Have I Identified the Moral Panacea?
Panacea – named after a Greek goddess – was supposed to be the remedy that would cure all diseases; so I’ve used the term Moral Panacea to express the idea of a possible cure for humanity’s social problems, and the cure I propose, is The Arete Puppet Theatre Project.
I’m an artist-craftsman, and I first had the idea of working on a puppet theatre project a few years ago, while sand sculpturing with my three daughters, at Sandypoint beach on Hayling Island. This activity usually attracted a few other children, and I’d find myself teaching them some sand sculpturing tricks, and helping them create their own crazy looking sand monsters.
I had already rejected the religious dogma I had been taught in my childhood, exchanging the doctrine of original sin for a belief that humanity is intrinsically good. So while supervising the sand sculpturing, I’d think of myself as a role model and endeavour to give the children a passion for creativity before they’re subjected to everything else society has to offer.
But my influence would only be for a short while and then we’d go home. So it was a desire to be an even bigger influence that led to the idea of puppet theatres as social-tools; and what struck me about this project idea was how perfect it could be. Take for example, the idea of a utopian society. This is of course extremely difficult or impossible to imagine; but wouldn’t an ideal society prioritise the nurturing of its youth, to ensure the ideal values of that society are maintained. And what could be better than puppets to start influencing very young children?
Not long after having this project idea, I started on a three year design course, which for me, turned out to be somewhat nightmarish. I went through a time of extreme self-doubt and acute social anxiety, and although I couldn’t work on the project or talk about it, I’d frequently think about how dynamic it could be. I’d imagine something similar to Punch and Judy booths in such places as shopping precincts, parks, gardens, school playgrounds and of course the beach; and there was always the idea of designing puppet theatres for peoples homes.
My problems were mainly due to not having a suitable puppet play. I looked through numerous children’s storybooks and thought about Aesop’s Fables and even the biblical parables, but couldn’t find anything that would give the project a truly dynamic edge.
I also waded my way through philosophy books, with no idea of what I was really looking for, but somehow knew that it had to be there. But it wasn’t in extensive writings that I found anything, it was in quotes such as this:
Until some method of teaching virtue has been discovered, progress will have to be sought by improvement of intelligence rather than morals. [Bertrand Russell]
This was the confirmation I needed to show that I was definitely on the right track, because if there were any way that virtue could be taught, then surely it would be taught to children in the early stages of their lives. Taken to the absolute extreme, specific puppets could be given to newly born babies, as life companions or extended family members and as the children grow up, they’d see their own puppet characters in plays that teach important lessons in behaviour.
With the idea that my project could teach virtue, I thought about mentor-puppets, and searched for the best philosophers to teach the virtues: kindness, moderation, wisdom and fortitude. The four I came up with are:
1. Confucius, for the mentor-puppet of kindness (and politeness) because he grew up in a society where social rituals were very important. The rituals were a sort of elaborate and embellished form of polite and correct conduct, to do with ordering society, by showing respect to one’s superiors and enacting one’s own role in a way that would also be admired and earn respect. The contribution Confucius made to his society was to make it more humanitarian and less pompous, more to do with virtue, than class wealth and social status. And he knew that a society’s moral values begin in the home:
The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home. [Confucius]
2. Epicurus, for the mentor-puppet of moderation, because he equated happiness with such feelings as peace, tranquillity and harmony; so he taught his followers to have a very cautious or prudent attitude towards pleasure and pain; and pain includes the absence of disturbing thoughts:
It is better for you to be free of fear lying upon a pallet, than to have a golden couch and a rich table and be full of trouble. [Epicurus]
3. Mahatma Gandhi, for the mentor-puppet of fortitude, because I know of no other person who suffered so much to achieve so many great social changes. He also knew that the solution to social problems starts with the nurturing of children:
If we are to teach real peace in the world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children. [Mahatma Gandhi]
4. Zeno of Citium, for the mentor-puppet of wisdom, because his philosophy was totally practical and heroic. He was the founder of Stoic philosophy and his influence can be seen in the hundreds of maxims of the Roman Stoics: Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. For example:
Philosophy teaches us to act, and not just to speak. It demands of everyone that he should actually live by his own standards, that his life should not be out of harmony with his words, and that his inner existence should be of one hue, and fully harmonious with all his outer activities, this, I say, is the highest duty and the highest proof there is real wisdom. [Seneca]
The soul should know whither it is going and whence it came, what is good for it and what is evil, what it seeks and what it avoids, and what is that Reason which distinguishes between the desirable and the undesirable, and thereby tames the madness of our desires and calms the violence of our fears. [Marcus Aurelius]
The good man will not be a common thread in the fabric of humanity. But a purple thread: That touch of brilliance, which brings distinction and beauty to the rest. [Epictetus]
Maxims are Universal Truths, in other words, even in a billion years time – if the human race still exists – these truths will have the power to influence human behaviour; so surely they would be fundamental to a universal code of conduct; i.e. a utopian society.
Zeno’s greatest innovation started with the impression that gets a grip on reality – the Kataleptike Phantasia – from this he traced the thought processes that result from everyday experiences. He subsequently taught a theory of knowledge using his hands to symbolise the various stages:
Stage 1: Hand held wide open = IMPRESSIONS
Stage 2: Hand closes to form fist = ASSENT TO CONVICTION
Stage 3: Other hand grasps fist = KNOWLEDGE
Here is my somewhat modified version of Zeno’s Theory of Knowledge:
Stage 1: IMPRESSIONS: Everything we can possibly know is initially derived from impressions made on our senses—i.e. hearing, seeing, touching, tasting and smelling. It is from these impressions our memories are built, which we recall as mental images or appearances in the mind. In terms of memory, a newly born baby’s mind can be likened to a clean sheet of paper, ready to be written on.
Stage 2: ASSENT TO CONVICTION: This is where our reasoning faculty forms general notions, through recognising relationships and similarities between the impressions. But impressions have varying degrees of clarity. Some, such as good and bad are strong and demand immediate assent, whereas others require deliberate reflection. The notions formed from weak indistinct impressions—although they may be true—are at this stage, merely our own formed Opinions or Beliefs.
Stage 3: KNOWLEDGE: The impressions from which genuine knowledge is formed are clear and precise, and this knowledge (deductions, conclusions, understanding) cannot be removed and can be confirmed and reinforced by further impressions.
A special tomb was built in honour of Zeno’s moral influence on the youth of Athens.
I also discovered the word Arete, which is a far more embracing term than virtue. It’s an ancient Greek word, which was used for such ideas as “reaching ones highest potential”, or “being the best one could possibly be. “ The Greek mythological heroes were said to have outstanding Arete when they used such faculties as strength, bravery, wit and cunning to achieve real results as explained in this quote:
The hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send: and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Phoenician youth at boxing, wrestling or running, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song. He is in fact an excellent all-rounder. He has surpassing Arete. Arete implies a respect for the wholeness of life and a consequent dislike for efficiency; or rather, a much higher idea of efficiency; an efficiency which exists not in one department of life, but in life itself. [H Kitto]
Socrates will be the mentor-puppet of Arete, because he is credited with the assertion:
Arete is Knowledge!
In other words; if people were to know the best way to live and behave, then that is the way they’d choose. This also means that people live and behave badly because they don’t know the best way. The human struggle is therefore, not a conflict between good and evil; it’s a conflict between knowledge and ignorance.
Socrates compared life to the way an artist-craftsman works, in that knowing is the same as doing. So the people who have the greatest understanding of such virtues as kindness, moderation, wisdom and fortitude will be the ones who will naturally excel in those virtues. And I go further by saying that the people who’d have the greatest understanding of the virtues would have acquired them in their childhood, or as Antiphon puts it:
If a noble disposition be planted in a young mind, it will engender a flower that will endure to the end, and no rain will destroy, nor will it be withered by drought. [Antiphon]
The first puppet play will be an alternative to the Adam and Eve story, where they eat from the forbidden tree, and are subsequently banished from the Garden of Eden. For two thousand years, this story, and the doctrine of original sin that the apostle Paul derived from it, has been a crucial element in the religious indoctrination of children; giving us the threat of eternal damnation, and a low opinion of humanity that permeates throughout our culture.
My alternative “Arete Trees in the Garden of Life” will be about teaching virtue; where some puppet-children will grow some Arete Trees, with the help of Confucius, Epicurus, Mahatma Gandhi, Zeno and Socrates. The growth and health of the Arete Trees will symbolise the moral growth and health of the puppet-children:
We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends. [Mary McLeod Bethune]
This article was taken from my blog site at http://moralmission.blogspot.co.uk/