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Aristotle, the Somali Pirates and Yoga

By: on May 9, 2009

6th Street and 23th Avenue, it’s clearly the most patriotic intersection in town. A star-spangled red, white, and blue painted building on one corner, and diagonally opposite an intrusively large signboard that continually boasts inspirational sayings. The latest edition of the signboard reads, “America 3, Pirates 0.”



I’m not sure who is winning.



The signboard message is clear enough. With last month’s rescue of its Merchant Marine Captain Richard Phillips from the Somali pirates, America’s honor was upheld and justice was done. Thus, it’s a time of happiness for America.



Indeed, America or any country in the world should be happy, for honor and justice are good for human beings. Aristotle laid the foundation for this kind of civilization centuries ago in his treatise, Nicomachean Ethics.

 

Fordham University Professor Joseph Koterski, an ordained priest who teaches philosophy, explains that, “Aristotle lays out at the very beginning of his Ethics what he believes is the general game plan for human life, its purpose and its goal: that all people act for what they think will make them happy. Aristotle is concerned with seeking various ‘goods’ as a way to happiness.” The term ‘goods’ refers to what is desirable, honor and justice for instance.

 

Yeah, we all believe in that don’t we? So how come the Somalia pirates aren’t on board? How come they don’t share in this worldview of happiness? How can there be honor and justice amongst thieves?

 

Well, this where you probably dozed off during your Western Civilization class in high school. According to Professor Koterski, Aristotle also makes the point that honor and justice aren’t the only goods through which people seek happiness. There are genuine goods and apparent goods, something like healthy food and junk food. Thus, what constitutes the way to happiness is where people disagree.

 

Apparently there are some other pretty compelling goods for human beings that compete with honor and justice, things too good for the Somali pirates to resist in their pursuit of happiness.

 

BBC reporter Robyn Hunter recently filed this report, “According to residents in the Somali region of Puntland where most of the pirates come from, they live a lavish life. ‘They have money; they have power and they are getting stronger by the day,’ says Abdhi Farad Juha who lives in the regional capital, Garowe. They wed the most beautiful girls; they are building big houses; they have new cars; new guns, he says. ‘Piracy in many ways is socially acceptable. They have become fashionable.’”

 

Another BBC reporter, Mohamed Olad Hassan, recently spoke to a 25 year old Somali pirate named Dahir Mohamed Hayeysi by telephone (probably the latest cell phone model), “My ambition is to get a lot of money so that I can lead a better life. I only want one more chance in piracy to increase my cash assets, then I will get married and give up.”

 

This is why I’m not sure who is winning. It seems like the pirates are after the same thing as everybody else, happiness, but they are hooked onto junk food like piracy. Junk food may not be healthy, but who can give it up when it tastes so good.

 

So, what is really happening out there in the Gulf of Aden is not a clash of pirates and cruise ship vacationers, speed boats and supertankers; it’s an Aristotelian conflict over the wildly divergent ways to achieve happiness. What we have is an epic struggle that pits the goods of one’s happiness against the goods of another’s happiness.

 

Artistotle does posit a way out of this dilemma, but his approach is a bit cerebral, and quite honestly, that’s where I dozed off during class. That’s the way of philosophy, at least for most of us. Fortunately, however, I did pay better attention when I started to study yoga. Yes, yoga. If the Greek philosophers can have a worldview, why can’t yoga. Check out how yoga approaches the Somali pirate problem.

 

First, yoga is about seeing the world from a personal perspective. Yoga systems speak in terms of the lower self versus the higher self. I can relate to that, I think we all can. Who hasn’t experienced having to choose between what would be fun to do and what you know you should do, pursuit of lower, more immediate good times versus restraint of sensual pleasures in the name of higher goals in life. Yoga is like that. It is meant to help us control the lower self in order to achieve the ultimate good for the self. And, there are practical exercises which help you achieve this goal.

 

Now, you may say that our pirate friend Dahir employs the same philosophy, sweat now as a pirate for a better life in the future, but he is not doing yoga. Yoga is also about joining, not dividing or separating people from their assets to increase your assets. Yoga is about finding ways to increase by joining. By its very nature joining is more joyful than dividing, everyone benefits not just a few. Who’s not interested in having it both ways? If it’s possible, it’s through yoga.

 

Third, yoga is about new perspectives. Consider these words from the Srimad Bhagavatam; paÅ›yann api na paÅ›yati. Literally this means, sees but does not see. Believe it or not, two people with perfectly good vision may be looking directly at the same scene and see completely different things happening. When the Somali pirates look out at the Gulf of Aden they see one thing, opportunity. They don’t see the distress their actions are causing. When the rest of the world looks out at the Gulf of Aden they see one thing, threat to their security. They don’t see the human needs of the suffering Somali population. Self-interest is a kind of blindness. Vision is more than a physical exercise. Yoga teaches this understanding and how to come to a united vision.

 

So how does all this help resolve the Somali pirate problem? I’ll give you a mantra and a meditation, you figure out the solution, that’s the way of yoga.



Your mantra has three parts: chant, dance, and be happy.

 

Here’s your mediation: Imagine some people standing on a bridge over a small pond. If each of them starts tossing stones in at random, the ripples will clash, and in no time the water will become choppy. But if the people could toss the stones at the same central point, then the ripples would never clash; they'd harmonize. In the same way, if our nation has its center of interest and another nation has its center of interest, our interests will clash. But when we see that the Supreme Self is the perfect center of interest, then we won't clash. We'll all have peace.

 

Absent this yoga worldview, I’m not so sure anyone is winning.

 

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[ philosophy ] [ yoga ]
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