A shared commitment to human flourishing: the Young Marx, Gotama, and Epicurus

In the quotations below emphasis indicated by bold is added by Tom.

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The crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is not a Bodhi tree, but it is the place where I was introduced to Buddhism. In March 2011 my daughter Anna took me along to listen to Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock discuss ‘Uncertain Minds: How the West Misunderstands Buddhism‘. As a humanist I felt at home with the secular Buddhist ideas that were put forward. Gotama Buddha was, I learned from John, atheistic and highly critical of the culture of his time – just  like Karl Marx I thought.

A few years later after reading Stephen’s book After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age I formed the opinion that secular Buddhism and Marxist Humanism are both about engaging in socially directed ethical change and becoming more fully human in the process. I wondered if the contemplative  materialism of Buddhism and the socially engaged materialism of Marxism could help each other.

My thoughts lay dormant until the recent Bodhi College course ‘A Cure for the Soul: Early Buddhism and the Philosophy of Epicurus‘. Now, after attending that course and reading some of Marx’s earliest works, I want to emphasize the importance of ‘full spiritual citizenship of the modern world’ or full human flourishing as the basis for our path as secular Buddhist practitioners and humanists.

The idea of full spiritual citizenship comes from young Marx; it appears at the beginning of his PhD dissertation, ‘The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature’:

Are “Epicureanism, Stoicism and Scepticism” not the prototypes of  the Roman mind, the shape in which Greece wandered to Rome? Is not their essence so full of  character, so intense and eternal that the modern world itself has to admit them to full spiritual citizenship?

Can Buddhism (or any of its variants) provide an ethical path to full spiritual citizenship of our troubled world? Can Marxism (or any of its variants)  contribute to the struggle for full spiritual citizenship of this soulless world? Is there potential for either or both of them to overcome the metabolic rift between humankind and Planet Earth?

Perspectives which offer hope for human flourishing

Bodhi College is a modern Buddhist organisation that offers hope; it draws  its inspiration from the Dharma as found in the earliest Buddhist texts and is dedicated to contemplative learning. The Bodhi College course A Cure for the Soul explored convergences and divergences between early Buddhism and Epicureanism and saw Epicureanism as ‘a practical philosophy that was founded on an atomic theory of reality, aimed at optimizing human happiness, and which considered friendship the most important virtue’. The main purpose of philosophy was seen to be atoraxia, broadly translated as human flourishing through cultivating an absence of mental disturbance in this mortal life.

Marxism has a troubled history, but in its humanist variants it too offers hope. Triggered by the Bodhi College course I am exploring Karl Marx’s earliest works. I identify as a Marxist humanist looking towards Buddhism for therapy, emotional intelligence, intellectual stimulation and open conversation.  Marxist humanists, broadly speaking, are people who share the view that the humanism of Marx’s early writing stays with him and guides him for the rest of his life and that his work remains relevant to the resolution of current crises.

Marx is not responsible for subsequent misinterpretations of his work. Many people’s minds are closed to Marxism, but I believe that Buddhists should approach Marx with critical empathy as he shares with Gotama the goal of reducing human suffering and enabling human beings to fully develop our capacity for wisdom, ethics, and insight as part of creating a better society.

Human flourishing is an area of common ground between Marx, Epicurus and Gotama Buddha. Marx’s commitment human flourishing is made clear in his schoolboy essay ‘Reflections of a Young Man on The Choice of a Profession’ (1835):

But the chief guide which must direct us in the choice of a profession is the welfare of mankind and our own perfection. It should not be thought that these two interests could be in conflict, that one would have to destroy the other; on the contrary, man’s nature is so constituted that he can attain his own perfection only by working for the perfection, for the good, of his fellow men…

History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy…

Marx’s commitment to human flourishing was not just for himself but for ‘the greatest number of people’. This commitment was his driving force. It did  not go away or disappear into ‘economic determinism’. Within his later ‘economic’ writings he continues to develop his humanist ideas and advocate social changes which enable human beings to develop fully their potential while living cooperatively, peacefully, and non-exploitatively with each other.

Gotama shared this commitment. His core insights about human experience – expressed in the four tasks and the eightfold path – help us to live better lives in this world and to create what Stephen Batchelor calls a ‘culture of awakening’. This pragmatic and ethical core of early Buddhism has unfortunately been obscured as Gotama’s insights were transformed by various lineages and schools into a metaphysical system of beliefs, including supernatural entities and processes.

To move toward the goal of full spiritual citizenship or human flourishing, we, as secular Buddhists, will need to understand how the key ideas of the young Marx, Gotama, and Epicurus can help us develop an overall perspective and practice oriented toward human flourishing for the greatest number of people.


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