June 14, 2004
There’s a new page on my website, a feedback page, which collects the feedback that I’ve received over the years. You may be surprised to find that a message you sent me five years ago is there. I used only your first name; if you want to add your last name, or delete your first name, or remove the entry entirely, just let me know.
I’d like to begin this issue with some unfinished business — the last part of the Ethics essay that I started in the previous issue.
A. The Work Ethic and National Character One effect of the Protestant work ethic is, of course, a propensity for work. “Work hard in your calling” — this is the motto of the Protestant work ethic. A second effect of the work ethic is the quickening of the tempo of life; one who lives by this ethic is always in a hurry. According to the work ethic, wasting time is sinful. A third effect of the work ethic is a materialistic attitude; you should work, earn money, and become wealthy, not devote yourself to the life of the spirit.
Devotion to work, a hurried lifestyle, a materialistic attitude — all these effects of the work ethic poison culture. The work ethic has poisoned culture primarily in the Anglo-American nations, since they’re the nations that have been most influenced by ascetic Protestantism. In Germany, on the other hand, Protestantism took a less ascetic form, and in France, Protestantism had little influence. Because the French are predominantly Catholic, they’ve escaped the Protestant work ethic’s damaging effect on culture. To this fact must be attributed, at least in part, the high quality of French culture.1
B. Culture and the Leisure Class Throughout history, from the time of Pericles to the time of Tolstoy, healthy cultures have always emerged from aristocratic societies, from societies that had a leisure class. Within such a leisure class, there was contempt for working and earning money, and there was respect for culture. Members of the leisure class had to struggle against boredom; they had to invent ways to pass the time. Culture gave them a way to pass the time, and it gave them something to live for. Members of the leisure class patronized artists and writers; the Roman aristocrat Maecenas, for example, patronized Virgil and Horace, and made it possible for them to devote their lives to literature.
In modern, democratic society, there is no leisure class. Modern society is unprecedented in its homogeneity, its classlessness. Modern man has conquered boredom and has found a way to pass the time, to pass an entire lifetime: he works, he accumulates wealth. He tries to make as much money as he can, instead of trying to make as much money as he needs. While pretending that he works because he has to, modern man often works because he wants to, because working is the best way to pass the time. Working removes the feeling of futility and emptiness, and replaces it with the illusion of having accomplished something worthwhile. Furthermore, working enables people to acquire wealth, and thereby to acquire both the respect of others and self-respect.
Nowadays, it’s no longer a disgrace to work, it’s a disgrace not to work. Modern man respects work more than he respects anything else. Even the children of billionaires prefer a life of work to a life of leisure. One American politician is fond of saying, “If you’re breathing, I want you working.” The current idea of utopia is “full employment,” that is, everyone working full-time. If one dares not to work, one is despised and isolated. If one devotes oneself to culture, one is an outcast from society. In such an atmosphere, culture suffocates.
Though we can’t be part of a leisure class, since no such class exists nowadays, we should live as if we were part of a leisure class. We should avoid business, avoid making money and avoid spending money. We should turn to culture for enrichment and for entertainment. Thus, time will slow down, and each day will have a sense of high purpose, coupled with an enjoyment of the playful, entertaining side of culture. Thus, we’ll live as people did in earlier ages, and we’ll feel ourselves akin to people of earlier ages. The literature, art, and music of earlier ages will strike a chord within us.
C. Be poor in money, but rich in time.
D. Medieval Wisdom All haste is of the devil’s party (omnis festinatio ex parte diaboli).
E. Productive Leisure Modern man divides life into work and vacation. He defines a vacation as a period of time that isn’t challenging and productive. Modern man doesn’t understand leisure, doesn’t understand that leisure can be both challenging and productive.
Modern man despises those who live off inherited money, despite the fact that many outstanding writers — including Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Proust — lived off inherited money, and never earned any money themselves.
F. Time In an aristocratic society, people try to pass the time, to “beguile the time,” to make time slip away painlessly, to stave off boredom. In an egalitarian society, such as modern society, in which there’s no leisure class, people try to use time, and to save time; they say, “time is money.” Zen teaches us neither to pass time nor to save time, but rather to focus on the present moment; Zen teaches us to live outside time.
G. Spoiled Children When American businessmen discuss their goals and values, they often say that they’re working for their children, they want their children to live well, they want to be able to send their children to a good college. But if parents live for children, what do children live for? Children should see adults pursuing some high goal, some goal other than children. When children are given the impression that life has no meaning or purpose besides their own well-being, they lose respect for adults, and become spoiled. Many children are spoiled nowadays; many children think that they’re the most important part of their parents’ lives, they’re the center of the universe.
H. Traveling Since ancient times, thinkers have criticized traveling; Emerson, for example, called traveling “a fool’s paradise.” Though traveling is often a futile attempt to escape reality, there is something to be said for traveling. Time flies by, and life grows stale, when we’re living according to the daily routine to which we’re habituated. On the other hand, time passes slowly when we’re traveling; as Schopenhauer said, “when we’re traveling, one month seems longer than four months spent at home.” Traveling often prompts people to make important decisions, and it often forms a turning-point in people’s lives.
The desire to travel that young people often have is prompted by a desire to break the emotional bonds that have hitherto tied them to home and family. Breaking old emotional bonds leads to the formation of new ones; the desire to travel is related to sexual desire. Proust often used sexual images when speaking of traveling; he once said, “I was seized with a mad desire to ravish little sleeping towns,” playing on the words villes (towns) and filles (girls). While the desire to travel is related to sexual desire, an aversion for travel is related to an aversion for sex; Immanuel Kant and Emily Dickinson, who never traveled outside the towns in which they were born, were sexually abstinent.
The youth’s desire to travel is related not only to a sexual urge, but also to a nomadic urge. Young people pass through a nomadic stage. Every human being, in his development, recapitulates the development of mankind as a whole, and passes through the stages that mankind as a whole has passed through, including the nomadic stage.2
I. Four Feelings Disappearing Ambition, pride, respect and contempt usually go together, and are usually found in the same person. Ambition, pride, respect and contempt have virtually disappeared from the West. Western man has ambition and pride only in miniature. He aims to outstrip his neighbors, and is proud if he has done so, but he doesn’t compare himself with historic figures, and he doesn’t aspire to be remembered by future generations.
Respect and contempt go hand in hand; one who respects some people will necessarily have contempt for others. Nietzsche observed the connection between respect and contempt, and said, “I love the great despisers, for they are the great venerators.” Nowadays, people neither despise nor venerate. They’re no longer capable of looking up, of respecting; they regard everyone as equal to themselves. I once heard someone say, “the only person we have contempt for nowadays is the person who has contempt for others.”
Not only has contempt for others disappeared from the modern West, but also contempt for oneself. Veneration for someone else is often accompanied by contempt for oneself. Since modern man no longer looks up, he no longer looks down on himself. “The time of the most contemptible man is coming,” said Nietzsche, “the man who can no longer despise himself.”3 The time of the most contemptible man has arrived; modern man can no longer despise himself.
These feelings — pride, ambition, respect and contempt — have been the source of the West’s energy, its restlessness, its tension, its profundity, its striving for the infinite. The absence of these feelings in recent times has made the West poorer, shallower, weaker.
J. The Classics The study of the classics aims not only at knowledge, but at action, the good life, the development of personality. The study of the classics raises one above material things, above daily matters. The study of the classics enlarges one’s thoughts by introducing one to earlier historical periods and to foreign cultures. The study of the classics gives one something to respect, and it inspires one to pursue high goals. The study of the classics is important from an ethical standpoint as well as from an intellectual standpoint; it can improve both the character and the mind.
But the study of the classics has drawbacks as well as benefits. It requires concentration and effort, and it sometimes leads to the repression of the unconscious, and to discord within the psyche. A number of scholars, including Weber and Mill, have suffered mental breakdowns from the strain of intellectual work. If wisdom consists in inner peace as well as extensive knowledge, then the classics should be studied in moderation. Any attempt to define the classics should bear this in mind; the classics should be small in number, and as brief and readable as possible.
K. Art and Morality Should art have any moral significance? Plato and Confucius thought it should; they thought that music should improve morality and mold character. They thought that the government should prohibit music that wasn’t morally pure; they thought that licentious music would promote licentious behavior, and would eventually lead to moral anarchy and political turmoil. Plato and Confucius wanted literature, as well as music, to be inspiring and uplifting.
Tragic drama and epic poetry are often inspiring and uplifting — in their language as well as their content. Tragic drama and epic poetry depict heroes, and inspire heroic conduct. “Tragedy warms the soul,” said Napoleon, “elevates the heart, can and must create heroes.”4 Some visual art, such as the art of Greek sculptors and of Michelangelo, is similar to tragic drama; it depicts heroic personalities, it gives one a high conception of man. Music, too, is often inspiring and uplifting; Beethoven’s music, for example, often has this quality. It’s clear, then, that great art often has moral significance, though it doesn’t preach moral behavior. Great art often gives one a conception of human greatness, though it doesn’t preach moral goodness.
L. Moral Anarchy When morality becomes false and hypocritical, it provokes a reaction. The realistic art of the late nineteenth century was a reaction against excessive morality and sentimentality. Now evil has become as fashionable in art as good was formerly. Twentieth-century art, including film, has become obsessed with the morbid and the immoral. Many modern artists seem to think that profundity consists in concentrating on the evil, irrational, morbid side of human nature. The morbidity of modern art is as one-sided, as exaggerated, as fraudulent, as was the sentimentality of early-nineteenth-century art. The moral anarchy of modern art, especially that of popular music and film, contributes to the moral anarchy of modern society.
M. Universal Standards In the time of Socrates, the intellectuals known as Sophists argued that morality is relative, that morality varies from place to place, and from time to time. The Sophists pointed out that public nakedness is tolerated here, but condemned there, that homosexuality is tolerated here, but condemned there, etc.
Socrates rejected the moral relativism of the Sophists, and believed that there was an absolute moral standard, applicable in all times and places. Plato also believed in absolute moral standards. Socrates and Plato were rationalists, worshippers of reason. Like many early Greek thinkers, Plato was fond of math, and this may have increased his respect for pure reason. Socrates and Plato seemed to believe that just as 2 + 2 = 4 in all times and places, so reason can discover moral principles that are true in all times and places.
The Stoics agreed with Socrates and Plato. The Stoics believed that there was a Natural Law, a law that could be discovered by reason, a law that could provide moral guidance in all times and places. Likewise, the English philosopher John Locke believed in Natural Rights that were universally valid. Locke respected reason, as Socrates and Plato did, and he believed that reason could build a foundation for morality and religion.
Hume, who was famous for his skepticism, doubted whether reason was a reliable guide outside the field of math. Hume rejected the old rationalist notion that reason can tell us what’s right and what’s wrong; according to Hume, reason can’t tell us what we ought to do, morality is a matter of feelings. “’Tis not contrary to reason,” said Hume, “to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”5
As if to prove that Reason can lead anywhere, the French revolutionaries, who worshipped Reason, embarked on a policy of genocide. Western man had lost his God and lost his Ought. Stalin and the Russian revolutionaries also followed the road of Reason and ended up in genocide. Reason, Hume argued, can justify anything, and doesn’t lead to a universal moral standard.
Kant tried to rescue religion and morality from the skepticism of Hume. Kant believed that Western civilization needed a solid moral-religious foundation. Kant declared a universal moral law, his so-called “categorical imperative”: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a general natural law.” Kant’s categorical imperative has been described as a re-statement of the ancient Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
Schopenhauer agreed with Kant that an absolute moral standard was possible. Schopenhauer declared his own Moral Law: harm no one but rather, as far as possible, help others.
Nietzsche rejected the idea of an absolute moral standard. In Nietzsche’s time, the white man was exploring the depths of Africa, Australia, etc., coming into contact with a variety of primitive peoples, and studying primitive beliefs. Nietzsche was fascinated by this new science of anthropology, and studied the various moralities found in various parts of the world. Nietzsche felt that the findings of the anthropologists confirmed the old argument of the Sophists that morality is relative, that there is no universal Natural Law. Nietzsche admired the Sophists: “they divine that all attempts to give reasons for morality are necessarily sophistical.”6
Nietzsche argued that some moralities are created by masters, others by slaves. (This argument may have been derived from Gorgias and the other Sophists who argue with Socrates in Plato’s dialogues.) A slave morality, in Nietzsche’s view, is a morality that extols meekness and compassion; Nietzsche regarded Christian morality as slave morality.
Kierkegaard agreed with the Sophists that reason can’t provide us with clear moral guidance. According to Kierkegaard, our view of what is right and decent isn’t based on reason: “decency.... has its seat in feeling and in the impulse and consistency of an inner enthusiasm. ‘On principle’ one can do anything.” The reasoning process, which Kierkegaard terms “reflection,” can go on forever: “reflection has the remarkable property of being infinite.” Reason can’t lead us to a universal moral standard.
Like Kierkegaard, Zen doesn’t think that man should live by reason and logic, doesn’t think that man should live by principles, or seek universal moral standards. Zen likes to compare human existence to a ball being carried along by a river — every moment is new, every situation is unique. The only principle in Zen is “the principle of not acting according to principles, but according to the circumstances, with a whole mind.”7
Like Zen, Jung believed in spontaneity, and in paying heed to current circumstances. After reading a book by a Zen Buddhist, Jung said, “it seemed to me that we were talking about the same thing, and that the only difference between us was that we gave different words to the same reality.”8 Jung didn’t believe in living by universal moral laws, didn’t believe in living by reason; rather, he believed in listening to feelings, hunches, dreams.
Thus, the search for moral absolutes seems to have failed. But the age-old argument isn’t over yet, and surely new philosophers will appear who will seek to establish new Moral Laws.
N. Do I Contradict Myself? Eventually, it may be possible to bring Eastern and Western ideas into a seamless unity, but at present there’s still tension between them. A philosopher who respects both East and West will feel this tension, and will reflect it in his writings, hence a reader of his work may say, “this book has contradictions.”
Philosophy has always had tensions and contradictions. The Renaissance was torn between its respect for Greco-Roman ideals and its respect for Christian ideals. Only a lifeless, abstract philosophy can be completely consistent. If the tensions in modern philosophy are ever resolved, that resolution will not be lasting; rather, it will beget further tensions. If someone accuses you of contradicting yourself, remind him of Emerson’s remark: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”9
Our book group recently discussed Thoreau’s Walden. I chose Walden because I wanted to do some reading on my own, and I thought I could discuss Walden without reading it, I thought I knew it well. Just before our meeting, I read the last chapter, and I quickly found that I didn’t know Walden. It had been so long since I read it, and I myself had changed so much in the meanwhile, that it felt like a book I had never read before. There’s a great deal of Zen in it — more than I expected — and I couldn’t appreciate that Zen element when I read it previously. There’s also a great deal of wit and charm in it, so I found it hard to put down.
When Thoreau describes how he cleaned his little cabin, he gives us charming details that most writers would pass over:
Notice that phrase “broken their fast”; Thoreau uses it several times in Walden. Of course, it’s a pun on “breakfast.” No writer is more fond of puns than Thoreau, and Walden abounds in them. His passion for word-roots is due in part to his thorough knowledge of Greek and Latin. Perhaps his passion for word-roots is part of something larger, part of his tendency to dig into the roots of things in general.
Thoreau’s wit is sometimes acerbic, as when he says that among his visitors at the pond were “men who did not know when their visit had terminated, though I went about my business again, answering them from greater and greater remoteness.”10
Few writers are as sincere, as honest, as Thoreau. He admits that, soon after moving to the pond, he once felt lonely and dejected:
Perhaps on some level, however, Thoreau wasn’t entirely happy in his little cabin. After all, he moved out, and didn’t come back.
Here’s another passage that is striking for its sincerity. Thoreau describes how he stands apart from himself, and observes himself; he admits that an observer is unsociable:
Thoreau’s “doubleness” reminds one of Dostoyevsky’s “duality”: “One of Dostoyevsky’s acquaintances found in Dostoyevsky ‘a peculiar duality’; he had a ‘habit of watching his own reactions: as though in a single body there were an actor and an audience of one.’”12 What should we make of Thoreau’s “doubleness”? Is it a characteristic of genius? Of intellectuals? Is it part of Thoreau’s Zen mindset? (After all, meditation means standing apart from one’s thoughts, and observing what’s going through your mind.) Or does it run counter to Zen? (After all, Zen means being in the present moment, focusing on what you’re doing now.)
One of Thoreau’s visitors at the pond was a French-Canadian woodchopper, Alek Therien. The name “Therien” sounds like the Greek word “therios”, meaning animal. Thoreau, always alert to word-roots, says that the woodchopper “had so suitable and poetic a name that I am sorry I cannot print it here.... In him the animal man chiefly was developed. In physical endurance and contentment he was cousin to the pine and the rock.... But the intellectual and what is called spiritual man in him were slumbering as in an infant.... A more simple and natural man it would be hard to find.”13 While “doubleness” was characteristic of Thoreau, the woodchopper’s personality may be described as “singleness.”
The woodchopper fascinated Thoreau, perhaps because his Catholic background, his “Catholic personality”, contrasted sharply with the ascetic-Protestant personality of most of Thoreau’s acquaintances. “He came along early,” writes Thoreau, “crossing my bean-field, though without anxiety or haste to get to his work, such as Yankees exhibit. He wasn’t a-going to hurt himself. He didn’t care if he only earned his board.” While the ascetic-Protestant personality is characterized by gloom, the Catholic personality is characterized by joy:
Thoreau was a voracious reader, and Walden is filled with quotations. Thoreau’s favorite books were
But while Thoreau enjoyed books, he realized that books can draw you away from Nature, and away from Now:
Thoreau’s prose is sometimes obscure, and this obscurity is a blemish in an otherwise excellent book. Thoreau doesn’t try to write lucid prose, he thinks obscurity is a virtue; “the words which express our faith and piety,” he writes, “are not definite; yet they are significant and fragrant like frankincense to superior natures.”14 But Thoreau’s obscurity isn’t always an attempt to express “faith and piety.” Often his obscurity is due to the fact that he sprinkles his writing with obscure references. Woe to the reader whose copy of Walden has no footnotes! I recommend the Norton Critical Edition, or some other annotated edition; there’s also an annotated online edition. Does Thoreau’s obscurity have a psychological cause? Is it one aspect of his solitary, isolated, uncommunicative personality? Don’t let this obscurity stop you from reading Walden; on the whole, Thoreau’s style is top-notch, and far more lucid than that of most philosophers.
While we’re on the subject of blemishes, perhaps we should say that Thoreau has a narrow range; he addresses a limited number of subjects. He doesn’t have that lust for knowledge of all kinds that one finds in many philosophers. One suspects, however, that without this narrow range, Thoreau would not have been Thoreau; one suspects that this narrow range is the price that Thoreau had to pay to achieve what he achieved — namely, a deeply Zennish mindset, and a deep feeling for nature.
Zen sank such deep roots in Thoreau that even when he indulged in wild fantasy, the result was Zennish. Consider, for example, the fantasy about “an artist in the city of Kouroo,” which is found in the last chapter of Walden. Thoreau describes a wood-carver who sets out to make a perfect staff, without any regard to how long it takes to complete the project. “He grew not older by a moment. His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth. As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him.” Thoreau’s carver is certainly not in a hurry. “By the time he had smoothed and polished the staff Kalpa was no longer the pole-star; and ere he had put on the ferule and the head adorned with precious stones, Brahma had awoke and slumbered many times.” Notice how Thoreau is fascinated by Asian culture.
One wonders, however, if this fantasy makes good use of Eastern wisdom. Is it healthy to strive after perfection? Perfection is purchased at the price of completeness; Thoreau’s carver isn’t a complete person, a well-rounded person. Is it healthy to strive after perennial youth? Isn’t it wiser to accept the aging process, and accept death? Does this fantasy represent an unhealthy form of Zen?
At any rate, many passages in Walden breath the purest spirit of Zen:
“The bloom of the present moment” is a wonderful bit of Zen, as is “a broad margin to my life.” A margin is, after all, an empty part of your paper, and Zen loves emptiness. Thoreau understood that his empty mornings, his mornings of non-doing, were in the spirit of the East, hence he refers to the “Orientals” in the last sentence. Thoreau understood the mindset of meditation, of non-doing, of walking meditation, of listening meditation — he understands everything except the central fact of Zen, breathing meditation. Apparently he never encountered breathing meditation in his study of Chinese and Indian classics. Breathing meditation seems to have been unknown (or very little known) in the West until the West became familiar with Japan, in the late 1800s.
It should be noted that Thoreau’s politics were Zennish. His concept of civil disobedience is a kind of non-doing — in his case, not paying taxes.
One of Thoreau’s purposes in Walden is to defend himself against the accusation that he wasn’t helping his fellow man. In the second paragraph of Walden, he says that people in Concord “have been curious to learn what portion of my income I devoted to charitable purposes; and some, who have large families, how many poor children I maintained.” Thoreau launches a vigorous defense of his lifestyle, and a vigorous attack on philanthropists and do-gooders. “Philanthropy is almost the only virtue,” Thoreau writes, “which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind. Nay, it is greatly overrated; and it is our selfishness which overrates it. A robust poor man, one sunny day here in Concord, praised a fellow-townsman to me, because, as he said, he was kind to the poor; meaning himself.... I never heard of a philanthropic meeting in which it was sincerely proposed to do any good to me, or the like of me.... Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world.” When our book group discussed Walden, I mentioned Thoreau’s attack on philanthropy, and the chorus of protest that arose showed how attached people are to philanthropy, to charitable activity.
Thoreau reveled in the role of outsider, eccentric, iconoclast:
It is fitting that Walden ends with a Zennish thought: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”16
|1.|| The high quality of French culture should also be attributed to the fact that the aristocracy, the leisure class, was more developed in France than in any other European country. On German Protestantism, see Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, §4A. back|
|2.|| See Emerson, “Self Reliance”; Schopenhauer, Counsels and Maxims, §5; G. Painter, Marcel Proust: A Biography, vol. 1, ch. 16. On the connection between the desire to travel and sexual desire, see Weininger, Sex and Character, §11, and Freud, “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis,” 1937. back|
|3.|| Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue back|
|4.|| The Mind of Napoleon: A Selection from His Written and Spoken Words, edited by J. C. Herold, 184 back|
|5.|| A Treatise of Human Nature, Book 2, Part 3, Section 3 back|
|6.|| The Will to Power, #428 back|
|7.|| R. H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature, ch. 16 back|
|8.|| C. G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, “Talks with Miguel Serrano: 1961" back|
|9.|| “Self-Reliance” back|
|10.|| “Visitors” back|
|11.|| “Solitude” back|
|12.|| biography by Yarmolinsky, ch. 12 back|
|13.|| “Visitors” back|
|14.|| “Conclusion” back|
|15.|| “Sounds” back|