Conversations With Great Thinkers

2. Ethics

by L. James Hammond
© L. James Hammond 2017
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1. Four Ideals  The four most attractive ideals in our time are

  1. the Zen ideal: stillness, awareness of the present moment, meditation, yoga;
  2. the Thoreau ideal: love of nature, love of the earth, the attempt to save the earth from pollution and other dangers;
  3. the Jung ideal: communion with the unconscious, listening to one’s dreams and feelings, finding a midpoint between consciousness and the unconscious; and
  4. the Nietzsche ideal: the classical Western ideal, which has its roots on the Acropolis; the full development of the individual, inspired by heroic ethics and by culture.

All four of these ideals break with traditional religion (Christianity, Judaism, Islam). All four can be traced back into the distant past — in fact, they’re more ancient than the monotheistic religions.

The Zen and Thoreau ideals are the most practical, they can be applied most readily in our daily life. The Zen and Thoreau ideals overlap: Zen encourages the love of nature, and Thoreau encourages awareness of the present moment. The Jung ideal lies between Zen and Nietzsche, it builds a bridge between East and West. The Nietzsche ideal appeals strongly to young intellectuals, especially young philosophers, because it addresses itself to such individuals, it describes the situation of such individuals.

2. Jungian Ethics  Here’s an example of how listening to our unconscious can shape our actions, our decisions, our daily life: when Jung was in his eighties, someone suggested that he write a book suitable for a wide audience. Jung thought about it for a while, and finally decided not to. Then he had a dream in which he was speaking to a crowd of people, and they understood what he was saying. As a result of the dream, Jung reversed his decision, and wrote (with the help of some disciples) Man and His Symbols.

The case of Macbeth exemplifies the problems that can arise if we ignore our unconscious, ignore our feelings and hunches. Macbeth murders Duncan in defiance of his feelings; Macbeth allows the prophecies of the witches, and the arguments of his wife, to overcome the “still small voice” of his unconscious. “Macbeth’s better nature,” wrote A. C. Bradley, “incorporates itself in images which alarm and horrify. His imagination is thus the best of him, something usually deeper and higher than his conscious thoughts; and if he had obeyed it he would have been safe.”1

3. Beyond Ethics  In sport, as in art, only the beginner follows rules. “The beginner at golf,” wrote Wilson Knight, “is usually guilty of ‘thinking too precisely on the event’; but not so the expert, whose thought is embedded in, sunk in, dissolved throughout, the living action, mind and body functioning as a unit.”2 The Zen master teaches the archery student to become one with his bow — not to consciously follow rules, not to consciously release the arrow, but to let the arrow release itself, to become unconscious, to become spontaneous, “mind and body functioning as a unit.”

Hamlet is like the beginner at golf; Hamlet is too thoughtful, he can’t act spontaneously, he can only make a rational calculation of pros and cons. But Shakespeare shows us an image of spontaneity, of “mind and body functioning as a unit”; he describes Lamord’s riding skills thus:

          he grew unto his seat;
And to such wondrous doing brought his horse,
As had he been incorps’d and demi-natur’d
With the brave beast: so far he topp’d my thought
That I, in forgery of shapes and tricks,
Come short of what he did. (IV, vii)

Lamord is unconscious and spontaneous, beyond description, beyond technique, beyond rule.

What is true in sport and art is also true in life: the beginner follows rules, ethics, but the highest goal is spontaneity. To achieve wholeness, to act out of our center, is to go beyond ethics. If we combine the active and the passive, the masculine and the feminine, the conscious and the unconscious, we go beyond rules, beyond ethics. The New Testament calls this “freedom from the law.” It is this freedom that eludes Hamlet; Wilson Knight says that Hamlet is “sunk deep in the knowledge of good and evil and clogged by ethic.”

4. East and West  Generally speaking, Western religion is ethical, it prescribes rules for our behavior toward other people — the Ten Commandments, for example, or “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” These rules come from God, and if belief in God erodes, man falls into moral anarchy.

Eastern religion is psychological and metaphysical, rather than ethical. The psychological side of Eastern religion says, “use the following techniques to reduce stress and attain inner peace,” while the metaphysical side says, “man is connected to the whole universe, his being/energy is akin to the being/energy in everything else.” If the individual achieves inner peace, and is comfortable with his place in the universe, virtuous conduct is likely to result, even without an ethical code.

Reason is more important in Western thought than in Eastern thought, perhaps because reason can be useful in regulating our inter-actions with other people, but it isn’t as useful in psychological and metaphysical inquiries.

I began by saying “Generally speaking” because there are counter-currents. While Taoism and Buddhism may be described as psychological and metaphysical, Confucianism has a strong ethical tendency. Western religion sometimes aims at inner peace, as in phrases like “take no thought for the morrow” and “freedom from the law.”

5. Bildung  “Self-culture,” said Oscar Wilde, “is the true ideal of man.”3 The ideal of self-culture, self-development, Bildung has long been important in Western culture, but it’s on the wane in our time. Is it inconsistent with the other ideals mentioned above — the Thoreau ideal, the Zen ideal, and the Jung ideal? No, actually it fuses these three ideals together, since each of these ideals can play a role in self-development; self-development involves listening to the unconscious (the Jung ideal), being aware of the present moment (the Zen ideal), and appreciating nature (the Thoreau ideal).

Why, then, is the old ideal of self-culture fading away? The ideal of self-culture is in collision with the ideal of service to society, which is a popular ideal in our time. The most talented and ambitious college students want to start their own philanthropic organization, or join someone else’s. People think that they should feel guilty if they study the humanities, and follow the way of Zen. People think that they should “get involved,” help the needy, be politically active, have a social conscience, “give something back to society,” etc.

The inner life is neglected, the life of the mind is never mentioned, the search for truth is unfashionable, the love of culture is considered elitist. In 2002, Columbia University inaugurated a new president. At the ceremony, the guests of honor were the Mayor of New York, and the Secretary-General of the U.N. The theme of the new president’s speech was “get involved” — get involved with the city, get involved with the world.

The Harvard historian Oscar Handlin said that, in recent decades, “The overall tone of Harvard turned hostile or at best apathetic to scholarly values, now deemed less worthy than the pressing tasks of doing good for the world.”4

Eric Hoffer perceived that the ideal of service to society was replacing the ideal of self-development; Hoffer said, “How much easier is self-sacrifice than self-realization!”5 Goethe, the greatest champion of Bildung, said he feared that “the world will turn into a vast hospital in which everyone will be the devoted nurse of everyone else.”6

6. Eastern Wisdom is becoming increasingly popular in the West. Schopenhauer was one of the first Western philosophers to admire Eastern philosophy; Schopenhauer rejected Christianity, and embraced Indian philosophy. In the nineteenth century, many Western intellectuals were losing faith in monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Schopenhauer was an atheist, hence he was attracted to Eastern belief-systems that lacked a Western-style God — lacked a God who created the universe, ruled the universe, dictated books, etc. Oriental thinkers believed that the world had grown up spontaneously, like a plant; they didn’t view the world as a system that was designed and built by an omnipotent being. The Oriental view is consistent with modern science.

Nietzsche wasn’t as impressed by Eastern ideas as Schopenhauer was. But some of Nietzsche’s aphorisms remind one of Eastern practices, such as meditation; “Lying still and thinking little,” Nietzsche wrote, “is the cheapest medicine for all sicknesses of the soul and, if persisted with, grows more pleasant hour by hour.”7 “Thinking little” isn’t as easy as it sounds. The mind wanders; it likes to occupy itself with something. India and China have developed a variety of techniques for calming the mind: meditation, yoga, tai chi, etc. These techniques direct the mind onto something simple and relaxing, such as breathing, walking, repeating the same word over and over, or slowly stretching and exercising the body. These techniques are becoming increasingly popular in the West due to their beneficial effect on both body and mind.

7. Meditation is sitting still — a stillness of the body, a stillness of the mind and a stillness of the will. Meditation is non-doing, and non-doing reduces stress. On the other hand, stress builds up if one does much, thinks much and desires much. Meditation can be defined as sitting still in an erect posture, concentrating on one’s breathing.

Nietzsche’s prescription — “lying still and thinking little” — could also be considered meditation; indeed, almost anything can be considered meditation if one concentrates on what one is doing. Listening to music, for example, can be considered meditation if one concentrates on the music. Often, however, people listen to music while doing something else — while driving, while eating, while looking at a magazine, etc.

We frequently burden our mind with worries about the future and regrets about the past. Meditation unburdens the mind by concentrating on the present moment. By concentrating and strengthening the mind, meditation helps us cope with pain. Meditation techniques are often taught to pregnant women, in order to help them cope with the pain of childbirth. Meditation techniques are also taught to people who suffer from chronic back pain and other forms of pain.

Meditation can help us cope with temptation as well as pain. Temptation dominates many people’s lives, and causes health problems related to eating, drinking, smoking, etc. If one represses temptation, it becomes stronger; repression doesn’t solve the problem of temptation. Meditation and other stress-reduction techniques are the best ways of coping with temptation. People often eat, drink and smoke when they have nothing to do, or when they feel stress. By helping people cope with idleness and stress, meditation removes temptations.

Meditation requires no particular personality type, no special intellectual abilities. However, meditation techniques are of no avail if they’re done with the wrong attitude; attitude is as important as technique. One should have an attitude of non-striving, of accepting things as they are. Anyone who adopts this attitude, and who makes meditation a priority in their life, can benefit from it.

8. Non-doing revolutionizes ethics, just as the invention of zero revolutionized mathematics.

9. No Thoughts, No Goals  The word “meditation” suggests thinking, and is thus a misnomer. The Chinese have a better word: da zuo, meaning “to sit,” or “to do a sit.”

Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” Zen says, “I don’t think, therefore I am.”

The best way to understand meditation is to practice it, not to read about it. It should be experienced, not grasped intellectually.

Some people who try it say, “it didn’t do anything for me.” We shouldn’t expect, however, that it will do something for us. The goal of meditation is to do something that has no goal; the goal of meditation is simply to be. “The practice of Zen,” wrote Alan Watts, “is not the true practice so long as it has an end in view.”8 In this respect, as in many other respects, Zen resembles The Jungian Way. Jung and his disciples say that we should attend to the unconscious and respect it, not use its power to further our own purposes. The classic fairy-tale hero, Jungians say, goes off into the world with no clear goal in view — like Don Quixote, who said he was going wherever his horse took him.

10. A Cloud in the Sky  Meditation plays an important role in Zen Buddhism. In fact, if one traces the word “Zen” from Japanese back to Chinese, and from Chinese back to the dialects of India, one finds that “Zen” means meditation. While Zen may have originated in India, it developed in China, where it was influenced by Chinese Taoism, and by the philosophies of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi. Although Zen left a deep mark on Chinese culture, it achieved its widest application in Japan, where it shaped haiku poetry, archery, the tea ceremony, and many other facets of Japanese life.

Most religions distinguish between the holy and the unholy, but Zen respects and values everything equally. Western religion tends to regard the everyday world as unholy. The Latin word for “world” is mundus, which evolved into the English word “mundane,” meaning low, unspiritual. But Zen doesn’t view the world as unholy or dirty, Zen values the everyday world because Zen isn’t preoccupied with The Other World, the Afterlife, Heaven. Zen can appreciate the present moment because it isn’t preoccupied with Eternity.

Haiku poetry celebrates the ordinary, everyday world.

The melons look cool,
Flecked with mud
From the morning dew.

This is by Basho, the most famous haiku poet. Here’s another haiku by Basho:

You light the fire
I’ll show you something nice —
A great ball of snow!

Zen is aware of the present moment, aware of the sights and sounds, the smells and tastes, that one is experiencing right now. People usually eat hurriedly, with their mind on something else; an American meditation teacher begins his class by giving each person one raisin, and asking them to eat it slowly, mindfully.

Zen lives directly, spontaneously, without excessive reflection. One writer on Zen calls Hamlet “the Zen-less man”9 because Hamlet is reflective. An ancient Buddhist maxim tells us to “awaken the mind without fixing it anywhere.”

Zen is devoid of doctrines and theories. A 12th-century Zen master, Tai-E, burned the chief Zen text because he didn’t want Zen to become bookish, dusty and intellectual.10 Zen masters often taught without words — by pointing, gesturing, etc. When the Governor of Lang asked Yao-shan, ‘What is the Tao?’ the master pointed upwards to the sky and downwards to a water jug beside him. Asked for an explanation, he replied: ‘A cloud in the sky and water in the jug.’11

Just as Zen lacks a Western-style God, so too it lacks a Western-style morality. Zen doesn’t preach, it has no moral law, no “categorical imperative.” There are many similarities between Zen and Nietzsche. Nietzsche rejected traditional, Western religion and morality; Nietzsche’s philosophy is godless, amoral, beyond good and evil. Like Nietzsche, Zen isn’t pessimistic or nihilistic, it accepts the world as it is, and celebrates reality. As Nietzsche represents an advanced stage of Western philosophy, so Zen represents an advanced stage of Eastern wisdom. The philosophers of our time will draw upon both Nietzsche and Zen.

11. Man Becoming God  While there are similarities between Nietzsche and Zen, there are also differences, one of which is that Nietzsche represents ego inflation, while Zen represents ego deflation. In general, Western culture emphasizes the ego far more than Eastern culture. Western painters like Rembrandt were preoccupied with the self-portrait, while Eastern painters concentrated on landscape. What a contrast between Michelangelo’s heroic figures and a Japanese rock garden! The West divides the self from the world, while the East merges the self with the world.

While many Western writers have had a high opinion of their own work, ego inflation reached an unprecedented level with Nietzsche. “Since the old God is abolished, I am prepared to rule the world,” wrote Nietzsche, in a discarded draft of his autobiography, Ecce Homo.12 Nietzsche’s ego inflation was a consequence of his atheism. As long as Western man worshipped God, his ego was kept within bounds; Christianity was a school of humility. Loss of faith led to ego inflation. Dostoyevsky perceived that atheism would lead to ego inflation; “If there is no God, then I am God,” says one of Dostoyevsky’s atheists.13

Zen is an antidote to ego inflation; like Christianity, Zen is a school of humility. Meditation is humbling because no one is “good” at meditation, and no one becomes “better” at meditation by doing it.

12. Ten Zen Basics

  1. Zen emphasizes the Here and Now, the present moment. Zen teaches us to be aware of the present moment. Awareness and perception are important in Zen — more important than logical, rational thinking. The most eloquent Zen sermon is Buddha’s Flower Sermon, in which Buddha said nothing, but simply held up a flower. By de-emphasizing logical, rational, conscious thinking, Zen helps us to connect with our bodies, and with our unconscious. Thus, Zen can make us more whole, more healthy, more happy.
  2. Zen loves nothingness, but Zen isn’t nihilism. While most people focus on the printed words, Zen loves the margin of life, the blank space. Zen teaches you to enjoy not only pleasant thoughts, but also no thoughts, a blank mind. While most drivers prefer green lights to red lights, Zen likes red lights as much as green lights. Lao Zi said that the most valuable part of a house is not the walls and roof that the builder constructs, but the empty space within. The Zen spirit lives in the Roman saying, “Liber non est qui non aliquando nihil agit” (he is not free who doesn’t sometimes do nothing).
  3. Zen has a long history and a rich literary tradition. It has been tested by Time, and it has passed the test. The genuine Zen spirit is still alive in Japan today (and probably still alive in China and Korea, too), just as the genuine spirit of Hindu mysticism, and of yoga, is still alive in India.
  4. One of the classics of Zen literature is Zen in the Art of Archery, which was written by a German philosophy professor, Eugen Herrigel, who lived in Japan in the 1930s. Other Zen classics are Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, the works of R. H. Blyth (such as Zen in English Literature), the works of D. T. Suzuki (such as Essays on Zen Buddhism), and the works of Alan Watts (such as The Way of Zen).
  5. Zen came to the West around 1900. Zen came to the West from Japan, since Zen sank deeper roots in Japan than anywhere else. Japan was closed to the West until 1854, so Zen long remained unknown to the West. (Western philosophers like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Thoreau were familiar with Indian philosophy, and perhaps with Confucius, but not with Zen.) The advent of Zen is a recent phenomenon. The advent of Zen is one of the major developments in Western philosophy in the 20th century. Zen currently enjoys broad popularity in the West. Meditation classes are everywhere. Zen is popular with artists and writers, with businessmen, etc.
  6. Like other schools of Eastern thought, Zen sees the Ego, the I, not as an island, but as part of the mainland; Zen sees the Ego not as independent, but as merged with the surrounding world.
  7. By merging the Ego with the surrounding world, Zen puts us in touch with nature, Zen teaches us to appreciate nature. The most Zennish writers (Basho, Thoreau, etc.) are preoccupied with nature. Oriental painters, influenced by Zen and similar worldviews, appreciated nature long before Western painters did.
  8. Zen is partly a religion, partly a philosophy, and partly a rejection of both religion and philosophy.
  9. Zen is a type of mysticism. It resembles other types of mysticism — Christian, Islamic, Hindu, etc. The Zen spirit can be found in every country and in every religion. The Zen spirit can also be found in literature — in Whitman, in Thoreau, in Wordsworth, etc. Like other types of mysticism, Zen prizes the moment of enlightenment, which it calls “satori.” In the moment of enlightenment, you have a keen sense of being alive, a keen appreciation of everyday reality. Zen monks often seek to attain satori with the help of a “koan,” that is, a question or problem, posed by their teacher, that is baffling to the rational mind, that forces one to abandon rational thinking.
  10. What is the sound of one hand clapping? The sound of silence.

13. The Moment  “A big bird spreads its wings, and begins to fly” — a famous image in Chinese literature. “A frog jumps into an old pond... splash!” — a famous image in Japanese literature. Both these images are images of a moment in time, The Moment, The Eternal Now. And both these images are images of action, spontaneous action, unreflecting action. This is how Nature acts. Shouldn’t man act this way, too? Shouldn’t man act spontaneously, freely? Isn’t this “the way of Zen”? Action for the sake of action, doing something for its own sake, life for the sake of living.

14. Hume and Zen  Zen dissolves the ego, dissolves the boundaries between you and the external world; Zen changes our conception of the word “I”. Zen makes it easier to endure suffering and death by teaching us that we aren’t separate beings, we’re part of the world.

Before Western philosophers became acquainted with Eastern thought, they had begun to question the ego, to dissolve the ego; this was Hume’s contribution. But before we discuss Hume, let’s look at Hume’s ancestors, Locke and Berkeley.

Locke said that objects have primary qualities, such as substance and extension, and secondary qualities, such as color and taste. According to Locke, secondary qualities are subjective; they depend on you and I the perceivers, and don’t exist in the object itself. Primary qualities, on the other hand, actually exist.

To illustrate Locke’s theory, let’s look at a rose. You and I see it as red. A bee, which sees a different spectrum of light than you and I, may see it as yellow. The color of the rose depends on who’s perceiving it. In Locke’s view, color is one of those secondary qualities that don’t actually exist, that are merely subjective. But Locke believed that primary qualities (substance and extension) actually exist, objectively, apart from any perceiver.

Berkeley went further than Locke, and argued that even Locke’s “primary qualities” can’t be proven to exist apart from a perceiver. According to Berkeley, to be is to be perceived; we can’t conceive of being apart from perceiving. Berkeley even rejected Newton’s doctrine of absolute space, time, and motion. The view that space and time are relative, subjective — a view that we associate with Kant and Einstein — can be traced to Berkeley. There was one thing, however, that Berkeley didn’t question: the mind, the ego.

Hume went further than Berkeley, and argued that the mind isn’t stable and enduring, it’s just a series of thoughts and feelings that fly through us intermittently. Because these thoughts come and go rapidly, we perceive them to be continuous, just as we perceive a movie, which is made up of discrete images, to be a continuous image.

Long before Hume, Buddha had reached the same conclusion; Buddhists compared the mind to a torch that is waved rapidly in a circle, and perceived to be a continuous circle of flame. In the West, this idea seemed to be abstract, remote from life, but in the East, this idea sank deep roots, and became “second nature,” became a feeling, and affected how people thought about that little word “I”, how people dealt with suffering and death. Zen dissolves the walls of the mind, dissolves the ego, and teaches us that we aren’t separate beings, we’re part of the world.

Indeed, Zen would argue that nothing is a “separate being,” everything is part of everything else. Stop reading and look out of the window. You see a tree and you think, “that’s a separate thing.” Now reflect: the tree grows leaves. Are the leaves part of the tree, or separate from the tree? Part of the tree, no doubt. But if the leaves die and fall to the ground, they appear to be separate from the tree. When they disintegrate, however, and provide nourishment to that same tree, they appear to be part of it, not separate from it. Like leaves, seeds may be seen as part of the tree, or separate from it. If a seed grows into another tree, should we call it separate? Isn’t the second tree of the same substance as the first? “Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone.” And if the tree draws its life from sunlight, water and air, can we call it a separate thing? Is it not part of the sunlight, the water, the air? Is it not just another form of sunlight, another form of water and air? Could it be that everything is a form of everything else, everything is One?

And if that tree isn’t a separate thing, then you and I aren’t either, for the same reasons that the tree isn’t. Aren’t you and I forms of sunlight, water and air, forms of everything else? And if we have a child, is he not separate and yet the same, external yet internal? If an apple is in our ice box, it appears separate, but if it’s in our stomach, then what? If it becomes part of our brain, then what?

The boundaries that demarcate things are not as clear as common sense supposes. The boundaries that demarcate things gradually vanish when we look at them closely. We begin to see the world as one world, one process, one stream of change. We begin to see ourselves differently, and we begin to define that little word “I” differently.

15. Not Twice  Like Western mystics, and like Nietzsche, Zen has a positive attitude toward life and the universe; Zen is affirmative, it says Yes. Here’s a Zen story that illustrates this:

A nobleman asked Takuan, a Zen teacher, to suggest how he might pass the time. He felt his days very long attending his office and sitting stiffly to receive the homage of others. Takuan wrote eight Chinese characters and gave them to the man:

Not twice this day.
Inch time foot gem.
(This day will not come again.
Each minute is worth a priceless gem.)14

16. What Zen Lacks  Zen is a religion without superstition. It has

  1. no holy men
  2. no holy places
  3. no holy books
  4. no heaven and hell
  5. no commandments or laws
  6. no rites or ceremonies
  7. no miracles
  8. no prophecies (that is, no predictions of the coming of the holy man)

Compared to Zen, the three monotheistic religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — are all encrusted with superstition.

17. Both East and West  Our respect for the East shouldn’t prompt us to despise the West. We should regard Eastern philosophy as a stage in the evolution of Western philosophy, not as a rejection of Western philosophy. Jung and Joseph Campbell, who both respected Eastern wisdom, warned against abandoning our Western roots. Campbell said that the Western concept of

the individual, his self-hood, his rights, and his freedom [are] the truly great “new thing” that we do indeed represent to the world and that constitutes our Occidental revelation of a properly human spiritual ideal, true to the highest potentiality of our species.15

18. Thoreau is the most Zennish writer in Western literature. Like Zen, Thoreau focuses on the present moment:

In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.... We cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past.16

Thoreau wanted to be aware of the sights and sounds around him, but found that his mind was sometimes distracted:

I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?17

Don’t be in a hurry, says Thoreau:

Nature never makes haste.... The bud swells imperceptibly, without hurry or confusion, as though the short spring days were an eternity.... Why, then, should man hasten as if anything less than eternity were allotted for the least deed? Let him consume never so many eons, so that he go about the meanest task well, though it be but the paring of his nails.... The wise man is restful, never restless or impatient. He each moment abides there where he is, as some walkers actually rest the whole body at each step, while others never relax the muscles of the leg till the accumulated fatigue obliges them to stop short.18

Thoreau’s attitude toward music was also Zennish: “Listen to music religiously, as if it were the last strain you might hear.”19

Like Zen, Thoreau is positive, affirmative, Yes-saying. Compared to the New Testament, Thoreau said, a cock’s crow is

a newer testament — the Gospel according to this moment.... to celebrate this last instant of time.... The merit of this bird’s strain is in its freedom from all plaintiveness. The singer can easily move us to tears or to laughter, but where is he who can excite in us a pure morning joy? When, in doleful dumps... I hear a cockerel crow far or near, I think to myself there is one of us well at any rate, and with a sudden gush return to my senses.20

At age 45, when he was sick and near death, Thoreau’s positive attitude didn’t change at all, and in one of his last letters, he said, “I may add that I am enjoying existence as much as ever, and regret nothing.”21

19. Zen Anger  “Don’t just do something! Stand there!”

20. Greetings  When you meet someone you know, you usually say, “how are you doing?” If the person is a disciple of Zen, however, you should perhaps ask, “how are you breathing?” And if the person is a disciple of Jung, you should ask, “how are you dreaming?”

21. 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 damage culture. The work ethic has damaged 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.22

22. 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 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 was 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. As the Portuguese writer Pessoa said, “The ruin of aristocratic influence created an atmosphere of brutality and indifference to the arts.”23

23. Medieval Wisdom  All haste is of the devil’s party (omnis festinatio ex parte diaboli).

24. 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.

25. 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.

26. Patronage  What ever happened to patronage? It seems to have died out completely. Nowadays, billions of dollars are given to colleges, orchestras, and other institutions, but who gives money to individuals — to individual writers and artists? Patronage was important in ancient times, and in Renaissance times; there were even wealthy people in the mid-twentieth century who patronized writers and artists. But where are the patrons today? Have we forgotten that culture is created by individuals, not by institutions?

Government funding of the arts might be regarded as organized patronage. But governments are unlikely to fund those who are truly creative. Can you imagine van Gogh receiving a government grant? Real patronage takes place between individuals and individuals. The best way for politicians to help is to lower taxes, so that at least a few people can become patrons, or self-patrons.

Is patronage always beneficial to those who receive it? Writers and artists are sometimes more productive in the rough-and-tumble of life than when a patron raises them above it. Jakob Boehme, the mystic, wrote best when he was torn between mundane affairs and lofty speculations; once he found a patron, his creativity dried up.24 Jung once advised a wealthy woman that the recipient of her patronage would be better off on his own, and such proved to be the case.25

27. 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.

28. Talking, Acting  In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner contrasts the ethics of talking with the ethics of acting. Mrs. Compson talks about ethics, but her actions are far from ethical. Like many Protestants, Mrs. Compson believes that the worst vice is selfishness, and the highest value is unselfishness. Her complaint about her daughter (Caddy) is, “never since she opened her eyes has she given me one unselfish thought.” When her son, Quentin, commits suicide, Mrs. Compson says, “I didn’t believe that he would have been so selfish as to...”

While Mrs. Compson stays in bed, complains, and turns against life, her black servant, Dilsey, works steadily and patiently; “I does de bes I kin,” Dilsey says. As one critic said,

Dilsey accepts whatever time brings. She alone never suffers that moment of rejection which is equated with death.... Dilsey’s attitude, as she lives it, is formed by her instinctive feeling that whatever happens must be met with courage and dignity in which there is no room for passivity or pessimism.26

29. Fundamental Law of Ethics  Always leave a public bathroom a little cleaner than you found it. This might be called a fundamental law of politics, too, since society benefits from people acting responsibly and civilly in the public domain.

30. 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.27

31. 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. As Tocqueville said,

Every American is eaten up with longing to rise, but hardly any of them seem to entertain very great hopes or to aim very high.... Far from thinking that we should council humility to our contemporaries, I wish men would try to give them a higher idea of themselves and of humanity; humility is far from healthy for them; what they most lack, in my view, is pride.28

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.”29

32. 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 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.

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.

33. 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.”30 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.

34. 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.

35. 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.”31

As if to prove that Reason can lead anywhere, the French revolutionaries, who worshipped Reason, embarked on a policy of genocide. 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, Europeans were exploring the depths of Africa, Australia, etc., coming into contact with a variety of primitive peoples, and collecting 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.”32

Nietzsche argued that some moralities are created by masters, others by slaves. (This argument may have been derived from Plato’s Gorgias, in which Callicles takes a skeptical view of morality.) 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.” According to Kierkegaard, 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.”33

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.”34 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.

36. 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.”35

A rational thinker is uncomfortable with contradictions, he’s uncomfortable with the idea that truth itself is contradictory, he’s uncomfortable with the idea that A equals B, and at the same time A doesn’t equal B. Leo Strauss, the godfather of the neoconservatives, was fond of rational Greek philosophy. Strauss noticed that philosophers sometimes contradicted themselves, and he felt that this contradiction must be intentional, it must indicate that the philosopher is concealing his true thoughts. Strauss believed that philosophers are prevented from speaking their mind by political pressure. Because he was fond of reason and logic, Strauss couldn’t accept that philosophers contradict themselves even if they don’t feel political pressure, he couldn’t accept that truth itself is contradictory, reality is contradictory.

Reason wants philosophy to be precise and consistent. Reason likes definitions and proofs; it likes geometry. But philosophy shouldn’t try to satisfy Reason, it should try to reflect reality. Philosophy should say to Reason, “Sorry, I can’t give you definitions and proofs, all I can give you is contradictions.”

Physics, too, offers contradictions, not definitions and proofs. Einstein argued that light was made up of particles, though he knew that some experiments demonstrated that light was made up of waves. “[Einstein] was not able to dispute the complete contradiction between this wave picture and the idea of the light quanta,” wrote Heisenberg, “nor did he even attempt to remove the inconsistency of this interpretation. He simply took the contradiction as something which would probably be understood much later.”36

Psychology is even more contradictory than physics. Jung often contradicted himself, and was aware of the contradictions. But Jung felt that contradiction reflected psychic reality better than consistency and logic. Jung’s assistant said, “it was high praise, though of an unusual kind, when Jung informed me one day that I had been gloriously inconsistent.”37

37. Virtue is not the performance of an uninterrupted series of good actions. Virtue is the love of good actions, the constant intention to perform good actions, the desire to be better today than you were yesterday, and the willingness to admit that you have erred. Martin Luther said that virtue was always beginning (semper incipere).

38. #TenTeachings  Have the Ten Commandments served a useful purpose over the years? Should a new set of Ten Teachings be developed, one that’s better suited to modern life? If there were a Twitter hashtag called Ten Teachings, millions of people could suggest teachings, then the wisdom of the crowd could select the best set of Ten Teachings, a set that could be used by parents and teachers, committed to memory, and translated into every language. Such teachings could be useful for moral control and also useful as guidance for living.

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1. Shakespearean Tragedy, “Macbeth” back
2. The Wheel of Fire, ch. 15, #2 back
3. The Critic As Artist: A Dialogue back
4. “A Career at Harvard,” The American Scholar, winter, 1996 back
5. Reflections on the Human Condition, #107 back
6. Goethe: The History of a Man, by Emil Ludwig, ch. 7 back
7. Assorted Opinions and Maxims, §361 back
8. The Way of Zen, ch. 3 back
9. R. H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature, ch. 10. Blyth translated the haiku poems quoted above. back
10. Ibid, ch. 4 back
11. quoted in The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts, II, 2 back
12. See the appendix to Walter Kaufmann’s translation of Ecce Homo. back
13. The Possessed, III, vi, 2 back
14. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, “101 Zen Stories,” #32 back
15. Myths To Live By, ch. 4. Compare Jung: “It is sad indeed when the European departs from his own nature and imitates the East or ‘affects’ it in any way. The possibilities open to him would be so much greater if he would remain true to himself.”(Psychology and the East, ch. 1, par. 9) back
16. see Walden, ch. 1, and the essay “Walking” back
17. “Walking” back
18. journal entry from 1840 back
19. journal entry from 1851 back
20. “Walking” back
21. The Days of Henry Thoreau, by W. Harding, ch. 20, §2 back
22. 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
23. The Book of Disquiet, translated by Alfred Mac Adam, #470 back
24. Lectures on Jung’s Typology: The Inferior Function, by Marie-Louise von Franz, ch. 2, “The Introverted Intuitive Type,” p. 45 back
25. C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, “1954: The World of James Joyce” back
26. Olga Vickery, The Novels of William Faulkner: A Critical Interpretation, excerpted in the Norton Critical Edition of The Sound and the Fury, Second Edition, 1994 back
27. 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
28. Democracy in America, II, iii, 19 back
29. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue back
30. The Mind of Napoleon: A Selection from His Written and Spoken Words, edited by J. C. Herold, 184 back
31. A Treatise of Human Nature, Book 2, Part 3, Section 3 back
32. The Will to Power, #428 back
33. R. H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature, ch. 16 back
34. C. G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, “Talks with Miguel Serrano: 1961" back
35. “Self-Reliance” back
36. Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, “Beginner’s Mind”, p. 134 back
37. Aniela Jaffé, From the Life and Work of C. G. Jung, “From Jung’s Last Years,” p. 111 back