Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong, The Bodley Head, RRP£12.99, 224 pages
The religious slanging match that divides the media of the western world – Dawkins v Creation, Allah v Hitchens, however you like to define it – disguises the actual state of play in the world at large. Many regular attenders at synagogue or church are agnostic in belief. And many non-practisers of a faith recognise the truth and sagacity of the greatest religious texts of the world.
Karen Armstrong, who has been a Roman Catholic nun, and then a non-believer, and then a sort of theist, is now an ambassador for all that is best in the great religions of the world. She is a guide for those who want to be more compassionate without subscribing to some of the more arcane doctrines and propositions of organised religion. She quotes with approval the Dalai Lama’s saying: “Whether a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being.”
Lately, Karen Armstrong won a prize from TED, the lecture and conference organisation committed to “ideas worth spreading” (the letters stand for technology, entertainment and design). Now, with the help of those who could be called, in a benign sense, the usual suspects – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Rabbi Julia Neuberger et al – Armstrong has launched her Charter for Compassion. This book is a distillation of 12 steps that readers can follow to become more compassionate persons and hence, it is to be hoped, the moulders of a more compassionate world.
No decent person could quarrel with that, surely, and so we set out with eagerness on Armstrong’s 12-fold path towards enlightenment. The Buddha, it will be remembered, began his path to cure the world’s pain by donning a mendicant’s robes and leaving his grieving parents. Tolstoy likewise donned a peasant’s smock, Francis a beggar’s rags and Gandhi a loincloth. Followers of the Armstrong way are given the more prosaic injunction: “As an initial step, it might be helpful, as a symbolic act of commitment, to visit www.charterforcompassion.org”.
If this provokes a smile, so too will the author’s occasional lapses into management jargon. We are urged to “think outside the box” and to remember that all great religions “put suffering at the top of their agenda”. And true, there is something a little absurd about such figures as Armstrong and the Dalai Lama flying around the world to conferences and book launches as a way of promoting wisdom.
Yet the contents of this book surely deserve our attention. I for one am not too proud to acknowledge that I need to be more compassionate, less ego-driven. And one of the charming things about Armstrong’s book is its deliberate descents into bathos. We move from the high thoughts of the old sages to the demands of everyday life, from Confucius to the checkout girl in the supermarket. In the chapter on empathy, we move from an exquisitely intelligent exposition of Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus to a meditation upon how we might overcome a personal dislike of a colleague or family member.
As Armstrong reminds us, Greek tragedies began as collective religious experiences. By the end of the Oresteia, Aeschylus hopes we will have moved from the tribal-based cult of revenge to a polis-based, civilised respect for the law. Obviously, we modern readers can gain some wisdom from reading these plays in paperback but it is an experience different from witnessing the tragedies in an amphitheatre in 420BC.
The individualism that Armstrong’s do-it-yourself approach releases is surely cause for rejoicing. Gratefully aware of the riches of Buddhism, the Greek tragedians or the Hebrew scriptures, she does not want to make us into Buddhists, Athene-worshippers or Jews. She speaks with quiet eloquence to those of us who will never feel able to “believe” in the way that our ancestors believed.
Indeed, seeing the bad behaviour inspired at times by organised religion, we would often rather side with the unbelievers than be like that. But we recognise, partly thanks to Armstrong, that we do all wish to lead more compassionate lives, and these old sages can help us.
Armstrong has tried to devise a way of conducting what Socrates called compassionate discourse. This does not mean, as she reminds us, “trying to bludgeon other people to accept our point of view”. (I’d like to add: maybe the way of wisdom abandons any “points of view”, especially opinions that relate either to the unknowable, such as theology, or to other people’s sex lives). Armstrong more simply wants us to call to mind our common human nature.
In one of his notebooks, Henry James wrote six words: “Be kind, be kind, be kind.” That great man, who was in some ways a bit silly and a bit snobbish, surely achieved his aim. He was kind, and he was wise, and he had no obvious religious views, not even views as mild as those of his equally lovable brother William.
Armstrong ends her book by remembering the Iliad; she calls to mind the nobility of Achilles who, after much hatred and fighting, hands over the dead body of Hector to his grieving father Priam. Maybe part of our turning over a new leaf and resolving to be more compassionate would involve making a resolution to read more Greek literature. And (not that Armstrong mentions him) more Henry James.
AN Wilson is the author of ‘Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II’ (Arrow)