This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
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In the comments I received on that paper, I was encouraged to go a step further, to consider what happens when we give up these notions of good and evil all together. I had this in mind when Amelie Rorty came to speak to class last Tuesday. One of the steps in her short history of philosophical views of emotion was the philosophy of the Stoics. They believed, she asserted, that human suffering arises from attachments. Her example was that of someone who fights with and looses a friend. She may grieve for the loss of that friend, but if she takes a step back she will realize that the loss of a friend is not very important in the scheme of things, that friends do not play a part in her essential being, therefore, it is not something that amounts to much in reality. But at the same time, she must realize that as humans we form attachments, so the loss of a friend does in fact cause grief or pain. It is how we react to this suffering, if we can engage it and do not fall victim to it, that we escape its full effect. This discussion of suffering caused by attachment shouted out to me: BUDDHISM! and encouraged me to research further these concepts, which I knew had a great importance in Buddhist thought, though I could not remember exactly how. Also I had some sense that this might provide me with an answer to the challenge I received in the comments to my last essay.
What I found were the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, which are: 1) Life means suffering; 2) The origin of suffering is attachment; 3) The cessation of suffering is attainable; and 4) The path to the cessation of suffering (the Eightfold Path). Let us start with the first: Life is suffering. This is explained:
To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in. During our lifetime, we inevitably have to endure physical suffering ... and we have to endure psychological suffering like sadness, fear, frustration, disappointment, and depression. Although there are different degrees of suffering and there are also positive experiences in life that we perceive as the opposite of suffering, such as ease, comfort and happiness, life in its totality is imperfect and incomplete, because our world is subject to impermanence. This means we are never able to keep permanently what we strive for, and just as happy moments pass by, we ourselves and our loved ones will pass away one day, too.
The second noble truth – the origin of suffering is attachment – takes the first and expands upon it. It confirms that we suffer physically and/or psychologically and explains that this happens because we are attached to someone or something. Physical pain is a result of attachment to the body, while psychological suffering comes from our attachment to some-thing/one, which is impermanent. It has been written, "The reasons for suffering are desire, passion, ardour, pursuit of wealth and prestige, striving for fame and popularity, or in short: craving and clinging. Because the objects of our attachment are transient, their loss is inevitable, thus suffering will necessarily follow." We suffer because we want or crave things we do not or cannot have as well as because we want to hold on forever to things that we have once had, when nothing can last forever.
Connected to this second Noble Truth and relevant to our discussion of good and evil, are two other things to which we can feel attachment: "ideas" and "a 'self'." The latter is explained to be "a delusion, because there is no abiding self. What we call 'self' is an imagined entity, and we are merely a part of the ceaseless becoming of the universe." If attachment to ideas can lead us to suffering just as attachment to our bodies can, then perhaps our insistent use of the concepts of good and evil also lead us to pain. Furthermore, maybe we can connect this need for the categories of good and evil to our delusional idea that we have a "self," in that we – in a traditional Christian conception, at least – think of ourselves as good or evil. Part of the way that we understand who that "self" is is how we fit it into the duality of good and evil. It seems a valid question, though, how we can ever cleanse ourselves of these different attachments (to ideas and "selves" specifically) and it should follow, of suffering.
The Buddhists suggest – in the fourth Noble Truth – that the way to end suffering is through detachment, which is "a gradual path of self-improvement ... the middle way between the two extremes of excessive self-indulgence (hedonism) and excessive self-mortification (asceticism)." One slowly learns to undo all his cravings and attachments by following the Eightfold Path, which will lead eventually – perhaps even after many lifetimes – to the "freedom from all worries, troubles, complexes, fabrications and ideas" called Nirvana. The Eightfold Path includes Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
How can all this inform our reading of The Scarlet Letter?
The Salem society feels an intense attachment to categories of good and evil. Theirs is a community based on the ideals of a Christian church, with strict notions of what is appropriate behavior and what is not. When someone within the community does something that violates that stringent social code, they then feel the need to punish her, as was the case with Hester Prynne. It is interesting, however, that Hawthorne takes care to point out that so many in this society also wear some sin on their hearts, though it may not be publicly known and punished as Hester's. In chapter five, Hester is described as having been endowed by the Scarlet Letter with a special "sense." The narration reads,
She shuddered to believe, yet could not help believing, that it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts. ... Sometimes, the red infamy upon her breast would give a sympathetic throb, as she passed near a venerable minister or magistrate, ... or... looking up she would detect the eyes of a young maiden glancing at the scarlet letter, shyly and aside, and quickly averted, with a faint, chill crimson in her cheeks; as if her purity were somewhat sullied by that momentary glance. (78-9)
She can see that secret sin, which so many hide within themselves so as to avoid public shame and punishment, though their private, internal punishment may be just as bad – as in the case of Dimmesdale.
If nearly everyone has sinned, then no one fits into the perfect Puritan model, which expects one to be totally good. It seems that in order to maintain their social order, though, not everyone's sins can be revealed and punished, especially those of the community leaders who should serve as model citizens and believers. The sins of some, then, must be identified and these sinners must be belittled and publicly shamed so as to distract society from the sins of the very leaders who accuse and punish. Again we see the externalization of what should be an internal battle. The case of Dimmesdale seems to offer us an example of an internalized battle, but – I would argue – he has simply internalized the external battle, which is paralleled in the community's judgment of Hester. What I am attempting to get at is exactly that challenge that I was offered after my last paper: good and evil are values or categories created and believed in by the community. The have no real meaning in themselves, and therefore, could not torture Dimmesdale as some sort of natural phenomenon had he not already internalized the values of his society.
I think a Buddhist reading of The Scarlet Letter would be at once, both more and less hopeful. It would allow for the possibility that good and evil are ideas, which we define and to which we feel attachments, but that they have no inherent meaning. If we are willing and able to let them fall away, then we will stop judging. If we take the example of Hester and Dimmesdale's affair, I think that the Buddhist conception would see their actions as simply part of the universe, a happening that lacks any value judgment. When we see them in the forest and they discuss plans to leave their Puritan community for another place, we get the idea that they could be happy together as a family, had society's value system only allowed their union. It is interesting to think about their situation, completely removed from its Puritan context: they are two people who created a child together. Hester was married but to a man she did not love and whom she believed dead. Outside societal views of marriage, Hester and Dimmesdale's union is, for all purposes, a natural one. If Hester and Dimmesdale's relationship is to be considered in this way – as a happening in the universe, which lacks value connotations – then it seems hopeful that they might find some happiness together.
On the other hand, if the point of Buddhist teaching is that we are supposed to rid ourselves of attachment, then perhaps the resultant situation would be less hopeful for these two lovers. If we are not supposed to form attachments to ideas like good an evil, then certainly we must not form them to more concrete things, like people, either. Therefore, in the end, this reading would perhaps not leave them the free space to love and be with each other as I suggested above. In order to escape good and evil and the judgments that arise with these categories, Hester and Dimmesdale must also give up their attachment to each other, in every sense – physically, emotionally, and psychologically. It's hard to decide if that is more or less hopeful. Perhaps it just is and we have to learn to see and accept the universe as such: simply being.
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