This is an old (2012) e-mail I sent to the Cosmoetica e-list, after I’d re-read Ezra Pound’s translation of Confucius a few times, and began studying the I Ching– or, ‘divination sans divinity’. My views have not changed much, and there have been few philosophers as underrated as Confucius, mostly because what Western kids know him for (ideas on family, the practicum of government, etc.) occlude not only the truer depth of his thoughts, but also the clarity through which they’ve been communicated. Say what you will of the importance of Aristotle or the allure of Wittgenstein, but Confucius was, in many ways, an artist, first– which makes his ideas even deeper.
I’ve long suspected that the Chinese, as well as some other ‘older philosophers’, had hit upon a special way of viewing the world that simply had no concrete value to the (then) world of bodies– that is, war, hunger, poverty, and other forms of mass delusion. Because, in a sense, that’s what these qualities are: a means of keeping people stuck in the more transient stuff, wherein history is mere event after event, and generations, if you slice a time period just right, look pretty much identical. Such concerns, big as they are, have crowded out potentially more interesting ones, which are only now making a comeback, albeit mired in the form of New Age stupidity. Confucius, Lao Tzu, and others can easily be misappropriated by the faux spiritual (or, hell, even by the ‘truly spiritual’!), but this only means that they haven’t really found their place. I am not yet sure what role these names will play in our future, but they’ll have a part, eventually, more deep than some of the things we presently consider to be ‘important’, stuck, as we still are, in base, physical concerns, and unable to see outside of the limits of these mechanical roles.
So, let us begin:
Two from Lao Tzu:
For those that try to grasp, it’s gone.
People must learn to take death seriously, and stop wasting time in distant lands.
And the rest from Confucius:
Hence the man who keeps rein on himself looks straight into his own heart at the things wherewith there is no trifling; he attends seriously to things unheard.
The master finds the center and does not waver. The mean man runs counter to the circulation about the invariable.
The empire, kingdoms, families can be governed harmoniously; honors and salaries can be refused, you can tread sharp weapons and bright steel underfoot, without being able to stand firm in the unwavering center.
No, people do not use the main open road.
There are few men under heaven who can love and see the defects, or hate and see the excellence of an object.
To see high merit and be unable to raise it to office, to raise it but not to give such promotion precedence, is just destiny.
The man of breed looks at his own status [at himself], seeing it in clear light without trimmings; he acts, and lusts not after things extraneous to it.
Elaborate phrasing about correct appearances seldom means manhood.
Not worried that men do not know me, but that I do not understand men.
Research without thought is a mere net and entanglement; thought without gathering data, a peril.
When I started I used to hear words, and believe they would be acted on; now I listen to what men say, and watch what they do.
Standing on a river-bank, he said: it is what passes like that, indeed, not stopping day, night.
And we have not even touched poetry.
Look at those sentences again. Every single one of them can be interpreted a number of ways; every one of them implies something deeper, more lucid, and yet less nameable than what’s directly there. As a kid, I was a fan of Plato, Aristotle, and some more modern philosophers. And yet, with perhaps only a handful of exceptions, most philosophers are not only bad writers, but full of mechanistic ideas that are mostly good for getting the logical juices flowing, into territory most people simply could never care about, or at the very least satisfying a few geeks hung up on strange details and quagmires that are not only dated, now, but ought to have been irrelevant to any judicious person from the very beginning. In effect, the West has concocted- even in much of its early art- work of both utility and futility, with only genuine, sustained nuance coming about in the last five or six centuries. If you look at Greek or Roman poetry, even, it was clearly still in its experimental stages, despite the fact that their languages had already fully developed into sophisticated expression by the time their Golden Ages came about.
Lucretius, for instance, was reacting to the “dearth” and “poverty” of pre-Augustan Latin (words chosen by certain grammarians, I believe), as well as trying to create genuine art against this backdrop. Yet what he ended up with was a series of some of the greatest passages in ancient literature, coupled by- again- this geeky insistence on creating a theory of the universe, despite the costs such choices would impart. Lucretius did not understand things like costs, however, and pressed on into utilitarian territory. “Costs” have only become apparent with more modern self-reflection, and the de-coupling of biases from art, biases that, while hindering art in the long term, nonetheless created some impetus for its creation, and then, its betterment. The same can be said for Virgil (who had some of the most egregious cliches in Roman writing- cliches of both sentiment and phrasing that were dated even in Homer’s time), Homer, and almost anyone, really, that chose to write in those periods. I‘d say, of the ancients, Catullus probably had the most potential to be a genuine great, were he able to harness his vitriol into something more constructive than the many “I‘ll fuck you up the ass” poems he ended up with. In Catullus, you finally see the erasure of pure utility that held the ancient world back.
Yet while the West were stuck with Plato, Aristotle- all good, by the way- the Chinese had people like Confucius and Lao Tzu. The latter, while certainly far less rigorous (in the conventional sense) in things like medicine, logic, and some sciences, nonetheless had what is always more interesting, perhaps even more important, in the long run: an insight into the less visible things, an ability to distill them to the essence, to go beyond ordinary commands and proscriptions, and make it through to the other side. This certainly plays out in their poetry, which is, as Dan suggested, a poetry of ideas, even though in all the translations I‘ve read of different Chinese poets, it’s clear things like word choice, etc., are often just as startling as the ideas themselves.
Take, for instance, something like the I Ching, which I consider one of the most interesting books ever written. It has a reputation for being a book of “magic” or “divination,” and while it’s certainly been used for these purposes, there’s also evidence that the Chinese intelligentsia had a higher respect for this book, as a work of philosophy, than simple, crude divination. Confucius- who in fact ridiculed magic, dabblers, and similar, ostentatious displays- wrote that if he had 50 more years to live (or something), he’d dedicate it to the I Ching, so that he could attain perfection. Now, think on that: to attain perfection. Clearly, there is something internal about this process, something about the book meant to correct the self, rather than to simply project the body into a “definite” future, as outlined by the fall of coins and yarrow stalks. In fact, if you consider the book much more a psychological tool, than mere divinity, it really opens up quite a bit more than empty superstitions. In short, the process is this: you ask it a question, which must be both specific and open-ended, then do a series of coin-flips that will reveal a hexagram to you, with a possibility of a second hexagram (a “change”) that further refines the first hexagram. Each hexagram is well-written, and has sage advice for pretty much anyone, with specific lines one ought to focus on depending on the details of the coin-flip. If you get a second hexagram, there’s further refinement, as well as additional lines of focus, which are always different, all things considered.
Given that many of the hexagrams are beautifully written, and that most people who go into such a system have at least some level of self-awareness, or at least aspire to it, it’s really a gold-mine of imbuement. Yet, in this case, it’s really not a bad thing, at all. If you really want to make use of the system, you will, over time, start to notice certain patterns in yourself: why do I keep asking these kinds of questions? Why do I avoid other types of questions? Why am I so quick to react to this or that bit of advice, but fume at another hexagram? Why do I hope for this, and not for that? After a while, you have a detailed journal of questions, answers, and the experience of reading them, reacting to them, and the process that leads to it all. And, in time, the I Ching becomes a kind of transcendental being: sarcastic, humiliating, wise, compassionate, effusive, laconic, and the like. The relationship shifts; one’s opinions of the book changes, yet you always feel like you’re in some kind of partnership that, instead of merely pointing to the future, instead points to YOU, and shows you how your present tense- and everything that you put or do not put into it- shapes the future, simply through the inevitability of character. Some hexagrams will, by chance, keep coming up. At other times, they won’t. In the end, though, you have a detailed record of things that are essential to you, for you have imbued what is essential, and understood the rest by mere chance and the happenstance of personal experience. Such a book is simply brilliant, an excellent document of psychology, without having to be classically rigorous.
So, I agree with Dan that the Chinese were WAY ahead of the West, in many respects. Yet I‘m not so sure if it can be mostly or even partly reduced to the specifics of their language. I can certainly see why the layering of certain “units of idea” will, in time, lead to a dependence on idea within the realm of writing, but it also seems to me that Chinese philosophy, art, medicine, and science, as a whole, were dependent upon idea and intuition in a way that- unlike, say, the Middle Ages in the West- did not ever reduce itself to mere superstition (although there were always elements of such), or the trumping of utility over aesthetic. There was a balance, here, and while “aesthetic” philosophers in the West were pre-occupied with the strangest, most geeky of things, such as the Pythagorean belief about the dodecahedron, or the need to suppress irrational numbers or else face the consequences of a kind of abstract apocalypse, the Chinese aesthetic was crafted to suit essential experiences- that is, true experiences, in things that really matter, and in a way that can be immediately apprehended, as well as further understood with time. Why? Who knows. By contrast, I feel much of early Western art and philosophy was a one-trick pony, and far more difficult to maintain into modernity, with a greater complexity of experience, and the like. Yet if, like the Chinese, one distills things, and continually refines the result, it’s far easier to carry it over from age to age, given that universal ideas, and universal ways of tackling problems, will always remain fresh. Such were the “costs” that the Greeks and the Romans did not understand, pre-occupied, as they were, with themselves in a way that did not leave much room for the rest of the world, a plurality of experience. Was it their fault? No. I believe much of this- like the accidents that led to Chinese greatness- is chance. Yet, the following still applies:
“He who can totally sweep clean the chalice of himself can carry the inborn nature of others to its fulfillment.” – Confucius