Seven Words That Can Change the World – A New Understanding of Sacredness, by Joseph R. Simonetta (Hampton Roads Publishing Company) is an encouraging little essay. The title, the cover, the preface, the introduction, and various other trappings suggest that it is a religious self-help book that will probably remind the reader of the importance of connecting with his or her inner whatchamacallit in order to find true peace and increased market potential. But the body of the book consists largely of Simonetta rejecting religion. Ten or 15 tiny pages toward the end explain what the seven words are that can change the world.
This book takes about 20 minutes to read, but I never would have read it had the author not suggested it to me. As an atheist and a snob, I would have rejected it on the basis of the title alone. As it turns out, I pretty much agree with Simonetta’s main concerns (which include environmental destruction, unequal distribution of wealth, and corruption of democracy by money). And this book rejects religious foolishness as clearly as many that don’t come packaged as a new understanding of sacredness devised by a student of divinity.
But the book is indeed simplistic. It doesn’t seem likely to appeal to scholars already pressed for time. It doesn’t tell me much I didn’t already know. However, I might be tempted to buy 100 copies and send them to libraries. Not only is the book’s message important, but its simplicity is a part of that message. Moral codes, which have largely been religious codes, have – like other law codes — always simplified, and Simonetta is aiming here for the most general framework, a new 10 Commandments, an updated Golden Rule. I imagine if Thomas of Aquinas were around today, he might write something of this sort, dropping most of the nonsense current in his day but keeping the careful simplicity.
Simonetta’s new code in seven words is: “Be healthy. Be kind. Respect the environment.” He presents this as a series of three relationships: to oneself, others, and the environment. After rejecting all previous pretensions to universal truth and disparaging our practice of clinging to old beliefs because we have called them sacred, Simonetta proceeds to call his seven words universal truth and sacred. This suggests to me that he has failed to see the radicalness in their day of various old and now foolish belief systems. Those who developed monotheism, for example, thought they were breaking with all past superstition as radically as Simonetta thinks he is. Of course, now we can lump monotheism with every other sort of theism and nontheistic religion and reject much of what is common to the lot. But declaring our truth universal and sacred suggests we haven’t learned our lesson. Simonetta writes about his three rules:
“[T]his is not a human construct. This is simply the way life works. This is not contrived or fictional. This is not arbitrary or subject to dismissal. Nor is this in any way negotiable.”
Now, I know that Simonetta is too big a fan of democracy to completely mean to put forth such an edict against negotiation. He intends, in fact, to be generous and inclusive. He sees his code as so general and well-intended that it will not hurt anyone. In fact, he doesn’t even think it will have to be imposed on anyone for their own good. He supposes that every reader will immediately recognize its truth. But will they?
Some will certainly object that Simonetta’s three rules are not separable, that you can’t have one without the other two. And he may not see that as a criticism. But some may go on to question more pointedly the distinction between others and the environment. Are the others other humans or other mammals or other life forms or other discreet objects? Is there anthropocentrism here? Do we need to be kind to humans but respectful of cows, and do we respect cows best by eating them? Would it not be better to respect humans and be kind to cows? Some may, for different reasons, also question the appropriateness of kindness as a framework for all interactions with humans. Should one be kind to family, friends, compatriots, competitors, and enemies? Is there not a place for respectful competition and even meanness? Simonetta claims that only his way can allow the species to survive; social Darwinians might beg to differ. And then, why put the species on the same level as the environment? Isn’t it most important to not destroy the planet as a whole? And why put the self on the same level as either? What if you can best help others through sacrifices that do not allow you the most healthy lifestyle? And isn’t kindness an attitude we adopt toward individuals; how does this relate to the benevolence we bestow on society as a whole, sometimes at some individuals’ expense?
I am playing devil’s advocate to make the point that the seven words are not universal or permanent, not to suggest that I oppose them. While 10 years from now I might reject them as folly, right now I recommend them as critical to improving human society and preserving ecosystems. Even the consequentialism implicit in the seven words and explicit in the book (the recognition that what we do has consequences and that those consequences must be the measure of our ethics) is worthy of the highest recommendation in an age in which we are altering the planet’s weather while our university philosophy departments are keeping busy debating the relative merits of consequentialism and deontology.
Of course, accepting the value of the seven words still leaves a huge need for specifics. Simonetta tries to sneak a few in himself with a section immediately following his introduction of the seven words entitled “The Law of One.” This section seems intended to make the seven words sound more mystical. He throws out overgeneralizations such as “All parts depend upon each other for survival.” But he also adds new values such as industriousness. Industriousness may be a good thing, or it may not, but it is hardly uncontroversially a subsection of health, kindness, or respect. It’s part of Simonetta’s view of these things, and I’d very much like to see a longer book expanding on that view. But many see industriousness as the chief culprit behind environmental destruction and actually think we could stand to learn something from the relative leisure of hunter-gatherer societies. What counts as kindness or respect requires elaboration. Some in this country believe it would be unkind to prevent an individual from funding a political candidate’s campaign. Simonetta and I think it is more unkind to allow money to shut those without it out of politics. But these arguments must in each case be made.
I have other quibbles with the book. I think the belief in karma expressed on page 71 is often not true. Many bad deeds go unpunished. And I think the belief in free will expressed on page 72 is a mistake, particularly following immediately upon such a precise rejection of the same concept. Of course, we make choices, but those are not made outside the world of causes and effects. If there were such a thing as an omniscient person, he or she would indeed be able to predict our choices.
But mostly this book gets me thinking, and that’s a good thing. I’d like to see it land in a lot of other people’s hands. And if the sides of it that trouble me — the religious-sounding terminology – attract others, if this book can fill a need people have for religion without doing the harm religion usually does (excusing people from responsibility for their actions, promoting blind allegiance to authority, and focusing attention on an imagined existence after death) then it will have worked one of the biggest and most badly needed wonders.