The philosophy group I belong to (which has been meeting successfully by Zoom the past several weeks) is in the process of considering what topic we’ll explore when we reconvene in the fall. We seem to be choosing between the philosophy of probability, philosophy of law, and the overarching topic of what constitutes a good – or meaningful – life. I am keen on seeing the topic of what constitutes a meaningful life win the day; not surprisingly, this question has been of major interest to philosophers since at least the Greeks, and it’s still a work in progress.
There are so many questions that spring to mind. Is a good life the same thing as a happy life? How do we decide a life is meaningful? Maybe we could add in: how do we lead a good life while under quarantine?! I’ve started doing a tiny, tiny bit of research on what philosophers have had to say on this topic through the ages. There are some themes that are enduring, and it appears that humankind continues to have a hard time following through on some of the well-intentioned suggestions. During these initial explorations I came across some simple yet profound answers to this overarching question of how to lead a good life that have been passed down through the generations for thousands of years in the Anishinaabe culture of the Great Lakes regions of North America. Unfortunately, very few of us outside the indigenous communities know about them.
I thought it would be worthwhile sharing these teachings of the Seven Grandfathers, guidance given to countless generations of Anishinaabe peoples in what’s now Canada and the northern United States. These teachings provide the foundation for leading a good life. My guess is that if our philosophy group chooses this topic to explore next term, regardless of who we read or how ancient or recent the readings, the reflections and answers will be no more compelling than that of the Seven Grandfathers.
The teachings of the Seven Grandfathers guide each individual in what’s needed to lead a good life, living in peace, free of conflict. It is based on seven (no surprise) principles for everyone to follow throughout their lives. A central part of the concept is that all seven teachings are equally important, with each principle requiring the others for the teachings to work. As far as I’m concerned, it’s very hard to disagree with these Seven Teachings:
Humility. Live life selflessly and not selfishly. Respect your place and carry your pride with your people and praise the accomplishments of all. Do not become arrogant and self-important. Find balance within yourself and all living things.
Courage/Bravery. To face life with courage is to know bravery. Find your inner strength to face the difficulties of life and the courage to be yourself. Defend what you believe in and what is right for your community, family, and self. Make positive choices and have conviction in your decisions.
Honesty. To walk through life with integrity is to know honesty. Be honest with yourself. Recognize and accept who you are. Accept and use the gifts you have been given. Do not seek to deceive yourself or others.
Wisdom. To cherish knowledge is to know wisdom. Use your inherent gifts wisely and live your life by them. Recognize your differences and those of others in a kind and respectful way. Allow yourself to learn and live by your wisdom.
Truth. Truth gives us the ability to act without regret. We must understand, speak, and feel the truth, while also honoring its power. Truth should not lead us to deceptions.
Respect. We demonstrate respect by realizing the value of all people and things, and by showing courteous consideration and appreciation. We must give respect if we wish to be respected. We honor our families and others, as well as ourselves. We are not to bring harm to anyone or anything. Respect is not just an action, but a heart-grown feeling.
Love. To know love is to know peace. Our love must be unconditional. When people are weak, that is when they need love the most. Love is a strong affection for another. This can form between friends and family. Love is an attachment based upon devotion, admiration, tenderness, and kindness for all things around you. For one to love and accept themselves is to live at peace with the Creator and in harmony with all of creation. Love knows no bounds. We must accept it sincerely and give it freely.
As I say, it’s hard to disagree with any of these teachings. The Anishanaabe (Ojibwe, Mississaugas, etc.) and other Native Americans got it right without having read Plato or Sophocles, Kant or Nietzsche. I just wish that the colonizers who first interacted with the indigenous peoples in North America had listened to these lessons – and followed them. One could make the observation that many of these teachings are similar to those of Christianity and other religions. Sadly, those values were not accorded to the indigenous people the colonizers encountered, much to their shame. May we all learn from these Seven Teachings.
Image credits: lltc.edu/about-us/our-philosophy/, unitingthreefiresagainstviolence.org