It caused the Enlightenment. Okay, the author doesn’t prove this, but the fact that Buddhist thought could have sparked such a noxious movement in the West if (the unknown historical contingency) it had been known tells you all you need to know. The article itself is mix of two stories, one boring and one interesting. The boring one is about the author’s midlife crisis. Probably the Atlantic thinks their readers like that sort of thing, and they pressured Professor Gopnik into adding the personal stuff. She doesn’t really strike me as the mopey, self-doubting type. She makes sure to sneak in enough information that we’ll know how awesome she really is; note that she makes sure to drop in a hint about the size of one of her grants! The interesting story is about Jesuit missionaries in the Far East, some more cases of ambitious Jesuits who got the idea to travel across the world, learn the culture, beat the local sages at their own game, and win whole peoples for Christ. Little seems to have ever come of these stunts, but they are impressive and fun to read about.
Let’s remember why Humeism/Buddhism is so incompatible with Christendom:
In his Treatise, Hume rejected the traditional religious and philosophical accounts of human nature. Instead, he took Newton as a model and announced a new science of the mind, based on observation and experiment. That new science led him to radical new conclusions. He argued that there was no soul, no coherent self, no “I.”…
In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.
However, if my self is an illusion, then other selves are illusions too. All that’s left is pleasure and pain without coherent subjects. I can have compassion (sympathy), which concerns itself with pain, but not love, which concerns itself with persons. Thus the West is led to utilitarianism. Ironically, while Buddha promised his original followers that his teachings would deliver them from slavery to their desires, the Enlightenment has made human desires absolute master by making happiness and freedom primary. There is also the change of scope, on which the Enlightenment has always prided itself. Love is particular; abstract concern with pain is universal. Replacing charity with compassion as the main social virtue was the great work of the Enlightenment, and it amounted to the creation of a new civilization. The Christian empire of charity build on a metaphysics of substance was replaced by the Enlightenment empire of sympathy built on a rejection of metaphysics.
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