified poem that encompasses ethical directives (part 1), advice for monarchs (part 2), and erotic verse (part 3). The whole poem concludes with a section on “Sulking and Bliss,” which recommends playing hard-to-get. The narrator is never identified, but part 3 seems to weave together the voices of two lovers, their friends, and other characters, almost like a drama:

Though he’s done no wrong pulling back 
Brings him closer [1321]
Even free of wrong there is something in keeping 
From my love’s soft arms [1325]

Sweeter than eating—having eaten—sweeter than loving—
Sulking in love [1326]
Sulk my bright jewel—and may our night
Of pleading be long [1330]

The text was probably complete by 600 CE. There’s a long tradition of identifying Thiruvalluvar as a Jain, although many other religious traditions (including, implausibly, Christianity) have claimed him. David Shulman reminds us that we know nothing about the author, even whether a single person wrote The Kural. (Almost certainly, the text incorporates numerous quotations.) Shulman writes, however, that the milieu is the “mobile world of the [South Indian] city, with its face turned toward international seaborne trade and also toward heterodox religions, like Buddhism and Jainism, carried throughout South Asia and beyond by wandering monks and holy men.” Furthermore, the text largely avoids the kinds of claims that typically divide religious traditions, such as the identities and roles of deities or the origins and end of the world. A Buddhist, a Shaivite, or a Stoic could embrace The Kural, and that may be intentional. After all:

Delivering the complex simply and discerning
What others say—that is knowledge [424]
Those who can’t speak a few faultless words
Love to speak many words [649]

In the sections on personal ethics and the good life for regular people, The Kural advocates what Owen Flanagan has called (writing about Buddhism) “equanimity-in-community.” We should cultivate inner peace by restraining desire and craving. But we should use everyday ethical interactions to fill the space that might otherwise be occupied by those vices. The Kural emphasizes hospitality, generosity, friendship, forgiveness, nonviolence (ahimsa), “husbandry” (in the sense of cultivating one’s land and animals), and family. I didn’t pick up anything about yoga, meditation, or ceremony and ritual. Instead, passages like this evoke sociable, generous members of communities who are not overly concerned about their individual desires:

A well of abundant water—the wealth of the wise
Who love the world 

A tree bearing fruit at the heart of town—wealth
In the hands of good people [215-6]

The implied reader is generally male, and the division of roles is patriarchal, but we can modify the advice to be more egalitarian. The text charts a middle way between pleasure and renunciation. An adherent to a Hellenistic philosophical school, such as Stoicism or Skepticism, could endorse much of The Kural, except that nonviolence is more explicit and prominent here than in late Greek philosophy.

The long middle portion of the book–on leaders, politics, and governments–belongs to the “mirror of kings” tradition: encouraging rulers to be responsible and moderate. Although The Kural strongly urges nonviolence and vegetarianism as components of personal ethics, it depicts good leaders as honorable and effective warriors. Some of the advice here is about how to win wars and retain power.

The third part comes as a surprise, because it is suddenly about ardent sexual desire, which had been criticized earlier. The style is more lyrical now, and the speaker is sometimes female.

Apparently, in classical Tamil love poetry, the lovers wake up under separate roofs, spend the day together (perhaps illicitly), and part unwillingly at twilight, which is a confusing time of shadows and dimness. In this verse, the “it” is passionate desire:

At dawn it buds—all day it swells—and at dusk
It blossoms—this disease [1227]

And here the (presumably female) lover resents the evening but tries to summon some empathy for it:

Is your husband hard-hearted like mine—bless you
You wretched bewildering evening [1222]

Although love is a “disease” that causes much sighing and suffering, surely the conclusion of The Kural celebrates it.

See also all that matters is equanimity, community, and truth; Buddhism as philosophy; on philosophy as a way of life; Odin on the tree.