My academic work was on the great ancient Indian Buddhist philosopher, Nāgārjuna – and it drew me into a life long love of ancient wisdom east and west. It also drew me – in many different ways – out of academia. By the time I submitted my PhD I had developed an overwhelming impulse to share the fruits of my work beyond the ivory tower. And this is principally because the wisdom of Nāgārjuna is eminently practical – it is meant to be used, applied, and brought into the concreteness and messiness of human life. The essence of Nāgārjuna’s message is that although philosophy is necessary to flourish in life, this can only happen when one steps out of philosophy altogether and into the direct experience of true understanding. In this sense, philosophy is the stepping stone to true wisdom.
I also worked and lectured in the domains of European moral and political philosophy, and it is the combination of these disciplines that has inspired me to co-found Areté House. I believe that education is the absolute key to human life, and I also believe that we’ve completely lost touch with the true meaning of education. This is a very common opinion amidst those who teach or research at university, and I thought: why not try and be positive and constructive in responding to this, instead of purely critical? Areté House is an expression of this.
Why did you decide to leave academia? arete01admin
“Most academics of my generation are faced with the choice of being truly committed to education and the task of thinking, or playing the institutional game of building up a publications record in order to secure grants and tenure. It is very difficult – if not impossible – to combine the two. I believe that there is a kind of very subtle corruption which begins to take place at some point in post-graduate life, in the sense that you become coerced into thinking and publishing on the topics which are most likely to lead to career or funding opportunities – as opposed to those which you think are most true, valuable or important. If I was in the sciences I would probably just go along with that, but it struck me as absurd to have to do that as a philosopher – the philosopher has to be a little bit belligerent about his or her values and truths. Sometimes that belligerence can fit nicely with professional academic life, but I think more often it simply doesn’t. In my case, there was no fit at all, so the choice was very easy to make.
There is also a strong political element in all of this, in the sense that I personally want to resist the fully marketised nature of contemporary universities, and respond constructively by building a different kind of educational model. I spent years reading, writing and teaching political philosophy, and if there is one immutable insight I gained it is that education really, really matters. From Plato to Rousseau to Rawls, everyone agrees that education matters. From the left to the right, from the radicals to the conservatives – everyone agrees that education is foundational to a civilised and well functioning polis. And the truth is, underneath the glossy marketing spin which represent the university as some classical utopia of virtue and knowledge discovery, they have really become like degree factories aimed at maximising profit above all else.”
What do you hope to achieve with Areté House? arete01admin
“It is very hard to envisage what will become of it. Obviously I hope that it grows and prospers and flourishes – but what flourishing looks like, I’m not sure. It’s a bit too intangible to commit to language, but I suppose I hope more than anything to facilitate a certain kind of chemistry – the chemistry that happens when interesting and engaged minds meet and gain immeasurably from the meeting.
My own disciplines – philosophy, Asian studies, social theory – have been heavily cut back in the last decade or two, so over time I want to create a platform where we can offer university accredited courses in areas which are extinct or close to extinction. As an undergraduate at Melbourne University I took six different courses in Indian and East Asian philosophy – all of them tremendously fruitful. Now despite all the rhetoric about the Asian Century there is only one honours level course. I also learned Sanskrit at La Trobe as a PhD student, and that has vanished. Probably the best Asian Studies department in Australia, at ANU, is under great threat. So I definitely want to preserve teaching and scholarship in areas dear to my heart, and give future students the same opportunities I had. We don’t need everyone to become a banker! Nonetheless, this will take us time to achieve.
More immanently, the thing I most appreciate about universities is the confluence of bright minds meeting bright minds – in reading groups, classrooms, seminars, conferences. Good ideas, good thinking, good learning all happen in the chemistry of a community. So I want to help provide the grounds for this, especially for those who don’t have access to such communities. I also feel a sense of responsibility to help provide a place for those who are truly committed to education, and who may be outstanding educators, but who are increasingly marginalised by the corporate nature of universities. Often (but not always) great teaching pedagogy and careerist progression are incompatible. It would be nice to be able to pay a good wage and provide good conditions for great educators – so they can ply their trade freely. In the long term, that is a dream for us, to expand our range of disciplines and provide genuinely great education, rather than just good PR and the glossy image of good education. Most importantly, we want to be oriented to the public and to inspire and educate those who actively thirst for inspiration and education.”
You have written and taught as a political philosopher – to what degree is Areté House a political institution? arete01admin
“That’s hard to answer. In some ways, it is an expressly political response to the conditions of our times – I don’t think higher education ought to be a pure profit seeking private venture. And I believe in the intrinsic and public or civil value of disciplines like philosophy and history which struggle to justify their existence in the current funding climate. So somehow or other, new ways have to be found to produce and teach in those domains.
More generally, there’s no doubt that years of studying, teaching and writing political philosophy has informed my position on what I and we ought to do in order to build a better world. However, I think Areté House is a fairly tame and gradualist response to all of that – I would rather it be inclusive, open ended and pluralistic than highly political in a particular direction. As a teacher of political philosophy I always wanted my students to think in their own way to their own view – that was my goal, rather than trying to get them to adopt my own particular political positions. And that is how I feel about Areté House. The times are very fragmented, very opinionated, very divided. There’s a lot of political hot air flying around, a lot of love and hate, friends and enemies. It’s always a little bit tempting to join the hot air, but being a bit sober, calm and cool is the right tonic for these times. So Areté House is political in the wider sense of the term – we are actively trying to build a better, more civilised, wiser and saner polis and world. But it is not political in the narrower sense of the term – we’re not on any team, and we don’t want to exclude people because they’re too conservative or too radical.”
What are your philosophical interests? arete01admin
“They would have to be called eclectic. I have specialist knowledge in two areas – Indian Buddhist philosophy and modern western political philosophy. But there are a number of quite distinct philosophical traditions which I feel very close to and influenced by – especially the German phenomenology of Husserl, Heidegger and Buber. The Judaic rationalism of Maimonides and Spinoza. The virtue ethics and politics of Aristotle. The dialectics of Hegel and Marx. In many ways I have tried to step out of the different traditions – tribes might be a better word – of contemporary philosophy and social theory. This might be a (somewhat foreseeable) consequence of working principally on Nāgārjuna, which makes you acutely aware of the limitations of thinking, theory and discourse.”
Has working on Nagarjuna stimulated your interest in meditation? arete01admin
“It’s more the other way around – my interest in Nāgārjuna was inspired by my interest in Buddhism. And that was more connected to meditation than it was philosophy. So I have been meditating for a long time now, and that combines in all sorts of interesting and fruitful ways with philosophy. The two together make beautiful friends.”
How have you combined philosophy and meditation? arete01admin
“I suppose I see a certain necessity there, where others see something superfluous or even meaningless. I can’t really see how you can live a decent human life without them. They combine in really obvious and tangible ways – for example, developing good meditative concentration definitely helps with reading and writing philosophy. But then, they run together in all sorts of deeper, more profound, more abstract ways too. To some degree both are aimed at a similar goal – gaining better, deeper, truer insight into the nature of reality and then living in accord with that. And I think you need both. Philosophy or theory without meditation becomes too abstract and conceptual. Meditation without philosophy or theory becomes too solipsistic, self-focussed or idealistic. I think becoming convinced of this is what has been a key factor in leading me to co-found Areté House – there is no where else which genuinely does both. And we know that many people want to be able to learn both in a way which is properly grounded, clearly presented, accessible and directly usable There is obviously a tremendous thirst and need for this in our ever increasingly superficial, trivial and fragmented society.”
Would you say that Areté House is a quasi-Buddhist institution? arete01admin
“No, it’s not Buddhist. I know a lot about Buddhism, and there are lot of people who are interested in learning about Buddhism, so we certainly cater for that. But for me personally, Buddhism is one (strong) influence among many. I think it’s true to say that Areté House straddles the fence – it could be an abyss – between the spiritual and secular worlds. We have a foot in each camp, and that means our legs are something of a bridge between them. I personally don’t belong to either – I belong to both, and again I see a certain necessity in that. For example I found that being a philosopher committed to good knowledge and good reasoning was a necessary tonic for navigating different spiritual ideas or communities; and likewise, being something of a hidden yogi with more abstract and intuitive modes of thinking available was a necessary tonic for navigating the dry and largely secular cultures of academia. I’ve always found that one without the other is narrow and claustrophobic, and I think that there a lot of people out there who feel the same way.”
DR RUTH FITZPATRICK – DIRECTOR & TEACHER
I have been a spiritual and meditation practitioner my entire adult life. Throughout this time, I have always been compelled to examine how the ethos of a spiritual life sits with that of social-political engagement—how they might conflict or enrich one another. Can I be deeply engaged in a contemplative life as well as being involved in active social engagement and transformation? Or does one have to give?
This interest and tension led me to conduct a Bachelor of Social Science majoring in Peace Studies, partly animated by the optimistic though perhaps naïve idea of creating a socio-political framework based on Buddhist principles. As part of my degree I took courses in sociology, peace studies as well as Buddhist history, culture, philosophy and practice and traveled to India to study Buddhist philosophy as well as Tibetan social activism.
Successfully completing this degree, and being awarded the university medal, I completed an Honours thesis on an iconic female Buddha called Green Tara. I have always been inspired to explore notions and practices of the feminine within religious, spiritual and pagan traditions. In this research I explored what impact this female deity, known both for countering patriarchy notions within Buddhism and for being highly active in the world, had on female Buddhists’ attitudes in relation to these themes.
Following this I was awarded several scholarships to conduct a PhD, which I successfully completed on Engaged Buddhism, a Buddhist movement that integrates social activism/awareness with Buddhist philosophy and practice. After several years of teaching related courses at multiple universities, as well as private workshops and classes, in 2016 I was inspired to set up Areté House with Dr Toby Mendelson.
What is your key interest in spiritual practice, what do you most want to share in this area? arete01admin
I really would like to convey more about how diverse meditation practices are, how one can really cultivate an art out of meditation in a way that, while requiring perseverance and discipline, is also kind of ‘custom-designed’ in a way to reflect our own temperament, life and circumstances. I’m also very inspired by the need to extend practice beyond the cushion, though in very creative, again, individual way—ways that make life more sacred, more alive, more precise—in a manner that can be both deeply embodied and transcendent. I know that sounds very ambitious and perhaps idealistic, but I think that’s just what we’re here for and what better way to carry out your life?
It’s also crucial for me to convey, which may or may not be disrupting a very basic stereotype, that meditation can actually really enable you to benefit others, rather than being particularly self-focussed. And finally, in a personal kind of sense, I can’t imagine having lived life without the benefits that meditation have brought me and it pains me to think that people, who may be incredibly thirsty or in dire need of them, are not able to access them, or in a manner that sufficiently opens, inspires, feeds them. If I may be able to do that for just one individual and the practices subsequently give them a source, a tool, a mechanism to expand their life’s possibilities and mitigate their agonies, I am greatly heartened and rewarded.