January 18, 2011
I recently went to the Whaling Museum in New Bedford for the annual Moby-Dick Marathon — a public reading of Moby-Dick that started at noon on a Saturday, went through the night, and ended at 1 pm on Sunday. About 100 different people read a section of the novel aloud. I didn’t see anyone attempt to memorize their section. There are also lectures, quiz games, museum exhibits, banquets, etc., so you might enjoy coming even if you don’t want to listen to the reading. The area around the museum is interesting, too; New Bedford is a charming, historic city, and a National Park Visitor Center makes it tourist-friendly. But there’s lots of crime in New Bedford, so you may want to stay in the “old city.”
I was glad I went to the Moby-Dick Marathon; it was the best literature-related event I’ve ever been to — lots of enthusiastic laymen, and lots of knowledgeable scholars. If you can’t make it to New Bedford in January, the Whaling Museum’s website has a live video of the reading.
I asked one scholar, Tim Marr, if D. H. Lawrence helped to build Melville’s reputation. He said that Melville’s reputation had been building in England for 20 or 30 years before Lawrence wrote about Melville in the 1920s. Thus, Melville is one of several writers who were appreciated abroad before they were appreciated at home (Whitman, for example, probably had more fans in England in the 1890s than he had in the U.S., and Nietzsche was first appreciated outside Germany). Tim said that Melville’s reputation in the U.S. grew in the 1920s, when the U.S. was becoming aware of itself as a distinct civilization, American literature was beginning to be taught at American colleges, and scholars began looking for writers who represented American civilization.
Another scholar, Robert K. Wallace, said that Melville made a thorough study of Shakespeare about a year-and-a-half before writing Moby-Dick. I told Dr. Wallace that I thought Melville’s use of the occult was comparable to Shakespeare’s, and I asked Dr. Wallace if Melville was receptive to the occult. He said we don’t know.
I suspect, though, that someone as curious and as widely-read as Melville had an opinion on the occult. (Likewise, I would say that Melville probably had an opinion on the Shakespeare controversy, though it may take some research to discover what that opinion was.) Dr. Wallace has written several books that bring together different arts; for example, he wrote a book about Melville and the English painter Turner.
Someone pointed out that, in his latter years, Melville became acquainted with Schopenhauer, and read him with interest.
Someone said that Melville believed he would eventually gain recognition, and Melville compared his work to a plant, the aloe, that blooms every hundred years, and is often dismissed as a weed until it blooms. When I explored this topic on the Internet, though, I found that Melville said that his work might “flower like the aloe, a hundred years hence — or not flower at all, which is more likely by far, for some aloes never flower.”1 This suggests that Melville wasn’t sure if he would gain recognition or not.
Melville is popular, and the Melville society seems more active than the Hawthorne society or the Emerson society. Most active of all, however, is the Thoreau society. All four of these societies have conferences and publish periodicals. The Melville society has a conference every year; the next one is in Rome, in June, 2011. The Melville Society publishes a periodical called Leviathan.
One of the leading Melville scholars is Hershel Parker, who wrote a giant, two-volume biography of Melville, and edited the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick. Edwin Haviland Miller wrote a “psycho-biography” of Melville (Miller also wrote a biography of Hawthorne and a study of Whitman).2 Edward Edinger wrote a Jungian study called Melville’s Moby Dick: An American Nekyia (Edinger also wrote Goethe’s Faust: Notes for a Jungian Commentary).
Warner Berthoff’s The Example of Melville (1962) looks at Melville’s writings as well as his life. Newton Arvin’s Herman Melville (1950) pays attention to the unconscious and sexuality, as does a recent book, Andrew Delbanco’s Melville: His World and Work.3 (Delbanco is the Director of Columbia’s American Studies program.)
Philip Hoare wrote a book about whales called Leviathan or, The Whale, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2009. Hoare also made a film called The Hunt for Moby-Dick, and created a website called “Moby Dick Big Read,” where you can listen to Melville’s novel read by various actors. Recently Hoare published a travel book called The Sea Inside.
ESP is in the news. According to a recent article in the New York Times,
Notice that phrase “the participants beat chance, by 53 percent to 50 percent.” The question arises, how large a percentage is significant? Is 53 percent “significant” or does the percentage need to be 85 to be significant? How do we define “significant”? Dr. Bem’s work has set off a heated argument about statistics, discussed in another New York Times article.5 I think 53 is significant, if the sample is large and the result can be replicated, but people who are skeptical about ESP sometimes say “Claims that defy almost every law of science are by definition extraordinary and thus require extraordinary evidence.”6 So when we’re done defining “significant,” we can start arguing about what is “extraordinary.” I’m glad to see the “numbers people” arguing among themselves, and casting doubt on statistical studies; I don’t use statistics myself, and don’t have much respect for them.
One can be sure that Dean Radin is watching the brouhaha with great interest.
In the previous two issues, I discussed The World’s Religions, by Huston Smith — first the chapter on Hinduism, then the chapter on Buddhism. Now I’d like to discuss the next chapter of Smith’s book, which deals with Confucianism.
I feel a certain kinship with Confucius, hence I used a quote from him as the epigraph of my book of aphorisms: “A teacher should teach what is new by resurrecting what is old.” Smith explains why Confucius was eager to resurrect what is old, why he was fond of tradition. He explains the historical situation of Confucius, and since this historical situation resembles ours, it’s natural that Confucius strikes a chord with us.
Confucius lived in a time when tradition was crumbling and individualism was rising.7 Our time is similar, insofar as there has been a breakdown of tradition since the counter-culture movement of the 1960s. So the time has come to rediscover the classics, restore tradition, etc. This isn’t an entirely conscious process, we don’t make a conscious effort to restore tradition; it would be more accurate to say that we spontaneously gravitate toward tradition and the classics. Likewise, Smith says that Confucius wasn’t fully conscious of what he was doing; it was only clear in retrospect, only clear to posterity.8
Rediscovering the classics entails choosing what should be considered a classic, organizing the classics, etc. This is what Confucius did, and this is also what Phlit does. “Though Confucius did not author Chinese culture,” Smith writes, “he was its supreme editor. Winnowing the past, underscoring here, playing down or discarding there, reordering and annotating throughout, he brought his culture to a focus.”9 In order to transmit the cultural heritage, it must be simplified, organized, brought to a focus; you can’t transmit everything, just as a traveler can’t put all his belongings in his suitcase, only the most essential items.
As we choose what items to transmit, we’re apt to select those that agree with our views. Organizing the classics is a creative act; it means promoting certain views. For Confucius, as for me, philosophy means ‘teaching the new by resurrecting the old,’ so when I read that quote, it struck a chord with me, it prompted me to think, “Hey! That’s exactly what I’m doing!” and so I used it as an epigraph. Confucius called himself “a lover of the ancients,” an admirer of the Golden Age of the Zhou Dynasty, as we today might admire the Periclean Age or the Renaissance.
There is, however, a major difference between what Confucius did and what I do: Confucius focused on morality, on behavior, on values, and also on government; he focused on ethics and politics. I focus on what might be called the inner life — the intersection of spirituality and psychology. I assume that if the inner life is on track, the outer life will take care of itself.
Confucius organized the classics, defined the classics, and for thousands of years, positions of power were given to those who demonstrated a knowledge of the classics.
When Solzhenitsyn spoke at Harvard in 1978, he pointed out that when New York City lost electricity, crowds began looting (since alarm systems no longer functioned). Evidently, people had only been restrained by fear of the police, not by any moral sense. This suggests a breakdown of morality, a breakdown of the fiber of civilization, hence Solzhenitsyn considered it significant. There was a similar breakdown of morality in the time of Confucius, and his goal was to restore morality, to educate people so that they would be guided by their own moral sense. And he succeeded in molding Chinese values for millennia.
The neo-conservative movement in the U.S. was also a response to moral breakdown, and it tried to induce people to act virtuously. As I said in an earlier issue, “Irving Kristol’s magazine, The Public Interest, argued that social policy will fail if it overlooks morality. ‘What really matters [is] culture, ethos, character and morality.’” Perhaps Confucius was the first neocon.
Smith says that the influence of Confucius spread beyond China to neighboring countries: “Japan, Korea, and much of Southeast Asia deliberately imported the Confucian ethic.”11 This ethic had a “social emphasis” — it stressed behavior-in-society. It was especially concerned with family — how children should treat their parents, how younger siblings should treat older siblings, etc.
The Confucian ethic helped to make East Asian society orderly; Smith points out that Japan’s burglary rate is 1% of the U.S. rate.12 He tells how, when two cars scraped bumpers in Kyoto, Japan, “Both drivers leap out. Each bows, apologizing profusely for his carelessness.”13 If quarrels do arise, they’re usually resolved by negotiation and compromise, not legal action; the number of lawyers-per-capita in the U.S. was 24 times greater than in Japan.14 Smith says that Confucianism helped make the Chinese empire “the most impressive social institution human beings have devised,”15 when measured by longevity and population.
Though we think of Confucius as a teacher and literary man, he was eager to play a role in politics. From age 50 to 63, he engaged in a “long trek,” in which he “wandered from state to state proffering unsolicited advice to rulers on how to improve their governing and seeking a real opportunity to put his ideas into practice. The opportunity never came.”16 He died in 479 BC, at age 72.
He was inspired by a lofty goal — “nothing less than the redressing of the entire social order”17 — and he inspired his students with this goal. But he kept a sense of humor, and his disciples said that, when at leisure, his manner was “informal and cheerful.”18 He was a serious man, but not a fanatic.
He believed that destiny was on his side, that he had the mandate of heaven to spread his message. “When during the ‘long trek’ he was attacked in the town of Kwang, he reassured his followers by saying, ‘Heaven has appointed me to teach this doctrine, and until I have done so, what can the people of Kwang do to me?’”19
Smith says that, before individualism develops, people are held in check by custom. He speaks of,
But once the rule of custom begins to weaken, as it did in the time of Confucius, individualism acquires a kind of momentum: “Individualism and self-consciousness are contagious. Once they appear, they spread like epidemic and wildfire. Unreflective solidarity is a thing of the past.”21
When custom and tradition cease to be effective, cease to guide people, society faces a grave crisis. This crisis not only existed in ancient China, it also exists in the contemporary U.S. Smith calls our society “the most traditionless society history has known.”22 When immigrants come to the U.S., they lose their former traditions, and don’t acquire new ones. The U.S. is a world leader, Smith says, in “crime, delinquency, and divorce.”23
What Confucius proposed was a blend of old and new: the old would make people less likely to resist, the new would take account of the current situation, and therefore be more effective. Unconscious tradition had disintegrated, so Confucius set about consciously reviving tradition, molding tradition:
Confucius and his followers were able to create a moral atmosphere that molded the Chinese people:
Smith says that jen is the “virtue of virtues” in the Confucian system. “Jen involves simultaneously a feeling of humanity toward others and respect for oneself, an indivisible sense of the dignity of human life wherever it appears.”26 If virtue develops in the individual, it will spread through the family, the nation, and the world.
Step One is for children to respect their parents: “The duty of children to their parents is the fountain from which all virtues spring.”27 Indeed, old people in general should be respected for their experience, wisdom, etc. Smith says that the Chinese veneration for Age contrasts sharply with the West’s veneration for Youth.28
The Confucian system described proper behavior in every relationship, every situation:
In the Confucian scheme, authority is vested in parents, in older siblings, in rulers. But what if authority is abused? What if those who possess power use that power to do harm rather than good? Confucius said, “authority [is] not automatic; it must be earned.... The ruler retains the Mandate of Heaven — his right to his subjects’ loyalty — only insofar as their welfare is in truth his chief concern and he possesses the talents needed to promote it.”30 There is a “Right of Revolution.”31
But while Confucius emphasized relationships, social behavior, he didn’t overlook the inner life. Smith speaks of “his repeated calls to self-examination and introspection....32 A never-ending project of self-cultivation.”33 His goal was to keep trying to be a better person: “He presented himself to his students as their fellow traveler, committed to the task of becoming fully human but modest in how far he had gotten with that task....34 The good man or woman in the Confucian scheme is the one who is always trying to become better.”35 Confucius believed in moderation; like Aristotle, Confucius advocated the Mean, the Middle Way — nothing in excess.36
Confucius emphasized practical affairs; his concern was with this world, not the after-life. Hence he stressed family duties rather than ancestor worship. But since he was a conservative, not a radical, he didn’t reject ancestor worship, and he didn’t deny that “the spirits of the dead exist.”37 Rather, he shifted emphasis from Heaven to Earth, from ancestors to relatives.
Smith says that the Chinese character xin (also spelled hsin) means mind and heart together, a union of thought and feeling. As you mature and grow, your xin, your sympathetic feeling, should expand from yourself to all mankind.
Is this the summit? Should we stop at a sympathy for all mankind? Are we only members of the human race, or are we also part of something larger, part of the universe? Confucius thought we should transcend the “constraints of our own species.... Confucian humanism [is] predicated on an ‘anthropocosmic’ vision. Humanity in its all-embracing fullness ‘forms one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things.’”39 One inter-connected world. In this respect, the Confucian worldview resembles our worldview.
Smith says that Confucius had a “restrained and somewhat attenuated theism.”40 Again, this resembles our worldview, though our theism might be even more attenuated than his. One could argue that Confucius was more interested in the family than in God, and that the real religion of China is the family.41
In response to the breakdown of tradition, two philosophies (besides Confucianism) arose in ancient China: Legalism and Mohism (Smith refers to Legalism as “Realism”). According to Legalism, people who have broken free from tradition can only be restrained by an elaborate system of laws, with rewards and punishments. People won’t do what’s right naturally, the Legalists believed, so they must be prodded. The long-term interests of society can only be protected if the people are steered by the ruler. While the older, tradition-bound society had no legal system, the Legalists put their faith in written law.
The Legalist approach was put into practice by Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor. “He undertook gigantic projects, including the first version of the Great Wall of China, the now famous city-sized mausoleum guarded by a life-sized Terracotta Army, and a massive national road system, all at the expense of numerous lives.” But the Qin Dynasty only lasted fifteen years (221 to 206 BC).
Mohism was the opposite of Legalism; it emphasized love rather than force. It gets its name from its chief spokesman, Mozi. Mozi believed that the best solution to the problem of social anarchy was not harsh laws, but universal love: “Feel toward all people under heaven exactly as one feels toward one’s own people, and regard other states exactly as one regards one’s own state.”42 One who takes this approach will do well: “Whoever loves others is loved by others; whoever benefits others is benefited by others; whoever injures others is injured by others.”43
Mohism was unpopular with Qin Legalists, and some Mohist books were destroyed when Qin Shi Huang carried out his “burning of books and burying of scholars.” Mencius, Confucius’s chief disciple, criticized the Mohists for ignoring the special power of family ties.44
Confucius would not have been surprised by the short duration of the Qin Dynasty; he insisted that a government based on coercion couldn’t succeed. A government “must rely on an acceptance of its will, an appreciable confidence in what it is doing.”45 Political power is ultimately
When Confucius was asked about the death penalty, he said,
Confucius was well aware of the importance of art — how art could influence the individual, and thus influence society. “It was art’s power to transform human nature in the direction of virtue that impressed him.”48 Plato was also impressed by the power of art — especially music — to stimulate virtue or vice. And Plato agreed with Confucius that the moral character of the ruler was very important.
Art not only affects a nation’s domestic life, it also affects its international standing:
To what extent does American culture shape America’s reputation in the world? How is our reputation in the Arab world, for example, shaped by our culture? If Arabs take a negative view of our culture, does that prompt them to turn away from the West, emulate Muhammad and his early followers, engage in terrorism, etc.?
Though Confucianism had a profound effect on China, it wasn’t exclusive, it didn’t prevent people from dabbling in other religions, other worldviews. China is the only civilization, Smith says, that “syncretized her religions.... Every Chinese wears a Confucian hat, Taoist robes, and Buddhist sandals.”50
Some Confucius quotations are still interesting today, such as this one: “Is not he a true philosopher who, though he be unrecognized, cherishes no resentment?”51
Smith recommends a Confucius translation by Arthur Waley (The Analects of Confucius); he also recommends Mencius, a translation by D. C. Lau. Among Confucius commentators, he recommends Tu Wei-ming. And he recommends a philosophical work, Confucius — The Secular as Sacred, by Herbert Fingarette.
|1.|| A Herman Melville encyclopedia, “The American Aloe on Exhibition,” by Robert L. Gale back|
|2.|| Edwin Haviland Miller should not be confused with Milton L. Miller, author of a psychological study of Proust, which I mentioned in my Realms of Gold. back|
|3.|| See the review of Delbanco’s book in Leviathan 9.1 (March 2007): p.69(8) back|
|4.|| “Journal’s Paper on ESP Expected to Prompt Outrage,” by Benedict Carey, January 5, 2011 back|
|5.|| “You Might Already Know This ...,” by Benedict Carey, January 10, 2011 back|
|6.|| See the Jan. 5 article back|
|7.|| Smith, who is steeped in the Bible, compares the time of Confucius with the time of the Judges in Palestine: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” back|
|8.|| Ch. 4, p. 170 back|
|9.|| Ch. 4, p. 154. Perhaps Maimonides played a similar role in Jewish culture — editing, organizing, making accessible. back|
|10.|| Ch. 4, p. 188 back|
|11.|| Ch. 4, p. 188 back|
|12.|| Ch. 4, p. 190 back|
|13.|| Ch. 4, p. 193 back|
|14.|| Ch. 4, p. 191 back|
|15.|| Ch. 4, p. 188. Smith says that Chinese civilization stagnated in the 15th century, and remained stagnant until modern times, when it fell under the sway of foreign powers. But could a stagnant society produce literary works like The Dream of the Red Chamber and Journey to the West, as well as memorable philosophical and artistic works? back|
|16.|| Ch. 4, p. 156 back|
|17.|| Ch. 4, p. 157 back|
|18.|| Ch. 4, p. 157 back|
|19.|| Ch. 4, p. 186 back|
|20.|| Ch. 4, p. 162 back|
|21.|| Ch. 4, p. 163 back|
|22.|| Ch. 4, p. 163 back|
|23.|| Ch. 4, p. 163 back|
|24.|| Ch. 4, pp. 169, 170 back|
|25.|| Ch. 4, p. 170 back|
|26.|| Ch. 4, p. 172. The character for jen combines the character for person and the character for two. back|
|27.|| Ch. 4, p. 176 back|
|28.|| Ch. 4, p. 176 back|
|29.|| Ch. 4, p. 177 back|
|30.|| Ch. 4, p. 181 back|
|31.|| Ch. 4, p. 182 back|
|32.|| Ch. 4, p. 182 back|
|33.|| Ch. 4, p. 180 back|
|34.|| Ch. 4, p. 157 back|
|35.|| Ch. 4, p. 180 back|
|36.|| Ch. 4, p. 175 back|
|37.|| Ch. 4, p. 186 back|
|38.|| Ch. 4, p. 182 back|
|39.|| Ch. 4, p. 187 back|
|40.|| Ch. 4, p. 186 back|
|41.|| Ch. 4, p. 189 back|
|42.|| Ch. 4, p. 166 back|
|43.|| Ch. 4, p. 167 back|
|44.|| Ch. 4, p. 168 back|
|45.|| Ch. 4, p. 178 back|
|46.|| Ch. 4, p. 178 back|
|47.|| Ch. 4, pp. 178, 179 back|
|48.|| Ch. 4, p. 179 back|
|49.|| Ch. 4, p. 180 back|
|50.|| Ch. 4, p. 189 back|
|51.||Ch. 4, p. 159 back|