I was transported into this world a little less than a year ago. Fortunately, the previous inhabitant of this body had left copious notes, so it was fairly easy to get up to speed.
In my home dimension, America is a theocracy, practicing a religion called the Teaching. The Teaching has roughly the spread of modern Christianity, although its adherents are much more likely to be fervent.
I was horrified when I discovered this dimension did not have the Teaching. Its forebears died out during the Roman Empire. I had read about societies that didn’t have the Teaching. They were appalling. The average society without the Teaching has a suicide rate of approximately eight percent, an approximately equivalent homicide rate, and endemic violence and abuse of children, the elderly, and spouses; women are oppressed, famines and epidemics are rife, and the entire society has grinding poverty. The consensus among development economists is that the Teaching is not only helpful but necessary for a developed civilization. The idea that I would be trapped in a dimension without the Teaching– well. Let’s just say I was practicing the virtue of resignation.
But this didn’t look like a normal society without the Teaching. I looked up the statistics for this Earth’s America, and discovered that its suicide rate was 1.3%. 1.3%! Our society considered itself tremendously successful because the suicide rate was under three percent. And these people– without the Teaching– have managed to beat us?
The situation became more clear to me when I discovered how preternaturally calm people in this dimension are. My fiance Topher (who has adjusted remarkably well, all things considered, to the fact that his fianceee keeps getting replaced with different versions of themself from alternate dimensions) is an example. I have personally witnessed him when he missed the train: he expresses disappointment, but doesn’t scream or cry or call himself names or shout at random passerby for making him late. He doesn’t seem to use any techniques to make this happen; it’s just what he does. In my home society, he would be considered exceptionally saintly; here, he’s not just normal but actually moodier than average! I cannot fathom what the ordinary person in this dimension must be like. They must be gods.
Nevertheless, I believe the people of this dimension could use the Teaching. Our civilization is more advanced than yours in some ways: what you call “effective altruism” is just what we call “altruism”, and everyone without a health reason to eat meat is bivalvegan. And we do not leave the teaching of virtue in the hands of parents, adults primarily qualified by their ability to interlock genitals without using contraception and get through nine months without doing anything so unhealthy that the baby spontaneously aborts. I genuinely felt like vomiting the first time I read, in the Sequences, “The modern concept of religion as purely ethical derives from every other area having been taken over by better institutions. Ethics is what’s left.” How could ethics– the science of humans living good lives in harmony with each other– be the thing not taken over by better institutions? How do you expect to pursue the good if you don’t even know what the good is? What kind of incompetent civilization doesn’t make studying ethics its first priority?
One that doesn’t need to.
Perhaps I have been placed in this dimension to teach– by word and example– what my civilization has discovered through necessity, such that even those who did not suffer with us can benefit.
The Teaching was provided to us by a man known only as the Teacher, who lived in the first century AD, in Rome. Legends say that he was a slave who received a vision from the logos in which he was shown how to follow the logos and cultivate virtue; he spent his life refining the techniques and teaching them to others. His cruel master, swayed by the wisdom of his teaching, not only stopped whipping his slaves but freed them all.
The Teacher was highly influenced by Stoicism and Neo-Platonism. None of his writings survive, although we do have the works of his students; they are mostly of historical interest, as in the past two thousand years the Teaching has developed considerably beyond its original point. The Teacher (or his students) was firm that his vision had taken him to the start of the road, and he had taken the first step; it was up to his students to walk to the destination of perfect harmony with the logos.
Our deity– which I have mentioned already, to your probable confusion– is the logos, the force of universally applicable laws. Everything from Newton’s laws to Mendelian inheritance is the logos made manifest; math is unreasonably effective because math is the logos. The logos created us and wishes us well. Uniquely among all things which exist, people have the ability to choose, which means we can live according to the logos or against it; we live against the logos when we break the laws which, if followed by all, lead to a happy society. We live against the logos when we are swept away by our passions; similarly, we live against the logos when we commit the Stoic’s error of becoming trapped in our reason. We must combine emotion and reason and listen to the voice of the logos inside us.
(We can actually do that, by the way. Some of our mystics said that they could hear the logos‘s voice and it seemed like a useful thing for everyone to be able to do, so it was extensively studied and transformed into a simple procedure that is now routinely taught to eight-year-olds.)
Our schools teach four classes: Virtue, Quant, Verbal, and Exercise. Quant and Verbal are similar to Earth classes: Quant covers mathematics and science; Verbal, literature, writing, and history. Exercise is similar to Earth P.E., but significantly less terrible and more evidence-based. Virtue is the only class without an analogue on Earth.
Compared to Earth schools, in my dimension we track students very heavily. Students are tested at age six and every four years thereafter. The middle two-thirds are placed in the Middle class. The sixth at the top and the bottom are placed in High and Low classes, respectively. The very best and very worst in any skill are individually tutored. It’s routine for students to be placed differently in different classes: while I am admittedly an odd case, I was tutored for Verbal, in High for Quant, in Middle for Virtue, and in Low for Exercise. Occasionally, students will switch placements as their skills change, in which case they’ll get a tutor for the first year to help them adjust.
One of the oldest parables the Teacher taught– which may perhaps be an original parable from the Teacher himself, rather than attributed to him by his students– is the parable of the metal souls. The Teacher said: “some souls are of gold, some are of silver, some are of bronze, and some are of iron. What shall we do with these?” His student replied: “we shall teach the silver souls that we might turn them into gold, leave the gold ones be, and toss the bronze and iron to the rubbage heap.” The Teacher replied: “you fool! Shall you make a sword out of gold or a necklace out of iron? Each metal is good in its place, and each must be refined in the fire.”
For this reason, it is taught that it is wrong to stigmatize the less able. The Low contribute just as much as the High (Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage is taught in Virtue class). The purpose of education is to teach each student to follow the logos in their own way; those naturally low in Quant, Verbal, or even Virtue are no less capable of skillfully following the logos, and all students are taught of the great heroes of Low virtue. For this reason, the content is different in Low, Middle, and High classes. Earth schools seem to be created with the idea that all the Low students will eventually be able to read Shakespeare; in my home dimension, they’d laugh at you for suggesting it. For instance, in Quant, the Low class focuses on health literacy and essential mathematics like mental arithmetic. Middle has a broad but non-mathematical overview of the sciences and concentrates on the math necessary for citizenship (lots of statistics). High teaches up through calculus and presents a deep, mathematically grounded understanding of the sciences, equivalent to a college-level education.
Virtue class is the one class we have that they don’t have on Earth, so I’ll go into it in a little more detail. I’m going to cover a Middle Virtue class, because that’s the one I was in; the Low focus more on control of the passions, while the High focus more on cultivating the reason. The purpose of Virtue class is for each student to internalize the Teachings as best they can.
In the first four years, virtue is taught primarily through discussion, stories, games, and crafts. The skills taught are mostly very basic: for instance, students learn to choose a calming activity to do when they get overwhelmed, which is a foundation to build upon when they’re older. Basic mindfulness skills are introduced: “be a frog”– the standard introduction to stillness– is memetic at home the same way that “mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell” is here. And, of course, students learn about the values and rituals of the Teaching.
One unique part of our childhood educational system is “free play”. Free play is an environment subtly set up to create behavior contrary to the logos: frustrating or developmentally inappropriate games, too few desirable toys, loud play positioned strategically next to the quiet reading area. In that way, virtue teachers can coach their students in real time on conflict resolution and emotion management– teaching children to name what they’re feeling, calm their emotions, and resolve disputes peacefully and equitably. This one-on-one guidance is tremendously important.
In the middle four years, class shifts to focusing on the three core areas: the self, others, and the environment. All of these involve learning a lot of specific techniques.
The “self” subject area features a lot of mindfulness training. The will of the logos is that each person attend either to the present moment or to the logos itself: we are either to be thinking about the universal laws and how to conform ourselves more perfectly to them, or we are to enjoy the present pleasure, endure the present trial, struggle with the present temptation. There’s a lot of debate about what this means, exactly (you have no idea how vicious the debates are about whether one is permitted to read on the train), but the general idea is agreed upon by all and trained extensively.
In addition, we tend to cover a lot of practical techniques. When the passions go against the logos, we learn how to act the opposite way that they demand; when the passions conform to the logos, we learn how to solve the problems (if they’re negative) or appreciate the good (if they’re positive). We learn techniques for coping with overwhelming passions (some of them quite silly– I wouldn’t believe the ice-on-the-forehead trick worked so well if I didn’t use it myself) and prepare ourselves to use them. We learn a thousand separate techniques for a thousand separate failure modes: to break compulsive behavior, to change automatic patterns, to rewire our thoughts if they are not in line with what reason tells us, to identify our true goals, to overcome aversions, to shift the stories we tell about ourselves.
The “others” subject area involves learning charisma, persuasion, and likability (like your sales techniques, but much more advanced). Students learn conflict resolution techniques– both resolving disagreements about facts and figuring out how to meet everyone’s needs. Nearly all students have some social anxiety; this is resolved with individualized coaching to help the student face their fears and, more importantly, learn how to face their fears. There is extensive training in developing compassion using, among other things, what you call loving-kindness meditation and explicit training in avoiding the fundamental attribution error; this is accompanied by a strong grounding in what you call game theory (we wouldn’t want to create pushovers!).
The “environment” subject area covers a lot of what you would call epistemic rationality. Students are trained in probabilistic reasoning and calibration. Reason is divided into two kinds, intuition and ratiocination; we learn the best times to trust each. Most of all, we learn the technique of recognizing reality-as-it-is rather than reality-as-we-wish-it-to-be. The state of the world, good or bad, was given to us by the logos; to pretend that it is different than it is is to go against the logos.
In the last four years, the same three areas are covered in more depth, but a fourth area is added: discernment, the process of figuring out what the logos has called you to do for the rest of your life. The first step is to figure out whether you’ve been called to singleness, marriage, or the monastic life; after that, students are provided considerable guidance on choosing a career, committed relationships, childrearing (if married), and selecting which kind of monastic life is right for you (if a monk). While this isn’t permanent– people can originally discern a call to the monastic life, but eventually decide they wish to marry– most people stick with the call they chose in adolescence.
Marriage is for the production and raising of children, and their children are the most important aspect of any married person’s life; for this reason, married people must choose flexible jobs that work well with childrearing. Single people may have sex and romance; however, if you wish to remain single, you must give up any children you bear for adoption by a married couple. (Today, most singles use contraception.) Single people are often those who want jobs that wouldn’t work well with having kids– long hours, poor pay, exposure to teratogens– although many single people simply have no desire for children.
Monks live in monasteries and live a rigorous and structured life. Monks take vows never to have sex, lie, experience luxury, accept money, or take intoxicants. Monks may become mystics, meditating and performing rituals to honor the logos; they may counsel parishioners and teach classes; they may write books explaining the Teachings to laypeople or do research developing new aspects of the Teachings; they may run the government. Given my affinity for schedules, ritual, and studying the Teachings, I was an obvious candidate for the monastic life.
As adults, we practice the faith several different ways. Devout followers of the Teaching pray twice daily at our altars. Each member of the family has an individual altar, which they typically decorate with things that speak to them of virtue and the logos. In the morning, we recall the glory of the logos (perhaps contemplating the size of the universe or the intricacy of the cell). Then we think through our day, paying special attention to any points where our virtue may be tested. We imagine in great detail how we will respond virtuously to those points, then ask the logos for grace that we may do as we planned. In the evening, we give thanks for the blessings we have received through the day and ask forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed, while making a plan so we may do better in the future. Both morning and evening prayer are concluded with a short period of mindfulness meditation. Many people also pray throughout the day, when they have a spare moment or when they’re facing challenges. Prayers of petition are forbidden: the logos set up the universe the way it set it up, and it is considered sinful to question it by asking for a sickness to be healed or an enemy to be defeated. Instead, we are allowed to ask only for the virtue to survive our struggles and continue to behave according to the logos.
Schools offer continuing-education classes for adults on a variety of topics: from cultural enrichment, to occupational training, to exercise classes. Specifically Virtue-oriented classes are a wide range: acceptance of death, money management, developing spiritual practices, history of the Teachings, metaphysics, and development of lay leadership. Most people are in at least one class. In addition, most people see a spiritual counselor. The average person sees their counselor biweekly, although particularly virtuous people might only need once a month, and particularly unvirtuous people and all monastics see theirs once a week. Some brave souls only see their counselor as needed, while those who are in dire straits may see them as often as daily.
If a person is engaging in non-criminal behavior deeply against the logos– such as suicidality, self-harm, disordered eating, or substance abuse– they can be required to attend classes or counselling. Of course, spiritual counselling only works for consenting people, so the mandatory counselling sessions focus on getting the individual to see for themselves that they will be happier if they live in accordance with the logos. One cannot be forced to attend more than six sessions in a year.
We also have holidays every month or so, celebrated by rituals. I think the best taste of what the rituals of my home are like is Secular Solstice. Our rituals involve rather more liturgy and call-and-response and no speeches (speeches are for classes!); however, when I attended Solstice this year, the ache in my heart lifted and if I closed my eyes I felt almost as if I were home.
To give a taste of what our holidays are about: Vasili Arkhipov existed in my home world as well. He did not follow the Teaching (in my world as on Earth, Communists are atheists). As soon as his deed was discovered, he was declared a hero, and his birthday became one of our most joyous religious holidays.
Feel free to ask questions in the comments; I will answer them, in the hopes of spreading the Teaching to Earth.