- Humanists are concerned for the well being of all . . . [Humanist Manifesto III: A Call for New Planetary Humanism (2000).]
- Do unto others as you would have others do unto you, for this is the law and the prophets. [The Bible, Matthew 7:12 (Christianity). See also: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), Part II, Chapter 17.]
- Is there any single saying that one can act upon all day and every day? The Master said, Perhaps the saying about consideration: “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” [Confucius, Analects, Book XV, ¶ 23. See also Book IV, ¶ 15.]
- What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. [Hillel, the Jewish Talmudic sage, responding to a challenge by a Gentile to “teach me the Torah while I stand on one leg.”]
- No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. [Qu’ran, Sunnah, Hadith # 1 (Islam).]
- Do not do to others what would cause you pain if done to you. [Mahabharata 5:1517 (Hinduism).]
- Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. [Udana-Varga 5:18 (Buddhism).]
- Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss. [Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien (Taoism).]
- That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself. [Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5 (Zoroastrianism).]
- The Pledge of Allegiance says ‘liberty and justice for all’. Which part of ‘all’ don’t you understand? [Attributed to Patricia Schroeder]
So far our narrative has explored the core foundation of Being. The reality of Being is an experienced fact, the most central Truth we know. It is our factual grounding for a Humanist ethics, morality, religion and spirituality. Regarding week one’s subject: everyone has it.
Two definitions are in order. I define the words “religion and “religious” as per the original Latin words re (to look upon all things) and ligare (to bind together, as a ligament does). A careful examination of the history of religion in its various forms reveals that a primary aim of religion is to explain all things in a way that allows us to live in conformance with pervasive and overarching truth. People crave a sense of orientation and we seek complete systems to that end. We would be hard pressed to live productively without a sense of place and orientation. This explains why religion is so pervasive. But while theists posit the existence of a god or gods, we Humanists seek an ordered system for living: this is not to say the theistic religions do not do this, too, only we do not impose a mediator, which to our eyes only confuses the matter. Our system includes art, science, history – everything. That is what makes it religious. [See Webster’s English Dictionary under “religion ” and Oxford English Dictionary under “rely”.]
The word “spiritual” refers not to something other-worldly but to a sense of things. By this definition, spirituality is characterized by a sense of keen vitality, wholeness (internal integration) and connectedness (external integration). Thus, spirituality is a sense of being vibrantly alive and at one with all things. To repeat, it is a sense of things and a way of looking at things via experience, not a statement about the cosmos.
So how do we move forward, in other words, how shall we live; and in particular, how do we construct and abide by a moral, ethical, religious and spiritual system? “You cannot derive ought from is.” Broadly construed, the statement is true enough. Human Being is rooted in a brutal evolutionary past, and although we are a social species capable of altruism, we are also a species with a demonstrated capacity for callousness and brutality. If someone objects to a universal ethics, saying “I will be better served by serving myself; if I take advantage of others when I can get away with it, I will come out ahead”: no proof to the contrary is available, or at any rate may suffice.
On the other hand, a universal ethics, morality, religion and spirituality is not arbitrary either. It is firmly grounded in the reality of Being, the life experience that is the essence of meaning. Because each of us values our own life, we have an idea how other people value theirs. That is what makes “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” possible.
A universal ethics is a choice. Our Humanism makes two basic choices.
One is a belief that the ethical, moral, spiritual and religious universe – the universe of Being – is wholly contained (as far as we know, and therefore as far as we presume to say) in mortal life as we experience and observe it. We neither posit nor concern ourselves, for ethical or moral purposes, with the question of an afterlife. At best, this question is a guess, at worse it is a diversion into wishful thinking and at worst it is an invitation, which many have taken, to violent division. Even if we are wrong, we still are best served by assuming that this life is all there is: it is all we know to exist, and therefore is all we can effect in any predictable way.
The second is that every human being’s life is as important as every other human life. No exact or mathematical formulations can be applied to this. My life is infinitely valuable to me, yet I would willingly give it to save the life of another or in defense of an important principle like freedom. We see conflicts like these constantly in our lives and in the world, and we will encounter them throughout our narrative.
The essence of these two choices, taken together, is that we choose to honor and respect others, not just ourselves. Historically this is not an arbitrary choice; functionally it is not arbitrary either. Societies function best when their members cooperate with and support each other. People do better in supportive groups than in cutthroat groups. The question is not whether a universal ethic is better for all of us – clearly, it is – but whether individuals will choose to ignore the common good and go it alone; whether it is better to live as a functioning member of society or not. We say it is better to respect and honor everyone.
We are in excellent company making these choices. The American Declaration of Independence includes the statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” The Preamble to our Constitution, adopted in 1787, reads, in its entirety: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The American founding principle is a universal ethics.
Each of the world’s major religions endorses a universal ethic, suggesting that it is no mere cultural construct, but a product of our evolutionary past. [Donald W. Pfaff and Edward O. Wilson, The Neuroscience of Fair Play: Why We (Usually) Follow the Golden Rule (Dana Press, 2007).]
How important are these statements in their respective religious traditions? “This is the law and the prophets.” “That is the whole Torah.” “Is there any single saying . . .” “No one of you is a believer until . . .” “That nature alone is good . . .” This single statement sums up the whole of religion, insofar as religion addresses our treatment of each other. Once it is accepted, everything else follows, including our obligations to improve ourselves and make ourselves useful in the world, whether by being teachers, parents, scientists, cooks or garbage collectors; for by our actions we express our commitment to ourselves and to the lives of others.
Many people say this simple statement is inconsequential. On the contrary, think of the suffering caused by nationalism, racial, cultural and ethnic division, and discrimination by gender, age and life style. If we eliminated these, we would transform the world. This is the Word, guided by the Spirit of our common humanity, by which we choose to live.
The American narrative is a story of gradual, painfully slow progress toward a universal ethics. Like our other narratives for this week, it is told, as it must be, in the breach as well as in the practice.
People have spoken and written of a universal ethics, but we have not consistently lived it. In the United States, for example, the Constitution that proclaimed a commitment to the general welfare allowed slavery. The Native American peoples would be decimated over the next century. Women would not be allowed to vote for another 140 years. Asian peoples would be treated as second-class citizens for 150 years. In an eloquent presentation during the Nixon impeachment hearings in 1974, Barbara Jordan, a black Congresswoman from Texas, observed:
Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: "We, the people." It's a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787, I was not included in that "We, the people." I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in "We, the people." [Barbara Jordan, statement to the House of Representatives, July 25, 1974.]
The United States has had heroes who led the nation out of its exclusionary past. Perhaps the greatest of them is Chief Justice Earl Warren. Still vilified by the American right wing long after his death, Warren presided over the judicial establishment of Civil Rights in America, the period when the nation finally took its founding principle seriously. Those who would prefer to proclaim their righteousness without living it still hate him, it seems, but so far his legacy has endured.
- Christine L. Compston, Earl Warren: Justice for All (Oxford University Press, 2002).
- Jim Newton, Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made (Riverhead Books, 2006).
- Harry N. Scheiber, ed., Earl Warren and the Warren Court: The Legacy in American and Foreign Law (Lexington Books, 2006).
- Ed Cray, Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren (Simon & Schuster, 1997).
- Morton J. Horwitz, The Warren Court and the Pursuit of Justice (Hill & Wang Pub., 1998).
- Michael R. Belknap, The Supreme Court Under Earl Warren, 1953-1969 (University of South Carolina Press, 2005).
- Earl Warren, The Memoirs of Chief Justice Earl Warren (Doubleday, 1977).
- Earl Warren
Other true narratives on universality:
- John Tateishi, And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps (University of Washington Press, 1999).
- Antonia Fraser, The King and the Catholics: England, Ireland, and the Fight for Religious Freedom, 1780-1829 (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2018): “Fraser takes us . . . across five decades of British history, which were marked by near-constant parliamentary and public debate and agitation about the rights of Catholics.”
- Charles King, Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, And Gender in the Twentieth Century (Doubleday, 2019): “‘This book is about women and men who found themselves on the front lines of the greatest moral battle of our time,’ King writes, ‘the struggle to prove that — despite differences of skin color, gender, ability or custom — humanity is one undivided thing.’”
- Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear, Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration (Simon & Schuster, 2019): “ . . . a rancid nativism — aimed at people who have darker skins than Norwegians — has been Trump’s tribalist weapon of choice, his scalpel prodding the worst impulses of the American spirit.”
- David Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020): “. . . a tragic story about the brutal
- Sloane Crosley, Look Alive Out There: Essays (MCD, 2018): “The Essays Are Personal. The Truths Are Universal.”
He drew a circle that shut me out;
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout;
But love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took him in.
[Edwin Markham, "Outwitted," from The Shoes of Happiness and Other Poems (Doubleday, Page & Comapny, 1915.)]
- Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of Morning”
- James Henry Leigh Hunt, “Abou ben Adhem”
- Fenton Johnson, “Children of the Sun”
Film and Stage
- Mississippi Masala: This film tells the story of an inter-racial couple in Mississippi. It features the music of L. Subramaniam with various accompanists from around the world.
- Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring (Manon de Sources) present a classic tragedy of a man who connives to steer an inheritance toward his nephew, only to find out that he has taken it away from his daughter.
- Lone Star: “this tale explores a huge array of cultural, racial, economic and familial tensions”
You are right, sir, when you tell me that _Les Misérables_ is written for all nations. I do not know whether it will be read by all, but I wrote it for all. It is addressed to England as well as to Spain, to Italy as well as to France, to Germany as well as to Ireland, to Republics which have slaves as well as to Empires which have serfs. Social problems overstep frontiers. The sores of the human race, those great sores which cover the globe, do not halt at the red or blue lines traced upon the map. In every place where man is ignorant and despairing, in every place where woman is sold for bread, wherever the child suffers for lack of the book which should instruct him and of the hearth which should warm him, the book of _Les Misérables_ knocks at the door and says: "Open to me, I come for you." At the hour of civilization through which we are now passing, and which is still so sombre, the _miserable's_ name is Man; he is agonizing in all climes, and he is groaning in all languages. Your Italy is no more exempt from the evil than is our France. Your admirable Italy has all miseries on the face of it. Does not banditism, that raging form of pauperism, inhabit your mountains? Few nations are more deeply eaten by that ulcer of convents which I have endeavored to fathom. In spite of your possessing Rome, Milan, Naples, Palermo, Turin, Florence, Sienna, Pisa, Mantua, Bologna, Ferrara, Genoa, Venice, a heroic history, sublime ruins, magnificent ruins, and superb cities, you are, like ourselves, poor. You are covered with marvels and vermin. Assuredly, the sun of Italy is splendid, but, alas, azure in the sky does not prevent rags on man. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Letter to M. Daelli.]
From the dark side:
- Alexi Zentner, Copperhead: A Novel (Viking, 2019): “ . . . instead of writing about the bombings and their effect on his family, Zentner was curious to explore ‘how racism and hate are at work even in the lives of those who don’t think they’ve chosen a side.’ He wrote ‘Copperhead’ in an attempt to inhabit the minds of the kind of people who would do such a thing.”
Music: songs and other short pieces
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Of his Symphony No. 4, Op. 29, “The Inextinguishable”, composer Carl Nielsen wrote: “The title is not a program but a pointed to the proper domain of music. It is meant to express the appearance of the most elementary forces among human beings, animals and even plants. We can say: in case all the world were to be devastated by fire, flood, volcanoes, etc. and all things were destroyed and dead, then nature would still begin to breed new life again . . . Soon the plants would begin to multiply, the breeding and screaming of birds would be seen and heard, the aspiration and yearning of human beings would be felt. These forces, which are ‘inextinguishable,’ are what I have tried to present.”
Debo Band’s deepest roots are in Ethiopia but their music draws on jazz and Latin influences, with instruments not usually found in this or any other popular music – like the sousaphone – and flavorings from traditions such as Klezmer. This is eclectic music for an eclectic culture.
Other works and artists:
- Raga Mishra Pilu (Mishra Piloo) is a light Hindustani late morning classical raga that draws on many tunes and influences (performances by Shankar, Shahid Parvaez Khan and Shankar).
- The marriage of Indian classical and Portuguese flamenco music hardly covers every cultural and ethnic base but on her album “Traveller”, Anoushka Shankar combines them so seamlessly that she gives that impression.
- On their album Sira, Ablaye Cissoko and Volker Goetze team the kora, an ancient African string instrument, with the modern trumpet. Each tradition remains, yet this music, absent any self-consciousness, washes away any divisions either tradtion might haver been thought to impose. Tracks include Sira; Domain Domain; Lountang; Gorgorlou; Faro; Badingwoo; Bouba; Bamaya; Sakhadougou; and Manssani Cisse.
- Zaimont, Piano Trio No. 2, "Zones" (1994): The movements are “Cold”, “Warm” and “Temperate”, a reference to the world’s climates. We can see this as a metaphor for all the world’s people and peoples.