Thursday, March 28, 2019

Seven Grandfathers

The major traditions of virtue ethics are the Aristotelian, the Neoplatonist, the Stoic, and the Confucian. But there are many minor traditions -- 'minor' here just meaning less widely known -- that are worthwhile. One of the minor traditions that I think deserves to be more widely known is the Anishinaabe doctrine of the Seven Grandfathers. The Anishinaabeeg are a related family of Native American tribes, of whom I believe the Ojibwe are the biggest group.

The exact history of the Teachings of the Seven Grandfathers is very difficult to pin down. The roots are certainly very old, but the precise listing of Seven is probably relatively new, an attempt to pull together, in a summary form, a wide range of traditional teachings so that they would not be lost. The exact list of seven varies somewhat. Probably the best known is that of Edward Benton-Banai, whose coloring book, The Mishomis Book, is the most widely read exposition of the doctrine, although there are other, somewhat different versions, because, I think some people find aspects of Benton-Banai's approach to be confusing or else incomplete. In any case, Benton-Banai tells the story that the Seven Grandfathers sent their messenger through the world to assess the state of life among the human beings, and the messenger came across a human child in need of teaching, to whom he gave the teachings required for living a good life and for the survival of a people. has a good summary of one version of the list, the one that I think in some ways makes the most structural sense, linking them to Ojibwe proverbs and giving audio files to help with the pronunciation of the names:

1. Minwaadendamowin – Respect
2. Zaagidiwin – Love
3. Debwewin – Truth
4. Aakodewewin – Bravery
5. Nibwaakawin – Wisdom
6. Miigwe’aadiziwin – Generosity
7. Dibaadendiziwin – Humility

All of the more detailed expositions I've ever found tend to suggest something like a unity-of-virtues thesis -- that is, the idea is that these virtues are actually interdependent, so that to have any of them requires exercising them all. Sometimes, as in the above link, you find the Seven Grandfathers paired with the 'Seven Rascals', the most opposing vice -- Disrespect, Fear, Dishonesty, Cowardice, Ignorance, Greed, and Pride. Of course, English translations do not always do perfect justice to the nuances; I'm told, for instance, that 'Dibaadendiziwin' suggests a more communal or cooperative idea than the English word 'humility' -- you are not merely not above someone, you are with them. I think this is an advantage of linking the virtue-words to the relevant proverbs and maxims, as the website does, which often help recover some of the nuances that are lost in the bare translation.

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