Deep Adaptation: Nobody Knows Where the Human Race is Going

Leo Tolstoy

We were reading in Tolstoy’s A Calendar of Wisdom today. Though, this is not one of Tolstoy’s  well-known books, he spent over ten years on it, working it over and over, enlarging and improving it as he went. In it, he gathered many “benevolent and elevated” thoughts from many places, people, and traditions, several for each day of the year. Though it is strongly influenced by his radical Christianity, he drew on a variety traditions, people, and sacred texts. My tolerance and appreciation for these traditions is very robust, so I enjoy reading in it, even though I do not altogether share his world view.

Here is his first entry for today’s date – January 24:

Nobody knows where the human race is going. The highest wisdom, then, is to know where you should go: toward perfection.

By ‘perfection’, I interpret him to mean what the Greeks meant by the word arete. Arete (Greek: ἀρετή), in its basic sense, means “excellence of any kind”.  The term may also mean “moral virtue”. In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential. The meaning of the word changes depending on what it describes since everything has its own peculiar excellence; the arete of a man or woman is different from the arete of a horse.

This is what we need to do as we contemplate the impending catastrophe of climate decline and societal break down. We need to refine the peculiar arete, or excellence, that is ours, and do the most good we can for those who suffer the most. This is the essence of deep adaptation.

Here is his second entry:

It is not the place we occupy which is important, but the direction in which we move.

And, finally, this:

Your actions should be determined not by the desire of the people around you, but by the needs of all mankind.

This is the action of egolessness, selfless action. Such action is not concerned with small mind, small self, or small identity. This type of action calls for courage and wider perspective.

Each one of Tolstoy’s brief statements speaks to our present predicament, helping us see what direction we should face, and what inveterate tendencies and habitual patterns we must leave behind.

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