Goodness and the Contemplative Life

An interesting question came up at one of our Humanist Small Group sessions regarding the moral worth of the inner life.  Would we as Humanists consider a hermit, monk, sanyasi, mystic, or other person devoted to a contemplative life with little interaction with other human beings, a good person?  Apparently some thought such a person was an ethically neutral being, basing assessment of his goodness purely on his interactions with others or the lack thereof, with no points for truth-seeking and right belief.

 I mentioned that Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism all provide high esteem for monasticism, including material and institutional support.  I wasn’t too sure about Judaism and Islam. 

As it turns out, Judaism does have Haredim in Israel who function like monks, except that they marry and have large families.  The men, however, do not work and do not help the women with child-rearing, devoting themselves instead to religious study and prayer.  The state of Israel exempts the Haredim from the military service demanded of other Jews and allows them to ask others for money at Israel’s holy sites, in the fashion of mendicants in other religious traditions.  The Haredim claim that their relentless prayer enhances Israel’s security. 

Islam does have Sufi mystics and dervishes, although they too marry and have families because of the Koranic injunction against celibacy.  I’m not sure what the status of Sufism would be under Islam, as I’m not aware of any official approval of it as the Haredim have from the state of Israel.

 Another participant brought up the idea that many university researchers in impractical areas constitute a type of secular monk, devoted to the pursuit of truth and knowledge with as little concern for improving the human condition materially or in terms of social justice as the medieval monks who wondered how many angels could fit on a pinhead.

 I’m not sure how these various types of monks could be viewed as neutral when they do take up resources.  Churches and monasteries collected food and money from peasants to support such monks.  The monks’ time, the religious institutions’ money, or ordinary people’s money could have been applied to alleviate poverty and so forth.

 My own opinion is that the monk or contemplative person could be a good person because truth-seeking, right beliefs, self-awareness, control and moderation of desires, maintaining good physical and mental health, and the full development of personality possible only through a break from reactions to others, are moral virtues.

 If the leaders of a society cannot emphasize these virtues, the leaders become disconnected from reality.  Their good intentions of helping others are less likely to have the intended effects, because they lack the passion to see things as they are, preferring instead to connect emotionally to other people and by implication some quotidian sense of reality.


3 Responses to “Goodness and the Contemplative Life”

  1. 1 James Croft
    October 14, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    I think I agree that “truth-seeking, right beliefs, self-awareness, control and moderation of desires, maintaining good physical and mental health, and the full development of personality” are “moral virtues”, but I only believe them to be so due to their potential to improve the world or relationships with others. As they relate purely to the self, I’m not sure that I see them as virtuous.

  2. 2 Rekha Vemireddy
    October 30, 2009 at 12:09 am

    My main point in the entry is that it is impossible for an individual to not be in some relation with others, even if he isn’t directly interacting with many people. So, I wasn’t claiming that virtues could somehow relate only to the Self.

    To address your statements more directly, why wouldn’t the world be a better place if a higher percentage of the population held more accurate beliefs or took better care of their own affairs? Are you placing a higher value on a person helping another person rather than improving himself? If so, why is it better for A’s health to be improved by B rather than by A himself?

  3. October 30, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Hi Rekha – great post. I concur that those are good virtues. All too often imbalanced but well-meaning people rush out into the world to ‘fix’ it. Sadly, due to their lack of understanding of their own issues, they end up muddying the water. It is my opinion that the more people engage in some sort of contemplative practice, the better off we will all be.

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