Remembering Thich Nhat Hanh, Brother Thay

January 27, 2022 (

Original Air Date

September 25, 2003

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The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, revered Zen master, teacher, and poet, died on January 22, 2022, in his native Vietnam. Brother Thay, as he was known by his community and students, transmuted what he had experienced of chaos and bloodshed in his country and his life into an ability to speak with equal measures directness and compassion to the many conflicts and bewilderments of contemporary life. Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. He was a great teacher of the wonderful practice of “walking meditation.” He taught a way of living to face suffering, fear, and violence inside and beyond ourselves and yet to become “fresh, solid, and free.” Krista sat with him for this rare conversation in the early years of this show, and it has touched many. It is astonishing to re-experience the deep, enduring wisdom this monk leaves for our world now.

Image of Thich Nhat Hanh

Image by Peter Kramer/Getty Images, © All Rights Reserved.


Image of Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh was a Vietnamese Zen master, poet, and teacher. He first came to the world’s attention in the 1960s during the war in his native Vietnam, as he forsook monastic isolation to care for the victims of that war and to work for reconciliation among all the warring parties. He called this “engaged Buddhism.” Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, and he led the Buddhist delegation to the Paris Peace Talks in 1969. He wrote his classic book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, as a manual for young nuns and monks who were facing death every day during war in his country. He settled in exile in France and there he founded Plum Village, a Buddhist community, or Sangha, that has spawned communities of practice and service around the world. Other books among his many beloved include Being Peace and The Long Road Turns to Joy: A Guide to Walking Meditation.

Image of Cheri Maples

Cheri Maples served in the criminal justice system for 25 years, including as an Assistant Attorney General in the Wisconsin Department of Justice, and as a police officer with the City of Madison Police Department. She co-founded the Center for Mindfulness and Justice in Madison, Wisconsin. She was ordained as a Dharma teacher by Thich Nhat Hanh in 2008. Cheri died in July 2017.

Image of Larry Ward

Larry Ward is co-founder of the Lotus Institute, and was ordained as a Dharma teacher in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition. He accompanied Thich Nhat Hanh on peace-building missions internationally, as well as throughout the United States. He brings 35 years of experience in organizational change, local community renewal, and religion studies. In 2020 he published America’s Racial Karma: An Invitation to Heal.


Transcription by Heather Wang

Krista Tippett, host:The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh’s life was a startling, paradoxical merger of extreme gentleness with tangible power.  This revered Zen monk, teacher, and poet died last week in his native Vietnam, at the age of 95.

He was a great teacher of the wonderful practice of walking meditation. He taught “the art of being peace”: a way of living to face suffering, fear, and violence, inside and beyond ourselves, and yet to become, as he wrote, “fresh, solid and free.”

These were not lofty spiritual ideals for Thich Nhat Hanh. He wrote his classic book The Miracle of Mindfulness as a manual for young nuns and monks who were facing death every day, during war in their country. Thich Nhat Hanh transmuted what he had experienced of chaos and bloodshed in his own life into an ability to speak, with equal measures directness and compassion, to the many conflicts and bewilderments of contemporary life. He led the Buddhist delegation to the Paris Peace Talks in 1969, and Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I met him in the early years of this program around the edges of a multi-day, lakeside retreat he was leading in Wisconsin. For the first time at such a gathering, more than 50 people who worked in the criminal justice system were present, about half of them police officers. You’ll hear one of them a bit later in this hour. It is astonishing to re-experience the deep, enduring relevance of this monk’s teachings for our world now.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

Thich Nhat Hanh first came to the world’s attention in the 1960s, during the war in his native Vietnam. He forsook monastic isolation to care for the victims of that war and to work for reconciliation among all the warring parties. He called this “engaged Buddhism.”

He was expelled from post-war Vietnam, because he had refused to take sides even as he worked for peace. He settled in France, and there he founded Plum Village, a Buddhist community, or sangha, that has spawned communities of practice and service around the world. His students called him “Thay,” the Vietnamese word for teacher. He attracted crowds of thousands when he spoke. Five hundred people of every background and profession attended the retreat where I was to interview him.


Each day included teaching, rest, and seated and walking meditation, with a morning gathering in a sunlit auditorium. There, Thay taught for hours, even approaching 80, holding the entire room rapt with his quiet, intense, lyrical speech. And one afternoon, he sat down with me.

I think what intrigued me — and I know since we don’t have lots of time and you’re very tired — is that you actually wrote The Miracle of Mindfulness in those years when you had somewhat withdrawn from that great political and social activism of the 1960s. And so I wondered if mindfulness, that emphasis on mindfulness, was really the core of the learning that you took away from those years of such turmoil and activism on your part.

Thich Nhat Hanh:Well, that was the practice that kept us alive, helped us to survive. And The Miracle of Mindfulness was written for our social workers, first, in Vietnam, because they were living in a situation where the danger of dying was there every day. So out of compassion, out of a willingness to help them to continue their work, The Miracle of Mindfulness was written as a manual practice. And after that, many friends in the West, they think that it is helpful for them, so we allow it to be translated into English. And so.

Tippett:And what is the Vietnamese word that you’re translating as “mindfulness”? What are the connotations of that, I wonder?

Thich Nhat Hanh:[speaks Vietnamese], it means “true mindfulness.” [speaks Vietnamese]  means your mind fully present in the here and the now. And mindfulness is at the heart of Buddhist meditation, because with mindfulness, you’ll be concentrated. And mindfulness and concentration help you to see things and to touch things more deeply, so that you might understand the true nature of what is there.

Tippett:What have you done with this concept that is different? I mean, how did you interpret it or apply it differently, that it had such an impact?

Thich Nhat Hanh:Well, mindfulness is a — when you are mindful, you are fully alive; you are fully present. You can get in touch with the wonders of life that can nourish you and heal you. And you are stronger, you are more solid in order to handle the suffering inside of you and around you. When you are mindful, you can recognize, embrace, and handle the pain, the sorrow in you and around you, to bring you relief. And if you continue with concentration and insight, you’ll be able to transform the suffering inside and help transform the suffering around you.

Tippett:And this word “miracle” on the surface is quite intriguing, when what you’re describing is so organic. I mean, it’s getting in touch with your breath, first of all. Does that word, or does this phrase, “the miracle of mindfulness,” does that come out of your Buddhist training, or was that a phrase that came to you?

Thich Nhat Hanh:It is in my heart when I use it, because when you breathe in, your mind comes back to your body. And then you become fully aware that you are alive, that you are a miracle, and everything you touch could be a miracle. The orange in your hand, the blue sky, the face of a child — everything becomes a wonder. And in fact, they are wonders of life that are available in the here and the now. And you need to breathe mindfully, in and out, in order to be fully present and to get in touch with all these things.

And that is a miracle, because you understand the nature of the suffering, you know that role of suffering that suffering plays in life, and you are not trying to run away from suffering anymore, and you know how to make use of suffering in order to build peace and happiness.

It’s like growing lotus flowers. You cannot grow lotus flowers on marble; you have to grow them on the mud. Without mud, you cannot have a lotus flower. Without suffering, you have no ways in order to learn how to be understanding and compassionate. That’s why my definition of the Kingdom of God is not a place where suffering is not; where there is no suffering.

Tippett:The Kingdom of God?

Thich Nhat Hanh:Yeah, because I could not like to go to a place where there is no suffering. I could not like to send my children to a place where there is no suffering, because in such a place they have no ways to learn how to be understanding and compassionate. And the Kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding and compassion; and therefore, suffering should exist.

Tippett:That’s quite different from some religious perspectives, which would say that the Kingdom of God is a place where we’ve transcended suffering or moved beyond it.

Thich Nhat Hanh:Yes. And suffering and happiness, they are both organic, like a flower and garbage. If the flower is on her way to become a piece of garbage, the garbage can be on her way to becoming a flower. That is why you are not afraid of garbage.

I think we have suffered a lot during the 20th century. We have created a lot of garbage. There was a lot of violence and hatred and separation. And we have not handled — we don’t know how to handle the garbage that we have created, and then we would have a chance to create a new century for peace. That is why now it’s very important for us to learn how to transform the garbage we have created into flowers.

Tippett:I look at the violence that marked the world in the period when you were a young monk — there was the Cold War; there was a certain kind of violence and hostility. A lot of that has changed, has gone away, a lot of the terrible threats and the sources of the worst fighting. And now in its place we have new kinds of wars and new kinds of enemies. I’d be really interested in, as you look at this period of your lifetime, is there any qualitative difference between the violence that we have now and the violence that we had then? Is there anything like progress happening, or is it the same pattern that repeats itself?

Thich Nhat Hanh:Yeah, you are right. It’s the same pattern that repeats itself.

Tippett:And does that make you despair?

Thich Nhat Hanh:No, because I notice there are people who are capable of understanding, that we have enough enlightenment, and if only they come together and offer their light and show us the way, there is a chance for transformation and healing.

Tippett:You know, in a retreat like this, you’ve gathered around you hundreds of people who are offering themselves up as individuals to this kind of training in mindfulness. And you’re not just talking about peace here — there’s a sense of peace.

But then the cynical question would be, can these individuals make a difference? It seems like we live in an age of collective violence, collective terror, and collective acts of retribution. How do you see the effect of this work that you do?

Thich Nhat Hanh:Well, peace always begins with yourself as an individual, and as an individual, you may help building a community of peace. That’s what we try to do. And when your community of a few hundred people knows the practice of peace and brotherhood, and then you can become the refuge for many others who come to you and profit from the practice of peace and brotherhood. And then they will join you, and the community gets larger and larger all the time, and the practice of peace and brotherhood will be offered to many other people. That is what is going on.

Tippett:And you experience that to be …

Thich Nhat Hanh:Yes, because when I came to the West, I was all alone, and I was aware that I had to build a community. And there was no Buddhists at all at that time. So I work with numerous people, and I suggest the practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful sittings. And slowly, we built a community of practice. We even have communities in the Middle East, consisting of Israelis and Palestinians.

Tippett:Right. I saw that you’re bringing Israelis and Palestinians together at Plum Village.

Thich Nhat Hanh:Yes.

Tippett:Is your teaching any different if you’re speaking to members of Congress, or you’re speaking to Hollywood filmmakers, or you’re speaking to law enforcement officers?

Thich Nhat Hanh:The practice would be the same. But we need friends to show us how a certain group of people lead their life and what kind of suffering and difficulties they encounter in their life, so that we can understand. And after that, only after that, we could offer the appropriate teaching and practice. That is why we continue to learn, every day, with our practice and sharing.

[“Evening Chant” by Brother Pháp Niệm]

Tippett:I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, we’re remembering Thich Nhat Hanh, who died last week. I interviewed him in 2003 at a retreat center in eastern Wisconsin. And for the first time at such a gathering, more than 50 people who worked in the criminal justice system were there, about half of them police officers.

Cheri Maples was a police captain from Madison, Wisconsin, who helped make this possible. She first encountered Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings in the early ’90s and wondered if she could incorporate such ideas into police work. He surprised her by insisting that there is such a thing as a fierce bodhisattva — bodhisattva, in Buddhist tradition, being a person who has reached enlightenment and chooses to stay on Earth to serve others. Like many of his followers, Cheri Maples grew to call Thich Nhat Hanh “Thay,” or “teacher.” But on her first retreat with him, as a person who carried a gun for a living, she balked at his most basic principles.

Maples:Well, as a cop what started to happen to me there got very interesting, because — I don’t know if you attended the Five Mindfulness Trainings, but that was one of the things that happened at my first retreat, and I just assumed, well, I’d listen to this, but I can’t do that; I’m a cop. I mean, I might be in a position where I have to kill somebody, at some point. I can’t think about taking these.

And Sister Chân Không, who is one of the — probably the senior monastic here, was at that retreat, and she pulled me aside and she had this very wonderful conversation with me, the essence of it being: who else would we want to carry a gun except somebody who will do it mindfully? Of course, you can take these trainings.

And what happened to me is my heart started to soften and kind of break open for the first time. I had gotten very mechanical about how I was doing my job. I had no idea that I had shut down that way. And I came home and, especially that first week, when it was so new and everything felt so fresh, I started to understand that — on a very, very deep level, that it’s possible to bring this into your work as a cop, because as my energy started to change, the energy that I got back from other people started to change, even including the people that I had to arrest and take to jail.

But probably the first example of that was I was on a domestic violence call, and it was one of these calls where I would have just arrested the guy. I would have just, “Hey, enough’s enough,” you know? This was a scenario where breaking up is hard to do, and there was a little girl, and they were exchanging custody, and he was kind of holding the little girl hostage, not wanting to give her back to mom. And there had been no violence that had taken place, but both mom and the little girl were very scared and intimidated.

And ordinarily, I would have said, “That’s it,” slapped the handcuffs on him, taken him to jail. But something stopped me, and it was I had just come out of this retreat. And I got the little girl, got him to give me the little girl, took care of her, got her and her mom set, told them just to leave, went back, and I just talked to this guy from my heart. And within five minutes, I mean — I’ve got this big gun belt on, I’m about 5’3″, right, and this guy’s like 6’6″. And he’s bawling, you know? And I’m holding this guy, with this big gun belt on and everything. And he was just in incredible pain. And that’s what I started realizing we deal with, is misplaced anger, because people are in incredible pain.

So I ran into him, three days later, in a little store on Willy Street, where I lived at the time. And this guy comes, he sees me off-duty, he picks me up, gives me this big bear hug, and he said, “You saved my life that night. Thank you.”

And so when you have experiences like that, and you start to realize, well, what am I doing different here? I mean, really, it’s about softening your heart. When you’re a police officer and you do this work, you need to find a way to be able to maintain both the compassionate bodhisattva within you and the fierce bodhisattva, and know when each is called for and how to combine the two. And once you start down this path, it’s possible to learn that.

Tippett:Did you have a hand in making this retreat happen? Is that right?

Maples:When I decided to take my practice further — in about 2000, I really got much more committed. And then I decided I wanted to become a member of the order, a core member of the order. Then I went out to Plum Village, last year.

Tippett:In France?

Maples:In France, for three weeks, which was probably one of the most wonderful three weeks of my entire life. As a police officer you’re so often a victim and so often an oppressor. You really have to come to grips with both of those. And I wrote a letter to Thay, because when you want to receive the mindfulness trainings, that’s one of the requirements. He got my letter, which talked a lot about sort of where I’m at with all this, and the next day gave this two-hour dharma talk on the different faces of love and why it’s possible to be a bodhisattva and carry a gun. It was just unbelievable to me.

I just started having this image while I was out there, of my co-workers, other police officers, holding hands and doing walking meditation together and making peaceful steps on the Earth together. And I mentioned it during working meditation with one of the people. She said, “You know, you can make that happen.” So, by the end of the retreat, I got on the stage with Thay, and I asked him if he would do a retreat for police officers. And he said yes, and this is it.

Tippett:And tell me what you are hearing or experiencing of the effect this is having on your colleagues.

Maples:Well, at first it was kind of a mini revolt, because they really thought — it’s a very, very big thing, having to face the possibility of having to kill somebody that you could face every day. They wanted to talk about that with each other. They wanted to talk about why are we so critical of each other? Why is there so much stress in our workplaces? How can we apply some of these concepts? And they also, sometimes — if you’ve never been exposed to Thich Nhat Hanh, and — I can translate the language for them, but some of them hear you can never, never fight violence with violence, and they’re saying to me, well, what the hell am I supposed to do when somebody’s beating the crap out of somebody? Am I supposed to stand there and watch them? So some of it is literally a translation thing. But to watch them getting the sort of understanding and exposure that I had, early on, just to see that there’s some richness and nourishment here.

And what we talked about yesterday is, my first Zen activity as a little girl was baseball, because that was the first activity that I ever performed where I was so absorbed in it, my total focus and concentration was there and nothing else was present.

Tippett:And that’s a definition of Zen.

Maples:That’s my definition of Zen. And so you have to, as a practitioner, find the ways to practice that resonate with you. And if you are faithful to your practice, your practice will be faithful to you.

Police officers, as you can imagine, the major problem is we deal with being hypervigilant all the time, so we’re off the scale up here. You’re looking around you all the time, wondering where that next problem is coming from. And if you don’t have a way to come back down and find some ways to take care of yourself, you’re going to find ways to stay up there, because it feels good, in an odd sort of way; in dysfunctional ways.

Tippett:You know, I asked Thay, how is your teaching different when you’re speaking to these different kinds of groups? And his answer was so interesting: that he has to come to understand the particular suffering of that group of people.

Maples:It’s a special form, and Thay has really taken so much time to understand it. And where our suffering comes from is really two places. One, we deal with the 5 percent of the worst part of society. So you start — you know, you don’t want your kids exposed to that. You don’t want your partner exposed to that. It’s got to go somewhere; you don’t know who to talk to about it, but it starts to affect the way you see people. That’s one thing.

And the accumulated stress of, you know, if you’re a young officer and you go to your first accident scene where somebody’s head has been rolled over, you go to your first — you go to a homicide scene and you see very grisly details, you go to lots of different things that — one incident may not cause it, but the accumulated sort of stuff post-traumatic stress is made from, and you start shutting down and you don’t realize it. So you need tools to keep your heart open and soft.

[music: “Đêm Tây Nguyên — Night in Tay Nguyen” by Đan]

Tippett:Cheri Maples served as a police officer for 20 years before working as head of probation and parole in Wisconsin and as assistant attorney general. She co-founded the Center for Mindfulness and Justice in Madison, Wisconsin. And five years after this interview, she was ordained as a dharma teacher by Thich Nhat Hanh. Cheri died in July 2017, following complications from a biking accident. And by then, she had herself become a cherished figure to many in the Buddhist community.

[music: “Đêm Tây Nguyên — Night in Tay Nguyen” by Đan]

Coming up, more of my conversation with Thich Nhat Hanh.

[music: “Đêm Tây Nguyên — Night in Tay Nguyen” by Đan]

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today remembering Zen master and poet Thich Nhat Hanh.

During the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideas and examples influenced the Catholic monk and author Thomas Merton and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Millions of people have since read his classic manual of meditation, The Miracle of Mindfulness. He wrote, “Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality. The person who practices mindfulness should be no less awake than the driver of a car. … Be as awake as a person walking on high stilts — any mis-step could cause the walker to fall. … Be like a lion, going forward with slow, gentle, and firm steps. Only with this kind of vigilance can you realize total awakening.”

[music: “Đêm Tây Nguyên — Night in Tay Nguyen” by Đan]

I met Thich Nhat Hanh in 2003 at a lakeside retreat on Green Lake in Wisconsin. Every day began with walking meditation at dawn. Hundreds of people stepped slowly, conscious of their breathing and every movement of their bodies. As a group, we wound around the lake and through the trees; Thich Nhat Hanh walked in front, holding the hand of a small child. In a manual he wrote about walking meditation, which was one of his signature practices, he advised practitioners to take the hand of a child. “Though the child might alter the solemnity of meditation,” he wrote, “she will receive your concentration and stability, and you will receive her freshness and innocence.”

The walkers maintained silence. This “noble silence,” as they call it, is also held at meals.

[bell being struck]

Periodically, the sound of a bell stilled the cafeteria dining room. This is a reminder to breathe, to eat only what is required to nourish the body, and to be present in the moment.

[bell being struck]

Attention to the present moment was at the heart of Thich Nhat Hanh’s passion — a way of life, rather than a system of belief. In fact, he insisted that attentive living would constantly cause us to question our own reactions and convictions. We suffer, he said, because of wrong perceptions of ourselves and others, which is why communication is so difficult and so important. Forgiveness, he said, comes from looking deeply and understanding. Violence, in our families or in the larger world, can stop with us. Living this way, he said, we become “fresh, solid, and free.”

Some of the things you’ve said about the war on terror, you used the word “forgiveness” right away, and I don’t think that was a word that was anywhere in our public discourse in this country. But I also heard you this morning, when you were speaking with the group, talking about the responsibility of everyone for — also for policies, global policies. Say some more about that, about what role individuals have to play even in something like the war on terror, from your perspective.

Thich Nhat Hanh:The individual has to wake up to the fact that violence cannot end violence; that only understanding and compassion can neutralize violence, because with the practice of loving speech and compassionate listening we can begin to understand people and help people to remove the wrong perceptions in them, because these wrong perceptions are at the foundation of their anger, their fear, their violence, their hate.

And listen deeply. You might be able to remove the wrong perception you have within yourself, concerning you and concerning them. So the basic practice in order to remove terrorism and war is the practice of removing wrong perceptions, and that cannot be done with the bombs and the guns. And it is very important that our political leaders realize that and apply the techniques of communication.

We live in a time when we have very sophisticated means for communication, but communication has become very difficult between individuals and groups of people. A father cannot talk to a son, mother cannot talk to daughter, and maybe husband cannot talk to wife, and Israelis cannot talk to Palestinians, and Hindus cannot talk to Muslims. And that is why we have war, we have violence. That is why restoring communication is the basic work for peace. And our political and our spiritual leaders have to focus their energy on this matter.

Tippett:But I think some would say — people in positions of power would say that they simply can’t wait for that communication to happen or for that change to take place; that they also have to act now.

Thich Nhat Hanh:If they cannot communicate with themselves, if they cannot communicate with members of their family, if they cannot communicate with people in their own country, they have no understanding that will serve [as] the base for right action, and they will make a lot of mistakes.

Tippett:I’m wondering if, by way of bringing this back to you and the practice and how you know the practice, if you would read this poem, “For Warmth,” and talk about how you think about anger and how one lives with anger. Being mindful doesn’t take away all these emotions, right, these human emotions.

Thich Nhat Hanh:Yeah, we have to remain human in order to be able to understand and to be compassionate. You have the right to be angry, but you don’t have the right not to practice in order to transform your anger. You have the right to make mistakes, but you don’t have the right to continue making mistakes. You have to learn from your mistakes.

Tippett:Would you say something about when you — the occasion on which you wrote this poem, also?

Thich Nhat Hanh:I wrote this poem after I hear the news that the city of Ben Tre was bombed, and an American army officer declared that he had to destroy the town in order to save the town. It was very shocking to us. In fact, there were a number of guerillas who came to the town and would use anti-aircraft gun to shoot. And because of that, they bombarded the town and killed so many civilians.

Tippett:Was it 1965 or something like that?

Thich Nhat Hanh:Yeah, around that time.

[music: “Embracing Anger” by Sister Chân Không]

[speaks Vietnamese]

Tippett:“I hold my face between my hands.

No, I am not crying.

I hold my face between my hands

to keep my loneliness warm —

two hands protecting,

two hands nourishing,

two hands to prevent

my soul from leaving me

in anger.”

Thich Nhat Hanh:When you notice that anger is coming up in you, you have to practice mindful breathing in order to generate the energy of mindfulness, in order to recognize your anger and embrace it tenderly so that you can bring relief into you and not to act and to say things that can destroy, that can be destructive. And doing so, you can look deeply into the nature of your anger and know where it has come from.

That practice helped us to realize that not only Vietnamese civilians and military were victims of the war, but also, American men and women who came to Vietnam to kill and to be killed were also victims of the war.

[music: “Mansurian: Duet for Viola & Percussion” by Kim Kashkashian]

Tippett:So here’s the question that occurs to me again and again. These root causes are so simple, in a way — wrong perception, poor communication, anger that may have its place in human life but then needs to be acted on, “mindfully,” in your language. Why is it so hard for human beings — and I think this is as true in a family as it is in global politics — to take these simple things seriously, these simple aspects of being human?

Thich Nhat Hanh:I don’t think it is difficult. In the many retreats that we offer in Europe, in America, in many other countries, awakening, understanding, compassion, and reconciliation can take place after a few days of practice. People need an opportunity so that the seed of compassion, understanding, in them to be watered. And that is why we are not discouraged. We know that if there are more people joining in the work of offering that opportunity, and then there will be a collective awakening.

Tippett:I look at you and I also see that you view the world through the eyes of compassion, which is another term you use, and that I see the weight of that on you, that it is also a burden to look at the world straight and to see suffering and to see the sources of suffering wherever you look.

Thich Nhat Hanh:When you have compassion in your heart, you suffer much less. And you are in a situation to be and to do something to help others to suffer less. This is the truth. So to practice in such a way that brings compassion into your heart is very important. A person without compassion cannot be a happy person. And compassion is something that is possible only when you have understanding. Understanding brings compassion. Understanding is compassion itself. When you understand the difficulties, the suffering, the despair of the other person, you don’t hate him, you don’t hate her anymore.

Tippett:What would compassion look like towards a terrorist, let’s say?

Thich Nhat Hanh:The terrorists, they are victims of their wrong perceptions. They have wrong perceptions on themselves, and they have wrong perceptions on us. So the practice of communication, peaceful communication, can help them to remove their wrong perceptions on them and on us, and the wrong perceptions we have on us and on them. This is the basic practice. This is the principle. And I hope that our political leaders understand this and take action right away to help us.

And we, as citizens, we have to voice our concern very strongly, because we should support our political leaders, because we have helped elect them. We should not leave everything to them. We should live our daily in such a way that we could have the time and energy in order to bring our light, our support to our political leaders. We should not hate our leaders. We should not be angry at our leaders. We should only support them and help them to see right in order to act right.

Tippett:I want to finish, because I know I’ve taken a lot of your time. I want to ask you, this is from Fragrant Palm Leaves, which I know was a journal you wrote in the 1960s, but this is about Zen: “Zen is not merely a system of thought. Zen infuses our whole being with the most pressing question we have.” What are your pressing questions at this point in your life?

Thich Nhat Hanh:Pressing questions?

Tippett:What are the questions you work through in your practice, just personally, I wonder?

Thich Nhat Hanh:I do not have any questions right now. My practice is to live in the here and the now. And it is a great happiness for you, to be able to live and to do what you like to live and to do. My practice is centered in the present moment. I know that if you know how to handle the present moment right, with our best, and then that is about everything you can do for the future. That is why I’m at peace with myself. That’s my practice every day, and that is very nourishing.

Tippett:And I wonder, living that way and practicing that way, does forgiveness become instinctive? Does there become a point where you no longer react with anger, but immediately become compassionate and forgiving?

Thich Nhat Hanh:When you practice looking at people with the eyes of compassion, that kind of practice will become a good habit, and you are capable of looking at the people in such a way that you can see the suffering, the difficulties. And if you can see, and then compassion will naturally flow from your heart. It’s for your sake, and that is for their sake, also. In The Lotus Sutra, there is a wonderful, five-word sentence: “Looking at living beings with the eyes of compassion.” And that brings you happiness. That brings relief into the world. And this practice can be done by every one of us.

[music: “Bướm Bay Vườn Cải Hoa Vàng” by Brother Pháp Niệm]

Tippett:I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, we’re remembering Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese Zen master and poet.

[music: “Bướm Bay Vườn Cải Hoa Vàng” by Brother Pháp Niệm]

We end with Larry Ward, one of 500 people in attendance at the retreat where I met Thich Nhat Hanh. I sat with Larry, too, one early morning before the teachings began. At that time, he was a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies. And he’s an ordained Baptist minister.

[music: “Bướm Bay Vườn Cải Hoa Vàng” by Brother Pháp Niệm]

Ward:I was introduced to Thay through my wife, who was then my fiancée. A number of years ago, her first husband passed away in a tragic accident. And as we began to get closer some years later, she told me that there was this monk coming to the United States, and he came every two years, and it was one of the fundamental things that helped her heal her grief after her husband passed away, and that that experience meant so much to her, she’d like for me to go with her to a retreat to meet this teacher.

Tippett:So tell me what it was about the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, this particular way that he’s developed Vietnamese Zen, that affected you, that has been important to you.

Ward:Two things that particularly were inspiring to me of Thay’s teachings, one was his ability to translate Buddhist practice as human spirituality, and secondly, to do that with great heart. And I think one of the contributions of the Vietnamese aspect of Thay is the great heart, the sense of poetry, metaphor, that he brings with depth, intellectual clarity, and scholarship. And so that combination is very appealing.

Tippett:I wonder if you can think of, say, a situation where you think you might have done something differently than you would have before, a concrete way in which it changed your action or reaction in some way.

Ward:When my mother passed away, about seven years ago, I was actually on vacation with my wife and some friends in Costa Rica. And I was in a small village that only had two telephones, one private, one public; the public one did not work. This was around Christmastime. So when I was finally able to get a phone and call, I found out my mother died. And so I went — took three days to get back to Cleveland, where she was, and by that time, she was already buried. And my father was overwhelmed with grief. And he was so overwhelmed with grief that after the burial, he went home and he shut the door and he wouldn’t let any of the children in the house.

So I started sending him flowers and love letters over six months’ time. And I would go visit, and I’d sit outside the house and bring my flowers and put them on the porch — and this is after flying from Idaho or wherever I was — and I knew he was in there, and I’d leave them, and then I’d go on and visit my sister, you know, etc., etc. And finally he opened the door, which was, to me, opening the door to himself. And so now we’re in a totally different environment and a different situation. And I’m certain that without the practice, that is not how I would have responded to an experience of “rejection.”

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. If I’d have been operating out of that mindset of my youth, I would’ve just said, you know, Forget you. And instead, I was able to understand what was happening to my father. I could see and feel his suffering, his tremendous heartbreak. I knew that he didn’t have any training in dealing with emotion — none. And I knew that in my family, my mother was the emotional intelligence, and that when she passed away, he had no skills, no capacity to handle the huge ocean of grief he found himself in. So my practice was to communicate to him that I was there for him, that I supported him, and that I loved him, but my practice also was to hold compassion for him and myself and my family so that we could all go through our grieving process peacefully, and at our own pace.

Tippett:When I interviewed Thay yesterday, I said to him that I’ve noticed that he’s doing retreats for different kinds of groups of people; you know, law enforcement officers, members of Congress, people of color. On the surface, I don’t know, I wasn’t quite sure what that was about. And then when I asked him, Is your teaching different?, he said, What I’m trying to do, what I have to do every time, is understand the particular suffering of these people who’ve lived with a certain kind of identity. And I’d like to ask you, as an African American man, do you feel that this Vietnamese Buddhist monk can speak to your suffering or your identity? How do you experience the coming together of his culture and yours?

Ward:From a distance, many years ago, I heard Martin Luther King mention that a monk had asked him to come out against the Vietnam War and that he was nominating this monk for the Nobel Prize. And I had heard that, before my wife introduced me to Thich Nhat Hanh, and it was only during the middle of the retreat that the dots got connected for me.

Tippett:Oh, in the early ’90s?

Ward:In the early ’90s.

Tippett:That you realized that that was the monk?

Ward:That was the monk.


Ward:And unequivocally, yes. Thay’s deep practice emerged in the midst of tremendous suffering of the war. And that’s a part, to me, of his authenticity, is if — is he’s able to be peaceful and graceful and kind. And I know some of the things he experienced in the war, because I also had family members in the war, that for him to be able to be that peaceful and that openhearted and that kind, in the midst of the suffering he experienced, without denying the suffering, I think that’s a perfect model, pathway, through the African American experience into the full human experience.

Tippett:A cynic would say, well, he can give these beautiful teachings about ending violence,  and then there are these individuals who come to a retreat like this, who are clearly taking this seriously and taking this back to their lives, but they’re just drops in the ocean.

Ward:That is true. I am a drop in the ocean; but I’m also the ocean. I’m a drop in America, but I’m also America. Every pain, every confusion, every good and every bad and every ugly of America is in me. And as I’m able to transform myself and heal myself and take care of myself, I’m very conscious that I’m healing and transforming and taking care of America. Particularly I’m saying this for American cynics — [laughs] but this is also true globally. And so as we’re able, however small, however slowly, it’s for real.

[music: “Rhapsody for Orchestra” by Ryusuke Numajiri and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra]

Tippett:Larry Ward co-founded The Lotus Institute, a meditation center devoted to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. In 2020 he published a new book, America’s Racial Karma: An Invitation to Heal.

The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh died on January 22, 2022, at his home in Vietnam. He was 95 years old. His best known books include The Miracle of Mindfulness and Being Peace. I also especially love his book The Long Road Turns to Joy: A Guide to Walking Meditation.

[music: “Moonlit Night of Stone Forest” by The Hugo Masters]

Special thanks this week to Graywolf Press.

The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.

On Being is an independent, nonprofit production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.

Our funding partners include:

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at;

Kalliopeia Foundation, dedicated to reconnecting ecology, culture, and spirituality, supporting organizations and initiatives that uphold a sacred relationship with life on Earth. Learn more at;

The George Family Foundation, in support of the Civil Conversations Project;

The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives;

The Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education;

And the Ford Foundation, working to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement worldwide.

A Course in Miracles: Lesson 192

Lesson 192 I have a function God would have me fill.

It is your Father’s holy Will that you complete Himself, and that your Self shall be His sacred Son, forever pure as He, of love created and in love preserved, extending love, creating in its name, forever one with God and with your Self. Yet what can such a function mean within a world of envy, hatred and attack?

Therefore, you have a function in the world in its own terms. For who can understand a language far beyond his simple grasp? Forgiveness represents your function here. It is not God’s creation, for it is the means by which untruth can be undone. And who would pardon Heaven? Yet on earth, you need the means to let illusions go. Creation merely waits for your return to be acknowledged, not to be complete.

Creation cannot even be conceived of in the world. It has no meaning here. Forgiveness is the closest it can come to earth. For being Heaven-born, it has no form at all. Yet God created One Who has the power to translate in form the wholly formless. What He makes are dreams, but of a kind so close to waking that the light of day already shines in them, and eyes already opening behold the joyful sights their offerings contain.

Forgiveness gently looks upon all things unknown in Heaven, sees them disappear, and leaves the world a clean and unmarked slate on which the Word of God can now replace the senseless symbols written there before. Forgiveness is the means by which the fear of death is overcome, because it holds no fierce attraction now and guilt is gone. Forgiveness lets the body be perceived as what it is; a simple teaching aid, to be laid by when learning is complete, but hardly changing him who learns at all.

The mind without the body cannot make mistakes. It cannot think that it will die, nor be the prey of merciless attack. Anger becomes impossible, and where is terror then? What fears could still assail those who have lost the source of all attack, the core of anguish and the seat of fear? Only forgiveness can relieve the mind of thinking that the body is its home. Only forgiveness can

I have a function God would have me fill.

With anger gone, you will indeed perceive that, for Christ’s vision and the gift of sight, no sacrifice was asked, and only pain was lifted from a sick and tortured mind. Is this unwelcome? Is it to be feared? Or is it to be hoped for, met with thanks and joyously accepted? We are one, and therefore give up nothing. But we have indeed been given everything by God.

Yet do we need forgiveness to perceive that this is so. Without its kindly light we grope in darkness, using reason but to justify our rage and our attack. Our understanding is so limited that what we think we understand is but confusion born of error. We are lost in mists of shifting dreams and fearful thoughts, our eyes shut tight against the light; our minds engaged in worshipping what is not there.

Who can be born again in Christ but him who has forgiven everyone he sees or thinks of or imagines? Who could be set free while he imprisons anyone? A jailer is not free, for he is bound together with his prisoner. He must be sure that he does not escape, and so he spends his time in keeping watch on him. The bars that limit him become the world in which his jailer lives, along with him. And it is on his freedom that the way to liberty depends for both of them.

Therefore, hold no one prisoner. Release instead of bind, for thus are you made free. The way is simple. Every time you feel a stab of anger, realize you hold a sword above your head. And it will fall or be averted as you choose to be condemned or free. Thus does each one who seems to tempt you to be angry represent your savior from the prison house of death. And so you owe him thanks instead of pain.

Be merciful today. The Son of God deserves your mercy. It is he who asks that you accept the way to freedom now. Deny him not. His Father’s Love for him belongs to you. Your function here on earth is only to forgive him, that you may accept him back as your Identity. He is as God created him. And you are what he is. Forgive him now his sins, and you will see that you are one with him. 

Great books are still great

Great books are still great | Aeon

Read with love, rather than critical distance, the classics can provide tools to subvert oppressive hierarchiesCambridge, England. Photo by Martin Parr/Magnum

Roosevelt Montás is senior lecturer in American studies and English at Columbia University, and director of the Freedom and Citizenship programme at the Center for American Studies. He is the author of Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation (2021).

Edited byNigel Warburton

21 January 2022 (

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As a high-school student with still-shaky English proficiency, I found a collection of Plato’s dialogues in a garbage pile near my house in Corona, Queens. I had grown up in a mountain town in the Dominican Republic and emigrated to New York City just before my 12th birthday. My mother had left the Dominican Republic a few years earlier, secured the only job she could get, earning the minimum wage in a garment factory, and petitioned for my brother and I to join her. In 1985, we entered New York City’s overcrowded public school system, where the free lunches supplied a good portion of our sustenance. Like many immigrants, we were poor, exposed, and disoriented by our uprooting.

It was not an auspicious beginning for the career I would have as student, academic administrator and faculty member at an Ivy League university. But the jarring journey became, at some point, less of a handicap and more of a peculiar vantage point from which to reflect on the intellectual and social world I had entered. My development was nourished by an education in what some people call ‘the great books’. That same education has made me sensitive to a culturally influential critique of ‘the canon’ that insists that Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Montaigne, Cervantes, Goethe, Hegel, Dostoyevsky, Woolf, et al, are not for people like me, that they are for white people, or rich people, or people born with class privileges that I lacked.

In the collection of Plato’s dialogues that I rescued from the garbage pile on that winter night in Queens, I encountered an old man named Socrates in his final days. He was defending himself against accusations of corrupting the youth and of introducing new gods to the city. ‘Men of Athens,’ he protested,

I am grateful and I am your friend, but … as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practise philosophy, to exhort you … [asking] are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honours as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?

By the end of the collection, we find him in prison on the day appointed for his execution, ‘calmly and easily’ drinking the poison, laying down, and dying: ‘Such was the end of our comrade,’ says the first-person narrator, ‘a man who, we would say, was of all those we have known the best, and also the wisest and the most upright.’ I did not need to be rich, privileged or cultured to find in those words something that spoke to the deepest sense of my own being. And I did not need to be white or European to be startled by the claim that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.

Every summer since 2009, I have used these same Platonic dialogues to introduce low-income high-school students, who hope to be the first in their families to attend college, to the philosophic, ethical and political tradition that Socrates inspired. Every year, I see my students roused to serious self-examination and, in many cases, to an earnest and lasting reorientation of their lives. They do not see Thucydides, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and other texts we study, as alien objects belonging to others, but as thinkers who speak with a living voice to issues of urgency and relevance to their own experience. Again and again, I see these young people awaken to a source of self-worth and meaning that is not constrained by the material limitations that have otherwise hemmed in their lives.

The liberatory power of ‘the canon’ is easily lost in the theoretical haze of the academic humanities. At the same time, institutions of higher education have been all too ready to abandon the idea of liberal education – of learning for its own sake – in favour of professional and specialised studies. But the old classics still have the power to move and transform young people in ways that no technical education can. We don’t have to dilute the practical value of a higher education nor ignore the insights of the academic humanities to restore the vitality of liberal education in our colleges and universities.

In my last year of college, I took a comparative literature seminar with the literary scholar Gayatri Spivak. At the time, I was immersed in what was broadly called ‘theory’ and, inspired by French deconstruction, was writing a thesis on St Augustine’s treatise on biblical interpretation, De doctrina christiana (c397-426 CE). I was thrilled by the chance to study with Professor Spivak, who had translated Jacques Derrida’s groundbreaking work of deconstructive criticism, Of Grammatology (1967).

About halfway through the course, we started reading William Shakespeare’s King Lear. In class, Professor Spivak would ask us to read passages aloud, insisting that we respect the play’s iambic pentameter – with five stressed and five unstressed syllables in each line. Thus, in the climactic opening scene when King Lear asks Cordelia to outdo her sisters in declaring her love for him, Professor Spivak drew our attention to the portentous silences – the blank beats – of the pentameter:

LEAR: The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interessed; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters’? Speak.
CORDELIA: Nothing, my lord.
LEAR: Nothing?
CORDELIA: Nothing.
LEAR: Nothing will come of nothing; speak again.

She made us read the passage several times, until we learned to stop and let the mute beats of the metre do their devastating work. ‘Nothing, my lord.’ Pause. ‘Nothing?’ Longer pause. ‘Nothing.’ Long pause again.

How was it that loving Shakespeare had come to feel to me like something dirty?

At one point, when reading from another scene, Professor Spivak stopped, put down the book and said, in a tone that lay somewhere between a confession and a sigh: ‘I’m sorry, I love Shakespeare. I’m sorry,’ and resumed her reading. I was relieved that she, the renowned postcolonial feminist theorist, could say this, and that our reading of Shakespeare would not simply be an exploration of the ways in which he was the product of and a mouthpiece for patriarchal, Eurocentric and imperialist discourses. We were also reading a Shakespeare that was lovable, and witnessing a family drama that touched our shared humanity. I too loved Shakespeare, and Professor Spivak was giving me permission to admit it. Across four centuries and multiple cultural chasms, sparks were flying from Shakespeare’s text that illuminated my whole sense of self.

Beyond feeling relieved, I was also surprised by my own complex reactions to Professor Spivak’s half-embarrassed disclosure. How was it that loving Shakespeare had come to feel to me like something dirty? Had I, like Dante’s pilgrim, taken a wrong turn somewhere and become entangled in a thicket of confusion, having ‘lost the path that does not stray’? How could I reconcile the life-altering encounters with ‘great books’ that I’d had in Columbia University’s Core Curriculum with the prevailing sense among the literary thinkers I most admired that those texts were morally tainted and that to value them as ‘great’ was to be complicit in wrongdoing?

There is a widespread conviction among literary scholars that there is no such thing as a great book. Better put, there is a prevailing view in the academic humanities that there is no basis upon which one can make generalisable judgments about the greatness of a book. The claim extends to works of art in general. At first sight, this may sound odd – what are museums for, if not to single out and display works that command special attention?

But the challenge to the idea of ‘greatness’ – the challenge to assigning hierarchical value to cultural expressions – isn’t as preposterous as it might first appear. If, for example, one points to the aesthetic qualities of a work, one must reckon with the fact that aesthetic quality is notoriously difficult to pin down, and that attempts going back to antiquity have failed to give us an objective standard by which to judge. Moreover, aesthetic judgments can easily boil down to individual preferences, which, though perhaps finely attuned to prevailing social norms, are actually the result of particular kinds of education. In other words, it’s hard to extricate aesthetic value from cultural – and aristocratic – prejudice.

One might also justify the judgment of greatness in a book or work of art by pointing to its influence on a tradition of thought or to its impact on how we have come to see the world. In that case, a theoretically sophisticated sceptic might argue that such value judgments point not to anything intrinsic in the work, but to a historically contingent configuration of social power, which, the conscientious critic might add, is inextricable from forms of oppression, exclusion and domination present in our contemporary world. In this critical reading, the elite forms of cultural power embodied in values of ‘greatness’ are undergirded by the exploitation and dehumanisation of ‘the other’.

These anti-foundational critiques of ‘greatness’ carry the high-voltage implication that any hierarchy of artistic value is probably complicit in moral corruption. Up-and-coming scholars who endorse the particular value of certain works, especially canonical ones, do so at their own career-ending peril. In contemporary literary scholarship, it’s better to stick to critique – all the more so when it comes to old books.

Great works are great because of an evident yet elusive capacity to illuminate our shared humanity

But without minimising the insights of critical theory, we can contain its paralysing force by eschewing any effort to define a great book – or a classic – with reference to some defining essence, whether aesthetic, ideological or historical. We can simply survey the bodies of texts that have come down to us in our few thousand years of written records and note that certain works, and not others, have demonstrated a capacity to illuminate the lives of many different kinds of people in many different historical circumstances. These works somehow transcended the conditions of their own creation – they spoke within their time, but also beyond it. I don’t need to understand much – or anything, really – about the political struggles of 14th-century Florence, ubiquitous as they are in Dante’s Divine Comedy, to have that work inspire deeper reflection of my own humanity, beginning with its invocation of an individual reaching a crisis point in the life journey we all travel:

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

What makes Dante a candidate for literary ‘greatness’ is not his immersion in the theology of the medieval Church, or in the factional intrigues of central Italy’s politics, but rather his capacity to reveal, in the midst of those trappings, something that is vitally meaningful to, say, a 21st-century, unbelieving Dominican living in the United States. By the same token, it is not Toni Morrison’s immersion in the legacy of American chattel slavery that makes her novels arresting – and yes, great – but her ability to make that human experience alive and accessible to someone who has no historical connection to it. Great works are great because of an evident yet elusive capacity to illuminate our shared humanity. It is the mysterious quality found by a 15-year-old preacher in Harlem named James Baldwin in a course of reading that ‘began, fatally, with Dostoyevsky’ and that brought about the ‘crumbling’ of his Pentecostal faith.

One does not need to posit a metaphysical essence to human nature in order to recognise that all people share fundamental similarities – from a specific biological organisation, to a specific genetic architecture, to specific forms of cognition, to the existential condition of living with the consciousness of death. The insights of critical theory can be retained without, at the same time, abandoning the ground upon which to form judgments about how works of art can illuminate our common human experience. And we can delight in the uncanny fact that art captures this communality precisely by foregrounding its opposites – individuality, subjectivity and particularity.

Aconspicuous aspect of our commonality – and of its heterogeneousness – stems from our experience of ourselves as autonomous individuals; beings capable of ordering our lives according to subjective conceptions of our own good. This capacity for self-determination puts front and centre, for all of us, the question at the heart of Plato’s Republic, arguably the founding text in Western philosophy.

In the opening pages of the Republic, one finds Socrates debating the sophist Thrasymachus about the nature of justice. Thrasymachus argues that justice is simply a function of power – ‘the advantage of the stronger’ – and that those with power set the terms of what is considered just and unjust. The best course of action, argues Thrasymachus, is to behave ‘justly’ in order to avoid the consequences of contravening a superior power, but to disregard norms of ‘justice’ and seek one’s own advantage whenever possible. Unwilling to submit to Socrates’ cross-examination, Thrasymachus then tries to leave the discussion, but Socrates begs him to stay, asking: ‘do you think it a small matter to determine which whole way of life would make living most worthwhile for each of us?’ Here is the animating concern of the Republic and, indeed, the bottom-line question of both philosophy and religion.

In a story from the Pali canon, the ancient collection of Buddhist teachings, the Buddha frames this same question in a memorable way. During a visit by King Pasenadi of Kosala, the Buddha asks him about his whereabouts and the king replies – I am paraphrasing – ‘I’ve been doing typical kingly things, affairs of state and the like.’ The Buddha then poses the following scenario:

What do you think, great king? Suppose a man would come to you from the east, one who is trustworthy and reliable, and would tell you: ‘For sure, great king, you should know this: I am coming from the east, and there I saw a great mountain high as the clouds coming this way, crushing all living beings [in its path]. Do whatever you think should be done.

This messenger is followed by three more, from the west, the north and the south, each with the same dreadful news of an approaching cataclysm. Faced with such calamity, asks the Buddha, ‘what should be done?’ King Pasenadi responds with platitudes: ‘what else should be done but to live by the Dhamma, to live righteously, and to do wholesome and meritorious deeds?’ The Buddha then presents his at-once startling and self-evident teaching:

I inform you, great king, I announce to you, great king: ageing and death are rolling in on you. When ageing and death are rolling in on you, great king, what should be done?

When teaching ‘great books’ to Columbia undergraduates completing the same required Core Curriculum that I took 30 years ago and that consists, roughly, of canonical works in the Western tradition, I often ask them to bring this question – ‘When ageing and death are rolling in on you, what should be done?’ – to the intellectual encounters they will have in the course. The question always resonates with students. It is true that they come to college to improve their employment prospects and to gain marketable skills, but they also come gripped by existential dilemmas and looking for a way to orient not just their careers but their lives.

Liberal education is not pursued in the service of disciplinary, professional or occupational goals

Liberal education is an approach to learning that foregrounds our existential condition. It takes seriously the idea that rational enquiry into the fundamental questions of life is a worthwhile endeavour for each of us. There is probably no more powerful tool for such an enquiry than open discussion, in small groups of dedicated readers, of seminal works from our literary and philosophical past.

In the US, most bachelor’s degrees include a nod to liberal education in the form of general education requirements – a set of courses outside of a student’s major or concentration that is meant to provide a common foundation of knowledge and skills for all. General education is liberal in that it is not subordinate to any specific professional or vocational aim, but focuses on the general competencies required in all fields. But following the theoretical developments in the humanities that I have described above, general education programmes at most US colleges have devolved into a hodgepodge of distribution requirements, often aimed at little more than introducing students to a variety of academic disciplines outside the major. Yet liberal education is precisely an education that is not pursued in the service of disciplinary, professional or occupational goals. A disciplinary approach to liberal education comes close to an oxymoron, and all the more so when the humanities disciplines have largely abandoned the idea of rational enquiry into the human good as a form of education.

If the approach to liberal education that I am describing sounds like the traditional education of social elites, it is because liberal education does significantly resemble that. And this, by itself, is no grounds for rejecting it. In fact, to cast liberal education as a mere affect of privilege is precisely to perpetuate the structures of social power that have long plagued our unequal society, and to put crucial tools for social, political and personal agency beyond the reach of those who need it most.

My point is simple: give the ‘underprivileged’ access to the cultural wealth that has long been the exclusive purview of the elite, and you will have given them the tools with which to subvert the social hierarchies that have kept them down. Beyond equipping them with marketable skills and the means for economic self-advancement, this deeper work of education is the most valuable gift that colleges and universities can give to young people. It is also the most valuable contribution they can make to a democratic society.

Stories and literatureCosmopolitanismEducation

Book: “Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death”

Book Cover

Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death

F.W.H. Myers

This work, first published in the 19th century, was the culmination of more than 20 years of research into the survival of consciousness after death. Declaring the soul able to survive the death of the body was extremely daring at a time when the scientific community’s leaning toward materialism made it risky to even express the belief that man possesses a soul. The author’s fascination with spiritualism and mediumship led him to examine mediumistic communications in particular and psychic functioning in general.


The meaning of Margaret Mead

The meaning of Margaret Mead | Aeon

Mead argued that non-Western cultures offered alternative (often better) ways to be human. Why was she so vilified for it?Margaret Mead photographed at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, 1930. Photo by Irving Browning/The New York Historical Society/Getty

Sam Dresser is an editor at Aeon. He lives in New York.

Edited by Brigid Hains

21 January 2020 (

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In 1978, after 50 years at the pinnacle of American opinion, the anthropologist Margaret Mead died with a secure reputation and a lustrous legacy. Her ascent seemed to mirror the societal ascent of American women. In some two dozen books and countless articles, she gave a forceful voice to a sturdy if cautious liberalism: resolutely antiracist, pro-choice; open to ‘new ways of thinking’ yet wary of premarital sex and hesitant about the Pill. The tensions in public opinion were hers, too. In her obituary, The New York Times called her ‘a national oracle’.

But posthumous reputation is a brittle thing. It’s difficult to defend oneself after death, and the years wear away a name, eventually reducing it to dust or mere ‘influence’. Issues change, standards shift, new thinkers rise: few names last forever. Within anthropology, Mead is still revered, but mostly as a way to understand the discipline’s origins. In the popular mind, Mead’s name has all but vanished, her reputation whittled down to an apocryphal quote found on coffee mugs and dorm-room posters: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’

What’s more, Mead has become a target of vitriolic dislike for a particular kind of cultural conservatism. In 1999, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a group that promotes conservatism in colleges, ranked Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) as the single worst nonfiction book of the 20th century. In his Letters to a Young Conservative (2002), the splenetic pseudo-thinker Dinesh D’Souza accused Mead, as many others have done, of wounding ‘Western culture’ by introducing some kind of noxious, destabilising relativism. And in The Closing of the American Mind (1987), the philosopher Allan Bloom trashed Mead as a ‘sexual adventurer’.

What happened? More than the passage of time dispatching her name into the history books, Mead had an enemy who attacked with uncommon hatred: Derek Freeman, a New Zealand anthropologist who made it his life’s work to expunge Mead after her death. His criticisms have stuck. Like a parasite, his own name has lived on as ‘Mead’s critic’ (he died in 2001), leading to a strange alchemy: to the extent that Mead is remembered now, it is most often as one who was proven wrong. Freeman gave her opponents a readymade cudgel to bludgeon not only her anthropological work but everything she represented beyond that. And what, indeed, was that?

The explosively curious and acerbic Margaret Mead was born in 1901 and brought up by a tough academic family in Pennsylvania. After a childhood dotted with melancholy, her purpose in life – anthropology – emerged in her undergraduate years at Barnard College in New York City. As a graduate student at Columbia University in the 1920s, she fell under the sway of Franz Boas. The moustachioed polymath was born in Germany and defined American anthropology. It was his programme, his school of thought, that cleaved off anthropology from nearby disciplines, setting out what anthropologists do, and why. Like Émile Durkheim in sociology or Sigmund Freud in psychoanalysis, Boas fathered a discipline.

Boas’s seminal essay ‘The Study of Geography’ (1887) distinguished between the two poles of the ‘physical’ and the ‘historical’ method (‘geography’ here being akin to what we call anthropology). The physical method searches for facts from which general laws can be deduced. Facts themselves are interesting only insofar as they can be roped together to form unbreakable laws, which set the contours of what is possible and yield testable predictions. The historical method, meanwhile, finds the facts of the world to be interesting in and of themselves – there’s no need to get caught up trying to derive ironclad generalisations from them.

At the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th, racialist biology ruled the human sciences. Differences between societies were ascribed to differences in the essential biological makeup of their members, that is, to race. In order to explain why certain peoples were more ‘primitive’ than others, the anthropologist figured out which races have attained what kind of sophistication, and then pegged them, permanently, to that rung. Race scientists believed that laws – thought of as biological – governing the behaviour of humankind could be deduced from the particular facts of each individual’s racial characteristics. A natural political consequence of such a view is, of course, eugenics. The link with Boas’s ‘physical method’ is clear.

Boas was one of history’s great antiracists. (He remains something of a bugbear for white supremacists: Jared Taylor, the mush-headed editor of American Renaissance magazine, placed Boas on a list of ‘Americans Who Have Damaged White Interests’.) Boas’s antipathy towards racist thinking was the result of a moral conviction that humankind is broadly equal, buttressed by his extensive ethnographical research of American Indians. But what could replace race as an explanation of the differences between human societies? Here was set the cornerstone of US anthropology: Boas replaced race with culture.

If culture is contingent and variable, then human ‘nature’ is malleable. It could be changed – for the better

Before Boas, ‘culture’ was more or less understood to be a people’s creative output: the arts, the sciences – engagement with these made one ‘cultured’, refined. Culture is the 11th-century Japanese classic The Tale of Genji, culture is multilingualism, culture is a curiosity in humankind’s explorations. This is not what Boas meant.

After about 1911, Boas spoke of ‘cultures’ – plural – rarely just ‘culture’. For him, a culture was the set of learned behaviours that governs a group of people (‘patterns’ in the phrase of his brilliant student Ruth Benedict, a great love of Mead’s). Rather than differing in the kind of being they were, as racialist science held, people instead differed in their ‘repetition of mental processes’. Culture was custom. Learned behaviour and patterns of thinking, taught to children by means of folklore, instruction and their own imitation of adults, becomes a lens through which one experiences and affects the world. It is also, crucially, the reference point through which all behaviour is rationalised. This is a culture, and there are uncountable cultures that mould the ways that people act out their lives. Boas never jettisoned biology entirely: he simply made culture far more influential. This view of humanity came to be known as cultural determinism, and it had important political implications: if culture is contingent and variable, then human ‘nature’ is malleable. It could be changed – for the better. For progressives who embraced cultural determinism, this meant that poverty, crime and racial inequality were outcomes of economic disadvantage, not innate differences. There was nothing inevitable about them.

Culture, so understood, was anthropology’s new object of study. For Boas and his followers, it was imperative to investigate humans’ infinite constellations of culture, of custom, of traditional, habitual behaviour (a story recently told to acclaim by Charles King in his book Gods of the Upper Air [2019]). This idea launched a thousand anthropologists towards the ends of the earth. They exited the seminar room to enter the field, to learn of the ways we humans can – and do – comport ourselves. Others of us must be met, and known, languages learned, customs understood: if humankind is to study itself, we must treasure and investigate the rich variety of ways of being – ‘every phenomenon, every fact, itself is the really interesting object’, as Boas put it, quoting Goethe. That is, we must do ethnography. So that is what Mead set out to do.

In the summer of 1925, a year after obtaining her master’s degree, Mead embarked on her first professional fieldwork, under Boas’s supervision, on the island of Ta‘ū, in American Samoa. Planning to stay for nine months, she left a farewell letter for her husband, the American archaeologist Luther Cressman, which included the immortal line: ‘I’ll not leave you unless I find someone I love more’ (she always spoke her mind – and did indeed shortly leave him). On Ta‘ū, she learned the Samoan language, endeared herself to the locals, and recorded vast amounts of ethnographic data. Her living quarters, a US naval dispensary, was a poor choice because it separated her from the Samoans. Nevertheless, by the end of her stay, the village of Fitiuta honoured Mead ceremonially, which, she noted with a dash of arrogance, ‘gave [her] rank to burn and [allowed her to] order the whole village about’. It was a mark of acceptance after nearly a year of ethnographic research.

Margaret Mead standing between two Samoan girls, c1926. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy the Library of Congress

Part of the Boasian project was to break down what seemed to be universal laws of humanity. Finding ‘negative instances’ of phenomena that were perceived to hold for all people everywhere would support cultural determinism because it would show that culture, not biology, was responsible for our differences.

G Stanley Hall, the American psychologist and educator, had made the study of adolescence a topic of serious enquiry. He subscribed to a form of biological determinism that he followed to its eugenic endpoint (he was a member of the American Eugenic Research Organization, and a passionate anti-Semite). One of his many widely accepted ideas was that adolescence is, by biological necessity, a time of Sturm und Drang – German for ‘storm and stress’ (we keep a kernel of this idea in the too-oft-used phrase ‘raging hormones’). To put it unscientifically, adolescence is the pits. Hall held that this was true for everyone, everywhere, in all times. The very biology that makes us human also makes adolescence hell.

Mead’s study of the Samoans scrutinised this biological universalism by focusing on teenage girls. ‘Because I was a woman and could hope for greater intimacy in working with girls rather than with boys,’ she wrote, ‘and because owing to a paucity of woman ethnologists our knowledge of primitive girls is far slighter than our knowledge of boys, I chose to concentrate upon the adolescent girl in Samoa.’ Her ultimate, propulsive question was meant to be specific enough to be amenable to ethnographic study yet grand enough to say something truly important: ‘Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilisation?’ If Samoan girls experienced adolescence without the punishing stressors that US society seemed to inflict on its young, then that would constitute a ‘negative instance’, and another brick could be added to the Boasian edifice. It would also, Mead was well aware, hold some pertinent lessons for how Americans should raise their own young. They could do better, and Mead would show them how.

Like the Samoan attitude to birth, death and disease, sex was not cordoned off

Sure enough, two years after Mead returned to New York, Coming of Age in Samoa was published, and would become one of the most famous anthropological books ever. She was 27. Mead argued that Samoan girls, unlike Americans, were able to navigate adolescence easily. One distinction was the involvement of the community in raising children, particularly the extended family. This implies ‘an enormous diffusion of authority’ and disrupts the pain of rebellion against parents.

Another distinction: openness. Giving birth, for instance, was not sequestered away. ‘[The children] had watched miscarriage and peeked under the arms of the old women who were washing and commenting upon the undeveloped foetus.’ Death, too, was unshrouded: ‘[T]here was no desire to protect them from shock or keep them in ignorance.’ This acceptance of the grim, squalid underbelly of life might have actually freed Samoans of a certain stressful fear of the unknown.

But the part of Coming of Age that received the greatest attention by far was Mead’s description of the Samoan attitude towards sex (though it has a rather modest role in the book itself). Like the Samoan attitude to birth, death and disease, sex was not cordoned off. For boys, masturbation was a cheery activity for a day out in the sunshine with one’s friends, away from adult supervision. For girls, it seems to have been more solitary, but in no way suppressed. According to Mead, homosexual sex was casually accepted and seen as a kind of play. Perhaps most shocking for Americans in the 1920s was the Samoan embrace of surreptitious, premarital sex between adolescents: ‘[S]ex is a natural, pleasurable thing; the freedom with which it may be indulged in is limited by just one consideration, social status.’

The book’s final two chapters veer away from disinterested ethnography into a stinging critique of contemporary US culture. One is reminded here that Coming of Age is above all a popular, not academic, book. There are no footnotes and there is no bibliography. It is long on speculation. It is generous in its interpretations. But it is, above all, a means of cultural translation, of bringing to the minds of Americans the ways that other peoples live – so that they could reflect on their own forms of life. It was always meant to affect the thinking of normal, literate Americans – not ‘Boasians’. And by the end of the book, she let ’em have it.

US culture is repressing, stultifying, filled with dreary expectations and exacting, arbitrary codes that often pull against one another, creating a maelstrom of confusion and demand: ‘[O]ur children are faced with half a dozen standards of morality: a double sex standard for men and women … groups which advocate that the single standard should be freedom, while others argue that the single standard should be absolute monogamy … [T]he list of possible enthusiasms, of suggested allegiances, incompatible with one another, becomes appalling.’ The Samoans, for whom adolescence is a placid time, approach life with a casualness from which Americans could learn much.

The book was a fantastic commercial success. ‘Samoa Is The Place For Women’, shouted The New York Sun in 1929; ‘Where Neuroses Cease From Troubling And Complexes Are At Rest’, as the World awkwardly glossed the islands. Published the same year that D H Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover first came out, Mead’s book caught the tide of changing sexual mores in the US. It was a time of the first churn of sexual revolution – accompanied by preemptive reaction and stiffening conservatism. Americans – particularly fretting parents of rebellious teens – searched for ways to navigate these new, chaotic waters. Mead’s book, unhindered and direct, was irresistible. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin informed its readers that Mead had sought to discover ‘the flapper in her primitive state’.

Nonetheless, the book was blasted by certain of Mead’s fellow anthropologists. Edward Sapir, a jilted lover of Mead’s, called it ‘cheap and dull’ (and her a ‘loathsome bitch’ – surely unrelated assessments). The anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski and his followers assailed its generalisations and overextended social commentary. More recently, Mead has been condemned for painting an idealised picture that stereotypes South Pacific Islanders as living in a kind of primitive, erotic utopia, a Garden of Eden with plentiful boning. Samoans themselves have taken umbrage at this interpretation, and have quite rightly wondered why Mead should speak for them (though Mead was clear that the book was just her own, personal interpretation).

‘When field data are so good that they can be used retrospectively,’ Mead wrote in the late 1940s, ‘especially by other investigators, it is a genuine tribute to the thoroughness of the field-work.’ Yet Mead had a penchant for sketching out a ‘typical day-in-the-life’, which smoothed out the messiness of her actual observations. She herself called Coming of Age ‘literary’ by contrast with her second book, The Social Organization of Manu’a (1930), a dry academic tome brimming with data and mere facts. Social Organization is the book written for specialists; Coming of Age is for thoughtful lay readers. Or, put another way, the former is about Samoa, while the latter is more about the US.

Her acceptance of cultural determinism gave her the impetus to become a social reformer and cultural critic

In the 50 years remaining of her life, in addition to pursuing anthropological research, Mead became the voice of liberalism in the US. Her monthly columns in Redbook, the middlebrow magazine for women, accrued millions of readers. She made appearances on Johnny Carson’s TV show, wrote books – some lay, some academic, most good. She declined US president Lyndon B Johnson’s offer to become the secretary of health, education and welfare, though she did advise him on women’s issues, and was among the first to warn of anthropogenic climate change. Her letters to president Carter began with the coolly familiar ‘Dear Jimmy…’

As with Albert Einstein and physics, or Babe Ruth and baseball, Margaret Mead was anthropology. She far surpassed Boas’s public reputation. In the late 1960s, at the height of the sexual revolution, Coming of Age sold more than 100,000 copies. Her pioneering use of radio, her trade books that drew on far-flung cultures from Samoa to England, her grounded defence and unbridled celebration of the diversity of human customs – all of it made her the quintessential social scientist and a venerable public intellectual. (‘I’m exhausted,’ Mead once said to a staffer. ‘Find me a lecture to deliver.’)

In her monthly question-and-answer section in Redbook, she opined on everything from drug laws (they should be loosened, we should invest more in rehabilitation) to grandparents (they should live near their grandchildren) to premarital cohabitation (iffy). Throughout her career as a cultural commentator, she sometimes went against the liberal grain but she was always cognizant of the fact that mores shift, that the foundations of society are not permanent, that cultures are patterns imperfectly replicated generation by generation.

Her acceptance of cultural determinism gave her, at least in part, the impetus to become a social reformer and cultural critic. A normative quality is baked into the very stuff of cultural determinism. If a culture is learned behaviour, a manner of organisation, and if we could study how other cultures organise themselves, then there is the strong implication that one’s own culture could be reformed for the better. It is malleable – unlike the racist and sexist determinism of Mead’s forebears. And if it is indeed malleable, who is not going to try to change it for the better?

Mead’s death in 1978 also marked the zenith of her reputation. For found among her papers was a manuscript that would soon contort and blemish her name – Derek Freeman’s provisionally titled ‘On Coming of Age in Samoa: The Nemesis of an Anthropological Myth’. He had sent it to Mead in the hopes that she would read it, but she never did. Had she, the book would have sparked in her an immeasurable rage.

Much of what one needs to know about Freeman is that he happily referred to himself as a heretic. In his mind, intellectual opinion had coalesced around the Boasian belief that culture makes us human, that biology is relatively unimportant. Cultural determinism was victorious, an unthinking dogma, unscientific to the core. In himself, Freeman bravely found a ray of hope for defeating it.

In the late 1930s, Freeman had developed an interest in anthropology as a graduate student at Victoria University College in Wellington. He attended seminars taught by the New Zealand psychologist Ernest Beaglehole, a Boasian who introduced him to Mead’s work, which in turn prompted a lifelong fondness for Samoa. In 1939, Freeman won an appointment as a teacher to the Education Department of Western Samoa, and he arrived the next year. He planned to teach and in his free time conduct fieldwork. As on Mead’s first journey, he was 23 years old. Among the books he brought were Boas’s General Anthropology (1938) and a nifty little volume for the public, called Coming of Age in Samoa.

Like Mead, Freeman earned an honorary Samoan title and, though he spent more time among the Samoans, he too often lived with Europeans and New Zealanders. He mastered the language. Then the Second World War interrupted his work, and various academic assignments, as well as a breakdown in his mental health in 1961, kept him from returning to Samoa until the mid-1960s. In the interlude, he kept up his knowledge of Samoan and often lectured on Samoan culture, but published little. His views also shifted dramatically. With a convert’s zeal, he desired to make anthropology into a science. For that to happen, according to Freeman, anthropology would have to return to its pre-Boasian roots: ‘[T]he science of man must be biologically based – we must begin with the human animal, and never let him slip from our sight when studying social systems …’ What stood in the way of this ambition was Coming of Age – by then, a 40-year-old book with broad public appeal but little academic standing. Even Mead considered it something of the past. Freeman was determined to destroy it.

Freeman’s book on Mead was dedicated to Karl Popper, the Austrian philosopher to whom we owe the idea of falsifiability: a scientific theory is scientific only if it is possible to prove wrong. On 23 March 1973, Freeman wrote his first letter to Popper, announcing abruptly that ‘for me you are beyond all compare the philosopher of the 20th century’. So begins a correspondence of surpassing strangeness and unintended hilarity. Freeman frames his project as one of epitomising Popper’s philosophy, ‘an exemplification within anthropology of the scientific methods in which you have so long instructed us’. Popper, for his part, appeared complimented but bemused. It doesn’t seem like he had a clue about Coming of Age, and he knew even less about US anthropology. His letters mostly offer bland encouragements.

In 1981, when Freeman finished writing Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (1983), he wrote to Popper: ‘I have produced a book that will have a radical effect on the thinking of both anthropologists and biologists, and find a permanent place in the history of the nascent science of anthropology.’ There are not many anthropologists who agree – the American Anthropological Association deemed Freeman’s book ‘poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible and misleading’ – but, as with the great success of Mead’s popular book, the public would take a very different view.

He wrote with venom and never admitted a single scholarly error in connection to his feud with her legacy

‘New Samoa Book Challenges Margaret Mead’s Conclusions’, ran a front-page headline in The New York Times a couple of months before the book’s publication. Freeman noted in his private diary: ‘Now the matchless deed’s achieved: determined, dared, and done’ (always nice to write one’s own reviews). More publicity followed. The Washington PostTime magazine, The Wall Street Journal and the Smithsonian magazine all ran with it. Freeman was invited on to The Phil Donahue Show to debate Mead’s daughter Mary Catherine Bateson and the anthropologist Bradd Shore (‘You do cut a bit of a messianic personality,’ the host told Freeman: a common observation). Anthropologists, most of whom had not read Freeman’s book, were asked for instant reactions, which could not satisfactorily be delivered. Given the coverage, it seemed to the public that Freeman had conclusively corrected Mead. He wrote with venom and never admitted a single scholarly error in connection to his feud with her legacy.

In 1998, Freeman launched a second volley in which he hoped to reveal Mead’s limitations, but instead vividly demonstrated his own. In The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of her Samoan Research, he alleges that the young Mead, alone in Ta‘ū, was so incompetent that she based all of her knowledge of adolescent sexuality on a hoax. In Freeman’s telling, two of Mead’s companions, Fa’apua’a and Fofoa, told her a joke. It’s not even a funny joke: they told her that as teenagers they went out at night, after the adults had fallen asleep, and had sex with boys. Freeman argues that this joke launched Mead’s book, that off this single jest she constructed an elaborately disingenuous paean to sexual freedom.

‘We are here dealing with one of the most spectacular events of the intellectual history of the 20th century,’ he wrote. ‘Margaret Mead, as we know, was grossly hoaxed by her Samoan informants, and Mead in her turn, by convincing others of the “genuineness” of her account of Samoa, completely misinformed and misled virtually the entire anthropological establishment … Never can giggly fibs have had such far-reaching consequences in the groves of Academe.’

The American anthropologist Paul Shankman, the foremost authority on the Mead/Freeman controversy, has proven the hoaxing argument to be quite wrong. Freeman had interviewed Fa’apua’a several times (through an intermediary), in the late 1980s and early ’90s, enquiring about her relationship with Mead some 60 years earlier. As Freeman tells it, in an appropriately dramatic moment Fa’apua’a ‘suddenly realised that Mead’s faulty account [of Samoan sexual conduct] must have originated in the prank that she and her friend Fofoa had played on her’.

But the complete transcripts of the interviews, which Freeman donated to the University of California San Diego, tell a very different story: Fa’apua’a was frequently confused, her answers are prompted, and she knew nothing about what Mead had done since 1926 other than what Freeman told her – which was intended to be as derogatory and provocative as possible (he said, for instance, that Mead wrote that Fa’apua’a ‘went out at night, all night, every night’, which is a lie). Less than one page of 140 ever made it into public view. In fact, the argument is so outrageously wrong that Westview Press, which first published The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, should issue a retraction.

Far from being a key informant, Mead mentions Fa’apua’a only a couple times (under a pseudonym) in Coming of Age, and names her and Fofoa only as ‘merry friends’. At no point does Mead refer to the so-called joke Fa’apua’a supposedly told, and she was well aware of the Samoan proclivity to make fun with foreigners. To accept the hoaxing argument, Mead’s data, including those of Social Organization, would also need to be gratuitously thrown out the window.

Freeman’s Samoa is an almost comically inverted version of Mead’s. The Samoans are not casually open. They’re rigid, thin-skinned, cutthroat competitors, and rape is common. If Mead conjured Arcadia, Freeman sought Hades – ‘the darker side’, he wrote. Since Mead’s whole picture of Samoa was wide of the mark, Freeman reasoned, her conclusions about adolescence must be too: ‘In Samoan character … outer affability and respectfulness mask an inner susceptibility to choler and violence.’ For a man who claimed to love Samoa wholeheartedly, and who pledged to be buried there, it’s a remarkable depiction. And while Mead’s Samoa presents a placid (indeed, almost stereotypical) island life, with relaxed morals and little conflict, Freeman finds a puritanically Christian Samoa that prizes the sanctity of virginity above all else.

There are plausible reasons for this. Freeman did not go to Samoa in order to study adolescence. His informants were not female, and they were not young. They were fellow men who were keen to present a stricter and more male-dominated culture than the young women Mead had known. Publicly approved virtue espoused by leaders does not always match up with the privately pursued behaviour of those whom they lead. And much had changed in Samoa too, not least due to the stationing of thousands of US Marines during the war, some of whom met and married Samoan women. Culture is, after all, dynamic.

The question is why, if Freeman considered himself to be doing serious anthropology, did he focus on an out-of-date book for the lay reader and not on Mead’s Social Organization of Manu’a (which he knew, but downplayed)? The answer is that he was not interested in confining the fight to academia; he, like Mead, wanted to say something about modernity and the West, and was prepared to use the Samoans to do it.

His argument was inelegant but effective. By casting Coming of Age as foundational to the cultural determinist paradigm, Freeman could dress up as the dragon-slayer he wasn’t. Freeman thought he knew why Mead produced such a different view of Samoa: she was blindly in thrall to Boas. Her desire to vindicate Boas’s theories in the South Pacific was so intense that she noticed only what was conducive to her preconceptions of the place. Boas needed Mead to prove cultural determinism, she needed to prove herself to him, and so she – and, by extension, Boas – failed. It is a devilish little argument, rank with sexism, while also drawing down the whole of Boasian anthropology to a strangely childish register, as if all their anthropological achievements could be reduced to some kind of pop-Freudianism. In that regard, Freeman should have looked in the mirror: ‘Mead,’ he once wrote, ‘was known as a castrator; she went for men and put them down.’

The takedown of cultural determinism clears the way to revive biological explanations of human difference

On the beaches of Samoa, two anthropologists sought evidence for two different theories of how humans are and, by consequence, how they should be. Their ethnographic observations, made through tinted lenses, bolstered grand ideas that had implications far beyond their narrow academic scope. Mead went explicitly in search of ‘negative instances’ to the biological essentialism of the reigning anthropology of her day; Freeman in turn looked for ‘negative instances’ of Mead’s theories, explicitly seeking to uphold a more biologically centred discipline. They were, in this instance and from the long view of history, avatars of ‘culture’ and ‘biology’, and their clash exemplifies the immemorial tension that those two ideas have had in the minds of people trying to understand what it means to be a person.

How one resolves that tension has a significant effect on one’s politics. It is not determinative, but it is telling. The culture-first – Boasian – view is that human nature is ambiguous and malleable, without deeply set and immobile pylons to uphold the whole artifice. There is – if this isn’t too much of a contradiction – an essential fluidity to humankind itself, an adaptability that goes to the heart of human organisation. Therefore, it stands to reason that we can always organise ourselves in more equitable, just and dignified ways: a principle to which Mead dedicated much of her life.

Those who are pulled by the opposite pole, like Freeman, are likely to see humankind rather differently: that there are in our biological make-up certain essential ways that are genetically or biologically determined, and these can be understood scientifically. People are in some significant sense ‘set’ from birth. The pylons of human nature are driven very deep indeed. Men are men; women are women; these categories and those like them are intrinsic to the ways in which a person is. From this vista, there is far less ambiguity – far less malleability, too. If committed to social change, one might see it as very difficult to achieve. Worse, one might have less reason to try to change things, for there is a place for things, determined by nature, and those things should be kept there.

Evolutionary psychologists in particular have taken this line. In the context of the Mead/Freeman controversy, their dispatching of Mead is a means of dismissing cultural determinism. For them, the takedown of cultural determinism clears the way to revive biological explanations of human cultural difference, not to mention human sexuality and gender differences. Take David Buss, the American evolutionary psychologist who has devoted much of his career to arguing for permanent and fixed sex differences between men and women: a cursory review of Freeman’s ‘revelations’ regarding the ‘hoax’ is enough to convince him that much of Mead’s work was wrong (one might wonder whether it was not, in fact, Buss who was hoaxed by Freeman). The British science writer Matt Ridley cast Mead as the spectre of ‘political correctness’, and drew a line from her endorsement of cultural malleability to ‘communism’, thereby staining her fairly moderate belief in the betterment of human societies with the great crimes of the 20th century – an exquisite example of how fundamental anthropological investigations can be ballooned out of all proportion.

In The Blank Slate (2002), the Canadian-American psychologist Steven Pinker, too, has gone down this path of skewering Mead with short reference to Freeman’s ‘discoveries’ that, to him, proved Mead was ‘almost perversely wrong’. The Canadian psychologist and popular author Jordan Peterson is another, whose heady and vulgar mixture of evolutionary thinking and Jungian essentialism yields a potent and combustible ideology perfect for those who want to find their own supremacy prefigured in nature. This isn’t at all to slap on these thinkers the same political label, grouping them together in some kind of party. It is simply to highlight a tendency of thought that makes them natural allies of Freeman and, in turn, natural enemies of Mead.

AnthropologySex and sexualityChildhood and adolescence

Aksel Schiøtz – Comfort Ye My People; Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted

“Aksel Schiøtz (1906-1975) was a remarkable Danish tenor…and later, baritone. Born in Roskilde, he spent most of his formative years in the town of Hellerup, just north of Copenhagen. The young man had always had an interest in music and began singing Danish songs and German lieder while still in high school. His architect father, however, felt that the boy should concentrate on something more practical. With that in mind, Schiøtz earned his Masters of Arts in languages and literature (with a Minor in singing and pedagogy) from the University of Copenhagen in 1930 and set about earning a living as a schoolteacher. When he wasn’t in the classroom, however, the young teacher continued singing, albeit as an amateur. Schiøtz was cantor at Copenhagen’s Helligåndskirken and the Christiansborg Slotskirke and also soloed with the Copenhagen University Choir. “Schiøtz’s professional operatic debut didn’t come about until 1939…when he was nearly 33 years of age. The role was Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan Tutte at Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Theater. Schiøtz was never offered a long term contract with the company and he only made a few infrequent guest appearances. The tenor travelled to the U.S. later that year for appearances at the World’s Fair in New York and San Francisco. By the time he returned to Europe, war had broken out, restricting travel. As a consequence, Schiøtz remained in Scandinavia for the duration of the war. He made his mark as an oratorio specialist, with appearances in Handel’s Messiah and Samson, Haydn’s The Seasons and The Creation, Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and others. During the German occupation of Denmark, he also became popular with radio audiences for his broadcasts as “The Masked Tenor”. “Following the war, Schiøtz was ready to resume his international career. In July of 1946, he accepted an invitation to Glyndebourne to sing in the world premiere of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, alternating the role of Male Chorus with Peter Pears. Shortly after the production, Schiøtz began to suffer from hearing loss and complained of dizziness. Doctors diagnosed a tumor on the acoustic nerve. Surgery, albeit risky, was necessary to save the tenor’s life. Schiøtz underwent the operation in September of 1946 and although he survived, he was left with permanent paralysis of the right side of the face. Resumption of his singing career seemed out of the question…but Aksel Schiøtz refused to give up easily. “After a two-year recovery period, the courageous tenor made a comeback of sorts, with a solo recital at Copenhagen’s Oddfellows Hall…the site of his very first solo recital a dozen years earlier. The concert, consisting of Schubert’s Dichterliebe and several sets of Danish art songs, was a tremendous success and an encore performance had to be quickly scheduled. Concert appearances in New York, Montreal and Edinburgh followed, with a curious public flocking to see and hear the Danish tenor. Schiøtz was able to extend his career for a few years by switching his vocal range to baritone. The paralysis, however, left Schiøtz in a slightly impaired state and he never completely recovered his voice. By the mid-1950s, he had returned to his original profession, teaching, and held several collegiate positions including Professor of Voice at the University of Minnesota, Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and University of Colorado in Boulder. In 1968 he was appointed Professor at the Royal Danish School of Educational Studies in Copenhagen but continued to give masterclasses in the U.S. During the final years of his life, Schiøtz battled cancer, a souvenir of the radioactive contrasting dye used in the treatment of his brain tumor some three decades earlier. He succumbed to the disease on April 19, 1975 at the age of 68. “In spite of the cruel tricks that fate had played on him, Aksel Schiøtz was a remarkable artist who refused to let adversity stand in his way. Even after the effects of his illness had stripped the voice of much of its luster, the artistry and musicality remained intact. Schiøtz made hundreds of recordings, mostly between 1933 and 1946, consisting of arias from opera and oratorio, lieder, Danish art songs and even American standards. In this recording, Schiøtz sings “Comfort Ye My People; Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted” from Handel’s Messiah. This is one of the tenor’s most amazing recordings and one of the finest renditions of this piece committed to disc. This was recorded on two separate discs for HMV in Copenhagen on March 26, 1940.”__wikipedia

(Contributed by Alan Blackman)

The meaning of life with Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake

Rupert Sheldrake Recorded on November 5th, 2021 A dialogue from Beyond The Brain 2021 – Further Reaches of Consciousness Research, with host David Lorimer, organzied by the Department of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia, the Scientific and Medical Network, the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and the Alef Trust. Graham Hancock is the NY Times best-selling author of a series of controversial books, notably Fingerprints of the Gods (1995), Heaven’s Mirror (1998), Underworld (2002), Magicians of the Gods (2015) and America Before (2019), investigating the possibility of a lost advanced civilization of the Ice Age. He is also known for his work on the role of altered states of consciousness in the origins of art and religion — an interest explored in his 2005 book Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Man. Beyond the Brain is the world’s premier conference series exploring new research on whether and how consciousness and mind extend beyond the physical brain and body. This year’s event covers the limitations of scientific materialism, parapsychological research, implications of NDEs, savant syndrome, indigenous gateways to the soul and the nature of universal love. There will also be an experiential session on each day.

Book: ” Physics of Angels: Exploring the Realm Where Science and Spirit Meet”

Book Cover

The Physics of Angels: Exploring the Realm Where Science and Spirit Meet

Matthew FoxRupert Sheldrake

“Matthew Fox might well be the most creative, the most comprehensive, surely the most challenging religious-spiritual teacher in America.”—Thomas Berry

“Rupert Sheldrake continues to chart a new course in our understanding of the non-local mind that connects all of us.”—Deepak Chopra

Many people believe in angels, but few can define these enigmatic spirits. Now visionary theologian Matthew Fox and acclaimed biologist Rupert Sheldrake—pioneers in modern religious thinking and scientific theory—launch a groundbreaking exploration into the ancient concept of the angel and restore dignity, meaning, and joy to our time-honored belief in these heavenly beings.


Word-Built World: Anergy



1. Lack of energy.
2. The lack of an immune response to a foreign substance.

ETYMOLOGY:From an- (not) + ergon (work). Earliest documented use: 1890. The opposite of sense 1 is energy and the opposite of sense 2, allergy. Earliest documented use: 1890.

USAGE:“The girl wondered if the man did not have the ability to react to the skin test because of anergy or inactivity of his immune system.”
William Lynes; 606 University; iUniverse; 2016.