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The Importance of Living (IV): Views of Mankind

By Lin Yutang Chapter Two Views Of Mankind 2. EARTH-BOUND The situation then is this: man wants to live, but he still must live upon this earth. All questions of living in heaven must be brushed aside. Let not the spirit take wings and soar to the abode of the gods and forget the earth. Are we not mortals, condemned to die? The span of life vouchsafed us, threescore and ten, is short enough, if die spirit gets too haughty and wants to live forever, but on the other hand, it is also long enough, if the spirit is a little humble. One can learn such a lot and enjoy such a lot in seventy years, and three generations is a long, long time to see human follies and

By Lin Yutang

Chapter Two

Views Of Mankind


The situation then is this: man wants to live, but he still must live upon this earth. All questions of living in heaven must be brushed aside. Let not the spirit take wings and soar to the abode of the gods and forget the earth. Are we not mortals, condemned to die? The span of life vouchsafed us, threescore and ten, is short enough, if die spirit gets too haughty and wants to live forever, but on the other hand, it is also long enough, if the spirit is a little humble. One can learn such a lot and enjoy such a lot in seventy years, and three generations is a long, long time to see human follies and acquire human wisdom. Anyone who is wise and has lived long enough to witness the changes of fashion and morals and politics through the rise and fall of three generations should be perfectly satisfied to rise from his seat and go away saying, “It was a good show,” when the curtain falls.

For we are of the earth, earth-born and earth-bound. There is nothing to be unhappy about the fact that we are, as it were, delivered upon this beautiful earth as its transient guests. Even if it were a dark dungeon, we still would have to make the best of it; it would be ungrateful of us not to do so when we have, instead of a dungeon, such a beautiful earth to live on for a good part of a century. Sometimes we get too ambitious and disdain the humble and yet generous earth. Yet a sentiment for this Mother Earth, a feeling of true affection and attachment, one must have for this temporary abode of our body and spirit, if we are to have a sense of spiritual harmony.

We have to have, therefore, a kind of animal skepticism as well as animal faith, taking this earthly life largely as it is. And we have to retain the wholeness of nature that we see in Thoreau who felt himself kin to the sod and partook largely of its dull patience, in winter expecting the sun of spring, who in his cheapest moments was apt to think that it was not his business to be “seeking the spirit,” but as much the spirit’s business to seek him, and whose happiness, as he described it, was a good deal like that of the woodchucks. The earth, after all is real, as the heaven is unreal: how fortunate is man that he is born between the real earth and the unreal heaven!

Any good practical philosophy must start cut with the recognition of our having a body. It is high time that some among us made the straight admission that we arc animals, an admission which is inevitable since the establishment of the basic truth of the Darwinian theory and the great progress o biology, especially bio-chemistry. It was very unfortunate that our teachers and philosophers belonged to the so-called intellectual class, with a characteristic professional pride of intellect. The men of the spirit were as proud of the spirit as the shoemaker is proud of leather. Sometimes even the spirit was not sufficiently remote and abstract and they had to use the words, “essence” or “soul” or “idea,” writing them with capital letters to frighten us. The human body was distilled in this scholastic machine into a spirit, and the spirit was further concentrated into a kind of essence, forgetting that even alcoholic drinks must have a “body” mixed with plain water if they are to be palatable at all. And we poor laymen were supposed to drink that concentrated quintessence of spirit. This over-emphasis on the spirit was fatal It made us war with our natural instincts, and my chief criticism is that it made a whole and rounded view of human nature impossible. It proceeded also from an inadequate knowledge of biology and psychology, and of the place of the senses, emotions and, above all, instincts in our life. Man is made of flesh and spirit both, and it should be philosophy’s business to see that the mind and body live harmoniously together, that there be a reconciliation between the two.


The most obvious fact which philosophers refuse to see is that we have got a body. Tired of seeing our mortal imperfections and our savage instincts and impulses, sometimes our preachers wish that we were made like angels, and yet we are at a total loss to imagine what the angels’ life would be like. We either give the angels a body and a shape like our own except for a pair of wings or we don’t. It is interesting that the general conception of an angel is still that of a human body with a pair of wings. I sometimes think that it is an advantage even for angels to have a body with the five senses. If I were to be an angel, I should like to have a school-girl complexion, but how am I going to have a school-girl complexion without a skin? I still should like to drink a glass of tomato juice or iced orange juice, but how am I going to appreciate iced orange juice without having thirst? And how am I going to enjoy food, when I am Incapable of hunger? How would an angel paint without pigment, sing without the hearing of sounds, smell the fine morning air without a nose? How would he enjoy the immense satisfaction of scratching an itch, if his skin doesn’t itch? And what a terrible loss in the capacity for happiness that would be! Either we have to have bodies and have all our bodily wants satisfied, or else we are pure spirits and have no satisfactions at all. All satisfactions imply want.

I sometimes think what a terrible punishment it would be for a ghost or an angel to have no body, to look at a stream of cool water and have no feet to plunge into it and get a delightful cooling sensation from it, to see a dish of Peking or Long Island duck and have no tongue to taste it, to see crumpets and have no teeth to chew them, to sec the beloved faces of our dear ones and have no emotions to feel toward them. Terribly sad it would be if we should one day return to this earth as ghosts and move silently into our children’s bedroom, to see a child lying there in bed and have no hands to fondle him and no arms to clasp him, no chest for his warmth to penetrate to, no round hollow between cheek and shoulder for him to nestle against, and no ears to hear his voice.

A defense of the angels-without-bodies theory will be found to be most vague and unsatisfying. Such a defender might say, “Ah, yes, but in the world of spirit, we don’t need such satisfactions.” “But what instead have you got?” Complete silence; or perhaps, “Void-Peace-Calm” “What then do you gain by it?” “Absence of work and pain and sorrow.” I admit such a heaven has a tremendous attraction to galley slaves. Such a negative ideal and conception of happiness is dangerously near to Buddhism and is ultimately to be traced to Asia (Asia Minor, in this case) rather than Europe.

Such speculations are necessarily idle, but I may at least point out that the conception of a “senseless spirit” is quite unwarranted, since we are coming more and more to feel that the universe itself is a sentient being. Perhaps motion rather than standing still will be a characteristic of the spirit, and one of the pleasures of a bodiless angel will be to revolve like a proton around a nucleus at the speed of twenty or thirty thousand revolutions a second. There may be a keen delight in that, more fascinating than a ride on a Coney Island scenic railway. It will certainly be a kind of sensation. Or perhaps the bodiless angel will dart like light or cosmic rays in ethereal waves around curved space at the rate of 183,000 miles per second. There must still be spiritual pigments for the angels to paint and enjoy some form of creation, ethereal vibrations for the angels to feel as tone and sound and color, and ethereal breeze to brush against the angels’ cheeks. Otherwise spirit itself would stagnate like water in a cesspool, or feel like men on a hot, suffocating summer afternoon without a whiff of fresh air. There must still be motion and emotion (in whatever form) if there is to be life; certainly not complete rest and insensitiveness.


The better knowledge of our own bodily functions and mental processes gives us a truer and broader view of ourselves and takes away from the word “animal” some of its old bad flavor. The old proverb that “to understand is to forgive” is applicable to our own bodily and mental processes. It may seem strange, but it is true, that the very fact that we have a better understanding of our bodily functions makes it impossible for us to look down upon them with contempt. The important thing is not to say whether our digestive process is noble or ignoble; die important thing is just to understand it, and somehow it becomes extremely noble. This is true of every biological function or process in our body, from perspiration and the elimination of waste to the functions of the pancreatic juice, the gall, the endocrine glands and the finer emotive and cogitative processes.

One no longer despises the kidney, one merely tries to understand it; and one no longer looks upon a bad tooth as symbolic of the final decay of our body and a reminder to attend to the welfare of our soul, but merely goes to a dentist, has it examined, explained and properly fixed up. Somehow a man coming out from a dentist’s office no longer despises his teeth, but has an increased respect for them-because he is going to gnaw apples and chicken bones with increased delight. As for the superfine metaphysician who says that the teeth belong to the devil, and the Neo-Platonists who deny that individual teeth exist, I always get a satirical delight in seeing a philosopher suffering from a tooth-ache and an optimistic poet suffering from dyspepsia. Why doesn’t he go on with his philosophic disquisitions, and why does he hold his hand against his cheek, just as you or I or the woman in the next house would do? And why does optimism seem so unconvincing to a dyspeptic poet? Why doesn’t he sing any more? How ungrateful it is, of him, therefore, to forget the intestines and sing about the spirit when the intestines behave and give him no trouble!

Science, if anything, has taught us an increased respect for our body, by deepening a sense of the wonder and mystery of its workings. In the first place, genetically, we begin to understand how we came about, and see that, instead of being made out of clay, we are sitting on the top of the genealogical tree of the animal kingdom. That must be a fine sensation, sufficiently satisfying for any man who is not intoxicated with his own spirit. Not that I believe dinosaurs lived and died millions of years ago in order that we today might walk erect with our two legs upon this earth. Without such gratuitous assumptions, biology has not at all destroyed a whit of human dignity, or cast doubt upon the view that we are probably the most splendid animals ever evolved on this earth. So that is quite satisfying for any man who wants to insist on human dignity. In the second place, we are more impressed than ever with the mystery and beauty of the body. The workings of the internal parts of our body and the wonderful correlation between them compel in us a sense of the extreme difficulty with which these correlations are brought about and the extreme simplicity and finality with which they are nevertheless accomplished. Instead of simplifying these internal chemical processes by explaining them, science makes them all the more difficult to explain. These processes arc incredibly more difficult than the layman without any knowledge of physiology usually imagines. The great mystery of the universe without is similar in quality to the mystery of the universe within.

The more a physiologist tries to analyze and study the bio-physical and bio-chemical processes of human physiology, the more his wonder increases. That is so to the extent that sometimes it compels a physiologist with a broad spirit to accept the mystic’s view of life, as in the case of Dr. Alexis Carrel. Whether we agree with him or not, as he states his opinions in Man, the Unknown, we must agree with him that the facts are there, unexplained and unexplainable. We begin to acquire a sense of the intelligence of matter itself:

The organs are correlated by the organic fluids and the nervous system. Each element of the body adjusts itself to the others, and the others to it. This mode of adaptation is essentially teleological. If we attribute to tissues an intelligence of the same kind as ours, as mechanists and vitalists do, the physiological processes appear to associate together in view of the end to be attained. The existence of finality within the organism is undeniable. Each part seems to know the present and future needs of the whole, and acts accordingly. The significance of time and space is not the same for our tissues as for our mind. The body perceives the remote as well as the near, the future as well as the present.2

And we should wonder, for instance, and be extremely amazed that our intestines heal their own wounds, entirely without our voluntary effort:

The wounded loop first becomes immobile. It is temporarily paralyzed, and fecal matter is thus prevented from running into the abdomen. At the same time, some other intestinal loop, or the surface of the omentum, approaches the wound and, owing to a known property of peritoneum, adheres to it. Within four or five hours the opening is occluded. Even if the surgeon’s needle has drawn the edges of the wound together, healing is due to spontaneous adhesion of the peritoneal surfaces.3

Why do we despise the body, when the flesh itself shows such intelligence? After all, we are endowed with a body, which is a self-nourishing, self-regulating, self-repairing, self-starting and self-reproducing machine, installed at birth and lasting like a good grandfather clock for three-quarters of a century, requiring very little attention. It is a machine provided with wireless vision and

2 Man, the Unknown, p. 197.

2 Ibid, p. 200

wireless hearing, with a more highly complicated system of nerves and lymph’s than the most complicated telephone and telegraph system of the world. It has a system of filing reports done by a vast complexus of nerves, managed with such efficiency that some files, the less important ones, are kept in the attic and others are kept in a more convenient desk, but those kept in the attic, which may be thirty years old and rarely referred to, are nevertheless there and sometimes can be found with lightning speed and efficiency. Then it also manages to go about like a motor car with perfect knee action and absolute silence of engines, and if the motor car has an accident and breaks its glass or its steering wheel, the car automatically exudes or manufactures a substance to replace the glass and does its best to grow a steering wheel, or at least manages to do the steering with a swollen end of the steering shaft; for we must remember that when one of our kidneys is cut out, the other kidney swells arid increases its function to insure the passage of the normal volume of urine. Then it also keeps up a normal temperature within a tenth of a Fahrenheit degree, and manufactures its own chemicals for the processes of transforming food into living tissues.

Above all, it has a sense of the rhythm of life, and a sense of time, not only of hours and days, but also of decades; the body regulates its own childhood, puberty and maturity, stops growing when it should no longer grow, and brings forth a wisdom tooth at a time when no one of us ever thought of it. Our conscious wisdom has nothing to do with our wisdom tooth. It also manufactures specific antidotes against poison, on the whole with amazing success, and it does all these things with absolute silence, without the usual racket of a factory, so that our superfine metaphysician may not be disturbed and is free to think about his spirit or his essence.


I think that, from a biological standpoint, human life almost reads like a poem. It has its own rhythm and beat, its internal cycles of growth and decay. It begins with innocent childhood, followed by awkward “adolescence trying awkwardly to adapt itself to mature society, with its young passions and follies, its ideals and ambitions; then it reaches a manhood of intense activities, profiting from experience and learning more about society and human nature; at middle age, there is a slight easing of tension, a mellowing of character like the ripening of fruit or the mellowing of good wine, and the gradual acquiring of a more tolerant, more cynical and at the same time a kindlier view of life; then in the sunset of our life, the endocrine glands decrease their activity, and if we have a true philosophy of old age and have ordered our life pattern according to it, it is for us the age of peace and security and leisure and contentment; finally, life flickers out and one goes into eternal sleep, never to wake up again. One should be able to sense the beauty of this rhythm of life, to appreciate, as we do in grand symphonies, its main theme, its strains of conflict and the final resolution.

The movements of these cycles are very much the same in a normal life, but the music must be provided by the individual himself. In some souls, the discordant note becomes harsher and harsher and finally overwhelms or submerges the main melody. Sometimes the discordant note gains so much power that the music can no longer go on, and the individual shoots himself with a pistol or jumps into a river. But that is because his original leit-motif has been hopelessly over-shadowed through the lack of a good self-education. Otherwise the normal human life runs to its normal end in a kind of dignified movement and procession. There are sometimes in many of us too many staccatos or impetuosos, and because the tempo is wrong, the music is not pleasing to the ear; we might have more of the grand rhythm and majestic tempo of the Ganges, flowing slowly and eternally into the sea.

No one can say that a life with childhood, manhood and old age is not a beautiful arrangement; the day has its morning, noon and sunset, and the year has its seasons, and it is good that it is so. There is no good or bad in life, except what is good according to its own season. And if we take this biological view of life and try to live according to the seasons, no one but a conceited fool or an impossible idealist can deny that human life can be lived like a poem. Shakespeare has expressed this idea more graphically in his passage about the seven stages of life, and a good many Chinese writers have said about the same thing. It is curious that Shakespeare was never very religious, or very much concerned with religion. I think this was his greatness; he took human life largely as it was, and intruded himself as little upon the general scheme of things as he dad upon the characters of his plays. Shakespeare was like Nature herself, and that is the greatest compliment we can pay lo a writer or thinker. He merely lived, observed life and went away.

To be continued…


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