Philosophies try to explain the purposes of — well, the purposes of everything. Philosophies can become a hobby, a lifestyle, or an obsession if one lets them.
Many of us have little use for most philosophies, though. We find some incompatible, others obsolete. Existentialism for instance, although great for egocentric neo-hippies, neither nurtures nor allows faith in the common man, so society rejects it. Zen Buddhism, likewise, does not make sense to materialistic cultures, because the contemplation of nothingness seems just as absurd to most Los Angeles businessmen as the rabid pursuit of wealth does to most Chinese peasants. A philosophy must operate within its intended context; otherwise, it’s a painter’s hammer, a baker’s wrench, a butcher’s telescope.
We read philosophies to explore the frontiers of human understanding, but few of them can really pertain to everyone. One such panharmonic philosophy exists, though. It’s a beautiful thing, clear, concise, and without the usual pompousness that garnishes most mystic proverbs. It goes like this:
“Be nice” is a highly volatile, extremely dangerous, violently controversial philosophy. People have been killed for being too nice. The Way of Nice has martyrs in every part of the world.
That superstar of martyrs who inspired a global sensation, the man who needs no introduction, Mr. Jesus, purportedly believed in being nice. Extant records say he was a swell guy, except for one small incident when he started chucking tables around because some gamblers had mistaken a church for a casino. Other than that, he made his career as a philosopher with, “Be nice” (except he actually said, “Love one another.” It may be presumed that in the time of slavery, flayings, and crucifixions, this sounded less mushy). Incidentally, Mr. Jesus called himself — not a son of the gods — but the son of the God (big G) and this tended to frustrate people.
The teachings of Mr. Jesus can easily be wired in such a way as to not short-circuit when applied to a logical mind, but many agnostics throw his ideas out with the holy water, quoting other Hebrews just as though Mr. Jesus should be responsible for every Jewish mystic from the necromancer Ezekiel to the reformed torturer Paul. The philosophy of Mr. Jesus does not need to get complicated. Perhaps most American Christians don’t read their Bible for the same reason most morally minded skeptics don’t: it doesn’t take eighteen-hundred and eighty-eight pages to say, “Be nice.”
Another school of the philosophy of Nice called Taoism preaches inaction (more on Taoism in “A Hurried History of Pagans and Pulpits,” here). Tao teaches that one should do nothing (wu-wei) but even Lao Tzu, author of the Taoist holy book, finds himself advocating kind actions when he says, “Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.”
Taoists look venerable as hell, but beneath that austere Pat Morita facade they’re just big ol’ squishybears like other nice people. The West and East may not have Zen in common, but they do share the philosophy of the Way of Nice.
Marcus Aurelius championed the Way of Nice, too, when he wrote in his Meditations, “Adapt yourself to the things among which your lot has been cast, and love sincerely the fellow creatures with whom destiny has ordained that you shall live.” Another Stoic philosopher, Seneca, said, “Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.” From the Dialogues of Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Cicero: “There is no duty more obligatory than the repayment of kindness.” Charles Darwin: “The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.” Albert Einstein: “The ideals which have lighted my way have been kindness, beauty, and truth.”
Why on earth do so many brilliant thinkers emphasize the importance of being nice? These hotshots may have practiced their own forms of morality, but they weren’t known for their morality. They made names for themselves out of their brains, not their hearts. Some sound reason must exist for the kind treatment of our fellow beings.
Hold on a moment, though.
Supporting morality with logical premises seems counter-intuitive to many people. Many people despise the idea that emotions have reasons underlying them. Western society has accepted the dualistic nature of head versus heart, and for many of us, any attempt to bring reason and emotion, sense and sensibility, contemplation and compassion together is rank blasphemy.
Plenty of people insist that there are matters of the heart which cannot be settled by the brain, often the same good people who keep open minds about things like astrology, tarot cards, and soul mates. These paladins of mindless warm fuzzies are joined in their bigotry by thousands of doctors of psychology, that mock-science built on neologism which professes to study the mind, but doles out self-help advice as medication.
. . .Well, self-help and benzodiazepines.
These detractors of logic desperately believe that reason and emotion are as oil and water. A calamitous, deplorable divorce, this, because if there’s anything worse than a chaotic rage, crushing depression, or cataclysmic sorrow, it’s having to deal with these soul-enslaving feelings without the lucidity to counsel and compose oneself, without the presence of mind to talk oneself down, as they say.
The separation of heart and head is more important to some than the separation of church and state. Perhaps we have stony-faced Stoics like Aurelius and Seneca to thank for this prejudice. Colloquially, Stoicism has meant apathy and heartlessness for seventeen centuries. Sure, we distrust cold and calculating philosophers, yet we have the audacity to explain every pang of fear, justify every twinge of regret, and defend every feeling of personal injury — with logic and reason.
“Why are you crying?” asks the doting mother.
“Why so sad?” asks the concerned spouse.
“Why do you feel this way?” we constantly demand of one another, to which we hilariously reply, “Because. . .!”
We’ve no problem at all demonizing logic and reason as deceitful, dubious, treacherous mishaps of evolution when we wax sentimental — until people take interest in our feelings, that is. The moment somebody questions our guilt, regret, anxiety or fear, we analyze our feelings like doctors performing an autopsy. We find ready reasons for each facet of our condition, gladly dissect our heart-of-hearts, and fork out the logic that led us — nay, caused us — to feel such intense feelings.
Certain young thinkers (ahem) have been lambasted by entire university classrooms, wrathful classmates red-faced and spittle-launching, for having dared suggest this heresy. Why such passionate dissent?
— Because the heaviest weight in the world is the responsibility of self-awareness. We’d much rather freefall through life like leaves on the wind than assume control. If we writhe beneath the wild power of our emotions without recourse, we are absolved. Our follies, our caprices, our sins all manifest as the results of inevitable emotional tides. Should ever anyone prove emotions to have causal, logical roots, however — then the melodramatic masses will become as culpable as drunk drivers, and many times more shameful.
They were sober, after all.
Emotions retain their validity, though, regardless of their causal relationships in our if-this, then-that universe. If one feels jovial and carefree because one has paid bills in advance, eaten a nice breakfast, and accomplished every task before noon, one feels no less happy for having enumerated the reasons.
However, some say that we are not truly happy unless we feel glad for no reason at all, happy-go-lucky, willy-nilly, whee! Unbidden, unexplained emotions seem more pure to these folks. Understandable emotions with easily surmised causes seem less lustrous, less genuine. For this reason, our sophomoric culture clings to the love-at-first-sight cliché with the tenacity of a toddler refusing to relinquish a security blanket.
Logic is not the opposite of emotion. Thinking is not the opposite of feeling, either. Our feelings exist in our minds, and they correlate to our thoughts.
Now, about the Way of Nice: if compassion has a logical cause, then Aurelius, Seneca, Plato, Cicero, Darwin, Einstein, Mr. Jesus and Lao Tzu merely exercised good sense by practicing kindness. Many of their reasons for being nice, in fact, are displayed in their quotes, above. It may be possible for a person to arrive at compassion accidentally, too, and this benefits the world just as well as it would if one could take moral credit for the deed, and maybe better.
One could help an old lady across the street for kindness’s sake, or merely because one couldn’t stand the sight of old-woman roadkill. A significant difference from the old lady’s perspective seems unlikely, so what difference can it make?
The reader may lack a reason of his or her own to convert to the Way of Nice, though. In fact, the reader may be at this very moment shrinking from the thought of practicing any so-called way whatsoever, thinking what a horrid, contemptible thing religion is, and that the Way of Nice smells far too much like religion to be bothered with.
Never fear though, thou valiant heathen. A philosophy is here offered for the kindly treatment of all animals on the earth. Therefore, onward!
See, animals are most likely to cause harm when they are in need. They are also stupid, selfish creatures, too blind to foretell the likely consequences of their actions. When they need something badly enough, they feel compelled, pushed, forced to act in such a way as to obtain what they think they need.
Should a fellow animal show hunger, one reduces the danger to oneself by feeding him or her. Should a fellow animal act forlorn, one reduces the danger to oneself by befriending him or her. Should a fellow animal wince in pain, one reduces the danger to oneself by dressing the animal’s wounds.
Animals naturally seek out a mate in their proper season. One does well to facilitate this for one’s fellows. This is fun, anyhow.
Animals yearn for a minimum of tenderness and affection. One does well to pet them, to soothe them with soft words and caresses. This feels good, anyhow.
Animals fall into desperation without a safe shelter. One does well to make one for them. This can both be fun and feel good.
A cornered animal will most likely attack; it behooves one, therefore, to liberate one’s fellow animals. Marry logic to kindness so that even the stoniest of Stoics might melt a bit and see the Way of Nice for what it is: the soundest, most obvious philosophy in the world.
Or, to put it more succinctly–
With earnestness and temporarily subdued sarcasm I remain,