Life has become much meaner, cruder and more spiteful practically everywhere. It can be seen in people’s behaviour on the street, in the abominable neighbours breathing down our neck, politicians unleashing a plague of corruption. Avarice, greed, pride and hubris seem to have become the order of the day as we have moved into a life of smug superficiality. In the new cultural climate, the self is exalted rather than distrusted. Our society has devolved into an ever-increasing celebration of the self and deepened the faultlines in our social order.
Individualism, egoism, flagging faith and a disorientated and unmotivated generation have led to major ruptures in the cultural order and have weakened religious and social institutions that used to encourage virtuous self-circumscription. Fairness and honesty no longer remain the standard beacons. We are being constantly reminded that the rhythm of our cultural cosmos is fast growing erratic.
We are unique among earth’s creatures because we have a highly developed sense of morality, a primal understanding of right and wrong, of good and bad, of what it means to suffer not only our own pain but also the pain of others. This understanding is the essence of the phenomenon of empathy, which is the deepest foundation on which morality is built. It is in our own interest that we keep examining and scouring our soul to keep the flame of morality alive. Einstein emphasised: “The moral imperative is not a matter for church and religion alone, but the most precious traditional possession of all mankind.” When someone asked the Buddha whether he was god, angel or saint, he replied simply, “I am awake.” He conveyed the constant vigil he exercised over his soul.
Moral goodness is what gives each of us the sense that we are worthy human beings. We seek it in our friends and fellows, nurture it in our children, promote it in our society and explore it in our religions. “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them,” wrote Immanuel Kant, “the starry heavens above and the moral law within.”
In a brilliant analysis of the anatomy of human nature, Rumi considers the human heart as an “amalgam” of both good and bad. If the element of altruism is in more, the individual can surpass even angels in acts of kindness and benevolence. But when this element is overlaid by evil, the individual’s malevolence can put the wickedness of Satan to a shadow. Rumi describes this human duality in his beautiful poetry:
“Thou partakest of the nature of the beast
as well as the angel;
Leave the nature of the beast, that thou mayest
Surpass the angel.”
Norman Cousins wrote: “The individual is capable of both great compassion and great indifference. He has it within his means to nourish the former and outgrow the latter.” Disrespect for morality is the cause of everyday sins and the downfall of civilisations.
The great psychiatrist Carl Jung makes a distinction between achievement on the one hand and culture or personality on the other. Jung warns that he who carries over to the second half of human life the philosophy of the first half, namely, achievement — all that constitutes worldly success — and makes that second half “merely pitiful appendage of life’s morning,” we have to pay a heavy price for this, with damage to the soul, diminution of personality and impoverishment of the spirit. There is human growth beyond the purposes of plain nature; this is the spiritual nature of man and it constitutes the distilled essence of what it means to be human.