Many traditional ideals in East and West have turned out to be illusions as soon as people have decided to take a closer look at the practices on which they are based.
Kai Marchal
Professor of Philosophy Chengchi University Taipei


Wisdom and Practice. Three Models from East Asia


The widespread interest in Far Eastern wisdom and spirituality in Western societies can be evaluated in various ways. Some may feel a certain skepticism in the face of many hasty or superficial references that do not necessarily have much to do with the realities. Those who want to be wise only because it is very fashionable at the moment will hardly find an adequate answer to the really challenging situations of their lives. The search for wisdom is never just pleasant; and it would certainly be a great loss, if ancient wisdom texts from all over the world today provided multicultural alternate identities for the insecure consumers without them still feeling the need to radically change their existing form of life And yet: It can hardly be denied that we all still have a vague idea of what being-wise means; and it is easy to imagine situations in which we are required to display “wise” behavior, without at the same time having a precise definition of this word at hand. Wisdom is not simply something of the past.

The traditional culture of China seems so foreign to many people in the so-called ‘West’ (Europe, North America) that they cannot even imagine any other approach to it, other than the historical one. However, anyone who has studied Chinese texts for a longer period of time will quickly see that they also deal with topics that are very familiar to us, but in particular that they provide plausible answers to current question about wisdom.[i]  With recourse to central positions from the Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist schools, I will outline three forms of wisdom thinking in pre-modern China: (1) wisdom as knowledge of action, (2) wisdom as not knowing, and (3) wisdom as direct contemplation of emptiness.


In classical China (ca. 1046-256 BC) there was often talk about the earlier sages, the wise men of a mythical antiquity – implying a great loss. Something great and meaningful had been lost, a comprehensive order had been permanently disrupted. Only one person seemed able to explain the thinking and actions of these sages to contemporaries who were obviously in a state of disorientation: Confucius (551–479 BC).[ii]  Master Kong, as he is often called, did not wish to be called neither “wise” nor “holy” (sheng 聖 in Classical Chinese); he was simply too modest for that. Moreover, he was concerned with continuous, never-interrupted learning and effort that alone could improve a person. An important characteristic of wisdom is therefore to be aware of the limits of one’s own abilities and never being satisfied with what one had acquired: “To take what you know for what you know, and what you do not know for what you do not know, that is knowledge indeed.” (The Analects 2:17)[iii]

It has often been argued whether Confucianism contains a moral philosophy, even an atheistic ethic, or whether it is a political doctrine, a traditionalist worldview with clearly religious features. Be that as it may, the Master undoubtedly urged his disciples to place themselves in a ‘context of wisdom transmission’. Wisdom was regarded by Confucius as an aspirational goal. Those who wished to become “wise” (xian 賢; 1:7) and thus a “gentleman” (junzi 君子; 1:1, passim) had to prove themselves in the project of education and practice he described. This included the acquisition of detailed knowledge of the rituals, music, calligraphy, archery and much more, as well as the mastery of the canonical writings (often summarized under the term “Six Classics”). Such knowledge alone would enable the individual to display the right behavior in everyday life.

In Socrates, self-knowledge is an important source of wisdom; in the school of Confucius, too, reflection on oneself is required of his students (cf. 1:4), only in his case the idea of an indivisible, immortal soul is missing that might lend the search for self-knowledge a sense of drama. The conviction that I possess a special obligation to a normatively understood past is likely even more important in Confucianism. Thus, Confucius once complained that he no longer dreamed of the Duke of Zhou, a particularly knowledgeable, wise man from antiquity – an unmistakable sign that he was no longer on top of things, that he was “getting dreadfully old” (7:5). Clearly, anyone who wants to be at Confucius’ height must be imbued with a particular sense of duty; they must, to a particular extent, be in a state of collectedness, with exceeding earnestness, constantly measuring themselves against the highest ethical standards, which of course derive primarily from traditional doctrine (1:8). A person striving for wisdom will, moreover, exert oneself ceaselessly in everyday life (5:10), will be careful to apply their knowledge to everyday practice (5:14), will also show great reverence for paternal authority (1:11, 4:20), in addition to putting “loyalty and faithfulness foremost” (1:8) and being “without perplexity” (9:29).

The Master conceives of man as always being involved in a community, although sometimes in conflict with it (cf. 1:4; cf. 8:13). A successful life therefore includes social and political virtues such as humanity, justice, bravery, and prudence. A person who is virtuous will obviously also succeed more easily in attaining wisdom. Such a person will be moderate, not aggressively seeking their own advantage (see, for example, 3:7), they will not simply give in to their desires, but will behave in accordance to set rituals (12:1), must not deal with the criticism of others careless, will display patience and trust, and will guard themselves against chatter and fine words, preferring to be prudent in his speech (1:14), remaining silent if necessary (1:3, 17:19). For Confucius, moreover, the restoration of this overall ritual order, which the sages had supposedly realized, was indispensable. Therefore, he also considered it a central function of wisdom that it could find its unfolding in politics, as knowledge of order and dominion (6:24). Once he explained to one of his disciples: “Secure the rights of the people; respect ghosts and gods, but keep them at a distance – this is wisdom indeed.” (6:22). Those who are knowledgeable and wise will not necessarily be popular with their fellow human beings, but they are likely to succeed in politics sooner or later. In later centuries, generations of officials have sought to practice Confucian wisdom in a sober, diligent and worldly-oriented manner, which always includes a ruling and a judicial dimension.

Apparently, Confucius, like Aristotle, was convinced that wisdom presupposes other virtues, but also surpasses them and helps to balance their precepts against each other. Thus, one who actually possesses “practical wisdom” (phrónesis φρόνησις) will be able to weigh the various courses of action in different situations, identify the most ethically appropriate one, and then put it into action. Wisdom is thus understood as knowledge of action. Furthermore, however, wisdom always has a contemplative dimension, beyond all human action. At the end of the path of practice, it is necessary to transcend political purposes and to advance to a deeper insight into the order of the world (11:26). What this exactly means is not easy to say, at least if we stick closely to the original text of The Analects. Divine encouragement is not necessary for this (7:35); and unlike Socrates, this Master from ancient China had too much reverence for oracle sayings to ascribe much importance to them in everyday practice (7:17). At the age of fifty, so it is once told, Confucius knew “the will of Heaven”, and at sixty he was able to follow it as if by himself (2:4). Although he always emphasized the self-sufficiency of his humanity and never understood wisdom along the lines of a divine knowledge, the Master apparently did make some effort to direct his life towards a transcendent or supernatural perspective (i.e. “Heaven”). 

Some of Confucius’ statements seem trivial in the eyes of modern readers. However, the reason for the great effect of the Confucian project of education and practice is probably to be found precisely in this triviality. The wise saying often sounds trite exactly because it expresses something that we – if we do not try to keep an artificial distance from our life references – should have known long ago. Many commentators have also rightly pointed out that Confucius very consciously set an example of an indefinite existence for his students – present and future –, that the form of communicating wisdom was more important than its particular content.[iv] Therefore, it is probably also the case that Confucian wisdom is ultimately less a matter of knowledge (expressible in truthful statements) than of an attitude, which presupposes certain insights, but whose actual content cannot be verbalized. Wisdom operates in a selective and occasional manner.[v]  As much as we may wish in our desire for theoretical or systematic clarity that Confucius would for once express himself in general terms, he never actually does so.[vi] Whoever wants to get closer to him is therefore urged to think his way into the intricate, often extremely confusing links in The Analects, until perhaps the point becomes visible at which the texture of one’s own life coincides with that of the book. Then it would indeed be more than a historical relic and could unfold meaning, even normative sense, in our lives.


Confucius’ disciples continued his project of education and practice with great passion. Like their teacher, they traveled throughout the then-known world, offering their services at courts as princely advisors and educators. But their sense of mission soon drew fierce criticism. Among the many opponents of their teacher, the most resolute may have been the early Daoists. From their point of view, the Confucian project of education and practice was bound to fail. With surprising sharpness, the probably most important text of philosophical Daoism, the Daodejing (also Tao Te Ching; the “Ancient Chinese Book of the Tao and the Power”), which has traditionally been attributed to Laozi, but who is in fact only a legendary figure, states:

“Do away with Sages,

Discard Wisdom,

The folk will Benefit

A hundredfold.”

(Section 19)[vii]

The suspicion must have arisen early on that Confucius’ ethical stance ultimately remains imposed, or that the “noble” hides behind his courteous, considerate nature – so, for example, it is reported that on a visit to a temple, although he had long since known all the rituals, he nevertheless still feigned ignorance and had everything explained to him afresh (The Analects 3:15; cf. also 10:14). Confucian learning, so it is reiterated in the Daodejing, leads astray. For all the recommended efforts to civilize and gain orientation for everyday life in accordance to a system of rituals, all too easily produce the opposite of what they intend: Those who must strive to act humanly only put an ever-increasing distance between themselves and the virtue of humanity (Daodejing Section 38). In addition, there is another slightly irritating circumstance. In the discipleship of Confucius, a ranking of wisdom, so to speak, crystallizes: Only those who already proceeded on the path of practice may count themselves among the inner circle, only to them does Confucius communicate his innermost thoughts; ultimately, he adapts his words to their varying power of insight (The Analects 16:9; cf. 5:9, 5:13, 7:24). In contrast, Daoists are convinced that whoever wishes to become wise must break out of existing hierarchies of practice and live entirely for themselves:

“Do away with Learning,

And there is an end to Sorrow.”

(Section 20)

While Confucius, as already mentioned, understands wisdom primarily as knowledge of action, the followers of Daoism reverse this. Following the “rule of reversal” (Hans-Georg Möller), only those who do not rule will rule everything; and only those who give up their goal will attain it.[viii] Wisdom, then, should be kept free from any form of intentionality; it is more likely to be found in states of not knowing, passivity, and weakness than in those of knowing, activating abilities, or even ruling over others. Genuine wisdom is indeterminate and unique; it is not authored linguistically or conceptually and therefore cannot become the object of reflection or of a rational learning process. Wisdom per se cannot be declared a goal worth striving for by a community.

Thus, those who want to practice wisdom should first turn this intention inward. It is always favorable to abandon oneself to the sphere of the indeterminate, to “Clarity and Calm” (Section 45). Particularly meaningful in this context is the metaphor of the “Infant”, which we are to become again (Sections 10, 20, 55). It indicates that Daoism is concerned with reversing the tendency to perpetual differentiation that actually characterizes all human life forms and all efforts at civilization, and with returning to a state of primordiality. Pointedly, the Confucian project of education and practice is once criticized like this:


Requires Daily Increase.

The Tao

Requires Daily Decrease”

(Section 48)

Humans are thus to turn to “Emptiness” and “Non-Being” (Section 11), “Thrift” (Section 59), to be “Darkly Connected” (Section 15), or “Deep” (Sections 1, 6, 10, 51, 56, 65). The “colorfulness” of the sensory impressions, indeed the intensity of the experience itself, can only appear disturbing (Section 12). The Daoist language, mind you, remains deliberately diffuse; its’ very mode of speech is the proverbial wisdom that can encompass everything because it avoids being concrete. Instead, it opens up ever-expanding imaginative spaces:

“Great Straightness

Seems Curved”

(Section 45)

Or also:

“Who Knows

Does not speak;

Who speaks

Does not Know.”

(Section 56)

Those who are willing to practice such ways of speaking (or better: ways of not speaking?!) indicate that they have found inner peace and distance from their desire of rational understanding. The truly wise person will no longer strive for anything, but will reduce their will to such an extent that their self becomes free of all possible determinations; they will become completely absorbed in a contemplative attitude.

To free oneself from mere knowledge of the world and to open oneself to a perspective of wisdom, self-knowledge is undoubtedly needed. Thus Wang Bi (226-249 AD), a well-known philosopher and commentator, writes: “Those who know men are merely clever; they are less than those who know themselves and surpass cleverness.”[ix] The Daoist point is that, by rising up to myself, I perceive myself as isolated (Section 20) and thus as absolutely insignificant, but at the same time, the gate to the world opens up to me. Microcosm and macrocosm are one; and behind this self – that is no longer tangible as counterpart and got rid of all determinations – the “all-unity” emerges. Therefore, in Daoist texts we find countless descriptions of cosmic sequences and processes of flow, in which space and time are relativized, because no objects to which one could still attach an internal or external perspective – or changes in space and time – are being detected. In the book Zhuangzi, the second classic of Daoism, wisdom is defined as an ability to get rid of all limitations and to be able to survey the world from a perspective of totality. Even the distinction between the states of being awake and dreaming is no longer a fixed boundary, for the sage is able to equally visualize both from the perspective of the Tao – as it is called in the famous butterfly dream.[x] The famous word Tao 道 (literal translation “way”, “method”), which in Confucius still refers quite soberly to the right way of practice, i.e. in Daoist texts, a life in accordance with the Confucian project ultimately stands for the unity of the world; thus it also contains the demand for a constant, never pausing expansion of the individual perspective. The end point of this ‘Tao movement’ is not an absolute distancing from the world – understood, for example, as a Platonic vision of  ideas – but a fusion with the world.[xi] This is precisely why it is said in the Daodejing:

„The Softest Thing

In All-under-Heaven


The Hardest.


Enters No-Space.“

(Section 43).

In any case, the Daoist sage seems to excel especially in the ability to “pass through” (tong 通) (Section 15). Because he no longer has an identity and has become, as it were, something non-identical, he falls through all grids.

As much as Daoists have sought to open themselves to not knowing and to pure processuality beyond language, many,interestingly, have also sought to pass on to others something akin to a “knowledge of wisdom”. The highest insight requires “clarity” (ming 明), namely a special ability to perceive even the most inconspicuous developments and, moreover, to enable the practitioner to anticipate the consequences of his present actions for the future (see, for example, Section 52). While change remains largely inexplicable to ordinary people, the sage knows how to decipher the interplay of forces of Yin and Yang and – for example, with the help of the Book of Changes, which has often been interpreted as a Daoist text – to identify the recurring patterns (thus even Daoism cannot do without general structures that govern reality and make it transparent to people). Strictly speaking, it is not about knowing the future in advance, but rather to influence it, to form it according to the guidelines of the Tao.[xii] Interestingly, around such longings for mystical totality, forms of knowledge were developed that were based on empirically falsifiable hypotheses about the external world. Medieval scholars such as Ge Hong (late 3rd until early 4th century) and Tao Hongjing (456-536 AD) dealt with natural history questions that testify to a proto-scientific interest in knowledge in disciplines such as alchemy and medicine.[xiii]

What we have seen so far indicates that the Daoist sage ­– in contrast to the Confucian – stays away from politics and seeks their salvation beyond the public sphere in their very own subjectivity. While a Confucian disciplines himself in order to achieve a fundamental change for the better in the world of practice, the Daoist withdraws into herself in order to bring about a relativization of her own perspective on the world in this way.


At the center of Buddhism is the idea of suffering. Behind all experience is suffering, which is based on greed, and the goal of all our efforts should therefore be liberation from suffering. This idea has sometimes been interpreted in the sense of pessimism, but Buddhists would certainly want to reply that human existence, if we only see it correctly, is nothing but suffering; and that it is this insight that enables us to have compassion, to empathize with the suffering of all living beings. 

With the introduction of Buddhism in China (from the 1st century AD onwards), the perspective of the individual human being, the individual capable of suffering – which was not central to either Confucianism or Daoism – came to the fore. For the Buddhists, it is required of people to attain “wisdom” (in Sanskrit prajñā, in Chinese zhi 智), that is, insight into the real nature of the world of appearances. It has often been noted that there is a close connection between the experience of suffering and the increase of wisdom.  In Mahāyāna Buddhism, there is no soul or ego, but only universal emptiness (of self and world). Through spiritual discipline and forms of practice such as meditation, genuine insight into this emptiness is to be attained. Genuine wisdom is to be sought in an immediate contemplation of this emptiness, in which it is no longer possible to distinguish between subject and object.[xiv] The self “sinks into nothingness” – yet, when I use such a way of speaking, I am already in danger of missing the dialectical character of this emptiness, because the grammar of the English language (with the indispensable clauses of subject and predicate) all too easily suggests the following view: as if there were a substance withdrawn from change, to which different attributes can be attributed. The sage will therefore use the existing linguistic means only with great caution. The talk of “emptiness”, or the “real nature of the world of appearances”, must therefore of course not be understood – as at least Nāgārjuna (ca. 150-250 AD), the most important Buddhist philosopher for East Asia, explains – in the sense that words here actually refer to something.

Hence, Buddhism is at its core a radically skeptical way of thinking that wants to convince us of the apparentness of a karma-determined world without saying anything definite about it. Wisdom consists in having practiced paradoxical ways of speaking that express precisely this apparentness without asserting it positively. Linguistically, it cannot be adequately rendered what clapping with one hand sounds like.

Such ideas were by no means alien to the Daoists, and so there were soon attempts to combine the two currents, for example by the brilliant Seng Zhao (384-414 AD). The way of thinking of Nāgārjuna seemed to be similar to the thinking of the Dao in many respects: the play of forces of Yin and Yang, which the sage is supposed to grasp, is mirrored in the Buddhist dialectic, which no longer asserts anything, because every assertion must already betray the highest insight. There is only one difference: The change to which the Daoists want to surrender is real, whereas with the Buddhists it is only a matter of appearance. But Confucians, too, tried to merge such the truths of Mahāyāna-Buddhism with the wisdom of Confucius. That the latter had repeatedly expressed the wish to say nothing at all about the final questions (especially The Analects 17:19) enabled later commentators to place him close to the historical Buddha, who also remained silent at crucial points. Likewise, the relationship between contemplation and practice was redefined; for Wang Yangming (1472-1529), it is no longer necessary to study for many years to progress on the path to wisdom, but practice in everyday life, in the here and now, is completely sufficient for this.[xv]


In my text I have summarized some central aspects of wisdom thinking in pre-modern China. Of course, much more could be said. One could point out, for example, that no attempt was ever made in East Asia before the 20th century to establish an independent, institutionally based discipline of philosophy beyond the wisdom teachings. To the extent that Confucius had been ascribed paramount importance in Chinese political culture, Chinese history has represented one long history of wisdom. And, of course, this history has many problematic aspects; the Confucian notion that social order must correspond directly to a hierarchy of wisdom, undoubtedly possesses a repressive trait. Many traditional ideals in both East and West have turned out to be illusions once people have decided to take a closer look at the practices that they are based on. Nevertheless, some ideals are still able to inspire people today; and since even in the 21st century we do not really know what a successful life consists of for the majority of people on this planet, would it not make sense to take a closer look at East Asian models of wisdom and practice?!

[i] With Hans Julius Schneider there is “die Empfehlung, die Vorstellungen, die uns aus fremden Kulturen oder aus den Frühzeiten unserer eigenen Kultur als auf den ersten Blick vielleicht bizarre metaphysische Lehren entgegen kommen, nicht einfach wie ein Zoologe im Aquarium verwundert und kopfschüttelnd zu klassifizieren (‚die Buddhisten glauben, dass …‘; ‚Platon glaubte, dass …‘), sondern stets mit der Frage zu beginnen, in welchen Arten von Situationen diese Lehren ihren Zuhörern welchen Rat geben wollen.” (id., Religion, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008, p. 135)

[ii] For biography see Annping Chin, The Authentic Confucius: a life of thought and politics (New York: Sribner, 2007).

[iii] The translations in this text largely follow: The Analects of Confucius. Translation and notes by Simon Leys (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997). – The texts contain the two characters zhi 知 (“to know”, “to be wise”) and zhi 智 (“knowledge”, “wisdom”). Further reading: Philippe Brunozzi, Kai Marchal, “Der Wissensbegriff in der chinesischen Philosophie,” in: Lexikon der Erkenntnistheorie, ed. by Thomas Bonk (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2013), p. 300-313.

[iv] Rudolf G. Wagner, “Die Unhandlichkeit des Konfuzius,” in: Aleida Assmann, pub., Weisheit. Archäologie der literarischen Kommunikation III (München: W. Fink Verlag, 1999), p. 455-464; here: p. 463.

[v] Aleida Assmann, “Was ist Weisheit? Wegmarken in einem weiten Feld,” in: Id., pub., Weisheit. Archäologie der literarischen Kommunikation III (München: W. Fink Verlag, 1999), p. 15-44; here: p. 18.

[vi] Even statements of Confucius that seem general, such as the well-known negative version of the Golden Rule, are always addressed to a specific addressee (12:2, 15:24).

[vii] The translations of the Daodejing in this text follow: Lao-tzu (Laozi), Tao te ching (Daodejing): The tao and the power. Translation, introduction, and commentary by John Minford (New York: Viking 2018).

[viii] Cf. Hans-Georg Moeller: The Philosophy of the Daodejing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), p. 59.

[ix] Cited in: Lin Paul, “A Translation of Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and Wang Pi’s Commentary,” Michigan Monographs in Chinese Studies 30 (1977), p. 60.

[x] Zhuangzi. By Chuang Tzu, Hyun Hochsmann, Yang Guorong, Daniel Kolak (New York: Routledge, 2007), 1st Edition, p. 97.

[xi] See for example Harold D. Roth, “Bimodal Mystical Experience in the ‚Qiwulun 齊物論’ Chapter of the Zhuangzi 莊子,” in: Hiding the World in the World. Uneven Discourses in the Zhuangzi, pub. by Scott Cock (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), p. 15-32.

[xii] Cf. Joachim Gentz, “Wenn, weil – dann. Besonderheiten altchinesischer Prognostik im ‘Xici’-Kapitel des Buches der Wandlungen und im Zuozhuan,” Berliner Theologische Zeitschrift 38, Heft 1 (2021), p. 29-47.

[xiii] Cf. Lisa Raphals, “Chinese Philosophy and Chinese Medicine” (2020), see: August 2022).

[xiv] Nāgārjuna: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna. The Philosophy of the Middle Way , Introduction, Sanskrit Text, English Translation and Annotation by David J. Kalupahana (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2006).

[xv] Iso Kern, Das Wichtigste Im Leben: Wang Yangming (1472-1529) und seine Nachfolger über die Verwirklichung des ursprünglichen Wissens” (Basel: Schwabe, 2010).

Teile Erfahrungen und Reflexionen
Einsendungen zum Thema

Hilf uns dabei, eine weltumspannende Collage an Erfahrungsberichten zu Weisheitsthemen zu sammeln und miteinander ins Gespräch zu bringen. 


Die Erde ist eine Scheibe. Zwei mal zwei macht vier. Viren gibt es nicht. Zucker kann Karies verursachen. Die Wirtschaften der Welt werden von einer unsichtbaren Hand zum größtmöglichen Glück aller gelenkt.
Wahrheiten und Unwahrheiten bestimmen unser Leben. Welche Wahrheiten sind überhaupt relevant? Welche Illusionen gefährden eine gelungene Lebensführung?


Der Tod ist groß.
Wir sind die Seinen
Lachenden Munds.
Wenn wir uns mitten im Leben meinen,
wagt er zu weinen
mitten in uns.

Alles ist Nichts - Einführender Podcast zum Daoismus (German)
Podcast mit Kai Marchal über den Daoismus, seine Hauptwerke und Hauptvertreter.
Liegt im Dao das Gute Leben verborgen? Wo muss ich es dann suchen? Was ist das Dao überhaupt?

Discover more essays from the ABC of Wisdom (coming soon!)

In the practice that is envisioned to serve wisdom, complex and changeable reality is made ever clearer to those who are engaged in the practical experience of wisdom through the repetition of activities and through increasingly more precise observation.
Michael Hampe
Professor of Philosophy ETH Zurich



Text excerpt from The Wilderness. The Soul. Nothingness. – About the Real Life by Michael Hampe
With kind permission of PalmArtPress Berlin
Translation from German by Michael Winkler

10 000



FILE: MB_1820_09_290.PDF


Don’t people live on in their children in a changed way, in their genes and habits? Is mutation not the transformation of the physical into a new young, perhaps better form? Is, therefore, authentic immortality not that of the soul, but that of the genus? Is this idea of people living on in their children not also a continuation of individual aspects, a transformation of physical peculiarities, character traits and manners of acting as, for example, a certain way of looking, speaking, or walking that return in a new mixture, combined with the other distinctive  features of a new person? Are children for this reason not a form of rebirth of some individual characteristics of their parents?

     Most people reproduce “just like that”. They do not keep in mind that they will live on in their children. But as soon as these children have been in the world for a while, their parents are surprised to recognize how closely similar they are to their progenitors. Parents alsoin part pass on experiences to their children. For this reason, children at times think and feel a little like their parents. Take the dying of children before their parents. Is it not much worse than one’s own demise because it represents the destruction of the secret presentiment or actual hope that at least parts of what define our being may continue beyond our own death? Most people will answer this question with “No”! The death of their children is the worst thing that can happen to parents because they love them unconditionally and because this love has given their lives its meaning. This need not imply that people reproduce in order to give meaning to their lives. But once they have reproduced, they may become aware that their children have given their existence its meaning.

    Despite such experiences of love and meaningful purpose, there are traditions of thought as far as the conscious practice of reproduction is concerned. There are some who aim to recommend that people better not have progeny. Others say that there can be no sense to individual life, unless we are sure that human beings will continue to exist after us. They would continue to pursue the projects we have started. Let us look at these two traditions more closely.

     Chastity is one of the rules governing both Buddhist and Christian orders of monks and nuns. Leo Tolstoy’s interpretation of Christianity, for example, is a plea for reducing the animalistic side of life as much as possible and, therefore, not to reproduce, if at all possible. He argues that reasonable love as demanded by Christianity must consider a personal existence “as an animal” as a way of living that by necessity leads to unhappiness. It creates individualization and brings about suffering and death: “Wounds, mutilations, hunger, frigidity, illnesses, all kinds of unfortunate incidents and most of all births, without which none of us would have entered the world, all this are necessary conditions of existence. The reduction and the abolition of this is simply what establishes the purpose of the reasonable life of mankind . . . “[3]

And philosophical schools that consider the prevention of suffering the most important aim of human activities argue independent of any religion that life is always tied to suffering. Consequently, the creation of life means the production of harm.  And that is the reason from abstaining from bringing children into the world.

     On the other hand, there is the command to be fruitful and multiply. Thus in many cultures and for ages, children have been and are considered a blessing. Infertility is a catastrophe. How, then, is one to think about the transformations that humans experience through their children? Are they a mere continuation and increase of one’s own woes. An example of this position may be suggested by the end of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande that now it is the “turn” of the new-born girl, the daughter of the just-deceased Mélisande, to live in the darkness of the chateau in dark and cold Allemonde.[2] Or are children, after all, the basis on which to build the meaning of life, a hopeful new beginning, like the Jesus-child of the Christmas story? Does this mean true life would be the existence that will create progeny? Or is true life that kind of life which no longer depends on a Beyond, and not even on one that is located in the biological and cultural future, but is completely absorbed in the Here and Now?


Some time ago, there was an interview on the radio with a Yazidi woman who in 2016 had escaped from the so-called Islamic State in Iraq. She described how she had been apprehended in Sinjar and then carried off with her two-year-old daughter. Her male relatives, her grandfather, father, and her husband had been shot to death before her eyes while they were still in Sinjar. Later she was forced to look on as her daughter was first tortured and, after she had been thrown to the ground and held down, was killed. A soldier broke the three-year-old girl’s spine by kicking her. Her mother was abused as a sex slave.

     Unbearable reports of this kind have existed ever since humans have written about war. According to Homer, as  early  as in Troy, babies have been flung off the city’s wall. The Khmer Rouge dashed them against trees. No avengers would be allowed to grow up. This has always been the “justification” for killing the youngest.

     Mankind’s history is replete with evidence of the unimaginable measure of misery that human beings are able to commit against each other. The things some people have to bear in everyday life pale in comparison to what they are forced to endure when they are not at each other’s throat. But even aside from such a gruesome way of acting, human life seems bad enough. It is marked by the suffering that every mother has to undergo during the labor pains at childbirth. And almost always it is characterized by the pain at the end of life, even when it is not violent. Even though medications may be able to reduce physical pain, most people are afraid of death. No one knows death as an experience, one goes through death only once. There is no way to get used to it, there is hardly time to prepare for it, or to anticipate it as an event that concerns oneself. One can only imagine death in analogies created by abstract thought and relating to perceptions obtained by way of other people who died, to wit, from “without”. But nobody knows what death means from “within”, in one’s own experience. And everything that in this way is unknown  causes fright and abhorrence. For this reason even the abstract awareness of death that humans develop but cannot connect to a coping strategy is a source of pain. Animals who apparently do not have this consciousness of their end, are perhaps also not exposed to similar distress.

     It seems, however, a simple and clear aim of human behavior to avoid pain. In an unspectacular way, this purpose appears to be something good, as much as is the objective of increasing joy. And when we remember the simple, but horrific example of the Yazidi mother, we can say: It would have been better, if her relatives and her child had not been murdered so cruelly. It would have been better, if they had not been murdered at all. It would have been better, if one had not inflicted any kind of pain or agony on this woman. It would have been better to have done something to please her, her child, her relatives, for example by helping them all, perhaps with a small present.

     This obvious truth that pain and suffering should be prevented, and joy as well as pleasure should be increased, may suggest to us that pain and joy or suffering and pleasure are something simple, require no further analysis, amount to the foundation of all value judgments. But that is erroneous. To recognize this error and to attempt a further analysis of pain and suffering as well as of pleasure and joy, may strike any number of people as a perverse form of intellectualism or cynicism. But that is wrong. This analysis is necessary to better understand and evaluate the following three traditions: the command to multiply whose representatives we may call” friends of procreation”, the refusal to have children of the “anti-natalists”, and the indifferent party of “mystics”.


In order to get a better understanding of the mistaken simplicity of pleasure and pain, let us look at a different example: A woman feels pressure on her belly. This pressure may feel pleasant to her because she interprets it as a sign of an advanced pregnancy, and she is looking forward to her child with joy. This pressure may also be disagreeable to her because she is not looking forward to this child, and this pregnancy is unwanted. She may be afraid to bring a child into the world without having the time or the money that she would need to take care of the child in a way she considers fully appropriate. Theoretically, the physiologically identical sensation may also have been caused by the growth of a tumor. In case that the woman knows that she has a tumor, she may find this pressure unbearable because she fears that she might die of this abscess. Also the sensation of cold water in one’s mouth may cause either pleasure or pain, depending on whether a person dying of thirst feels water in his/her mouth or someone is being subjected to water boarding, or is actually drowning.

     It is subjective expectations and judgments that in a particular context lend their quality to a sensation: The young woman has particular ideals about herself and her environment concerning the rearing and education of children. She has specific expectations with respect to her inability to live up to these ideals. And both aspects – her ideals and her expectations –  create the context in which her emotional relationship with the growing fetus is generated by fear and turns into an experience of pain.. Or she believes that certain wishes will be fulfilled when she gives birth, that at least she will be a mature woman with equal abilities and rights once she has accepted the obligations of a mother, which makes her proud. There is also the expectation that a renewed feeling of unity between her and her husband will arise once they assume mutual responsibility for the care of the child, and so on. The context of the expectations about the satisfaction of these desires and hopes makes the feelings about the growing fetus into joyful emotions.

     These subjective contexts produce different emotive qualities that in turn generate different courses of action. There are good reasons for the desire to end pain, and for the impulse to prolong or to increase joy. That is why the one woman may go to an abortion clinic and the other  may visit a store that sells baby outfits. Both do this because of the emotions provoked by their bodies, that started as identical but then were modified to become contextually different, and because of the stories they connect with these feelings for the future. The ever-present ways in which an emotion is embedded in such subjective conglomerates as are made out of ideals, wishes, expectations, fears, and hopes should obviously keep us from considering pain and pleasure, suffering and joy as something that “just exist” like that. By the way, there are also analogous counterparts to these connections between subjective ways of interpreting and acting. They can be found in the embeddedness of emotions into quasi-wired interpretive connections of the body that exist, for example, in reflex arcs.

     For the element of pleasurable stimulation caused by the perception of sugar, the painful reaction to experiencing intense heat, the joy of sexual titillation and the pain originating in a rotting tooth and so on – all these supposedly simple sensations go back to causative nervous contexts. They arise from connections between neural tracts that in turn create reactions of trying to find or to flee, of swallowing or spitting out, and so on. All these reactions are part of the complicated self-preservation mechanisms of an organism. These, so to speak, physical “interpretive patterns” are very difficult to change (by mechanical interventions or the consumption of drugs). Yet without them, emotions that in a superficial exploration we would consider elementary, would likewise not have the qualitative character that they have/we have given them.

     If one does not assume that a human being consists of two substances, a spiritual and a physical, but that the material world and spiritual experiencing are manifestations of one and the same being – which appears plausible to me – then one also obtains a quite distinct perspective on the integration of emotions into such reflex arcs. The rough wirings of nerves would then be the material form in which certain non-conscious contexts of evaluation would appear. The studiously acquired, finer evaluative connections that possibly derive from complex and very conscious thoughts and habits, likewise manifest themselves in nervous patterns in the brain, may they already have been established by research or will be discovered only in the future. And as in a person’s life ideas, evaluations, and actions may in the course of time, become habitual and unconscious, that is, become settled in “hard wirings” in the nervous system, so likewise one may imagine that in the wide structures of the body, in the nerve tracks between certain muscles and the spinal cord, which human beings have brought into the world before they learned and became accustomed to anything, very, very old evaluative patterns of the genres and species manifest themselves.

     There is hardly anything one “can do” against these “wired” evaluative structures through conscious re-evaluation. The reflex that makes us withdraw the finger that burns painfully in the flame can hardly “overmodulated” in such a way that the burning sensation is no longer perceived as pain. (Though even here , as some yogis and masters of meditation prove, there appear to exist greater latitudes than the untrained think.) In a non-dualistic manner of perception that sees a human being as not composed of matter and spirit, or of body and soul, there will be no emotional or cognitive transformation in a human that does not also manifest itself in nerves. There will likewise be no physical change that does not also have consequences in the person’s unconscious or conscious experiencing and evaluating. And just as the body is a highly integrated system that constantly communicates with its environment, in which nothing takes place “just like that”, for itself, without preconditions and consequences – just like that, all emotional and cognitive situations are integrated into a surrounding field, and thus derive from ongoing emotions and thoughts and involve them as consequences.      


The desire to perceive pleasure and pain, joy and suffering as elementary components of experience may serve to erect a system for all evaluations and contexts, and indeed one that facilitates the evaluative reconstruction of a person’s whole life. This desire manifests the longing for a box of building blocks from which thinking appropriates whatever may be useful for its descriptions, explanations, and evaluations, in order to make the world and human beings understandable. In this understanding, cognition is a process of construction, an erecting of something.[3] And this construction, this erecting is meant to begin with simple givens that themselves can no longer be erected on something. One is looking for atoms, be it material ones or others of experience. They are expected to provide those building blocks that make it possible to reconstruct and render transparent the physical or the mental world (or both), unambiguously, and proceeding step by step from the simple to the complex. Even an understanding of what distinguishes a happy from an unhappy, a meaningful from a senseless life, best of all even quantitatively, requires a simple approach. One would merely have to weigh or balance the elementary units of pleasure and joy against those of pain and suffering that one can observe in isolation.

     But what to do if this desire for building blocks cannot be satisfied, if these final components did not exist either in the material world and in that of experience? What if everything, provided the appropriate analytical methods are available, has to be split further infinitely and has to be embedded in infinitely complex spatial and temporal contexts and these contexts would give everything a specifically different function and meaning, would need to submit to a new evaluation, including every physical event and every experience? What would be if there is nothing that may have whatever kind of characteristics independent of such contexts, if nothing in itself existed as something specified this way or some other way? What, if everything that exists is exactly how it is, because it exists in certain relationships to something else that also exists or has existed, and so on ad infinitum? Would thinking then become bottomless and without a foundation?

    Much in our experience gives us every reason to believe that the tool box of cognition is a figment of wishful thinking. Reality offers an infinity of contexts, is infinitely analyzable. The absence of a foundation or emptiness of everything is the result whenever we observe at greater length and do research with more advanced precision. Fire, water, earth, and air became combinations of chemical elements. The chemical elements turned out to be differently complex atoms, and the atoms are composed of elementary particles between which above all a huge void is yawning. Are our sentiments and feelings not exactly like that? Whenever people have to stop somewhere because they can no longer recognize contexts for and components of something, this dilemma has until now inevitably turned out to be the result of our defective ability for analysis and cognition. It never came about as a consequence of the fact that one had arrived at something simply “given” and had definitely come to a stop.

     When the process of “building blocks” thinking focuses on pain and suffering on the one hand and, on the other, on joy and pleasure as something simple, and then examines human life “in general”, we encounter two generalizations that are at least equally problematic. If this type of thinking next tries to draw up the balance sheet to see how pain and suffering join in a life and relate to one another, one may arrive at a very unfavorable result. The conclusion may be that human life “in general” is painful and as such something to be avoided. The Yesidi woman who lost her child and all her relatives, is a vivid example for such a presumably negative outcome. It may persuade an anti-natalist to conclude that it is better not to have children.

     It is this perspective on pain, pleasure and on life that has brought about an attitude, ancient and pervasive in different societies, according to which it is the best thing for a human being not to be born at all. One can find this persuasion among Greeks like Sophocles when he has the Chorus chant in Oedipus at Colonus:[4]

                                                                                             Not to be born is best/

                            when all is reckoned in, but once a man has seen the light/

                                                             the next best thing, by far, is to go back/

                                                    back where he came from, quickly as he can.

Also in the Babylon Talmud the question is raised whether it is good that God created man, or if he should better not have existed. The authors then conclude: It would have been better (more convenient) for the human being, if God had not created him.[5] This is remarkable in three respects. First: How can it be better for one single human being not to come into this life? How can non-existence be better for one single human being than existence? Can one not judge about better or worse only in existence? Whoever is not there, is neither well off nor in poor shape, he/she is not at all. Where there is  no existence, there is also no context for the evaluation of emotions. Sometimes we say when we feel bad or we suffer severe pains that we wanted to die, only so that this (nauseating) sickness, this pain would end. But it might happen that our casually uttered wish were actually granted. In this case, we would not simply be freed from pain, but would no longer continue to exist and our wish would turn out to have been spoken in error because nothingness cannot be preferred to nothing, in other words: It does not represent a possible alternative in a choice. For when we prefer A to/over B, both A and B must be something. Otherwise, we would not be able to establish them as part of an evaluating or preferential order. Nothing cannot be made part anywhere on a scale of preferences, neither as the best nor as the worst of anything.

     Second: If the issue is not any one individual human being, but humans as such, or mankind, how can one say in this case that it would have been better for this abstract or collective entity, if it did not exist at all? Mankind or the collective of all humans has no emotions. At least, we know nothing of a “collective soul”. To suppose something of this kind would be pure speculation. What would be the meaning to say that it would be better or worse for a group as species to exist or not to exist? Is it not always better or worse only for individual beings to exist in certain collectives?

     And finally: Two facts appear to demonstrate  an enormous ambivalence about our existence. On the one hand, the human brain has created the idea of immortality and indeed, for example in Kant’s philosophy, has even turned this idea into a practical “postulate”. But then humans assert that it would be better not to exist at all. This ambiguity by far exceeds the uncertainty of a lover who hesitates whether to submit to her suitor. “What is it”?,  one would like to shout: to live forever or not at all? The way things are, that is, being there for a few years, apparently fails to satisfy humans altogether. They most probably prefer the notion that one will survive the painful life that one knows and then be given an eternal existence without pain. But can we truly imagine an eternal life, our eternity, that of the individuals we have become, which is free of pain and full only of happiness? Could we truly have an existence without pain as these individuals? And of what would this eternal happiness consist for us? How much would we have to be transformed in order yet to be those who we have become, and to experience eternal happiness.


A line of thinking that is meant to justify the idea that it is better not to have been born operates with presumably axiomatic assertions about joy or pleasure and suffering or pain.[6] This philosophy classifies the presence of pain as something bad, that of joy and pleasure as something good. The absence of pain is considered a positive factor, even though nobody might experience this absence. The absence of joy or pleasure, by contrast, is nothing negative, if nobody exists for whom this absence might represent a deficiency. The asymmetry in the absence of suffering or pain and joy or pleasure will then serve to justify the obligation to avoid or prevent pain. This duty, however, corresponds to the constraint of bringing children into the world, who experience pleasure.[7] Presumably, one can make this idea plausible by imaging an uninhabited island: No one supposedly regrets that there are no humans living on a beautiful island who experience joy. If humans should live there who were suffering, this would, by contrast, provoke a reaction of regret.[8] Whoever does not beget (children), prevents the creation of suffering, but he does not prevent joy or pleasure. For this reason, it would be better not to bring children into the world.

     This line of argumentation, that characterizes the position of anti-natalism, is a good example of the atomistic attitude toward joy and pain. The example of the island is a good illustration of this outlook. The island is considered from the outside, as it were, as an empty space with respect to emotions and their evaluations. It is a place on which I, from a divine perspective, simply place the building blocks called pleasure and pain. Then the question is raised how I as the observer perceive the island, depending on if it is the way it is, if pain is being removed from it or pleasure is being added to it. It remains unmentioned that the added or removed suffering, that the joy placed or diminished there must be the pain of some one for whom these emotions are relevant at a particular situation in their life. Whether I ask myself, if suffering should be removed from the island, or whether I ask myself, if a person who experiences suffering should disappear from the world, are two entirely different questions. I cannot answer the second question without entering into a dialogue with the concerned person.

     Let’s assume some one lived on this island who suffers from severe pains. Let’s imagine furthermore that I, as a divine observer, am in possession of the power to eliminate this person instantaneously, without subjecting him or her to pain or fear. Could one then consider it right simply to make him or her disappear in this manner? If  I were to know that the Yazidi woman’s suffering in the face of her daughter’s gruesome death and the murder of all her other relatives outweighs the joy in her life, should I then, if I could, simply make her disappear painlessly? In this case, I would not bear in mind the role that pain plays in this woman’s life. If I enter into a conversation with this person and describe to her the power I hold, it may be that she agrees to be extinguished. But just as well she may not do this. The Yazidi woman who suffered so intensely may say that despite her misery she would not want to miss the joy that/which the existence of her daughter had given her before she was murdered, and that she would continue to cherish the memory of her daughter as much as the joy that this memory gives her, even though the suffering in her life outweighs its joy. In a manner of speaking, she would be prepared to “pay”  the “inflated” price of suffering for the joy that she experienced in her life. (In her radio interview she, in fact, expressed herself in exactly this way.) We do not know how, in the final analysis, she sees her (own) life. In case she agrees to be extinguished painlessly because just now she may consider her suffering unbearable and can no longer find any meaning in her life, I do not improve the world of this person because the world of tis person obviously vanishes with the person whom I extinguish. I would, in this case, improve my world as a divine observer who constructs balance sheets: My world as a book keeper of joy and pain transitions from one in which this suffering exists into one in which suffering no longer is a presence. It thus improves its own balance sheet. But it was not the suffering I personally experienced that disappears. It was only the suffering I had observed and of which I prepared a balance sheet that in my perspective I evaluated as something to be eliminated.

     A person whose life contains more pain than joy may not agree to being eliminated for a variety of convictions; among them the belief that this suffering constitutes a trial that she has to pass, that may help her attain an insight that she could not acquire any other way but by working out her suffering as a source of meaning and transformation of herself; considering it the high price for her joy. What am I, the reviewing observer, to do with this estimation? How am I to reconcile my preference as a “God” minimizing misery with this person’s preference for continuing the experience of suffering for the purpose of witnessing what consequences this has for her? Entering the dialogue is meaningful only if I carefully consider the context instead of looking atomically at the misery in which the person undergoing such an ordeal evaluates her distress. Only under these circumstances can forms of suffering be compared and seen as identical. By keeping aware of the contexts in which suffering and joy occur, I also eliminate, in eradicating the experience of suffering and joy or in bringing them into the world, not only this suffering and this joy, but also contexts of suffering and joy as a part of the biographies and meaningful connections defining the human persons in question.

     In other words, it does  not simply amount to bringing joy or misery into the world, or to eliminating them, when one begets a human being and brings him or her into the world or to extinguish either. Human procreation or extermination also includes allowing the creation of subjective worlds with meaningful connections or their elimination, worlds in which the contexts for these emotions evolve and vanish. These are the contexts in which these emotions are being evaluated. Humans are not simply vessels of pain and joy in which these states of mind may occur exactly like red or black beans are kept in a can. Humans have a bad experience and enjoy something else just as pain and joy make them into different human beings, transform them through these experiences. And they can in turn transform other humans by talking with others about their own experiences or by writing them down.

     The divine observer with the power of bringing existences into life or extirpating them, places his externally reckoning context for evaluation “above” the internal contexts of those beings of whom he approves or whom he exterminates. He prefers to put his desire for changing the world into one that in his eyes is better than his, above all wishes for transformation of other people. But with what justification? The reason for the fact that this legitimacy is not seriously debated has to do with a basic conviction: the particular contexts that establish meaningful evaluations of perceptions  such as pleasure or joy and of pain and suffering must remain excluded from the perspective of establishing a balance-sheet, their relevancies for the developmental processes of persons should not be given considered attention. The reason is that this would mean the elimination of the use of pleasure and pain as mental building blocks. Only if one accepts these abstractions do the fundamental assertions of anti-natalism about pain and joy have an axiomatic character, are they evident and require no further justification. But why should one accept these abstractions?


Independent of the conditions of their origin, their consequences and (connected with these two factors) the evaluative contexts of their standard of living and their purpose in life, pleasure and pain, suffering and joy are nothing more than patterns of emotions, if they are anything at all when taken in isolation. They are merely an electrical wave of excitation in a nerve, or, subjectively , a feeling of stabbing, pressing, tickling, tingling, or whatever else that as such need neither be pleasant nor unpleasant. Without a stringent consideration of the evaluative connections and of human wishes for development and transformation, it makes as little sense as wasting one’s thinking on the question of whether these patterns should exist in the world, or not. This type of reflection  resembles the pondering over whether a particular grain of sand should lie on the beach of Tel Aviv, or not. If the diminution of suffering and the increase of joy is meant to accomplish an improvement of the world, it would have to be directed toward the improvement of distinctly subjective worlds and  not toward the world  in as much as the world is looked at as a “naked” pattern of characteristics independent of subjects (if that is a meaningful concept of the world to begin with). But people may be aware to different degrees of the fact that emotions depend on contexts, and that they themselves can relate to the evaluative connections in which emotions become what they are in the end. This is an idea that we need to investigate now more closely. For, one of our three positions –  that favored by the friends of procreation, that propagated by anti-natalists, and that supported by mystics, has to do with actively uncoupling the emotions from their subjective contexts. Mystics strive toward such an uncoupling, but it is not their aim to advance toward building blocks of cognition. Rather, they seek to encounter the complexity of the real world beyond subjective interests and evaluations.

     How could one imagine a subjectivity that, to be sure, does feel and perceive but barely connects remembrances, hopes, and evaluations with these emotions and perceptions? Small children who do not as yet have plans for their lives and as yet possess few memories may exist in such emotive and perceptional states that are close to the present and as such essentially differ from the circumstances of adults. Even people close to death, who no longer have plans or remember their own past would most likely contextualize what happens to be present to their senses, in a different way than human beings who still are healthy and are not facing death. Also depressive and autistic people make few plans for their future.

     A special state in which the  non-evaluation of emotions (and thoughts) is being sought is the aim of the meditation to achieve close attentiveness that many people practice. In this exercise – as is known – the body is kept calm in order to perceive one’s breathing, but also thoughts and feelings that may occur. Next, one would try, following a special kind of instruction, to “put them aside” and to understand that these states do not amount to a substantive self, but are phases that simply come and go but to which, aside from this coming and going, no further significance need be attributed, if one prefers not to do this. The purpose of this exercise in meditation is to de-construct evaluative contexts in which emotions ordinarily occur “automatically”. If emotions are what they are because they occur in certain evaluative contexts, then the dismantling of the evaluative contexts will also lead to a transformation of the emotions. To use a simile: if ice is ice only when it occurs in an environment with a temperature of below 32 F, then it ceases to be ice and becomes liquid water as soon as the environmental temperature is raised for a certain time. The context in which ice occurs maintains or changes its consistency. The meditative exercise is meant go accomplish that subjective patterns of evaluations or habits of reacting to emotions at some time “disappear” (for highly advanced practitioners of meditation even those who are “hard-wired” in the body). This would result in a condition in which the emotions that formerly took place in a positive sense as pleasure or joy, or negatively as suffering or pain, present themselves as something altogether different, or simply do not occur any longer at all.[9] An ancient Buddhist text formulates this aim of meditation as “way” and “it” very clearly:

          The highest WAY is not hard,

           if only you stop to choose.

           Where neither love nor hatred,

           everything is open and clear.

           But the slightest distinction

           separates heaven and earth into two.

           If IT is to reveal itself to you

           leave dislike and preference aside.

           The conflict between like and dislike

           is nothing but a sickness of the mind.

           Unless you understand this profound truth

           you’ll try in vain to calm your thoughts.[10]

What emotions look like when preference and dislike have vanished is beyond expression because our linguistic abilities to express ourselves are tied to these popular evaluative contexts. Even when we speak of a “stabbing sensation”, a negative evaluation is present in the word “stab” that we associate with an injury. The statement “I feel the pain, but it no longer hurts” consequently is inane or contradictory. The sensation that is present in pain but no longer is given a negative evaluation, has no word for it because expressions for all our emotions depend on our evaluations. The person to whom IT reveals itself does certainly still have emotions but these no longer allow themselves to be named because calling it by a particular term is connected with evaluative differentiation.

     Evaluative contexts need not only be de-constructed through a meditative “de-conditioning”, in order to gain the attitude of an emotive being that does not feel with mental states of preference and dislike. Even an artistic activity such as drawing or painting, making music or an attempt at writing a poem may lead to such an accurate turn toward the singularities of reality. This will mean that the subjective evaluations are perceived as a distraction from one’s contemplative work and are being blocked out the more the artist is able to turn his or her attention away from himself or herself and directs it toward the object of the art. This happens above all in those artistic activities in which the relevant artists are not trying to give expression to themselves. Instead, they would represent what they perceive independently of their evaluative systems. We may call such artistic activities contemplative and differentiate them from expressive and engaged performances that also exist.

     Analogies in respect to the poverty of interpretations and evaluations may exist between the perception of an infant, a depressive man. An autistic woman, a person close to death, and a master of meditation, or the contemplative artist. But the paths taken in a life’s history that has guided him or her toward this poverty of evaluations, if one would want to call it that, are very different. In the case of the infant, a social self with memories and hopes has not been developed as yet. For the autistic woman, this development was not possible due to neurological anomalies, or this self is breaking apart due to a severe existential crisis in the face of approaching death. The master of meditation and the contemplative artist, however, have recognized the problematic implications of constructing the self as a source of evaluation. They have realized that this self with its needs for meaning and with its evaluations diminishes their perception of other beings or of the world’s complexity in the here and now. They have come to understand that this self forever makes them categorize everything according to certain, that is to say, to their own classifications of meaning and value. These categories have something to do with the social project of this self, imagined over a long period, but they do not necessarily have something to do with the being they perceive this moment, here and now. For this reason they are meditatively or as contemplative artists engaged over many years in the practice of de-constructing this self. For this, they use the procedures of dismantling that are germane to their activities and may be familiar to them (as in the case of meditation), or not (as in the case of art that is not employed as a practice of meditation).

     The meditating or artistic mystics, as they were called above, encounter the opposition of the social self with its projects while they are engaged in their activities. This is not an insight, however, or a form of cognition in the classical sense: for example, the way one recognizes a tree as an ash or birch or an animal as an artiodactyl (cloven-hoofed) or as a plantigrade (walking on its sole, like bears or humans). It is this very experience most of all that all conceptual terms are insufficient in the face of the precise, though not evaluating perception of a concrete emotion, of a concrete individual, of a concrete situation that here lead to an insight. It is the understanding that assertions like “This is good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, no matter how you look at it” in the final analysis are inadequate to define reality because this reality in its inexhaustible complexity always exceeds what the social self can evaluate. The “purification” of emotions of their subjective or ego-centered evaluative contexts is for this reason no advance toward the construction blocks of cognition called pleasure and pain. The purification of the emotions from the selfish connections will in mysticism rather lead to the intuition of an infinite complexity, one that far exceeds the story of my life. But because this complexity is not being erected out of building blocks, but is “intuited spontaneously” if the evaluations of the self are left out, it is being perceived as a unity, as an infinitely organized unity.

     Let us take another look at the difficulty facing the mystic, female or male, who aims to express in language both those emotions that have been freed of self-referential projects and the intuition of the complexity typical of the intuited wholeness in which the emotions are embedded beyond me. In the attempt to focus on one emotion, to draw one particular line, to paint one specific shading, or to produce one specific sequence of sounds at one specific level of volume on an instrument, it is helpful only at the very onset to recite statements about these emotions, lines, colors, or sound sequences. With all these activities, the perception or attentiveness must in the end be more precise than any assertive speech is able to describe if it is a question of realizing certain esthetic states or those known to the traditions of mystical wisdom. For this reason, no meditation, no picture, no concert can be replaced by a descriptive text. Texts realize something other than what they describe. They reduce the complexity of what they evoke within the perspective of a self that is evaluating in a stated manner.

     A poem about a tree realizes language in a certain manner and may, when we read it, guide our attention during our perception of a tree. But the realization of the perception of a tree independent of our subjective interests is something other than the realization of the poem. Our understanding of cognition is so very closely connected with predicating and in a certain way evaluating language (even though we will have to grant a truffle-seeking pig that finds truffles but does not speak that it recognizes truffles). Therefore, one can formulate a rather different definition of what happens when it strikes someone that reality is too complex for comprehending it merely from the perspective of subjective interests and then for turning it into a linguistic topic. One could also define the issue as follows: The problem that confronts the meditating or artistic mystic is the bottomlessness of reality beyond its own self. It is the confrontation with a linguistically inexhaustiblereality. But cognition is always a question about how to fixate aspects of something, is always an issue of bringing together individual things with general things (“x=F”). Therefore, one can hardly claim that this confrontation is still “cognition” and find expression for it as cognition. There is no longer “something” in this infinitely complex totality about which something particular could be pronounced with certainty.

(The philosopher Baruch de Spinoza, however, calls this state the “third cognition.”[11]) This is the reason that concepts such as ”intuition” are used to identify this state, or that one speaks of them emphatically as “awakening” or “illumination”.

     These states of intuition or of awakening cannot be stabilized absolutely.  Attempting to stabilize them, as every kind of effort, is the best way to make  them disappear. “If you follow emptiness, you turn your back to it.”[12] A man  engaged in meditation or a contemplative artist may limit themselves to using the schematic designs of general concepts in their relationship to reality and experience its inexhaustible variety only at a few especially intense moments of (spiritual) absorption. They can do so because they are able to “silence” their subjective valuations. The kind of people in whom this experience has actually stabilized itself without intention and who can also spend their daily routine in it, are very, very rare and sometimes are referred to as “sages” or “illuminated ones”.

     Many of our intersubjective relationships and their lapses of understanding have to do with the barriers that exist between culturally determined contexts of valuations that have “trickled into” our self and that keep us from  perceiving the complexity of reality. That makes our life shallow and quite frequently full of conflicts. These barriers are highest vis-à-vis those beings whose physical structure is fundamentally different from ours, and whose sufferings and joy  remain altogether alien to us because their bodies are “hard-wired” differently and manifest other trickled-down affective patterns than our bodies. Consequently, we cannot imagine the joy of a black widow spider that after mating (sometimes) eats its partner, or merely what it means for a dog to use its nose in the exploration of its environment.

    For this reason, melting-away one’s social self does not simply serve, in the above-mentioned meditative practices, making one’s own evaluative contexts become meaningless, so that one may arrive at a richer perception of reality. The process of self-elimination is also aimed at liberating oneself from certain selfish or cultural contexts in one’s relationship to reality, is meant to acquire flexibility in one’s way of dealing with others, with strangers, and to understand the relativity of evaluative contexts. This process has a very practical consequence that will become relevant for our question of whether it is preferable to propagate or not: it is the fact that the mystic evolved also opens herself to other meaningful connections, that she learns to know other beings better, and that she, with this knowledge, may be capable even of giving advice that supports them in their existence. This competency frequently establishes connections between “mysticism” and “wisdom”, between the ability to confronting reality in its complexity and to providing advice on how one might orient oneself in this reality.

     At this juncture we must keep in mind that essential differences for the perceiving subject exist within the various types of meaninglessness of an emotion or perception that is  no longer being evaluated. Depressive, autistic, mystic people assume different postures toward the world. It is a fundamental distinction, if the absence of meaning, the lack of evaluation leads to the loss of meaningful connections, or if this opens new perspectives on other beings. Is it simply noting more on my part than no longer being capable of discerning why I found the pressure in my own knees so terrible after the melting of my own social self, or can I also better imagine why other beings are in certain states of suffering because I no longer have to be concerned with my own (supposed) states of suffering? The ability to answer the latter question affirmatively is a goal of meditative and artistic exercises and of many wisdom teachings that aim at a calm, expanded mind.

     Spinoza’s assertion that we gain all the more insight into God, the more we understand about individual things,[13] identifies the one pole of subjective absence of meaning. It points to the richness of the world that offers itself to us. So long as what is perceived is of significance only for me, is recognized only in respect to its relevance for my well-being or advancement, it will most likely not be comprehended with the same intensity relative to other beings aside from me. In this case, the omission of self-referentiality in perception is the loss of a barrier to cognition vis-à-vis  world that contains patterns beyond those that result from my preferences for searching out pleasure and avoiding pain. Spinoza’s godlike perspective can be interpreted here as an opportunity for observing an individual being from all possible perspectives, in all possible connections in which it occurs, but not from a generalized human and therefore abstract accounting about pleasure and pain.

When the attainment of greater selflessness does not bring about new relationships that a perceived being has toward other beings than myself, if its relevance for my personal interests does vanish, but no new connections become recognizable, then the loss of self-referentiality is nothing more than a  “pure losing bargain”. This is what will happen most likely in a depression: everything becomes sense- and meaningless because it has no value for me. It remains unclear, does not become material for a discussion whether it may have value for others. The place of relevance for me is taken over by an emptiness devoid of relevance.

     In Spinoza’s godlike point of view, by contrast, the place of relevance for me is exchanged for the intuition that all individual beings are integrated into infinite connections with quite different

patterns of relevance. This intuition makes it impossible to give preference to a particular, for example, to my order of relevance as the only appropriate perceptual context for any being. This results in a freedom of cognitive possibilities. This is also the sense in which the epigram of the Christian mystic Angelus Silesius (1624-1677) can be interpreted, if death here signifies the disappearance of relevancies that arise from one’s own social self:

                              I say because Death alone sets me free  

                              That he the best one of all things must be.[14]

For Spinoza, making this freedom one’s own means getting to know the infinity or unfathomable nature of relations into which every being is harnessed. It is no longer possible in this situation to characterized an intuition of this kind in general terms because they would “whitewash” the complex individual condition that arises for every individual being at a particular place and at a particular time in the world.

     Thus, it is two forms of void that confront us: the emptiness in which everything has been extinguished, and the void in which every individual being and every aspect about every individual being is perceived as depending on infinitely many further aspects, on infinitely many other individual beings all of whom are coming and going. In either case, language no longer finds a firm hold, but for different reasons in each circumstance. On the one hand, there is nothing further to say because everything has become a matter of indifference. On the other, there is nothing certain left to say because linguistic categorizations are too rough and too firm to do justice to the complexity and mutability of that which in fact reveals itself and does constantly change.

     If we concentrate only on the second form of emptiness, the bottomless nature of the complexity and mutability of everything real, a reservation arises from their “cognition”. It is a qualification in the face of a self-serving theorizing that operates with “favorite general terms” and tries to insinuate them also to others. The ability to relinquish such popular general terms in one’s communication with others is an accomplishment of those educated in mystical wisdom. The following utterance by Confucius (Kung Fu-Tzu; 551-479 a. c.) describes it:

          The noble person is not absolutely for or unconditionally against anything in this world, he,                 

          Rather, tends toward what the situation requires.[15]

Most philosophers and theoreticians will likely criticize and dismiss such an attitude as irrationality or as situational relativism. For this wisdom remains silent in the face of demands for justifications why this action was taken and not a different one. Confucian wisdom shuns to produce the utterances in general terms that are necessary for such justifications. In view of the complexity of the circumstances accessible to them, mystics have abdicated an attitude that goes beyond a particular situation and operates with general evaluations as certainties. Mystics relativize every evaluative connection that originates in a specific self. That makes situations hardly comparable. Also raising the general question whether one should have children or not, makes no sense to them.


Wisdom traditions often use the word “path” (in Sanskrit “marga”, in Chinese “dao”, Sino-Japanese “do”). The intent here is to use processes of development to advance the insight into the unity within the complex nature of reality and do so by cultivating certain practices. The cultivation of a practice (for example, of meditation or of an act of painting or fighting) serves to change a person’s attitudes and competencies in a non-argumentative way. Humans are not “just like that” capable of finding a way in their life through the tangled growth of the ever changing situations defining their existence. As a rule, it is their short-sighted self-interest that keeps them from engaging precisely and thoroughly in the first place with those situations in which they and their fellow-humans actually live. For this reason, most humans rely in the conduct of their life either on their self-interest, which is guided by questions like: How do I increase my momentary pleasure, my reputation, or my power?, etc. Or they follow a conventional way of thinking that evolved from generalizing a certain perspective in order to get a person through life. This means that they do what “one” does or what “my kind of people” simply would do in a situation like type x. They let themselves be directed by the moral precepts of their culture. Even the positions of those favoring procreation and the attitudes of anti-natalists are part, from the point of view of wisdom, of such a conventional way of thinking, which comes about through the inappropriate generalization of particular valuations.

     By contrast, the cultivation of practices like meditation, the art of fighting, making music, or of drawing or painting may explain to their practitioners, each in a specific way, a basic truth. This is the need to learn that one must largely abandon one’s self, one’s own thoughts, preferences, valuations, and intentions. Only such self-denial swill enable a person to accomplish an appropriate realization of something distinct within a concrete situation in its full complexity. This may also include the ability to actually execute a movement, for example in sports, that is fully appropriate to its specific requirements. Another skill may be to put an uninterrupted drawing on paper with one particular stroke of the pen, or in a meditation to perceive the precise state of the body in which one finds oneself at precisely this moment without concurrently thinking of something else.

     What is meant by “path” in these contexts is neither the conventional nor unconventional and also not what reason claims to offer. It is something that reveals itself at a certain moment when the ability has fully matured to develop the right intuition in view of the complexity inherent in a situation in which one may find oneself in each specific case. In order to attain this goal, it is necessary to schematize neither oneself nor that which one encounters, but to grasp with the greatest possible attention what at this particular instant is taking place in oneself, in one’s body and consciousness and outside of oneself. And when it matters to act, one needs to take action by following this perception free of intention and not on the basis of a preconceived plan or general opinion that arises from a preconceived order of preferences.

     Every conceptual schematization finally capitulates before bottomlessness and complexity in which reality manifests itself at any particular point in time. A schema makes reality simpler than it is and in the process renders it easier to understand and to explain. The perfect example here is the physics experiment. In a laboratory, reality is organized in a way that makes it less complicated than it is outside the lab. For this reason, the empirical sciences can make the world understandable, and in certain aspects predictable and explicable. Wisdom does not want

to participate in this capitulation before this complexity for the purposes of explication. It is not a part of the collective project of progress that is designed to produce ever more knowledge and ever more useful things for an ever increasing number of people in a common public. It does not seek to transform humanity through general projects of education, even though in principle there are no objections to be raised against this from either a scientific or from a political point of view. Instead, wisdom privately addresses individual persons and speaks to their respective needs for transformation, or to problems concerning decisions to be made in concrete situations of life.

     The individual rabbi speaks to a singular person in despair, the individual (female) therapist speaks to a particular client, Jesus talks with Peter, Socrates with Simmias, Buddha with Ananda, and so on. Wisdom has no need to simplify because it does not have to intelligible to all. It must be intelligible only to the person with whom it is dealing at this very moment. Wise people intuit what can be intelligible to those participating in a conversation with them, what might help advance or overtax them. Therefore, they must also apprehend the situation in which they find themselves with those who seek their counsel to the same extent as the situation into which the seeker of advice has fallen and which he describes for them. But whatever may help this particular person along, does not help all people, need not benefit all human beings because not all of them are in the same predicament.

     In the practice that is envisioned to serve wisdom, complex and changeable reality is made ever clearer to those who are engaged in the practical experience of wisdom through the repetition of activities and through increasingly more precise observation. What becomes visible is that in the final analysis nothing in the world is easy to understand,  or can be reduced to pleasure and pain. It likewise becomes apparent that the activities concerning individuals , if they are expected to succeed, cannot be guided by attempts at persuasion and explication with the help of popular concepts (“recipes”) and advance calculations. A shooter cannot have the influence of the wind calculated in advance through a program of simulation. The same limitation applies to the trigger pressure of a rifle, the speed of an arrow or the course of a projectile, and to applying such data by aiming so and so many inches higher or more to the left or right. (An appropriate computer may be able to do this.) The shooter must, on the contrary, through constantly repeated practice develop the ability to gain an intuition of the shooting situation in which he finds himself at any particular moment of how to breathe, to take aim in it, how tense to stretch the bowstring, how much pressure to put on the trigger, and when to release the arrow or how hard to cock one’s gun.

     In this way, one can learn through perfecting an art that the intuition appropriate to any situation occurs only on one condition: one has learned to renounce one’s own self as a conscious being with definite ideas, intentions and desires, even those of understanding and explicating. Consequently one no longer tries with a firm grip to describe a certain object by using the correct method and to pre-calculate its reaction. Rather, in a practice aiming for wisdom, a permeability is intended to occur between what one might call consciousness and what might be referred to as the unconscious and the outside world. In this case, the result may be marginal reactions, e. g. in the posture and movement of one’s body or also in one’s communicative comportment, reactions that came about as if “on their own”. This permeability has an important consequence. It means that the bottomless complexity germane to every human being  and that the bottomless complexity of the situation he/she inhabits together with other human beings at any particular moment come to harmonize with one another without directives. Breathing and the arm’s posture of the well-trained shooter react in a certain way “on their own” in the situation in which he finds himself and to which he is open. In this respect, he resembles the experienced judoka, fencer, or boxer reacting intuitively with his arms and legs, with the tension of his body and his hands to the movements of his opponent, and applies the right countermeasure at exactly the moment when his adversary begins to open his protection. That’s precisely when he lands the presumed “lucky strike” without having planned it.

     It is impossible to describe and intentionally to direct these coordinating movements between the complexities simply because they have to take place intuitively. Otherwise they would not succeed at the speed and perfection for which we admire the great artists and athletes. Consequently, even wisdom as the intuitive ability to find a way through the situational underbrush of life, and to offer counsel, or to act on one’s own initiative appears irrational to those who believe that they have already acquired an orientation together with reason or the conventions. Since wisdom is unable to predict, how the way is to be found, and why it considers its own recommendation to be the right way, it is not enlightened. For this reason, wisdom is easily reputed to be “esoteric”. Regrettably, this is a mistaken accusation because we are dealing here not simply with two different realms of life or even forms of life: the theoretical and the political realm. In the one area, activities and assertions take place in public and are negotiated according to general principles. In the other realm, a situational practice conducted by aesthetic contemplation or a doctrine of wisdom, is practiced that develops in secrecy, privately between individual persons.

     Sometimes, one has to decide between these two options of existence. Then one stands at a crossroad that leads to two different forms of life. Does one want to side publicly with scientific progress, the struggle for justice, and the reduction of misery? Or does one seek the peace of one’s own soul in a withdrawn life with like-minded people, avoiding strife, staying shy of the public. It seems impossible to have both options. Bertolt Brecht has represented this conflict in his poem “To those born after” [“An die Nachgeborenen”] where he wrote:[16]

          I would also like to be wise, /In the old books it says what wisdom is:

          To shun the strife of the world and to live out

          Your brief time without fear/ Also to get along without violence

          To return good for evil

          Not to fulfil your desires but to forget them

          Is accounted wise.

          All this I cannot do:

          Truly, I live in dark times.

      The poem from which these lines have been excerpted was written between 1934 and 1938. It is an impressive depiction of the conflict between wisdom, peace, and attentiveness on the one hand, and political engagement, the fight for justice, and, on the other, the fear of persecution in an embittered and heedless life. Brecht had to leave Germany on 28 February 1933, one day after the burning of the Reichstag and had gone into exile from which he returned to Berlin only 15 years later. He describes the “dark times” dominated by suppression, the torture of fellow human beings and their being dispatched to wars. During these years, the life of wisdom in secrecy, the advice that one should forget one’s wishes, deny the need for preferences and refusals appears as wrong. One has to commit oneself. But the political struggle brings about brutalization, leads to inattentiveness even toward those one loves, and without time for nature, life passes hurriedly and with a sense of rebellion. And what importance to attribute in this connection to the fact that the individual can accomplish but little? And when are the times not dark, making wisdom permissible? Are circumstances in the world not always such that one would have to rebel against them or at least contribute to the promotion of a significant progressive commitment? But is such a project not a waste of one’s entire life because the dark times will always return, and a final improvement of mankind’s predicament “in general” appears to be impossible? Are the pieces of advice, even when softened with arguments that people should not or should by all means procreate, recommendations that can be taken seriously only in dark times? Are they manifestations of a political engagement or at least a show of support for the improvement of circumstances in general and not the steps necessary on a path that everyone has to take, which would mean that wisdom is nothing but escapism?


Thinking about one’s children and pondering the general misery in the world, obviously need not reveal a concern with war and repression, with the concrete harm inflicted on this particular human being. We may develop misgivings (“bad feelings”) about anti-natalism or other utilitarian forms of “reckoning”. The intuition may arise in us that their arguments are presented on too general a level that simplifies problems too much and indeed makes them overly coarse, and we may notice that attention to the complexity of concrete situations is given rather short shrift. But  none of this is an argument against utilitarianism and its orientation via balance sheets of pleasures and agonies. The issue here is not that an as yet insufficiently evolved argument  is lurking in the back of our mind and that we merely need to fish it out and round it off in order to disprove such a utilitarianism as a philosophy, or stop it as a political movement. To strive for what is useful in general is a solid political position that should be heeded at all times, be they dark in Brecht’s sense or not. Even so, it does not seem right to look at one’s own life from a global perspective only. Wisdom is not a rejection of what is needed in general. It does not involve itself in the quarrels of politicians, scientists, and philosophers espousing general theories: for instance those advocating an ethics of happiness vs. the ethicists of justice. The uneasiness arising in some people may instead point to a different perspective on our life, one that does not orient itself by general propositions. Kant has conceived of general reason as our true nature, our innermost being. But an appreciation of wisdom and of a kind of acting that is appropriate to a particular situation, and the suspicion of general theories when essential questions are discussed such as the decision whether to have children or not, have not altogether vanished from our minds, even though these minds are embedded in Western heads and have been schooled by general reason and have been shaped by a public scientific and a public political culture. All of this indicates that we my still consider our life and the situations we encounter in it, as unique. We may look on it as something in which an infinite complexity is hidden that we can only bypass in following the perspective of global generalities.

     One may approve of the one-child policy of an earlier Chinese government from a utilitarian point of view  because it reduced suffering in the country. One may, likewise, as an enlightened politician, support the education of women and advocate the dissemination of prophylactics in order to lower the birthrate and improve the economic opportunities and the ecological situation of succeeding generations on the globe. Wisdom does not oppose enlightened policies of this kind. But it considers them sweeping reactions that do not correspond to the reality of individual humans who may or may not want to have children. Whoever asks himself whether he should procreate or not, may obtain orientation from general criteria: he may consult the carbon dioxide level that is made worse by every child, the educational opportunities in his own country, and the danger of war that also is increased through injustices in distribution that get progressively worse with the permanent increase of populations in poor countries and the unchanged wasteful life style in the rich nations. No doubt, some people may be guided by such considerations in planning their family. The fluctuation of birth rates may be a consequence of such general estimations. But the choice of having a child or not, of starting a family or not, is a deeply existential, individual, and life-transforming decision. Should it not be made with the farthest reaching attention given to all the complexities of one’s own existence. In rearing one’s own child, may one ask oneself how problematic its existence will be regarding the carbon dioxide production by the entirety of mankind, how much its life style will cause envy in another country? Would such an impersonal perspective, in which everything becomes political and always has to be weighed by criteria of world usefulness, turn us into people like those who, in the first half of the twentieth century, saw themselves only as proletarians or revolutionaries or party members, and subordinated their entire private life to the demands made of them by their class, the revolution, or the party? Would this disappearance of our individual existences in the demands made by the general populace not be a totalitarianism in which we could  no longer recognize ourselves, and other humans, and all the particularities of the world as what they are? If anyone tries to take herself serious as an individual and other people as individuals (whatever that means) and prefers to decide consciously if she wants to have a baby (and does not have it “just like that”), would she then not have to enter the sphere of wisdom in order to make this decision? Would she not also leave the area of political struggle and administration where the lives of millions of people are to be directed according to the demands of the economy and to ecological requirements?

     An anti-natalist may find China’s one-child policy as still not going far enough, given his universalist ethical view point. A friend of wisdom will decide the question whether this couple may have children or not – an issue that must be differentiated from the problem whether a population’s birth rate should fall – as an issue that cannot ever be resolved through principles. Rather, a solution can only be found when the couple in question thinks about itself and its situation very precisely and with complete honesty rather than by simplifying their circumstances. Perhaps it may be advisable to ask for the advice of a (female) friend with a good deal of actual experience. The couple will ask  if it makes sense for both of them to have children now or at all. Then when it is fortunate enough, the couple next will develop the correct intuition for its own situation. When we are trying to communicate persuasively how this decision turns out in the area of wisdom, we will be unable to name any criteria according to which it is made. Politicians may ask whether it serves the interests of their country, is advantageous to the general supply of food stuffs, is good for the pension funds, the labor market, whether every woman gives birth to one child or has an average of 1.8 or 2.4 children. But these are two different questions: one, if I or both of us should have a child; and two, how many children on average women in my country should have. The second question has to do with the general welfare for many, with what is most useful to them. The first question concerns what a meaningful life is for me. In order to understand how they differ we must take a brief look  at what could be meant here ”meaning”.

Sometime ago, psychology discerned three sources defining the meaning of human life: first, the effective commitment to a specific accomplishment; second, the perception of  something or some one in its singularity, which means, to love, and finally, third, the transformation of one’s own person in the face of tremendous difficulties (as, for example, a chronic illness or a captivity) so that these can be tolerated and one becomes a person who can continue to live despite these circumstances.[17] An architect-builder, a poetess, a philosopher, and a female scientist who produce works, can through their activities give meaning to their lives, as does a pastry chef who invents a recipe for a fancy cake, or an engineer who builds a machine.

     When humans have children, then through their upbringing and education they produce something or they better someone: that is to say, in ideal cases independent human beings who can lead lives of their own. Or vice versa: The works of those who create art, theories, buildings, machines, recipes, and so on, produce something that, in analogy to children, may be imagined as a kind of children of these creative people. Furthermore, human beings get to know their own children as the individuals they are,  and they do so as accurately as they get to know no other human being because they take care of them from the time of their birth. Based on this knowledge, as a rule, they love them in a special way.  In order to fulfill their parental obligations, parents themselves must change at times, must undergo a transformation that also resembles what takes place with a (female)architect-builder, a woman scientist, a philosopher, or artist, all of whom will at some time notice that, given their present state of mind, they will  not be able to create the piece of work they envision. Then they realize that they have to form and transform themselves in order to have the ability to create what they had intended, what they believe they must produce. In the same way, a couple may realize that it has to change so as to be the kind of parents that they want to be for their children. In this sense, the act of having children as much as the craftsman’s talents, or technical, artistic, and scientific creativity can be a source of meaning in all three psychological aspects.

     During this self-transformation, parents or other creative individuals may get to know the constitution of certain aspects of reality very accurately:  among them their own bodies and personalities and  those of their children. Or the material in which they practice their craft or their art. In this respect, even contemplative art, contemplative sport and the practice of wisdom, to the extent that they aim at transformation and accurate recognition of particularities, are sources of meaning. Whoever has to decide whether to have children or not, will have to ask himself and herself among other things what meaning his life with and without children has, and whether she or he at times feels capable of perceiving a new human being and himself accurately enough that the new and one’s own life will continue to keep being or becoming  a meaningful and good life. Deliberations of this kind cannot be advanced, and can be replaced even less by considerations concerning the situation of pension funds, general climatological developments, the status of the labor market. The question of whether we procreate or not may depend on our animalistic impulses, on wise intuitions of the meaning of our life, or, in my opinion the worst case, on political regulations, ideologies, or considerations about what generally is most useful.

Aaron: Hold on, Kagami. Please be quiet a moment! Do you hear the noise out there?

Kagami: Sounds like dogs.

A: Indeed. Let me go take a look.

 Aaron arose and walked to the window. In the garden he witnesses the fury of violent biting. Two large, gaunt,  brindled dogs have attacked a small one and thrown it to the ground where he tries to defend himself . He squeals and shrieks. Aaron fetches a broom from a wall closet and steps out on the veranda: “Hey, hey, stop that!” The attackers let go of their prey and look at Aaron. The victim can no longer run normally and tries to crawl away. The other dogs lower their heads and snarl as they stare at Aaron, who raises his broom. The two dogs baring their teeth  very slowly approach the veranda. Aaron keeps his eyes on them, only briefly peering  into a corner of his veranda where a few garden tools had been stored. He takes three steps toward his right and reaches for a rake. The dogs are standing now at the lower end of the little metal staircase leading up to his veranda. Aaron slowly approaches it. He now stands directly by the stairs, drops the broom and swings the rake. He hits the head of one of the dogs whose jaws grate as they are hit and who gives a sharp yowl. Immediately, the other two dogs draw back, turning their attention back to their victim. Aaron walks down the three steps, picks up a few stones and throws them at the dogs. He hits the other one on the head, whereupon the intruders disappear.

     Relieved by the attackers’ flight, Aaron walks down the gravel path to take a look at the bleeding victim that has withdrawn to the vicinity of the garden shed and there, breathing heavily and trembling, lies on the ground. Aaron bends down. It is Krischan. The people of the bakery must have let him go into their yard despite the danger presented by the stray dogs. He must have run away once again. Aaron runs back to his studio, gets a blanket from his futon, and uses it to cover the bleeding animal. Then he hurries through his garden around his house and to the other side of the street in order to notify the Blumes. He rings the bell. Fortunately, Lily is there. She is startled. He goes with her to where Krischan is hiding. For a few moments he stands next to near her animal that is still breathing but seems not to recognize its surroundings.  Aaron has no hope that it will survive. He puts his hand on his weeping neighbor’s shoulder. Then he goes back to the studio. He takes a whiskey bottle from this book shelf, pours himself a drink near his little kitchen and sits down again in his easy-chair.

[3] Leo N. Tolstoy, “On Life” [1887], his: On Life and Essays on Religion. Tr. Aylmer Maude. Oxford UP, London, UK: Humphrey Milford 1887, reprinted by Andesite Press 2017, pp. 1-167.

4 The last line of Maeterlinck’s libretto for the opera Pelléas et Mélisande reads: “C’est au tour de la pauvre petite.”

[3] See Rudolf Carnap, The Logical Structure of the World and Pseudoproblems in Philosophy. Tr. by Rolf A. George. Berkeley and Los Angeles 1967. This book is the second, revised edition of Der logische Aufbau der Welt. Vienna (1928).

[4] Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays, tr. Robert Fagles. New York, NY (Penguin Classics): 1984, p. 358, lines 1388-1391.

[5] Talmud Babyloni Eruwin 13B. I thank Daniel Strassburg in Zürich for pointing this passage out to me.

[6] David Benatar, Better Never To Have Been. The Harm of Coming Into Existence. Oxford, UK 2006, p. 30 f.

[7] Benatar, op. cit., p. 32.

[8] Benatar, op. cit., p. 34.

[9] On this see: Garma C. C. Chang, “What Is Zen >Enlightenment<? In his: The Practice of Zen. New York, NY 1959, pp. 162-167.

[10] Shinjinmei und Shôdôka. Das Löwengebrüll der furchtlosen Lehre [The lion’s roar of the fearless teaching], two primal texts of Zen, edited by Sabine Hübner. Heidelberg  20005, p. 17.

[11] Spinoza, Baruch de, The Ethics. Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect. Selected Letters. Tr. Samuel Shirley. Indianapolis/Cambridge 1992, Part V, Proposition 25, p. 214: The highest conatus [effort] of the mind and its highest virtue is to understand things by the third kind of knowledge.

[12] See note 12, p. 23. 

[13] Spinoza, The Ethics, see note 13. Part V, Proposition 24.

[14] Angelus Silesius, Cherubinischer Wandersmann (1657), tr. by Frederick Franck as Messenger of the Heart; the book  of Angelus Silesius with observations by the ancient Zen masters. Bloomington, IN 2005, no. 55.

[15] On this see: François Jullien, Un sage est sans idee, ou: L’Autre de la philosophie. Paris 1998. 

[16] The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht, tr. and ed. by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine with the assistance of Charlotte Ryland. New York, NY and London, UK 2019, p. 735; also Bertolt Brecht,  Poems 1913-1956, ed. by John Willett and Ralph Manheim with the co-operation of Erich Fried. New York et al. 1979, p. 318.             

[17] See: Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. New York et al., 1984 and Boston, MA 1963; Part Two: Logotherapy in a Nutshell.

Teile Erfahrungen und Reflexionen
Einsendungen zum Thema

Hilf uns dabei, eine weltumspannende Collage an Erfahrungsberichten zu Weisheitsthemen zu sammeln und miteinander ins Gespräch zu bringen. 


Die Erde ist eine Scheibe. Zwei mal zwei macht vier. Viren gibt es nicht. Zucker kann Karies verursachen. Die Wirtschaften der Welt werden von einer unsichtbaren Hand zum größtmöglichen Glück aller gelenkt.
Wahrheiten und Unwahrheiten bestimmen unser Leben. Welche Wahrheiten sind überhaupt relevant? Welche Illusionen gefährden eine gelungene Lebensführung?


Der Tod ist groß.
Wir sind die Seinen
Lachenden Munds.
Wenn wir uns mitten im Leben meinen,
wagt er zu weinen
mitten in uns.

Alles ist Nichts - Einführender Podcast zum Daoismus (German)
Podcast mit Kai Marchal über den Daoismus, seine Hauptwerke und Hauptvertreter.
Liegt im Dao das Gute Leben verborgen? Wo muss ich es dann suchen? Was ist das Dao überhaupt?

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