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The Importance of Living (III): Views of Mankind

By Lin Yutang Chapter Two   Views Of Mankind Christian, Greek and Chinese THERE are several views of mankind, the traditional Christian theological view, the Greek pagan view, and the Chinese Taoist- Confucianist view. (I do not include the Buddhist view because it is too sad.) Deeper down in their allegorical sense, these views after all do not differ so much from one another, especially when the modern man with better biological and anthropological knowledge gives them a broader interpretation. But these differences in their original forms exist. The traditional, orthodox Christian view was that man was created perfect, innocent, foolish and happy, living naked in the Garden of Eden. Then came knowledge and wisdom and the Fall of Man, to which the sufferings of man are due, notably

By Lin Yutang

Chapter Two


Views Of Mankind

  1. Christian, Greek and Chinese

THERE are several views of mankind, the traditional Christian theological view, the Greek pagan view, and the Chinese Taoist- Confucianist view. (I do not include the Buddhist view because it is too sad.) Deeper down in their allegorical sense, these views after all do not differ so much from one another, especially when the modern man with better biological and anthropological knowledge gives them a broader interpretation. But these differences in their original forms exist.

The traditional, orthodox Christian view was that man was created perfect, innocent, foolish and happy, living naked in the Garden of Eden. Then came knowledge and wisdom and the Fall of Man, to which the sufferings of man are due, notably (I) work by the sweat of one’s brow for man, and (2) the pangs of labor for women. In contrast with man’s original innocence and perfection, a new element was introduced to explain his present imperfection, and that is of course the Devil, working chiefly through the body, while his higher nature works through the soul. When the “soul” was invented in the history of Christian theology I am not aware, but this “soul” became a something rather than a function, an entity rather than a condition, and it sharply separated man from the animals, which have no souls worth saving. Here the logic halts, for the origin of the Devil had to be explained, and when the medieval theologians proceeded with their usual scholastic logic to deal with the problem, they got into a quandary. They could not have very well admitted that the Devil, who was Not-God, came from God himself, nor could they quite agree that in the original universe, the Devil, a Not-God, was co-eternal with God, So in desperation they agreed that the Devil must have been a fallen angel, which rather begs the question of the origin of evil (for there still must have been another Devil to tempt this fallen angel), and which is therefore unsatisfactory, but they had to leave it at that. Nevertheless from all this followed the curious dichotomy of the spirit and the flesh, a mythical conception which is still quite prevalent and powerful today in affecting our philosophy of life and happiness.1

Then came the Redemption, still borrowing from the current conception of the sacrificial lamb, which went still farther back to the idea of a God Who desired the smell of roast meal and could not forgive for nothing. From this Redemption, at one stroke a means was found by which all sins could be forgiven, and a way was found for perfection again. The most curious aspect of Christian thought is the idea of perfection. As this happened during the decay of the ancient worlds, a tendency grew up to emphasize the afterlife, and the question of salvation supplanted the question of happiness or simple living itself. The notion was how to get away from this world alive, a world which was apparently sinking into corruption and chaos and doomed. Hence the overwhelming importance attached to immortality. This represents a contradiction of the original Genesis story that God did not want man to live forever. The Genesis story of the reason why Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden was not that they had tasted of the Tree o Knowledge, as is popularly conceived, but the fear lest they should disobey a second time and eat o the Tree of Life and live forever:

And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

1It is a happy fact that with the progress of modern thought, the Devil is the first to be thrown overboard. I believe that of a hundred liberal Christians today who still believe in God in some form or other, not more than five believe in a real Devil, except in a figurative sense. Also the belief in a real Hell is disappearing before the belief in a real Heaven.

So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

The Tree of Knowledge seemed to be somewhere in the center of the garden, but the Tree of Life was near the eastern entrance, where for all we know, cherubim are still stationed to guard the approach by men.

All in all, there is still a belief in total depravity, that enjoyment of this life is sin and wickedness, that to be uncomfortable is to be virtuous, and that on the whole man cannot save himself except by a greater power outside. The doctrine of sin is still the basic assumption of Christianity as generally practiced today, and Christian missionaries trying to make converts generally start out by impressing upon the party to be converted a consciousness of sin and of the wickedness of human nature (which is, of course, the sine qua non for the need of the ready-made remedy which the missionary has up his sleeve). All in all, you can’t make a man a Christian unless you first make him believe he is a sinner. Some one has said rather cruelly, “Religion in our country has so narrowed down to the contemplation of sin that a respectable man does not any longer dare to show his face in the church.”

The Greek pagan world was a different world by itself and therefore their conception of man was also quite different. What strikes me most is that the Greeks made their gods like men, while the Christians desired to make men like the gods. That Olympian company is certainly a jovial, amorous, loving, lying, quarreling and vow-breaking, petulant lot; hunt-loving, chariot-riding and javelin-throwing like the Greeks themselves-a marrying lot, too, and having unbelievably many illegitimate children. So far as the difference between gods and men is concerned, the gods merely had divine powers of hurling thunderbolts in heaven and raising vegetation on earth, were immortal, and drank nectar instead of wine-the fruits were pretty much the same. One feels one can be intimate with this crowd, can go hunting with a knapsack on one’s back with Apollo or Athene, or stop Mercury on the way and chat with him as with a Western Union messenger boy, and if the conversation gets too interesting, we can imagine Mercury saying,

“Yeah. Okay. Sorry, but I’ll have to run along and deliver this message at 72nd Street.” The Greek men were not divine, but the Greek gods were human. How different from the perfect Christian God! And so the gods were merely another race of men, a race of giants, gifted with immortality, while men on earth were not. Out of this background came some of the most inexpressibly beautiful stories of Demeter and Proserpina and Orpheus. The belief in the gods was taken for granted, for even Socrates, when he was about to drink hemlock, proposed a libation to the gods to speed him on his journey from this world to the next. This was very much like the attitude of Confucius. It was necessarily so in that period; what attitude toward man and God the Greek spirit would take in the modern world there is unfortunately no chance of knowing. The

Greek pagan world was not modern, and the modern Christian world is not Greek That’s the pity of it,

On the whole, it was accepted by the Greeks that man’s was a mortal lot, subject sometimes to a cruel Fate. That once accepted, man was quite happy as he was, for the Greeks loved this life and this universe, and were interested in understanding the good, the true and the beautiful in life, besides being fully occupied in scientifically understanding the physical world. There was no mythical “Golden Period” in the sense of the Garden of Eden, and no allegory of the Fall of Man; the Hellenes themselves were but human creatures transformed from pebbles picked up and thrown over their shoulders by Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha, as they were coming down to the plain after the Great Flood. Diseases and cares were explained comically; they came through the uncontrollable desire of a young woman to open and sec a box of jewels-Pandora’s Box, The Greek fancy was beautiful. They took human nature largely as it was: the Christians might say they were “resigned” to the mortal lot. But it was so beautiful to be mortal: there was free room for the exercise of understanding and the free, speculative spirit. Some of the Sophists thought man’s nature good. and some thought man’s nature bad, but there wasn’t the sharp contradiction of Hobbes and Rousseau. Finally, in Plato, man was seen to be a compound of desires, emotions, and thought, and ideal human life was the living together in harmony of these three parts of his being under the guidance of wisdom or true understanding. Plato thought “ideas” were immortal, but individual souls were either base or noble, according as they loved justice, learning, temperance and beauty or not. The soul also acquired an independent and immortal existence in Socrates; as we are told in “Phaedo,” “When the soul exists in herself, and is released from the body, and the body is released from the soul, what is this but death?” Evidently the belief in immortality of the human soul is something which the Christian, Greek, Taoist and Confucianist views have in common. Of course this is nothing to be jumped at by modern believers in the immortality of the soul. Socrates’ belief in immortality would probably mean nothing to a modern man, because many of his premises in support of it, like re-incarnation, cannot be accepted by the modern man.

The Chinese view of man also arrived at the idea that man is ‘the Lord of the Creation (“Spirit of the Ten Thousand Things”), and in the Confucianist view, man ranks as the equal of heaven and earth in the “Trio of Geniuses.” The background was animistic: everything was alive or inhabited by a spirit-mountains, rivers, and everything that reached a grand old age. The winds and thunder were spirits themselves; each of the great mountains and each river was ruled by a spirit who practically owned it; each kind of flower had a fairy in heaven attending to its seasons and its welfare, and there was a Queen of All Flowers whose birthday came on the twelfth day of the second moon; every willow tree pine tree, cypress, fox or turtle that reached a grand old age, say over a few hundred years, acquired by that very fact immortality and became a “genius.”

With this animistic background, it is natural that man is also considered a manifestation of the spirit. This spirit, like all life in the entire universe, is produced by the union of the male, active, positive or yang principle, and the female, passive, negative or yin principle-which is really no more than a lucky, shrewd guess at positive and negative electricity. When this spirit becomes incarnated in a human body, it is called p’o; when unattached to a body and floating about as spirit it is called hwen. (A man of forceful personality or “spirits” is spoken of as having a lot of p’oil, or p’o energy.)

After death, this hwen continues to wander about. Normally it does not bother people, but if no one buries and offers sacrifices to the deceased, the spirit becomes a “wandering ghost,” for which reason an All Souls’ Day is set apart on the fifteenth day of the seventh moon for a general sacrifice to those drowned in water or dead and unburied m a strange land. Also, if the deceased was murdered or died suffering a wrong, the sense of injustice in the ghost compels it to hang about and cause trouble until the wrong is avenged and the spirit is satisfied. Then all trouble is stopped.

While living, man, who is spirit taking shape in a body, necessarily has certain passions, desires, and a flow of “vital energy,” or in more easily understood English, just “nervous energy.” In and for themselves, these are neither good nor bad, but just something given and inseparable from the characteristically human life. All men and women have passions, natural desires and noble ambitions, and also a conscience; they have sex, hunger, fear, anger, and are subject to sickness, pain, suffering and death. Culture consists in bringing about the expression, of these passions and desires in harmony. That is the Confucianist view, which believes that by living in harmony with this human nature given us, we can become the equals of heaven and earth, as quoted at the end of Chapter VL

The Buddhists, however, regard the mortal desires of the flesh essentially as the medieval Christians did-they arc a nuisance to be done away with. Men and women who are too intelligent, or inclined to think too much, sometimes accept this view and become monks and nuns; but on the whole, Confucian good sense forbids it. Then also, with a Taoistic touch, beautiful and talented girls suffering a harsh fate are regarded as “fallen fairies,” punished for having mortal thoughts or some neglect of duty in heaven and sent down to this earth to live through a predestined fate of mortal sufferings.

Man’s intellect is considered as a flow of energy. Literally this intellect is “spirit of a genius” (chingshen), the word “genius” being essentially taken in the sense in which we speak of fox genii, rock genii and pine genii. The nearest English equivalent is, as I have suggested, “vitality” or “nervous energy,” which ebbs and flows at different times of the day and of the person’s life. Every man born into this world starts out with certain passions and desires and this vital energy, which run their course in different cycles through childhood, youth, maturity, old age and death. Confucius said, “When young, beware of fighting; when strong, beware of sex; and when old, beware of possession,” which simply means that a boy loves fighting, a young man loves women, and an old man loves money.

Faced with this compound of physical, mental and moral assets, the Chinese takes an attitude toward man himself, as toward all other problems, which may be summed up in the phrase: “Let us be reasonable.” This is an attitude of expecting neither too much nor too little. Man is, as it were, sandwiched between heaven and earth, between idealism and realism, between lofty thoughts and the baser passions. Being so sandwiched is the very essence of humanity; it is human to have thirst for knowledge and thirst for water, to love a good idea and a good dish of pork with bamboo shoots, and to admire a beautiful saying and a beautiful woman. This being the case, our world is necessarily an imperfect world.

Of course there is a chance of taking human society in hand and making it better, but the Chinese do not expect either perfect peace or perfect happiness. There is a story illustrating this point of view. There was a man who was in Hell and about to be re-incarnated, and he said to the King of Re-incarnation, “If you want me to return to the earth as a human being, I will go only on my own conditions.” “And what are they?” asked the King. The man replied, “I must be born the son of a cabinet minister and father of a future ‘Literary Wrangler’ (the scholar who comes out first at the national examinations) . I must have ten thousand acres of land surrounding my home and fish ponds and fruits of every kind and a beautiful wife and pretty concubines, all good and loving to me, and rooms stocked to the ceiling with gold and pearls and cellars stocked full of grain and trunks chockful of money, and I myself must be a Grand Councilor or a Duke of the First Rank and enjoy honor and prosperity and live until I am a hundred years old.” And the King of Re-incarnation replied, “If there was such a lot on earth, I would go and be re-incarnated myself, and not give it to you!”

The reasonable attitude is, since we’ve got this human nature, let’s start with it. Besides, there is no escaping from it anyway. Passions and instincts are originally good or originally bad, but there is not much use talking about them, is there? On the other hand, there is the danger of our being enslaved by them. Just stay in the middle of the road. This reasonable attitude creates such a jorgiving kind of philosophy that, at least to a cultured, broadminded scholar who lives according to the spirit of reasonableness, any human error or misbehavior whatsoever, legal or moral or political, which can be labeled as “common human nature” (more literally, “man’s normal passions”), is excusable- The Chinese go so far as to assume that Heaven or God Himself is quite a reasonable being, that if you live reasonably, according to your best lights, you have nothing to fear, that peace of conscience is the greatest of all gifts, and that a man with a clear conscience need not be afraid even of ghosts. With a reasonable God supervising the affairs of reasonable and some unreasonable beings, everything is quite all right in this world. Tyrants die; traitors commit suicide; the grasping fellow is seen selling his property; the sons o a powerful and rich collector of curios (about whom tales are told of grasping greed or extortion by power) are seen selling out the collection on which their father spent so much thought and trouble, and these same curios are now being dispersed among other families; murderers are found out and dead and wronged women are avenged. Some times, but quite seldom, an oppressed person cries out, “Heaven has no eyes!” (Justice is blind.) Eventually, both in Taoism and in Confucianism, the conclusion and highest goal of this philosophy is complete understanding of and harmony with nature, resulting in what I may call “reasonable naturalism,” if we must have a term for classification. A reasonable naturalist then settles down to this life with a sort of animal satisfaction. As Chinese illiterate women put it, “Others gave birth to us and we give birth to others. What else are we to do?”

There is a terrible philosophy in this saying, “Others gave birth to us and we give birth to others.” Life becomes a biological procession and the very question of immortality is sidetracked. For that is the exact feeling of a Chinese grandfather holding his grandchild by the hand and going to the shops to buy some candy, with the thought that in five or ten years he will be returning to his grave or to his ancestors. The best that we can hope for in this life is that we shall not have sons and grandsons of whom we need be ashamed. The whole pattern of Chinese life is organized according to this one idea.

To be continued…




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