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The Buddha - Man or Superman

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 22: The Buddha, Man or Superman

Sangharakshita (Words in square brackets ([ ]) are attempts by the transcriber to guess the correct word.) Friends, This morning were continuing the series of talks which were started yest erday. Yesterday you may recollect we tried to understand the subject of Evolution, Evolution Lower and Evolution Higher as illustrated by this chart, by this diagram. Now today we*re continuing t.hat series and today we're considering the subject of the Buddha, Man or Superman. I mentioned I think yesterday that I originally prepared this series of talks two or I believe, perhaps, even three years ago, and I recollect that when I was preparing this particular lecture, this particular talk, just to as it were stimulate myself or give myself. a few ideas I was idly flipping through the pages of a very fat volume of quotations from all sources which I happened to possess. It was in fact presented to me about four and a half years ago by our friend Mike Rogers to provide me, as he hoped, with material for lectures. So sometimes it does prove very useful, when one*s brain is running a little dry or one feels in need of a little intellectual variety, just to go through this volume quite idly and to see what one can find. So I recollect that on this particular occasion when I was preparing or supposed to be preparing this lecture, not being able to get on with it very well, I was just thumbing through this volume of quotations and it so happened that I just happened to keep it open at a section entitled Fashion - see also Dress. and I was looking through the quotations under this heading, under this sectional heading of Fashion - see also Dress, and became quite engrossed in some of them, forgetting for the time being all about my lecture on the Buddha, Man or Superman, and I found for instance that in the Eighteenth Century Lord Chesterfield had said in one of his letters I believe that if you*re not in fashion you are nobody! And then I found that a little later on at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century William Haslett, always a rather caustic writer, had said that fashion is gentility running away from vulgarity and afraid of being overtaken. And of course at the end of the Nineteenth Century there was the inevitable quotation from Oscar Wilde, who is probably more quotable than anybody else except Shakespeare, and Oscar Wilde is quoted this little book, or this fat book rather, as saying "After all what is fashion? From the artistic point of view it is usually a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months!" And so on and so on.

Now as I was going through these quotations on the subject of fashion in this desultory sort of manner, it occurred to me that there are fashions in thought as well as in dress. We don't change our ideas every six months but perhaps we do change them every six years. We certainly do change them every sixty years, certainly every century. And we find for instance that about a hundred years ago, that is to say at the height of the Victorian period, in the full bloom as we may say of Victorianism, not to say the full flush of Victorianism, one of the most popular, one of the most current, one ot the most fashionable ideas was that ot the hero. Most of your recollect I expect in this connection Carlyle. Carlyle wrote a famous book called [On] Heroes and Hero Worship and he makes the statement in that book and also elsewhere that history is the biography of great men. And for quite a while this was a very fashionable point of view, a very fashionable way of looking at history.

And if one turns from the more serious to the less serious disciplines, and if one turns from the study of history to the popular novel of the day, the fiction of the day one found that every novel had to have its hero. Without a hero there was no novel. To such an extent that when Thackeray, the really great novelist of the middle part of the last century published his novel Vanity Fair he gave it the sub-title A novel without a hero because in those days that was something extraordinary. When you started reading a novel the first thing you tried to do was identify the hero and then identify the heroine and the villain and/or the villainess, and then you had things well under control. But Thackeray*s was very much the exceptional case and he felt no doubt obliged to put this sub-title on his title page - A novel without a hero - to make it quite clear to everybody concerned that he hadn't just forgotten to put the hero in but that the hero was not there quite deliberately and quite intentionally.

And again if one turns from literature whether historical literature or fiction. If one turns from literature to life, one finds that a hundred years ago in public life in England (probably on the Continent also at that time) the great politicians or at least the well known politicians, the great writers, the great poets and explorers, were all regarded `very much as public figures. They were very much in the public eye. If you think of people for instance like Gladstone, people like Tennyson, Browning, Newman, Dickens, Gordon, Florence Nightingale - they were all public figures, they were incredibly well known to the public, and they were hero-worshipped to an extent which we tend to find inconceivable today. For instance if you go to some museums you will see scores, even hundreds of china figures made of these great people, all sorts of souvenirs about them. You may recollect that for a while, you probably know this, the poet Tennyson did live not very far from here and there's a walk nearby which is called Tennyson's Walk, and apparently especially towards the end of his life he was very much pestered by people just coming to see him and they*d hide in little groups behind trees and then when they saw him coming along in his cloak and his broad brimmed hat they*d just peek out from behind the tree and "There he goes, there*s Tennyson!" and sometimes there were hundreds of them. He used to feel absolutely hunted and absolutely persecuted, and everybody recognized or was able to recognize these great public figures and really look up to them and really sort of hero-worshipped them. And this is perhaps the reason or is one of the reasons why the great .Victorians appear even in retrospect, even after a hundred years, so very much larger than life. Even a comparatively minor figure say like Matthew Arnold seems very prominent when we look back on him. And these people occupied a place in the public life and in the public estimation which we don*t find politicians and writers and poets and artists occupying today.

It*s perhaps thirty or forty years ago that the fashion started to change. Perhaps just a little more than that. Thirty or forty or perhaps even fifty years ago heroes went or started going out of fashion, and perhaps we can say, perhaps we can speculate that the Great War, the first Great War had something to do with it. That wasn*t a very heroic affair. But whether it had something to do with it or whether it was the chief cause or not for the fact that heroes or the idea, of the hero went out of fashion, there was a reaction, very much a reaction, against the whole conception of the hero and the hero figure lost his popularity. In the golden days of the Victorians a biography was an exercise in hagiography. As soon as a great Victorian died within a year, usually, out came at least three thick volumes of memoirs. You can still find them in the public libraries, sometimes six volumes, sometimes seven collected life and letters, and some of the older libraries are full in their biographical sections of material of this sort. And reading through the lives and the letters, the collected letters, or rather they were really selected, and we know that now, but collected letters and memoirs of these eminent people, you got the impression that they really were someone. You saw of course the imposing external facade. It wasn't very often that you got a glimpse behind the scenes. When that did sometimes happen as in the case of Harold Froud, when his memoirs were published or memoirs of him were published in two comparatively small volumes after his death, because he died young, some people were rather shocked by the revelations and the glimpses that they were given of his rather heretical opinions and so on, but usually that was not allowed to happen. The three volumes or the six volumes or the eight volumes were intended as a permanent monument and there was the great man exhibited in all his glory striking the pose or the attitude in which everybody wanted to see him. So in this way in the Victorian period, biography was very much an exercise in hagiography.

But later on after the hero had started going out of fashion there was a tendency for biographies when they were published to become rather exercises in debunking. In debunking. And instead of trying to show how great the great man had been as the Victorians did, how great the prominent men of the past had been, the new type of biography, the more debunking type of biography, tried to show, on the other hand, how small and how petty they really and truly were.

And it*s perhaps significant that at this period biographies tended to become much shorter. Not three massive volumes but one modest volume, and sometimes the volumes were very slim indeed, and as probably you know the classic example of this sort of tendency is or at least was Lytton Strachey*s The Great Victorians [Eminent Victorians?], a very slim volume devoted to no less than four Victorians all in one volume. Well the Victorians themselves would have regarded [as] simply as shocking. If you don't give a great man or great woman even one whole volume to themselves, you squeeze them all in this way within the covers of ...

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