Saturday, 21 September 2013

Bonism - Good, But Could Do Better

This is deep, man
(photo by Greg Wagoner)


Noun. Late 19th-century.
[from Latin bonus good + -ISM.]

The doctrine that the world is good, but not the best possible.

Also: bonist noun L19

I was attracted to the idea of bonism as soon as I read it in the OED, although the definition is frustratingly vague (as it is in other dictionaries). Is it a religious doctrine? A secular philosophy? Just a word invented by some self-help guru? Searching on the internet tended to throw up links about Bon, a branch of Tibetan Buddhism, but within these I couldn't find any explicit mention of the above teaching.

Regardless of its origin, it doesn't seem like a bad doctrine to live by. It's certainly better than being ruled by negativity and fear - the idea that no one and nothing is as good as it used to be; that everyone - the young, the old, the rich, the poor (and don't even get me started on foreigners) - is fundamentally selfish and bad; every person that's passed in the street is a potential mugger, every politician is a liar and every policeman is corrupt. If there are exceptions, they are just that - exceptions. Morality, trust and good faith are mythological ideals that, if they ever existed, are from a time long past.

However, just as bad are those that cover their ears and pretend everything is good in the world, living in a cocoon in which they choose to ignore the deep problems that exist around them. After all, just because I was lucky enough to have been born into a wealthy nation (and it is luck, for how am I any more deserving than someone that was born into poverty?), who am I to glibly gush about the wonders of our scientific age, our age of advanced medicine and communication, while ignoring the devastating hardships that people endure every single day?

But the world is good; people are good. True, it's not the best it can be, and people aren't the best they can be; I'm not the best I can be, but I can keep trying to improve myself, and collectively we can all keep doing our best to make the world a better place for each other. That's what I like about bonism, at least by its dictionary definition. It's positive and optimistic, but also realistic - we must work harder to make the world better, but we also know that the world is worth making better.

Do you have any background information on bonism?

Do you have any thoughts on the underlying thinking?

Do please leave your most philosophical musings below.


  1. There was an article on the radio several months back about Tibetan Bonism. Something to do with worshiping the mountains. They used to perform fairly elaborate ceremonies to leave sacred offerings to various Gods and Demons who otherwise would control their lives. The article prompted many derisory texts into the programme. I think I'd rather be a bonehead than a bonist.

    1. I'm still not 100% sure that there's a connection between the bonism in the dictionary and the Buddhist bonism. If there is, I don't understand why there isn't also a definition of "Bonism: A branch of Tibetan ... etc" and "Bonist: A Buddhist follow of ... etc."

      It might also be that there is a connection in bonism's (the doctrine's) origin, but it's come to mean that philosophy or outlook generally.

      I'd really like to know for certain either way.

  2. Ed, I've read today's post a number of times, and something about it has been rankling feverishly away at something else deep within me, to the extent that I'm nervously anticipating myself actually making a sensible comment. Should you brace yourself? I don't know either - this hasn't happened for quite a while.

    I think I am also attracted to the idea of bonism, not least for the way it seems to succinctly sum life up, much as a quick-witted self-help guru might to distract the mugger just long enough to get himself back inside the community centre.

    It is positive, and optimistic, but I don't think it's actually that realistic. Maybe I'm in danger of falling into the 'ruled by negativity and fear' pit you dug in the second paragraph, but the more I sit back and peer out at the world through scratched, glib, clueless glasses, the more I believe that the world is regressing exponentially away from any ideals of goodness.

    I still see flashes of good things, the occasional obedient child, a poop-scooping dog walker, a disobedient-child-scooping parent etc, but they are fleeting and fading like those beautiful, iridescent, Caribbean jellyfish being quickly dispersed away by an incoming murky, moonlit tide of human badness in some hideously overwrought and badly-thought-out analogy........ caressed by a vacuous bubble of inane, wobbly, panting......

    .....that paragraph seems to have completely gotten the better of me.

    What I'm blindly stabbing away at is that the world IS worth improving ourselves for, and optimism is heartwarming, but realistically no matter how hard we work, the tide is still going to knock over all the sandcastles we built.


    (However I do entirely agree that all foreigners are fundamentally selfish and, by definition, bad.)

    1. Thank you for your very interesting comment C. I feel quite honoured that you've read this post a couple of times; the word 'bonism' (which was previously unknown to me) similarly caused me to pause and think - it's fascinating to know it did for someone else as well.

      It is an attractive idea - on that we seem to agree. However, while I concede that a doctrine such as "The world is good, but not the best possible" does indeed have a guru-esque ring to it, I don't think that in itself negates either its potential for value or accuracy. What I think is true (from what you've written) is that we both believe that the world is good. After all, you say that it's worth improving ourselves for - surely if anything is worth that, it must be something of significant value and its core template is fundamentally good.

      Where we do seem to differ is where we focus our point of view. You talk of seeing a world that’s regressing away from goodness when you look at it; I see a world that is good, but one with significant problems. Regardless of these differing focal points, we both seem to agree that making the world a better place starts with making ourselves better. Doing this makes our world better, for us and for our fellow humans. Regardless of whether any sandcastle we build is ultimately knocked down by the shifting tides of time, it's better to know that we tried to be part of the good in this world, rather than choosing or allowing ourselves to be part of the bad, whether by action, inaction or apathy.

    2. ...are we both discussing the immigration issue?


    3. Hi clueless,

      I love the Caribbean jelly fish analogy! And I think that you should move on from being the funniest and best commentor on this blog, to having a blog on your own. It would definitely give Ed a run for his money! :)

      P.S. Your post was very good too Ed! :)


    4. Aww, thank you Chlobo. I'm not sure many would agree with you after several rants during yesterday's post on, well, boobs. I also lack Ed's discipline, quality of writing and magical powers I suspect.


    5. No, you still firmly retain that title, C. And no moving on from you, please, or facilitating potential competition, thank you very much Chlobo ...

      Now to cast some more arcane linguistic spells: Oxfordus, Oxfordus, Geekum Nerdorum ...

  3. Interesting Idea of Bonism, GOOD but could do it better, but no one does that, every one makes only the primary necesity, no more, it is an Economy Principle.

    1. I could see it being applied in economy, game theory, etc. My teachers used to write a very similar thing on a lot of my schoolwork, but without the 'good' bit; just 'could do better'. My teachers were all obviously bonists.