Classical Philosophy

Have we thrown aside pre-modern philosophy a little carelessly?  We should recall with respect the tremendous stability of classical philosophy.

My own interest in classical philosophy is the Buddhist Madhyamaka or Middle Way tradition. One thing we can immediately note is its basic stability. Moderns have built a tremendous narrative around the stupidity and inability of their forbears to think for themselves epitomised by Kant’s What is Enlightenment? (‘Dare to know’) essay. But it is worth studying the evolution of philosophical thought through various different civilizations from different eras and see how a philosophy can be vigorously debated and reshaped to meet the needs of widely different cultures and times while remaining coherent: starting with the discourses of Gautama (‘The Buddha’) sometime in the third millennium before the common era; the dialogue that took place after the arrival of Alexander in northern India in The Questions of King Melinda; the second/third century Indian master Nagarjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way); the seventh century Indian master Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakavatara (Introduction to the Middle Way) and the nineteenth century Tibetan master Jamgon Mipham’s commentary on it; the seventh century Indian master Shatideva’s incomparable Bodhicaryavatara (Way of the Bodhisattva); the eighth century Indian master Shantarakshita’s Madhyamakalankara (Ornament of the Middle Way) and Jamgon Mipham’s commentary on it; the fourteenth century Tibetan master Je Tsongkhapa’s majestic Lam Rim Chen Mo (The Great Treatise on The Stages Of The Path to Enlightenment); and Jamgon Mipham’s Beacon of Certainty where (as he does in the other commentaries) he takes to task some 19th century antecedents of Je Tsongkhapa’s for (as he sees it) misunderstanding Tsongkhapa and overemphasising aspects of his teaching intended to address misunderstandings of the Middle Way that had arisen in 14th century Tibet. These texts are in their turn explained through teachings from contemporary masters such as the current (14th) Dalai Lama, whose 1996 London teaching on The Four Noble Truths laid the foundations for my approach to all of the above. It is difficult to convey the sense of profound gratitude that arises as the evolution of a philosophy is traced through different eras and civilisations, continuously and vigorously debated and transmitted over two and a half thousand years down to the contemporary great masters. I have heard one Buddhist master say that he is not aware of any Western students of Buddhism that would, in his opinion, merit the appellation ‘scholar’ or ‘philosopher’ (but he conceded that there are some decent Western translators). Once it is comprehend what the Tibetans mean by such terms this statement seems not unreasonable, certainly motivated by more than mere chauvinism. In this light you should understand that my reading of the above texts may have given me (thanks to my teachers) a momentary impression that I was glancing at the progression of the Middle Way through the ages, but now all I have left is a memory of the impression of the glimpse, and a feeling of respect and gratitude for the tradition.

Shifting to more occidental classical texts the writings of Plato and Aristotle are likewise rich with insight and formed the philosophical backbone of many centuries of Christendom but I wonder to what extent our contemporary view of them is coloured by our own philosophical predilections given that, for example, so few people seem to understand the extent that Plato’s Republic was about ethics and only incidentally about politics (see Robin Waterfield’s introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition for details). Also Republic culminates in Plato’s most powerful reason for living a moral life—the post-mortem consequences. This is a view shared by all the major religious traditions, and he finishes with what is generally considered a mythical parable, where a soldier, Er, has a near-death experience in a battle, only to recover days later and recount his seeing people’s fate being determined after their death. Er’s account sounds remarkably like a feat performed by Tibetan delogs, who ‘die’ for days on end without their corpse deteriorating only to ‘come alive’ again and recount their mystical experiences, including encountering the spirits of people that have died and learning information that couldn’t easily be explained otherwise (such as uncovering objects that the deceased had concealed without telling anyone). The whole point that Plato is driving at is almost exactly the same as the Tibetan tradition; see, for example, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and Delog: Journey to Realms Beyond Death. While some would maintain that East is East and West is West, that Athens and Jerusalem (and Varanasi) belong to different hemispheres, with our modern secular, enlightened, rationalist Western culture rooted in ancient Greece, I am not so sure whether this might not be a modern myth that may be getting in the way of a deeper, less superficial understanding of our own culture.


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