Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In Book II of Plato’s Republic, Socrates engages in a debate with his friends Glaucon and Adeimantus that strikes me as suddenly newly relevant to our age.
Bear with me.
Socrates, like all great moral teachers in history, proposes that one must strive for moral virtue, or “justice,” as he calls it. His companions offer a counterargument. They point out that, even if a person is just, if he or she is perceived as unjust, then that person will suffer all the negative consequences of being unjust anyway. Glaucon puts it in graphic terms:
For some months now, a phrase from Confucian philosophy has recurred to me like an ear worm: “neither obsequious nor arrogant.” (不卑不亢.) Then I realized why I kept thinking about this phrase — it’s a perfect lesson for today’s Americans.
The specific formulation dates back to the early 17th century: “The sages had their middle way, being neither obsequious nor arrogant....” But in substance it reaches all the way back to the time of Confucius and forms a part of Confucian ethics, which concerns itself with the question of how to be a junzi (君子), loosely translated as “gentleman.” I say loosely because the Western concept of “gentleman” devotes more energy to social manners than the Confucian concept, which is mostly about how to live as a good and complete person in a world full of knaves and villains. And although admittedly the Confucian term was gendered for usage in a patriarchal society, the moral concept is applicable to both sexes equally.
Much of America’s present difficulties would disappear if Americans would take this Confucian lesson to heart. The old culture war and racial animosities brought to the point of the astonishing act of self-immolation that took place in November would end.
The Chinese language contains many phrases known as chengyu (成語), literally “fixed expressions,” what in English we’d call cliches but which are an indispensable part of Chinese.
One fixed expression goes, “three in the morning, four in the evening” (朝三暮四). Today the expression is used to describe someone who is mercurial, hot and cold, inconstant. But that’s not what it originally meant.
Many fixed expressions have fun origin stories. This one goes back to ancient Taoist philosophy. In Zhuangzi, a foundational text of Taoism named after its author and published in the third century B.C., there’s a cute fable in “A Theory on the Equality of All Things” (莊子‧齊物論) about a man who raised monkeys and could talk to them. The man came to the monkeys and said, “How about I feed you three fruits each in the morning, and four in the evening?” The monkeys protested that this was not enough food. The man nodded and went away. A little while later he returned and made another proposition: “How about I feed you four fruits each in the morning, and three in the evening?” The monkeys now cheered and accepted the proposal.
Last year I left the United States to travel. Two months ago I started this little blog. I said it would not exactly be a travel blog. Instead it would highlight all that I found interesting in this world, with an emphasis on exchanges between cultures. And because I’m a nerd, the subject matters have been quaint and obscure. The influence of Greek art on Buddhist sculptures; ancient figures from Roman and Chinese history; essays by Francis Bacon and Voltaire; archaeology in Afghanistan.
So in light of the election on Tuesday, I started thinking that I might as well stop blogging. It all seems so, well, quaint and obscure. Who cares about Buddhist art when a Fascist, racist, and sociopathic conman now has nuclear launch codes? Who still reads Bacon or Voltaire in this apparent age of anti-intellectualism?
But then a couple of thoughts occurred to me and made me decide that the one thing I couldn’t do was to stop writing.
I’d like to think that Voltaire would be shocked to learn that the merits of vaccination remain up for debate, or rather are up for debate once again, nearly three centuries after he wrote extolling the practice.
From 1726 to 1729, the great Enlightenment Philosophe lived in England. Drawing on experiences from these years, in 1733 he published a volume of essays now known as Letters on the English or Letters on the English Nation. Letters, because each essay was written as though a letter addressed to his fellow French. Covering a wide range of topics from Westminster parliamentarianism to Isaac Newton to Alexander Pope, the Letters generally presented the British in a favorable light in contrast to the French. They were, in a way, well-intentioned propaganda to goad the French into catching up with their rivals across the Channel wherever, in Voltaire’s view, they had fallen behind.
And in Letter XI, Voltaire addressed the practice of inoculation or vaccination. In his telling, Lady Wortley Montague, wife of an ambassador to the Sublime Porte of Ottoman Turkey, brought knowledge of smallpox inoculation back with her to Britain, where the practice was now widespread.
Over four centuries ago, in 1612, Francis Bacon published his essay “Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates” as part of the enlarged second edition of his “Essayes: Religious Meditations. Places of Perswasion and Disswasion. Seene and Allowed.”
Bacon, first Viscount St. Alban, Lord Chancellor of England, and father of empiricism and the scientific method, was a lawyer, statesman, philosopher, scientist, and author. According to some, including no less than Friedrich Nietzsche, he was even the true writer behind the works of William Shakespeare (although this Stratfordian begs to differ — that’ll have to wait for a later post).
In “Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates,” Bacon made his feelings on the inclusion of outsiders and naturalization of non-citizens very plain: “all states that are liberal of naturalization towards strangers are fit for empire.”
He went on:
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."