Empathy and the Question of Suffering
Can you explain in more detail the
relation between honour and empathy and how this relates to the
question of suffering?
Empathy may be said to be the essence of what I have called The
Numinous Way - empathy with life, with Nature; with other human beings;
with the very Cosmos itself. From empathy arises compassion - the
desire to cease to cause suffering, the desire to alleviate suffering -
and honour is how we can do this, how we can restrain ourselves and so
do the right, the moral, the empathic, thing.
That is, in an important sense, personal honour is a means of living in
an empathic way - how we can be compassionate, and empathic, in our
lives, in our interactions with other human beings, and indeed with all
other life. For the basis of personal honour is the desire to treat
other people - other living beings - as we would wish to treated.
Having manners, modesty, being polite and gentle, are part of honour,
because these things enable us to relate to people in a moral,
What about animals? You have written
about respecting all life and not causing suffering to animals - does
this mean you accept that animals have rights?
In respects of animals, it is a question of respect and empathy, of
knowing and feeling the connexion that we, as individual human beings,
are with all manifestations of life, human, animal and otherwise. We
should treat animals as we ourselves, as individual beings, would like
to be treated. Would we wish to be subject to pain? To suffer? Would
we wish to be captured, and held in captivity, and experimented on, and
breed for food and for slaughter? No, of course not. In an earlier
essay of mine, I gave an analogy concerning a race of aliens - sentient
extra-terrestrial life-forms who possess technology far superior to
- who come to Earth and who treat us as we treat and have treated
animals: as property; as some commodity. Such an analogy should place
us, and other life in the Cosmos, in context - providing us with the
new Cosmic perspective, the new Cosmic ethics, we need, in place of the
ego-centric, human-centric, arrogant perspective and ethics of the past.
Thus, we need to feel and know - to accept - how we are but one small
manifestation of Life, connected to all life in the Cosmos. What we do,
or do not do, has consequences for ourselves and for other Life. To
have empathy - to be empathic - is to be an evolved and evolving human
being: it is to be and behave as an adult, a rational human being
rather than as the children we have been for so many thousands of years
with our tantrums, our squabbles, our pride, our need to fulfil our
own desires regardless of the suffering we might or do cause to others,
to animals, to Life.
As for "rights", that is an abstract concept, imposed upon Life, and
like all concepts, it distorts what-is, and encourages conflict and
suffering because it posits some ideal which it is believed can and
should be striven for. Correctly understood, it is empathy which is
important - not such an abstract concept as "rights". From empathy
compassion, and personal honour, for such honour, as I explained
earlier, sets the practical limits of our personal behaviour, and thus
prevents us from going beyond the boundaries which empathy sets.
In essence, therefore, empathy takes us far beyond the classification
of concepts and the sterile, rather uncompassionate debates that
revolve around such concepts as "rights". Thus, there is no need to
example, whether some or all animals are sentient, or whether they are
"intelligent" according to some abstract criteria, for such questions
are irrelevant, from the perspective of empathy, from the perspective
of the matrix of the Cosmos. We have - or can develope - an empathy
with life; an appreciation of Life itself; an understanding of the
possibilities that life presents.
But we are encumbered by the dead-weight of our own arrogance, our
hubris, our belief we are "superior" to some other life on this planet.
You have written recently that you
regard The Numinous way as fundamentally a-political, more of a
spiritual way of life. Has this fundamental change in your beliefs been
the result of your own experience these past six or more years, since
surely you previously agitated for political, revolutionary change?
There certainly has been a fundamental change, as a result of my
thinking, and my experiences, some of which have been deeply personal,
and occasionally tragic. In essence, I have come to feel, know and
understand the value and importance of empathy, compassion and human
love, and to realize how abstractions - be they political, religious or
even social, and be they forms, constructs, ideas or ideals - undermine
and are contrary to the empathy, compassion, love and personal honour
that are the essence of our humanity. All such abstractions cause
suffering. This is the inescapable reality. For adherence to such
abstractions, the pursuit of such abstractions, always results in
conflict and suffering, and as I have learnt, and remarked in recent
essays, good intentions are no excuse, for it the cessation of
suffering that is the most important thing, not some abstraction, not
some ideal, not some cause, not some vision or dream of the future.
For decades, I myself in my error, in pursuit of some so-called
glorious vision or some ideal, pursued such abstractions, and in the
process contributed to, and caused, suffering. For year after year I
made excuses, controlling my natural empathic nature, my instinct for
compassion, by believing that "sacrifices" have to be made - that it
was acceptable, in order to have a better future, to use violence, to
encourage struggle, and war, and conflict: that if people had to suffer
and die to preserve "this", or create "that", then it was necessary;
harsh, but necessary. That view, however, is morally wrong;
reprehensible. We should no longer make excuses for ourselves, for no
cause, no abstraction, no ideal, no construct, is worth even one
person's suffering, pain and death. Morally, we are only ever justified
in defending ourselves on an individual basis in a personal situation -
that is, it is only honourable for us to defend ourselves, and those of
our relatives or family, who may be near us, if we or they are
attacked. This personal defence can and may involve force sufficient to
cause injury to the attacker or attackers, or, as a last resort, it may
involve their death if there is no other option available.
However, this use of force cannot morally, honourably, be abstracted
out from such a personal, direct, situation or confrontation.
For centuries we have mistakenly, arrogantly, pursued such abstractions
as "nationalism" and we have gone to war to defend an abstraction
called our nation, as we have killed others, and caused suffering.
Millions upon millions of people have been killed. Millions upon
millions of people have been injured, and millions upon millions have
endured hardship and suffering. This is and was morally wrong; it was
and is dishonourable.
Previously, we pursued such abstractions as Empire, or we followed some
leader or ruler or some King who desired to conquer, or rule, and who
in the pursuit of such things again went to war and again indulged in
killing and again caused suffering. We have also pursued religious
abstractions, and fought, and suffered and died, in the name of such an
abstraction, such a faith. Now, the rallying cry is or seems to be for
"democracy" and "peace" - and in the pursuit of these abstractions,
people regard war, invasion, the occupation of lands, the killing of
so-called "enemies", as acceptable and indeed necessary, as the price
which has to be paid. As I said, this is morally wrong; it is
reprehensible; it is inhuman.
Not so long ago, some politician said that "if we want peace, it has to
be fought for", by which he meant people had to suffer, be injured and
be killed in the striving for this mythical peace, which he
never bothered to define.
Such an attitude, such a belief, is uncivilized: a sign of immaturity;
sign in truth of barbarism, of inhumanity. It is de-humanizing. True
peace can only ever be attained by means which do not cause any
suffering and by means which do not contribute to any suffering, for
true peace is within each and every one of us - it is not some mythical
or abstract "thing" which can be attained at some future time through
violence, hatred, struggle, suffering, killing or war, just as true
peace cannot be attained through some law, or be given by some
political party or government or leader or ruler. Neither can it be
legislated into existence by some piece of paper (a constitution) or
by a particular type of government, such as democracy.
The simple compassionate, empathic, honourable truth is that to attain
peace we must change ourselves; we must become empathic, compassionate
human beings. We must reform, evolve, ourselves through accepting a
Cosmic morality that does not depend on amoral, inhuman, abstractions
and which does not claim to have been revealed by some deity. For it is
the struggle for abstractions, for abstract ideals - the struggle to
implement such things - which is inhuman, which always leads to
suffering, however noble and fine such ideals or abstractions might
seem, and our foremost, fundamental, principle must be to alleviate
suffering, to cease to cause suffering to any human being, or to any
The politician who made the aforementioned statement has been
responsible, as head of the British government, for many tens of
thousands of people being killed in various parts of the world; for the
suffering of hundreds of thousands of people, for the maiming of tens
upon tens of thousands of people, and directly or indirectly, for the
torture and humiliation of thousands upon thousands of peoples. Yet
such a person - and those who support such a person - finds and find
acceptable; acceptable, but, they say, regrettable, and they will write
and say this
because they have placed some abstraction, some ideal, some mythos,
before human suffering, and are prepared to inflict suffering in the
name of this ideal, this abstraction, this mythos, this belief. This is
fundamentally wrong. It is immoral.
For decades I myself made the same mistake, in my pursuit of some
political idea, or some religious belief. As I keep writing and saying,
we must at last grow-up, and become truely human: that is, empathic,
compassionate. We must cease to cause suffering. All we have to do is
change ourselves - and let-go of the abstractions we have brutally
imposed upon Life, upon human beings.
Are you optimistic about the future?
Vaguely. I used to be very optimistic, but not any more. I hope I am
wrong. But it does appear that we human beings are incapable of
learning from our errors, from our experience. The names we give to our
abstractions change, as do some of the excuses we make for killing and
causing suffering, but our basic nature does not seem to change very
much. My own life is an illustration of our human stupidity, of our
forgetting - for I myself failed to learn, for decades; failed to
change myself; continued to make excuses for continuing to cause
suffering, and continued to forget the sometimes painful lessons I
learned along the way.
We have thousands of years of history to learn from; thousands of years
of literature, of Art, of music; thousands of years of personal
examples - of people who strove to do what was moral, honourable, who
understood the truth regarding the cessation of suffering; who
understood the wisdom of compassion. Sometimes, we have honoured such
people - more through rhetoric, through platitudes, than following
their example. And yet still the suffering goes on - still we follow
and strive for and adhere to some abstraction, or we follow our own
That is, we have failed to develope the empathy we need, the empathy
which we must have if we, and the life on this planet, are to survive,
and if we human beings are ever going to evolve, ever going to grow up.
It is empathy which is the key, which is required, which is the
beginning of our change into genuine, civilized, compassionate, beings,
and this requires us to have the perspective of the Cosmos, of all
Life: an appreciation and understanding and feeling for how all such
life is connected, and how we are but one finite, temporal, nexion, and
of how we can, through such empathy, reach out toward a more evolved
existence beyond the spatial temporality of this Earth.
As some people have remarked, all
this does seem rather like Buddhism. Would you agree?
There are certain similarities, but a great many differences. A
difference such as that of personal honour. A difference such as that
of empathy - as manifest in the perspective of the Cosmos; in the
knowing of The Numen, and the presencing of The Numen through such
things as music, Art, literature, and the immediacy-of-the-moment when
we feel the beauty, the joy, the potential, of Life within us.
Thus, while there is suffering, there is also - and can be and should
be - great joy; great beauty. A knowing of beauty so great that we are
momentarily removed from our own often mundane lives and transported to
another more numinous realm of existence. Hence there is the prehension
of the moment - a living-in such a moment, rather than the somewhat
turning-away from the world, from life, that exists in Buddhism when so
many moments are used to end the presencing of the moment, through such
a technique as meditation.
The Numinous Way is essentially both a new and an old way of living.
New, in that we are consciously aware of the need not to cause
suffering and so can, because of honour, restrain ourselves and reach
out with empathy, love and compassion. Old, because there is or can be wu-wei. New, because there is a
going-beyond each and every abstraction to the essence which is of
ourselves as one finite, temporal nexion; old, because there is a
feeling for the moral allegories, the lessons, of the past. New,
there is a knowing of the possibilities which await if we can but use
empathy and honour to change ourselves.