Published: 2022-03-31   Last modified: 2022-03-31

Introduction: Axis of Primeval

Back in my time, I’d been fascinated by the texts of the magnificent teachers of the past—​Buddha, Laozi and Zhuangzi, ancient Greeks…​ I had then rather poorly concept of the human history timeline, but one day I was struck by the discovery that the greatest teachers—​the founders—​lived in the same time period (around 5th-6th century BCE). You see, in my perception back then those founders were somewhat mythical figures, each one living in his own spiritual world. The fact that they walked the earth simultaneously, made them more real, more human, and by that—​paradoxically—​even more awe-inspiring. Since if they were flesh and blood like myself, how the hell could they come with such amazing discoveries about the world and the human nature two and a half millennia ago?

Years later, I found that I wasn’t the only one who was stunned by this historical fact. Although some scholars noticed that at least as far back as in the 18th century, the most prominent treatise was made about seventy years ago by Karl Jaspers who coined the term Axial Age (Achsenzeit in German) which refers to quite a broad time range to include Greeks from Homer to Archimedes, Buddhists from the Buddha up till Ashoka, all the Hundred Schools of Thought of China, as well as Zoroaster, Mahavira, and the Hebrew prophets.

While Jaspers and others emphasized the common denominator of the Axial Age teachings, wondering how the similar shifts in humans' worldview were made at the same time in all major Eurasian civilizations, I want to take a different path and to discuss the distinctive ideas which were introduced by the Achsenzeit thinkers, and which, I daresay, shape not only our present worldview, but, to some extent, even the future one. By worldview I mean the deepest set of ideas and conceptualizations that define our perception of all the things around and inside us. Some similar notions are Weltanschauung, root memeplex, assemblage point, reality tunnel.

Each of the three thinkers presented here contributed to (not to say founded) one of the three pillars of the worldview (the order is according to the order of presentation):

  • The View of/on the External (Physical) World/Reality

  • The View of/on the Human Society and its Organization

  • The View of/on the Human Internal World, the Selfdom

I start with the thinker who introduced the most powerful current worldview-shaping idea—​Pythagoras. One may be surprised by my choice, especially if one’s primary, if not the only, association with the name Pythagoras is the eponymous theorem, which is as justified as associating Plato chiefly with the featherless biped definition. The genius of Pythagoras was so unique that it may even explain the Fermi paradox.

Then we will look into Confucius. For many people Confucius is associated with boring rituals and banal maxims e.g. respect to parents etc. Nothing to compare with the exciting ideas of Taoists, Chan-Buddhists, "The Art of War" and so on. As a matter of fact, however, Confucius was onto something amazing, an idea (a set of interconnected ideas, actually) that, although only partially implemented in our modern society, changed it drastically.

The last but not least is the Buddha. Everyone knows Buddha. But does everyone know what was/is his main point? And if everyone does know, how is that that virtually all the people think and act completely contrariwise? After all, if Buddha’s main point was false, why would he be so famous? Implementing Buddha’s main point would turn our life into something totally different.

There is an interesting pattern: the popularity of each of these three thinkers is inversely proportional to the degree of the implementation of their ideas in the life of an average human being today.

Although the uniqueness of each of the three is of the interest of this post, there is one common feature that worth to be mentioned. Time and again, people put Buddhism, Confucianism, and Pythagoreanism in the religion category, together with e.g. Abrahamic religions and Hinduism. However, there is a critical difference. The three thinkers were not prophets, in the sense that they did not speak in the name of god(s). While their followers (especially those of Buddha) have created some rituals and institutions similar to those of "proper" (gods-based) religions, the original ideas and their substantiations were entirely human.

Pythagoras: From Strings and Theoria to String Theory

Genesis: The Phenomenology of Ionian Spirit

Toggle visibility
Dealing, at the beginning of the Metaphysics, with the evolution of science, Aristotle observes that science was preceded by the arts. The arts were invented as the result of general notions gathered from experience (which again was derived from the exercise of memory); those arts naturally came first which are directed to supplying the necessities of life, and next came those which look to its amenities. It was only when all such arts had been established that the sciences, which do not aim at supplying the necessities or amenities of life, were in turn discovered, and this happened first in the places where men began to have leisure. This is why the mathematical arts were founded in Egypt; for there the priestly caste was allowed to be at leisure. Aristotle does not here mention Babylon; but, such as it was, Babylonian science also was the monopoly of the priesthood.

…​the first steps on the road of scientific inquiry were, so far as we know from history, never accomplished except where the existence of an organized caste of priests and scholars secured the necessary industry, with the equally indispensable continuity of tradition. But in those very places the first steps were generally the last also, because the scientific doctrines so attained tend, through their identification with religious prescriptions, to become only too easily, like the latter, mere lifeless dogmas. It was a fortunate chance for the unhindered spiritual development of the Greek people that, while their predecessors in civilization had an organized priesthood, the Greeks never had. To begin with, they could exercise with perfect freedom their power of unerring eclecticism in the assimilation of every kind of lore. 'It remains their everlasting glory that they discovered and made use of the serious scientific elements in the confused and complex mass of exact observations and superstitious ideas which constitutes the priestly wisdom of the East, and threw all the fantastic rubbish on one side.' For the same reason, while using the earlier work of Egyptians and Babylonians as a basis, the Greek genius could take an independent upward course free from every kind of restraint and venture on a flight which was destined to carry it to the highest achievements.

The Greeks then, with their 'unclouded clearness of mind' and their freedom of thought, untrammelled by any 'Bible' or its equivalent, were alone capable of creating the sciences as they did create them, i.e. as living things based on sound first principles and capable of indefinite development.[1]

Theios Aner

Toggle visibility
Pythagoras was born in the the early decades of that tremendous century of awakening, the sixth; and may have seen it go out, for he lived at least eighty, and possibly over ninety, years. Into that long life-span he packed, in the words of Empedokles, "all things that are contained in ten, even in twenty, generations of men".

It is impossible to decide whether a particular detail of the Pythagorean universe was the work of the master, or filled in by a pupil—​a remark which equally applies to Leonardo or Michelangelo. But there can be no doubt that the basic features were conceived by a single mind; that Pythagoras of Samos was <…​> the founder of Science, as the word is understood today.[2]

Pythagoras is not only the most famous name in the history of philosophy before Socrates and Plato; he is also one of the most fascinating and mysterious figures of antiquity. Pythagoras was celebrated in the ancient tradition as a mathematician and a philosopher of mathematics, and his name is still linked to a major theorem in plane geometry. Aristotle claims that Plato’s own philosophy was profoundly influenced by Pythagorean teaching, and later authors regard Pythagoras as the creator of the Platonic tradition in philosophy. In the literature of late antiquity Pythagoras appears as a unique genius, the founding father for mathematics, music, astronomy, and philosophy. A modern Platonist, the twentieth-century mathematician and philosopher A. N. Whitehead, has described Pythagoras as the first thinker to appreciate the function of mathematical ideas in abstract thought: "He insisted on the importance of the utmost generality in reasoning, and he divined the importance of number as an aid to the construction of any representation of the conditions involved in the order of nature." Whitehead is echoing the ancient reports that credit Pythagoras with inventing the very notion of philosophy, with the first description of nature as a cosmos or ordered whole, with discovering the sphericity of the earth, developing the theory of proportionals in mathematics, identifying the five regular solids, and discovering the numerical ratios that underlie the basic musical concordances. Since he is represented as the greatest scientific mind of early Greece if not of all antiquity, his ancient admirers came to look him as the source of all upon wisdom, "the prince and father of divine philosophy" in the words of Iamblichus.
The historical figure of Pythagoras has almost vanished behind the cloud of legend gathered around his name. We have three lives of Pythagoras from late antiquity, by Diogenes Laertius, Porphyry, and Iamblichus, in that order; and each one is more marvelous than its predecessor. <…​> Pythagoras is described as something more than human, as the god Apollo in human form. His supernatural status was confirmed by a golden thigh and the gift of bilocation: he was seen in Croton and Metapontum at the same time. There are surprising reports of his educational success with animals. Thus he is said to have persuaded a greedy bull to abstain from eating beans. In another story Pythagoras made a dangerous bear swear not to harm living things; and the bear kept his oath. Above all, Pythagoras could recall his previous incarnations, including the Trojan hero Euphorbus mentioned by Homer. His learning was universal. He first studied geometry and astronomy with Anaximander, then hieroglyphic symbolism with the priests of Egypt and the science of dreams with Hebrew masters. He studied also with the Arabs, with the Chaldaeans of Babylon, and finally with Zoroaster, who taught him the ritual of purification and the nature of things. In the late tradition Pythagoras' life thus assumes mythic form; he becomes the paradigm of the theios aner, the "divine man" who absorbs all forms of wisdom in order to become a sage, a seer, a teacher, and a benefactor of the human race. (The Pythagoreans are said to have distinguished three kinds of rational animals: gods, humans, and beings like Pythagoras.)[3]

Shall We Concordance?

Toggle visibility
Myths grow like crystals, according to their own, recurrent pattern; but there must be a suitable core to start their growth. Mediocrities or cranks have no myth-generating power; they may create a fashion, but it soon peters out. Yet the Pythagorean vision of the world was so enduring, that it still permeates our thinking, even our vocabulary. The very term "philosophy" is Pythagorean in origin; so is the word "harmony" in its broader sense; and when we call numbers "figures", we talk the jargon of the Brotherhood.

The essence and power of that vision lies in its all-embracing, unifying character; it unites religion and science, mathematics and music, medicine and cosmology, body, mind and spirit in an inspired and luminous synthesis. In the Pythagorean philosophy all component parts interlock; it presents a homogeneous surface, like a sphere, so that it is difficult to decide from which side to cut into it. But the simplest approach is through music.[2]

Music occupied a special place in Greek culture. Of all the arts at which the Greeks excelled - painting, sculpture, or architecture - they valued none so highly as music. It enjoyed the patronage of the Muses, and particular forms of music and even certain instruments were seen as deriving from the gods: Hermes, Apollo, and Athena. Music was thought to have the power to purify the body and soul, to heal and cultivate, or on the other hand to rouse to a frenzy. Music was the only art taught to youth. Musical training, on an equal plane with reading and writing, began to appear in the sixth century. In the mid-fourth century Plato asserted that one who is untrained in music and dancing is uncultivated. There was no form of art that the Greeks discussed as often as music, and to no other did they devote so many special writings.[4]

The Pythagorean discovery that the pitch of a note depends on the length of the string which produces it, and that concordant intervals in the scale are produced by simple numerical ratios (2:12:1 octave, 3:23:2 fifth, 4:34:3 fourth, etc.), was epoch-making: it was the first successful reduction of quality to quantity, the first step towards the mathematization of human experience—​and therefore the beginning of Science.[2]

The fact that something as elusive as musical harmony was subject to simple numerical ratios made a profound impression on Pythagoras and his followers, and gave them a powerful incentive to 'liken all things to numbers' (Aristox. fr. 23), including things as uncountable as justice or καιρός. Empedocles and the Hippocratic doctors had sought proportion in the components of the human organism. Philolaus stated: 'And indeed all the things that are known have number. For without it we can neither understand nor know anything'.[4]

But here an important distinction must be made. The twentieth-century European regards with justified misgivings the "reduction" of the world around him, of his experiences and emotions, into a set of abstract formulae, deprived of colour, warmth, meaning and value. To the Pythagoreans, on the contrary, the mathematization of experience meant not an impoverishment, but an enrichment. Numbers were sacred to them as the purest of ideas, dis-embodied and ethereal; hence the marriage of music to numbers could only ennoble it. The religious and emotional ekstasis derived from music was canalized by the adept into intellectual ekstasis, the contemplation of the divine dance of numbers. The gross strings of the lyre are recognized to be of subordinate importance; they can be made of different materials, in various thicknesses and lengths, so long as the proportions are preserved: what produces the music are the ratios, the numbers, the pattern of the scale. Numbers are eternal while everything else is perishable; they are of the nature not of matter, but of mind; they permit mental operations of the most surprising and delightful kind without reference to the coarse external world of the senses—​which is how the divine mind must be supposed to operate. The ecstatic contemplation of geometrical forms and mathematical laws is therefore the most effective means of purging the soul of earthly passion, and the principal link between man and divinity.[2]

The Pythagoreans associated equal-toned notes with equal numbers, and unequal-toned notes with unequal; here all numbers are whole and rational. Musical intervals were divided into concordant and discordant, and ratios into multiple, epimoric and epimeric. In a multiple ratio the greater number is divided by a smaller one with no remainder (n:1n:1). 'Epimoric' was the name given to ratios in which the larger number contains the smaller plus one part of the smaller: (n+1):n=1+1/n(n+1):n=1+1/n. 'Epimeric' was a ratio in which the greater number exceeded the smaller by more than one of its parts: n+m:nn+m:n, where m>1m>1. Concordant intervals were associated with numbers that are in multiple and epimoric ratios to each other. The octave (2:12:1), the twelfth (3:13:1), and the double octave (4:14:1) corresponded to the multiple ratio; the fifth (3:23:2), the fourth (4:34:3), and the tone (9:89:8), representing the difference between a fifth and a fourth, to the epimoric. Those intervals whose ratios were not multiple or epimoric, such as the eleventh (8:38:3), were not considered concordant.
If numerical ratios can express not only neutral concepts (the pitch of a sound, speed, vibration frequency) but also the beauty of musical harmony, can they not also reflect or even explain the differences in concords according to their beauty? In other words, since some concords are perceptibly more harmonious than others, the Pythagoreans attempted to find a correspondence between the different aesthetic value of intervals and their mathematical expression.

Ptolemy (Harm. I, 5) reports that they argued that concords are finer than discords, and that multiple and epimoric ratios are better than epimeric because of the simplicity of the comparison: in multiple ratios a smaller number is contained within a larger one, and in epimoric ratios the excess forms a certain part of the larger one. The finest concord is the octave, and the best ratio is a twofold one; the octave because it is closest to equality of tones, and 2:12:1 because in it alone the excess is equal to the lowest term. At first sight these judgements resemble Pythagorean number symbolism, in which righteousness, repaying in equal measure, is identified with four (2×22\times2). In fact, however, there is something far bigger behind them. The identification of (musical) beauty with (mathematical) simplicity is based on intuitions which have shown their enormous productivity in the development of scientific knowledge. In modern mathematics concepts such as simplicity or perfection have also played an important part, albeit an informal one, and when mathematics was applied to natural laws these notions often proved decisive. In the simpler mathematics of the Copernican system compared with that of Ptolemy, Galileo saw convincing proof that the heliocentric system was indeed correct. Euler, perhaps influenced by Leibnitz, affirmed that human reason found a particular charm in simple numerical ratios because they could be best understood. We prefer order to disorder, and the more simply we perceive the order in objects, the simpler and more perfect those objects will appear to us.[4]

Iamblichus, after Nicomachus, mentions a special 'most perfect proportion' consisting of four terms and called 'musical', which, according to tradition, was discovered by the Babylonians and was first introduced into Greece by Pythagoras. It was used, he says, by many Pythagoreans, e.g. (among others) Aristaeus of Croton, Timaeus of Locri, Philolaus and Archytas of Tarentum, and finally by Plato in the Timaeus, where we are told that the double and triple intervals were filled up by two means, one of which exceeds and is exceeded by the same part of the extremes (the harmonic mean), and the other exceeds and is exceeded by the same numerical magnitude (the arithmetic mean). The proportion is

a:a+b2=2aba+b:b\displaystyle a:\frac{a+b}{2}=\frac{2ab}{a+b}:b

an example being 12:9=8:612:9=8:6.[1]

The Ionian philosophers had been materialists in the sense that the chief accent of their inquiry was on the stuff from which the universe was made; the Pythagoreans' chief accent was on form, proportion and pattern; on the eidos and schema, on the relation, not on the relata. Pythagoras is to Thales what Gestalt philosophy is to the materialism of the nineteenth century. The pendulum has been set swinging; its ticking will be heard through the entire course of history, as the blob alternates between the extreme positions of "all is body", "all is mind"; as the emphasis shifts from "substance" to "form", from "structure" to "function", from "atoms" to "patterns", from "corpuscles" to "waves", and back again.

The line connecting music with numbers became the axis of the Pythagorean system. This axis was then extended in both directions: towards the stars on one side, the body and soul of man on the other. The bearings, on which the axis and the whole system turned, were the basic concepts of armonia: harmony, and katharsis: purge, purification.

The Pythagoreans were, among other things, healers; we are told that "they used medicine to purge the body, and music to purge the soul". One of the oldest forms, indeed, of psychotherapy consists in inducing the patient, by wild pipe music or drums, to dance himself into a frenzy followed by exhaustion and a trance-like, curative sleep—​the ancestral version of shock-treatment and abreaction therapy. But such violent measures were only needed where the patient’s soul-strings were out of tune—​overstrung or limp. This is to be taken literally, for the Pythagoreans regarded the body as a kind of musical instrument where each string must have the right tension and the correct balance between opposites such as "high" and "low", "hot" and "cold", "wet" and "dry". The metaphors[5] borrowed from music which we still apply in medicine—"tone", "tonic", "well-tempered", "temperance", are also part of our Pythagorean heritage.

However, the concept armonia did not have quite the same meaning that we lend to "harmony". It is not the pleasing effect of simultaneously-sounded concordant strings—"harmony" in that sense was absent from classical Greek music—​but something more austere: armonia is simply the attunement of the strings to the intervals in the scale, and the pattern of the scale itself. It means that balance and order, not sweet pleasure, are the law of the world.[2]

Number Magic: Go Figure

Toggle visibility
Sweetness does not enter the Pythagorean universe. But it contains one of the most powerful tonics ever administered to the human brain. It lies in the Pythagorean tenets that "philosophy is the highest music", and that the highest form of philosophy is concerned with numbers: for ultimately "all things are numbers". The meaning of this oft-quoted saying may perhaps be paraphrased thus: "all things have form, all things are form; and all forms can be defined by numbers". Thus the form of the square corresponds to a "square number", i.e. 16=4×416=4\times4, whereas 1212 is an oblong number, and 66 a triangular number:
        • • • •
        • • • •        • • • •            •
        • • • •        • • • •           • •
        • • • •        • • • •          • • •
Numbers were regarded by the Pythagoreans as patterns of dots which form characteristic figures, as on the sides of a dice; and though we use arabic symbols, which have no resemblance to these dot-patterns, we still call numbers "figures", i.e. shapes.

Between these number-shapes unexpected and marvellous relations were found to exist. For instance, the series of "square numbers" was formed simply by the addition of successive odd numbers: 1+3=4+5=9+7=16+9=25\boxed{1}+3=\boxed{4}+5=\boxed{9}+7=\boxed{16}+9=\boxed{25}, and so forth:
       │ •   •   •   • │
       ├───────────┐   │
       │ •   •   • │ • │
       ├───────┐   │   │
       │ •   • │ • │ • │
       ├───┐   │   │   │
       │ • │ • │ • │ • │
The addition of even numbers formed "oblong numbers", where the ratio of the sides represented exactly the concordant intervals of the musical octave: 2(2:1,  octave)+4=6(3:2,  fifth)+6=12(4:3,  fourth)2\enspace( 2:1,\thickspace octave)+4=6\enspace( 3:2,\thickspace fifth)+6=12\enspace( 4:3,\thickspace fourth).
       │ •   •   •   • │
       ├───────────┐   │
       │ •   •   • │ • │
       ├───────┐   │   │
       │ •   • │ • │ • │
In a similar manner, "cubic" numbers and "pyramidal" numbers were obtained. Mnesarchos had been a gem engraver, so Pythagoras in his youth must have been familiar with crystals whose form imitated those of pure number-shapes: quartz the pyramid and double-pyramid, beryl the hexagon, garnet the dodocaeder. It all went to show that Reality could be reduced to number-series and number-ratios, if only the rules of the game were known. To discover these was the chief task of the Philosophos, the Lover of Wisdom.

An example of the magic of numbers is the famous theorem, by which alone Pythagoras is consciously remembered today—​the visible peak of the submerged iceberg. There is no obvious relationship between the lengths of the sides of a right-angled triangle; but if we build a square over each side, the areas of the two smaller squares will exactly equal the area of the larger. If such wonderfully ordered laws, hitherto hidden from the human eye, could be discovered by the contemplation of number-shapes, was it not legitimate to hope that soon all secrets of the universe would be revealed through them? Numbers were not thrown into the world at random; they arranged themselves into balanced patterns, like the shapes of crystals and the concordant intervals of the scale, according to the universal laws of harmony.[2]

Harmony of the Spheres: Cosmic Chronotope

Toggle visibility
Extended to the stars, the doctrine took the form of the "Harmony of the Spheres". The Ionian philosophers had begun to prise open the cosmic oyster, and to set the earth adrift; in Anaximander’s universe the earth-disc no longer floats in water, but stands in the centre, supported by nothing and surrounded by air. In the Pythagorean universe the disc changes into a spherical ball. Around it, the sun, moon and planets revolve in concentric circles, each fastened to a sphere or wheel. The swift revolution of each of these bodies causes a swish, or musical hum, in the air. Evidently each planet will hum on a different pitch, depending on the ratios of their respective orbits—​just as the tone of a string depends on its length. Thus the orbits in which the planets move form a kind of huge lyre whose strings are curved into circles. It seemed equally evident that the intervals between the orbital cords must be governed by the laws of harmony. According to Pliny, Pythagoras thought that the musical interval formed by earth and moon was that of a tone; moon to Mercury, a semi-tone; Mercury to Venus, a semi-tone; Venus to Sun, a minor third; Sun to Mars, a tone; Mars to Jupiter, a semi-tone; Jupiter to Saturn, a semi-tone; Saturn to the sphere of the fixed stars, a minor third. The resulting "Pythagorean Scale" is C, D, ♭ E, G, A, ♭ B, B, D—​though the accounts of the scale given by different writers vary slightly.
The Pythagorean dream of musical harmony governing the motion of the stars never lost its mysterious impact, its power to call forth responses from the depth of the unconscious mind. It reverberates through the centuries, from Kroton to Elizabethan England.
But, one might ask, was the "Harmony of the Spheres" a poetic conceit or a scientific concept? A working hypothesis or a dream dreamt through a mystic’s ear? In the light of the data which astronomers collected in the centuries that followed, it certainly appeared as a dream; and even Aristotle laughed "harmony, heavenly harmony" out of the courts of earnest, exact science. Yet we shall see how, after an immense detour, at the turn of the sixteenth century, one Johannes Kepler became enamoured with the Pythagorean dream, and on this foundation of fantasy, by methods of reasoning equally unsound, built the solid edifice of modern astronomy. It is one of the most astonishing episodes in the history of thought, and an antidote to the pious belief that the Progress of Science is governed by logic.
If Anaximander’s universe reminds one of a Picasso painting, the Pythagorean world resembles a cosmic musical box playing the same Bach prelude from eternity to eternity. It is not surprising, then, that the religious beliefs of the Pythagorean Brotherhood are closely related to the figure of Orpheus, the divine fiddler, whose music held not only the Prince of Darkness, but also beasts, trees and rivers under its spell.[2]

Katharsis Theory

Toggle visibility
Orphism was the first universal religion in the sense that it was not regarded as a tribal or national monopoly, but open to all who accepted its tenets; and it profoundly influenced all subsequent religious development. It would nevertheless be a mistake to attribute too much intellectual and spiritual refinement to it; the Orphic purification rites, which are the hub of the whole system, still contain a series of primitive taboos—​not to eat meat, or beans, not to touch a white cock, not to look in a mirror beside the light.

But this is precisely the point where Pythagoras gave Orphism a new meaning, the point where religious intuition and rational science were brought together in a synthesis of breathtaking originality. The link is the concept of katharsis. It was a central concept in Bacchlsm, Orphism, in the cult of the Delian Apollo, in Pythagorean medicine and science; but it had different meanings, and entailed different techniques in all of them (as it still does in the various schools of modern psychotherapy). Was there anything in common between the raving Bacchante and the aloof mathematician, the fiddle of Orpheus and a laxative pill? Yes: the same yearning for release from various forms of enslavement, from passions and tensions of body and mind, from death and the void, from the legacy of the Titans in man’s estate—​the yearning to re-light the divine spark. But the methods of achieving this must differ according to the person. They must be graded according to the disciple’s lights and degree of initiation. Pythagoras replaced the soul-purging all-cures of competing sects, by an elaborate hierarchy of kathartic techniques; he purified the very concept of purification, as it were.

At the bottom of the scale are simple taboos, taken over from Orphism, such as the interdiction of eating meat and beans; for the coarse-natured the penance of self-denial is the only effective purge. At the highest level katharsis of the soul is achieved by contemplating the essence of all reality, the harmony of forms, the dance of numbers. "Pure science"—a strange expression that we still use—​is thus both an intellectual delight and a way to spiritual release; the way to the mystic union between the thoughts of the creature and the spirit of its creator. "The function of geometry," says Plutarch of the Pythagoreans, "is to draw us away from the world of the senses and of corruption, to the world of the intellect and the eternal. For the contemplation of the eternal is the end of philosophy as the contemplation of the mysteries is the end of religion." But to the true Pythagorean, the two have become indistinguishable.

The historical importance of the idea that disinterested science leads to purification of the soul and its ultimate liberation, can hardly be exaggerated. <…​> The Pythagorean concept of harnessing science to the contemplation of the eternal, entered, via Plato and Aristotle, into the spirit of Christianity and became a decisive factor in the making of the Western world.
[B]y relating music to astronomy and both to mathematics, emotional experience became enriched and deepened by intellectual insight. Cosmic wonder and aesthetic delight no longer live apart from the exercise of reason; they are all inter-related. Now the final step has been taken: the mystic intuitions of religion have also been integrated into the whole. Again, the process is accompanied by subtle changes in the meaning of certain key-words, such as theoria—theory. The word was derived from theorio—"to behold, contemplate" (thea: spectacle, theoris: spectator, audience). But in orphic usage, theoria came to signify "a state of fervent religious contemplation, in which the spectator is identified with the suffering god, dies in his death, and rises again in his new birth". As the Pythagoreans canalized religious fervour into intellectual fervour, ritual ecstasy into the ecstasy of discovery, theoria gradually changed its meaning into "theory" in the modern sense. But though the raucous cry of the ritual worshippers was replaced by the Eureka of the new theorizers, they remained aware of the common source from which both sprang. They were aware that the symbols of mythology and the symbols of mathematical science were different aspects of the same, indivisible Reality.[6] They did not live in a "divided house of faith and reason"; the two were interlocking, like ground-plan and elevation on an architect’s drawing. It is a state of mind very difficult for twentieth-century man to imagine—​or even to believe that it could ever have existed. It may help to remember though, that some of the greatest pre-Socratic sages formulated their philosophies in verse; the unitary source of inspiration of prophet, poet and philosopher was still taken for granted.

It did not last long. Within a few centuries, the unitary awareness faded, religious and rational philosophizing split apart—​were partially reunited, then divorced again; with results that will become apparent as the story unfolds.[2]

Orgies of Reasoning

Toggle visibility
The Pythagorean synthesis would have been incomplete had it not also included precepts for a way of life.
The Brotherhood was a religious order, but at the same time an academy of science, and a power in Italian politics. The ascetic rules of life seem to have anticipated the Essenes', which in turn served as a model to primitive Christian communities. They shared all property, led a communal existence, and gave equal status to women. They observed rites and abstinences, gave much time to contemplation and examinations of conscience. According to the degree of purification which a Brother achieved, he was gradually initiated into the higher mysteries of musical, mathematical and astronomical theoria. The secrecy surrounding these was partly due to the tradition of the older mystery cults, whose adepts had known that the Bacchic, and even the Orphic, ecstasies would cause havoc if offered to all and sundry. But the Pythagoreans also realized that similar dangers inhered in the orgies of reasoning. They apparently had an intuition of the hybris of science, and recognized it as a potential means both of man’s liberation and destruction; hence their insistence that only those purified in body and spirit should be trusted with its secrets. In a word, they believed that scientists ought to be vegetarians, as Catholics believe that priests ought to live in celibacy.

It may be thought that this interpretation of the Pythagorean insistence on secretiveness is far-fetched, or that it implies prophetic foresight on their part. The answer to this is that Pythagoras was, by personal experience, well aware of the immense technological potentialities of geometry. <…​> Polycrates, and the islanders he ruled, were devoted to engineering. Herodotus, who knew the island well, reports:

"I have written thus at length of the Samians, because they are the makers of the three greatest works to be seen in any Greek land. First of these is the double-mouthed tunnel they pierced for an hundred and fifty fathoms through the base of a high hill …​ through which the water, coming from an abundant spring, is carried by its pipes to the city of Samos".

Herodotus is fond of telling tall stories, and his report was not taken very seriously, until, at the beginning of our century, the tunnel was actually found and excavated. It is no less than nine hundred yards long, complete with water-course and inspection-pathway, and its shape shows that it was begun from both ends. It further shows that the two digging parties, one working from the north, the other from the south, had met in the centre only a couple of feet apart. Having watched this fantastic feat being performed (by Eupalinos, who also built the second marvel mentioned by Herodotus, a huge mole to protect the Samian war-fleet), even a lesser genius than Pythagoras might have realized that Science may become a hymn to the creator or a Pandora’s box, and that it should be trusted only to saints.[2]

The Root of Unspeakable

Toggle visibility
Towards the end of the Master’s life, or shortly after his death, two misfortunes befell the Pythagoreans, which would have meant the end of any sect or school with a less universal outlook. They triumphantly survived both.

One blow was the discovery of a type of numbers such as 2\sqrt{2}—​the square root of 22—which could not be fitted into any dot-diagram. And such numbers were common: they are, for instance, represented by the diagonal of any square. Let the side of the square be called aa, and the diagonal dd. It can be proved that if I assign to aa any precise numerical value, then it becomes impossible to assign a precise numerical value to dd. The side and the square are "incommensurable"; their ratio a/da/d cannot be represented by any real numbers or fractions thereof; it is an "irrational" number; it is both odd and even at the same time.[7] I can easily draw the diagonal of a square, but I cannot express its length in numbers—​I cannot count the number of dots it contains. The point-to-point correspondence between arithmetic and geometry has broken down—​and with it the universe of number-shapes.

It is said that the Pythagoreans kept the discovery of irrational numbers—​they called them arrhetos, unspeakable—​a secret, and that Hippasos, the disciple who let the scandal leak out, was put to death. There is also another version, in Proclos:

"It is told that those who first brought out the irrationals from concealment into the open perished in shipwreck, to a man. For the unutterable and the formless must needs be concealed. And those who uncovered and touched this image of life were instantly destroyed and shall remain forever exposed to the play of the eternal waves."

Yet, Pythagoreanism survived. It had the elastic adaptability of all truly great ideological systems which, when some part is knocked out of them, display the self-regenerating powers of a growing crystal or a living organism. The mathematization of the world by means of atom-like dots proved a premature shortcut; but on a higher turn of the spiral, mathematical equations proved once again the most serviceable symbols for representing the physical aspect of reality. We shall meet with further examples of prophetic intuition supported by the wrong reasons; and we shall find that they are rather the rule than the exception.

Nobody before the Pythagoreans had thought that mathematical relations held the secret of the universe. Twenty-five centuries later, Europe is still blessed and cursed with their heritage. To non-European civilizations, the idea that numbers are the key to both wisdom and power, seems never to have occurred.

The second blow was the dissolution of the Brotherhood. We know little of its causes; it probably had something to do with the equalitarian principles and communist practices of the order, the emancipation of women, and its quasi-monotheistic doctrine—​the eternal messianic heresy. But persecution remained confined to the Pythagoreans as an organized body—​and probably prevented them from degenerating into sectarian orthodoxy. The Master’s principal pupils—​among them Philolaus and Lysis—​who had gone into exile, were soon allowed to return to Southern Italy and to resume teaching. A century later, that teaching became one of the sources of Platonism, and thus entered the mainstream of European thought.[2]

The Expanse

Toggle visibility
In the words of a modern scholar: "Pythagoras is the founder of European culture in the Western Mediterranean sphere." Plato and Aristotle, Euclid and Archimedes, are landmarks on the road; but Pythagoras stands at the point of departure, where it is decided which direction the road will take. Before that decision, the future orientation of Greco-European civilization was still undecided: it may have taken the direction of the Chinese, or Indian, or pre-Columbian cultures, all of which were still equally unshaped and undecided at the time of the great sixth-century dawn. I do not mean to say that if Confucius and Pythagoras had exchanged their places of birth, China would have beaten us to the Scientific Revolution, and Europe become a land of tea-sipping mandarins. The interactions of climate, race and spirit, the directional influence of outstanding individuals on the course of History, are so obscure that no predictions are possible even in reverse; all "if" statements about the past are as dubious as prophecies of the future are. It seems fairly plausible that if Alexander or Ghengis Khan had never been born, some other individual would have filled his place and executed the design of the Hellenic or Mongolic expansion; but the Alexanders of philosophy and religion, of science and art, seem less expendable; their impact seems less determined by economic challenges and social pressures; and they seem to have a much wider range of possibilities to influence the direction, shape and texture of civilizations. If conquerors be regarded as the engine-drivers of History, then the conquerors of thought are perhaps the pointsmen who, less conspicuous to the traveller’s eye, determine the direction of the journey.[2]

It probably is not possible for a scientist to interrogate nature from a wholly disinterested standpoint. Even if he has no particular axe to grind, he is likely to have a distinctive way of viewing nature. The "Pythagorean Orientation" is a way of viewing nature which has been very influential in the history of science. A scientist who has this orientation believes that the "real" is the mathematical harmony that is present in nature. The committed Pythagorean is convinced that knowledge of this mathematical harmony is insight into the fundamental structure of the universe. A persuasive expression of this point of view is Galileo’s declaration that

philosophy is written in this grand book—​I mean the universe—​which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it.
[T]he Pythagorean orientation became influential in the Christian West largely as a result of a marriage of Plato’s Timaeus and Holy Scripture. In the Timaeus, Plato described the creation of the universe by a benevolent Demiurge, who impressed a mathematical pattern upon a formless primordial matter. This account was appropriated by Christian apologists, who identified the pattern with the Divine Plan of Creation and repressed the emphasis on a primordial matter. For those who accepted this synthesis, the task of the natural philosopher is to uncover the mathematical pattern upon which the universe is ordered.
The Pythagorean orientation yielded substantial dividends in the astronomical investigations of Johannes Kepler. <…​> Because he believed that God created the solar system according to a mathematical pattern, he <…​> eventually succeeded in formulating three laws of planetary motion:
  (1) The orbit of a planet is an ellipse with the sun at one focus.
  (2) The radius vector from the sun to a planet sweeps over equal areas in equal times.
  (3) The ratio of the periods of any two planets is directly proportional to the ratio of the cubes of their mean distances from the sun.
Kepler’s discovery of the Third Law is a striking application of Pythagorean principles. He was convinced that there must be a mathematical correlation between planetary distances and orbital velocities. He discovered the Third Law only after having tried a number of possible algebraic relations.[8]

In summary, we can understand how Kepler himself could see his work, and above all his Harmonics of the World, as the realization of a Pythagorean dream: the natural order of the universe finally stands revealed as a tremendous exemplification of the musical numbers, and these numbers are now confirmed by precise observations. It was in the course of pursuing this dream that Kepler laid the foundations for Newtonian mechanics and hence for the new synthesis of classical physics.
After Newton’s work and the development of modern physics, a scientist can be a Pythagorean only in an extended, metaphorical sense. In this sense, many scientists today are still Pythagorean, if they believe that the laws of nature must be mathematical in form, and that the simpler and more general the mathematical relation is found to be, the more deeply it will penetrate into the nature of things. Einstein once wrote that the scientist is many things but that he may count also as "a Platonist or Pythagorean insofar as he considers the viewpoint of logical simplicity as an indispensable and effective tool of his research." If, as Whitehead and others supposed, Pythagoras and his followers had dimly divined "the possible importance of mathematics in the formation of science," then it is obvious that a modern scientist like Einstein is "following the pure Pythagorean tradition."[3]

Concluding Remarks

The quintessence of the Pythagoras story is probably this sentence:

Guess before opening
The fact that something as elusive as musical harmony was subject to simple numerical ratios made a profound impression on Pythagoras and his followers, and gave them a powerful incentive to 'liken all things to numbers'

Almost impossible exercise: try to imitate the pre-scientific (in the sense of our Pythagorean-based science) state of mind. The all things are numbers looks no more convincing than the taoist numerology (see Confucius story below) or astrology or alchemy etc. Why has it worked nevertheless?

There is an opinion that today’s science reached it’s limits.

This needs to be explained in another post. The schema is as follows:

  • Cognitive/conceptual metaphors as the main cognitive device, both in math (e.g., the evolution of number concept: natural → ratios → irrational → complex etc.) and in science.

  • The concept of Laws of Nature (a metaphor coming from the Divine Plan as we saw above). Example of superseding the Laws: Kepler’s Laws → explained (so not Laws by themselves) by Newton’s Gravitation Law → explained (so not a Law by itself) by General Relativity. How could science totally supersede the Metaphor of (immutable, mathematically-formulated) Laws?

  • 'All is number' in basic science (e.g., electric charge, wave function etc.)—cf. non-number-based science, e.g. Evolution Theory which is both not a Law (but an explanation) and is not numbers-based. How could it be applicable to the most basic science (what is called today physics)? Why to think about it at all? Because of the Great Stagnation (from "Unreasonable Effectiveness…​" to "Lost in Math").

  • Social organization of the science has many problems (papermill-based grant system, paywalled access of public-funded science results and so on), but the most Pythagorean-related problem is the lack of scientific katharsis experience in schools.

Confucius: The Revolution Has Not Been Televised

I: In Which We Are Introduced to Confucius and Some Knights of the Way, and the Stories Begin

Toggle visibility
Among a large fraction of mankind, Confucius has for many centuries been considered the most important man that ever lived. His philosophy has played a part in the development of some of the most basic social and political conceptions of the modern West. In eastern Asia his name is still invoked in ideological struggles by the most conservative and by some of the most radical, who seek by means of varying interpretations to show that Confucius favored their views.

When we turn from his reputation to examine what tradition tells us of the man behind it, we are disappointed. He is de­scribed as completely unoriginal, intent solely upon reviving the usages of antiquity. The account of his life which is generally accepted depicts him as a man of little personal force, whose actions often failed signally to embody the ideals he preached to others. It is impossible not to feel that something must be wrong. This man, portrayed by tradition, seems an inadequate cause for the effects attested by history. A possible explanation is that tradition does not accurately portray the Confucius who lived.
Twenty-five hundred years ago there was born in China a child whose life was to influence human history as few have done. Tradition says that he came of noble ancestry and was the descendant of kings. At his birth, it is related, dragons and "spirit maidens" hovered in the air. But Confucius himself said, "When young, I was without rank and in humble circumstances."

Tradition paints him as a strict pedant, laying down precise rules for men to follow in their conduct and their thinking. The truth is that he carefully avoided laying down rules, because he believed that no creed formulated by another person can excuse any man from the duty of thinking for himself.

He is often called a reactionary, whose primary aim was to restore the ways of antiquity and to bolster the authority of the hereditary aristocracy. In fact, he advocated and helped to bring about such sweeping social and political reforms that he must be counted among the great revolutionaries. Within a few centuries after his death hereditary aristocracy had virtually ceased to exist in China, and Confucius had contributed more than any other man to its destruction.
He was trying to produce a bloodless revolution. He wanted to take the actual power from rulers who inherited thrones and give it to ministers chosen on the basis of merit, and to change the aim of government from the aggrandizement of a few to the welfare and happiness of the whole people. He knew that mere intellectual conviction is not enough for revolution, and he tried to kindle in his disciples a veritable passion for the cause to which his life was dedicated. In this he had a large measure of success. This group of "Knights of the Way" <…​> was inspired by a measure of devotion not less than that later found in Christian chivalry.

Yet for Confucius it was not enough to be a teacher. He wanted to direct the government of a state and to see the world of which he dreamed come to life under his hand. It is clear, however, that the rulers of the day cannot have seriously considered putting real power into his hands. At best they must have thought him a harmless eccentric, but one who could become dangerous if given power. They did, however, give rather high posts to some of his disciples. It was doubtless at the insistence of these students that Confucius was finally given an office, in his native state of Lu, that carried a respectable title but probably involved no real authority.

When he saw that he could accomplish nothing he resigned his post, and set off on travels which took him to a number of states, in search of a ruler who would use his Way. He never found one. These journeyings lasted a decade or more. They accomplished little, but they did prove that he was willing to undergo great hardship and abuse for his principles.

Returning to Lu he resumed his teaching. Five years later he died. His life had had about it very little of the dramatic. There was no climax and no martyrdom. None of his chief ambitions had been fulfilled. There is little doubt that when he died everyone considered him a failure. Certainly he himself did.[9]

II: In Which We Go Visiting The China of Confucius and Find It to be a Tight Place

Toggle visibility
To understand Confucius it is necessary to realize what sort of world he lived in. He is criticized as having been too much interested in the orderly arrangement of affairs, so that his ideas seem dry and unexciting. But it must be remembered that he was trying to bring order out of something close to chaos. He had no need to seek ways to make life interesting. To hold his revolutionary ideas and to talk about them as freely as he did in a world where that was extremely dangerous gave life adventure enough. Confucius is frequently quoted as addressing what sound like pedantic little homilies to various nobles and rulers. Yet when we understand their background it is clear that some of these remarks are pointed denunciations of weaknesses, not to say crimes, made directly to men who would have felt as much compunction about having Confucius tortured to death as about crushing a fly.

In Confucius' day, China stood at the crossroads. Let us look briefly at the process by which she arrived there.

Archaeology indicates that human beings related to the modern Chinese have occupied China for a very long time. Our actual knowledge of Chinese history begins, however, with the Shang state in the fourteenth century B.C. Although we know this state, which had its capital in what is now northern Honan Province, only from excavations and brief inscriptions, it is evident that it had a remarkably advanced civilization. Many of its productions show a high degree of sophistication, and its bronze vessels rank among the finest artistic of the human race. This civilization was not destroyed, but it suffered a setback when, in 1122 B.C. according to the traditional chronology, the Shang were conquered by a coalition of relatively rude tribesmen who came from what is now Shensi Province, to the west. The conquerors were led by the Chou people, who established the Chou dynasty. These invaders pushed their con­quests to cover a considerable portion of North China, but it was impossible for them to administer this territory as a strongly centralized state. For this they would have needed good communications, an effective monetary system, and great political experience, all of which they lacked.

Of necessity they parceled out most of their territories to relatives of the Chou ruler and to the principal chiefs of other tribes that had assisted in the conquest. Thus there grew up a feudal system in which each vassal was free to rule his own territory much as he pleased, so long as it did not disturb the peace of the realm. He was expected to pay to the king certain tribute and to lead his army to fight in the king’s service when required.

In the time of Confucius, and later, the early Chou period was pictured as an almost ideal time of Chinese unity, peace, and justice. The truer picture, which we get from inscriptions on bronzes cast at the time, shows that this is gross exaggeration. Nevertheless there probably was a considerable degree of political morality, relatively speaking, if only from compulsion. For the Chou vassals in the east were surrounded by strange and hostile people. On the one hand, this compelled them to obey the king and cooperate between themselves. On the other, it restrained them from treating the subject population too oppressively. In fact, if the Chou were to maintain themselves as rulers, they had to conciliate the people.

Important among the means by which they did so was a propaganda campaign, which represented the Chou conquest as an altruistic crusade designed only to liberate the people of the east om their "wicked" and oppressive rulers. In order to gain acceptance for this fiction the Chou brought forth what seems to have been a new version of Chinese history. They alleged that both the Hsia and the Shang states, which preceded Chou, had had good rulers at first but wicked ones at the end. In this situation the principal deity, "Heaven," looked about for a virtuous noble to whom to give "the decree," a mandate to rebel and set up a new dynasty. Thus there grew up the theory of the "right of revolution," according to which it is not only a right but a sacred duty to overthrow a wicked ruler. If it is asked how one is to tell a mere rebel from a successor appointed by Heaven, the answer is that the people will adhere to the cause of the latter and give him victory. Clearly, although the Chou propagandists had no such intention, they laid an excellent foundation for the later development of democratic ideas.

As the Chou dynasty became older, the descendants of the first feudal lords were no longer under the same necessity of mutual cooperation. Gradually they paid less and less attention to the orders of the king. They fought among themselves more and more frequently, and large and powerful states swallowed up the territory of their weaker neighbors. In 771 B.C., 220 years be­fore Confucius was born, a coalition of feudal lords and "barbarian" tribes attacked the Chou capital in the west. The king was killed, and the "Western Chou" period came to an end. The later kings had their capital to the east, at Loyang in what is now Honan Province; for this reason the later period is known as "Eastern Chou." They were established at Loyang under the protection of certain of the feudal lords, and from this time forward the kings were little more than puppets in the hands of their chief vassals.

In the two centuries between the beginning of the Eastern Chou period (770 B.C.) and the birth of Confucius (551 B.C.), the boundaries of states were shifting, but the situation can be described in a general, schematic way:
Map of China in the Spring and Autumn Period
Toward the center of the Chinese world, near the Yellow River, were the states that, in general, preserved Chinese culture nearest to its traditional purity. Especially important in this respect were the royal domain of the Chou kings, the state of Sung (ruled by descendants of the Shang kings), and to the northeast the native state of Confucius, Lu. These and the other small states of the center were more cultured but less powerful and less extensive than the peripheral states. The central states produced thinkers who tended to emphasize peace and human happiness, while many of those who extolled force and "discipline" were men of the peripheral states.
It is unnecessary to recount in detail the almost constant wars of this period. Not only were the Chinese states always fighting with each other, and with the semibarbarian state of Ch’u, but the northern barbarians known as Ti were also an active menace at this time. <…​> A regular pattern developed of almost continuous warfare between the great peripheral states. The smaller states of the center would have been glad to remain neutral, but they could not; they were compelled to adhere to one side or the other and to change sides as new pressure was exerted. What was most unfortunate for them was the fact that, lying between the great states, they formed a predestined field of combat in which their powerful neighbors met for their battles, sometimes annually. Thus the great peripheral states were spared many of the horrors of war, but the central states got far more than their share. This is undoubtedly one reason why the philosophers of the central states were in general strong advocates of peace, while those of the peripheral areas tended to extol the glories of war.

Sometimes the armies of the great states did not fight each other but were content merely to punish the vacillation of the central states, and force them to swear new covenants of allegiance. The making of covenants was a solemn religious ceremony. A sacrificial animal was slain, and its blood was used to smear each copy of the agreement. Each of the rulers or officers subscribing to the treaty then read it aloud and smeared his lips with the blood of the victim. Finally, a copy of the treaty was buried along with the victim, so that the spirits might enforce its terms. Such a treaty made a few years before the birth of Confucius, forced upon the central state of Cheng and subscribed to by a group of states, ended as follows: "If any should fail to do as is enjoined by this agreement, may those who preside over men’s sincerity and watch over covenants, [the spirits of] the famous mountains and rivers, the multitude of spirits and all those who are sacrificed to, and all the ancesters of our seven surnames and twelve states—​may all these bright spirits punish him, so that he shall lose his people, his appointment shall fall to the ground, his family shall perish, and his state and his clan shall be utterly overthrown." A fearful oath. Yet within two months Cheng was compelled, under military pressure, to transfer its allegiance again.

Other states as well suffered in this manner. But the regularity with which Cheng was forced to swear eternal fealty to a new master became so farcical that at one point Cheng said frankly that the whole thing was meaningless, and asked that it be permitted to swear to be loyal, not to any particular state, but to whatever one acted as it ought to act.

This state of affairs had two important effects on men’s thinking. First, it was quite obvious that states were constantly entering covenants with fearful sanctions and breaking them as soon as it was expedient, without suffering the penalties that the spirits were supposed to inflict. Indeed, it was those who tried to remain true to their undertakings even in the face of superior force who were made to regret it. It is quite natural, then, that in this period there was a growing scepticism as to even the existence of the spirits, not to mention their power. Second, not only religion but even ethics was shaken to its very foundations. Might seemed everywhere to be right, and the only right to which anyone but a fool would pay any attention.

Confucius' native state, Lu, was relatively small and weak. The wonder is that it was not destroyed and annexed by one of the large states.
The internal politics of Lu presented an aspect that was common to other states as well. In China as a whole, the various feudal states had grown in power at the expense of the king until he was reduced to a puppet. Now, within the feudal states, there was a tendency for the clans of the principal ministers to usurp power at the expense of the ruler of the state.
The officers of the ministers also encroached on the power of their superiors as much as they were able. When these officers were put in charge of towns, as governors, they sometimes closed the city gates and renounced their allegiance, holding their cities in a state of insurrection. Towns and districts on the border sometimes transferred their allegiance from one state to another in this way.
Not merely in Lu, but in the other states as well, there was almost no basis of authority and order, save the constantly shifting balance of brute force. The forms of religion were widely practiced, as witnessed by the ceremonies with which treaties were constantly being solemnized, but an officer of Ch’u struck the keynote of the age when he said, "If we can gain the advantage over our enemies, we must advance without any consideration of covenants." Nor was there our concept of the law, which stands over all alike. Human life was cheap. When a ruler of Wu did not wish bad news he had received to spread, he cut, with his own hand, the throats of seven men who happened to be in his tent. Food suspected of being poisoned was tested on a dog and a servant. The ruler of one small state was a collector of swords and tried out new acquisitions on his subjects. Duke Ling of the great state of Chin enjoyed shooting at the passers-by from a tower, to watch them try to dodge his missiles; when his cook did not prepare bears' paws to his taste, he had the cook killed. <…​> Hired murderers were sometimes used. Punishments were severe and common; in Ch’i mutilation of the feet was so usual that special footgear was sold in the shops for those who had suffered it. Bribery at all levels was common, from the perversion of justice in favor of individuals to bribes demanded and received by ministers of great states, from other states, to insure a favorable foreign policy.

Even relatives could not trust each other. An idea of the degree of confidence that existed between members of the ruling group may be gained from the account of a banquet which one of his relatives gave for the ruler of Wu, when Confucius was about thirty. This relative, named He Lu, intended to kill the ruler at this banquet and to succeed him. He concealed his assassins in an underground chamber beneath the banquet hall. The ruler suspected the plot but went anyway, taking due precautions. He had his soldiers line the road all the way from his palace to the place of entertainment and posted his friends, well armed, all over the banquet hall. These friends met each waiter bringing food, at the door, stripped him and made him change clothes, and then made him crawl in with the food on hands and knees; even then two of them accompanied him, with drawn swords. The precautions seemed more than ample. But one of He Lu’s bravos placed a dagger inside a fish, crawled to set the fish before the ruler, then suddenly drew the dagger and stabbed the king to death. At the same moment, says the chronicler, "two swords met in the assassin’s breast."
Aristocrats had little enough security. The people had none. They were chiefly farmers, commonly virtual serfs. They had few if any rights as against the nobility; in practice they were taxed, worked, expropriated, scourged, and killed by the aristocrats, with almost no check save the fact that, if goaded too far, they might rebel. The penalty for unsuccessful rebellion, however, was death by torture.

Nobles traveling, even outside of their own domains, went through the land like a plague of locusts, cutting down trees for fuel, denuding the fields, damaging the houses in which they lodged, and backing "requests" for contributions with violence. These were the commonplaces of peace. The frequent wars brought more dramatic sufferings. In 593 B.C., for instance, the capital of the state of Sung was besieged so long that the inhabitants were reduced to eating the flesh of the children. Since they could not bear to eat their own, they exchanged children before killing them.

The gradual breakdown of centralized governmental authority increased the difficulties of the people in more ways than one. As time went on the number of aristocrats increased greatly, thanks in part to the institution of polygamy, and at the same time the standard of living of even minor aristocrats became more and more luxurious. China could easily support one royal court in lavish style, but when a score of heads of feudal states tried to live like kings, there was a strain on the economy.
This disease within the body of society produced its own anti­toxin. In theory all the sons of aristocrats should have received fiefs and posts in the government, but the time soon came when there were so many men of noble ancestry that this was impossible. The result was that even some who were near relatives of rulers were reduced to penury. Thus there came into being a large group of men who by ancestry and sometimes by education were aristocrats, but who in poverty and in position came near to sharing the lot of the common people.

It was such reduced scions of the aristocracy who made up, in the first instance at least, the class of impoverished shih, which played such an important role during the latter part of the Chou dynasty. Some of them were warriors, bravos with swords for hire. Others were officers or clerks at the various courts. Still others were philosophers. Without exception they were discontented. Having known better things, or at least feeling entitled to them, they were not inclined to accept the status quo. They were not ignorant peasants, willing to suffer mistreatment without protest. All of them were resentful of such oppression as bore upon themselves, and a few were so altruistic as to espouse the cause of the whole people. Confucius was the most famous of their number.[9]

III: In Which Confucius Goes Revolutionizing and Nearly Catches a Job

Toggle visibility
He was constitutionally unable to flatter. Rather, it would appear that whenever some of his friends had managed with great difficulty to get one of the mighty into a favorable frame of mind toward Confucius, and arranged an interview, Confucius seized upon this as a golden opportunity to explain to his prospective patron the errors and excesses of his ways. This may or may not have contributed to the moral health of the government, but its effect upon Confucius' political career was most unsalutary.
He was temperamentally unfitted for a successful role in practical politics. His gifts were rather those (in many ways diametrically opposite) of the born philosopher and teacher.
In his day the path both to fame and to practical effectiveness led through public office. Scholarship and teaching were almost, if not entirely, activities carried on by officials as subordinate and incidental aspects of their work. As a result they were undoubtedly done but poorly. Officials who had to supervise court ceremonies studied ritual, and others consulted the historical archives for particular purposes. But men engaged in the daily conduct of public business had not the leisure to make all of learning their province, nor the intellectual repose that is essential to the philosopher’s quest for the meaning which underlies the ever-changing phenomena of the universe.

Confucius did. His very failure to attain the sort of responsible position that he coveted left him the leisure for study and contemplation.
Confucius was probably one of the most learned Chinese of his day, but this does not necessarily mean that he had read a very great number of books. For one thing, many of the classical works later proclaimed as originating from high antiquity had not yet been written. And while there were others that have since been lost, copies were few and difficult of access. The typical manuscript of his day was written on strips of bamboo held together by cords, resembling a miniature picket fence; such "books" were both bulky and clumsy. Confucius was familiar with a number of historical documents, and he probably committed to memory the anthology of about three hundred poems that we know as the Book of Poetry. He also made a close study of ritual (we would say both religious and secular, but the distinction is one that was foreign to his world).
While books provided the background for his thinking, they were by no means the sole source of his ideas. In fact, he sometimes did not hesitate to interpret books in a manner that can only be called careless, in order to make a point. For he was not, basically, a scholar, but a reformer, seeking a way out of the near chaos of his world. He believed that government should be administered for the benefit of the whole people. And he reached the conclusion (which has been fundamental to Confucianism ever since) that no sovereign formula, however glittering, could guarantee this. This goal, he believed, could only be reached if the government were continuously administered by men of the highest personal integrity, trained for government service and so devoted to the cause of the public welfare that they would die, if necessary, rather than betray it.
He became convinced that it was his mission to save the world, and he undertook to do so in the only way that appeared possible, by trying to win a commanding place in the administration. Failing in this, he turned, just how we can only conjecture, to teaching. It has been said that he was the first private teacher; the point is hard to prove, but if there was an earlier his fame has been blotted from history by that of Confucius. It is clear from the Analects that as yet teaching was not even recognized as a vocation.
Probably the first students were simply a group of friends; what became the "Confucian school" may well have started as an informal debating society. This is borne out by the fact that some of the disciples were only a little younger than Confucius. Yet it cannot have been long before the quality of his mind and the force of his personality made him the recognized Master. His preeminence was obvious; it is still obvious to any reader of the Analects. His students became disciples, bound to him with a loyalty and devotion that are altogether remarkable. He told them his dream, of a world in which war and hatred and misery would be replaced by peace, good will, and happiness. He offered them little, save the chance to work to make the dream come true. He drove them unmercifully, insisting that only by intense study and self-cultivation could they become worthy to be officials in the new kind of administration. He chided them for laziness, ridiculed them for stupidity, and lashed them with scorn if they betrayed his principles.
Confucius emphasized that he received all aspiring students, only demanding that they be intelligent and willing to work; he expressly declared that neither poverty nor heredity should be allowed to stand in the way of the capable and industrious. Once in the group, all were on an equal footing, distinguished only by their attainments.
The hope of material reward on the part of Confucius' first students was probably slight, but in time it undoubtedly came to be known as a wise practical move to study with him, for a number of his disciples got very good jobs. The Analects mentions twenty-two disciples <…​> at least nine became officials of some importance <…​> The lowest of these positions was that of governor of a town. The highest, held successively by three of Confucius' disciples, was that of steward to the Chi family; this was the most important post in Lu that could normally be attained in a any manner other than inheritance, since the real power lay with the Chi family and their steward had great influence in affairs of state. While some of the disciples might have been able to get posts for themselves, the most important of these appointments seem to have been arranged for by Confucius.

Thus it is not hard to understand why young men studied with Confucius, but it may seem a little surprising that the aristocrats, whose practices he denounced, should have been willing to take his students into their service. There were good reasons, however, why the rulers were attracted by the idea of engaging subordinates who had had sound moral training. <…​> While Confucius advocated loyalty to principle rather than to individuals, he preached reform by persuasion rather than by violence. Rulers could be fairly certain that if they entrusted power to disciples of Confucius the affair would not end in bloody revolution.
Furthermore, Confucius educated his students in the principles and some of the techniques of government; they had skills that were useful. This must have given them a great advantage over their contemporaries since we know of no other educational institution like his at that time. The disciples were a picked group; Confucius would tolerate neither dullards nor sluggards. Their wits were sharpened by discussion and debate both with the Master and among themselves. Their minds were furnished by the study of history, poetry, and ritual. <…​> Thus we need not suppose that it was from love of virtue, or because they believed in Confucius' principles, that the rulers employed his disciples. They were useful.
It would be easy to liken the travels of Confucius, which on the surface accomplished little or nothing, to those of the celebrated knight of La Mancha who tilted at windmills. But there are significant differences. Don Quixote was an echo of the past, imitating the knight-errantry that was at its last gasp. Confucius was a prophet of the future; his philosophical journey, which apparently accomplished so little, became a pattern for several succeeding centuries. The travels of Don Quixote, by ridiculing chivalry, sounded the death knell of the knighthood he admired. Confucius, through the doctrines he vainly sought to practice in his wanderings, assured that later travelers in his footsteps would utterly destroy the oppressive hereditary aristocracy which he detested.

If Confucius' travels had no outward result, it is nonetheless true that if he had stayed in Lu he would have been a different man. Assuredly his proper realm was that of ideas and of teaching them to others; he was incapable of the compromises necessary to put them into practice. But it was extremely important that he should try. The difference is that which distinguishes an officer who says, "Follow me!" from one who says "Advance!" If Confucius had stayed in Lu, enjoying a sinecure and strolling about with his pupils, he would have remained a preacher; by setting off on his hopeless quest he became a prophet. The picture of this venerable gentleman, in some respects still unsophisticated, setting off in his fifties to save the world by persuading the hard-bitten rulers of his day that they should not oppress their subjects, is in some ways ridiculous. But it is a magnificent kind of ridiculousness, found only in the great.[9]

IV: In Which Everyone Loses The Way and Confucius Finds One

Toggle visibility
[One] of the traditional arts of the Chinese aristocrat was precisely suited to Confucius' purpose. He took it over, gave it his own particular emphasis, and developed it into what became almost the hallmark of the Confucian. This was the art known as li. Li has been translated by a variety of terms, including "ceremonial," "ritual," and "the rules of propriety." In some passages such translation not only fails to convey the sense of the Chinese, but even quite obscures its true meaning.
It has been held that Confucius attached a "magic" efficacy to conduct in accordance with li.
His world, we must remember, was one in which there was a nearly complete breakdown of moral standards.
Only in the performance of religious ceremonies could there still be found, consistently, a type of conduct regulated by a socially accepted norm of behavior, in which men’s actions were motivated by a pattern of cooperative action, rather than swayed by the greed and passions of the moment. Then, said Confucius, let this pattern be universalized! In all of your intercourse with others, he told Jan Yung, "behave as if you were receiving a highly honored guest"; and if you are so fortunate as to find yourself in a position of authority over the people, discharge that trust with solemn care, "as if you were assisting at a great sacrifice."
The central conception in the philosophy of Confucius is that of the Way, to which we have often referred without describing it. This has come to be, in much of Chinese thinking, a metaphysical conception, but it was not so for Confucius.

The character commonly translated as "Way" is tao. <…​> In all of the pre-Confucian literature put together it is used only some forty-four times, which is only half as many times as it appears in the Analects. In this earlier literature its most frequent meaning is "road"; rarely it has the related meanings of "to conduct" and "to tell" (developed from "to guide"); six times it has the sense of "a course of action."

In the Analects, tao occurs with all of these meanings. Almost always, however, it refers to a "way of action" <…​> Thus far, we have nothing new. But what does appear to have no precedent in the pre-Confucian literature is the use of tao to mean "the way" above all other ways; what we may conveniently write as "the Way." It is only with this sense in mind that Confucius could have said that "a great minister is one who serves his ruler in accord with the Way." It is with this new significance that the character tao is used most frequently in the Analects.

The Way is the way in which Confucius thought that individuals, states, and the world should conduct themselves and be conducted. If "all under heaven [i.e., the Chinese world] has the Way," or a particular state "has the Way," this means that they are governed as they should be and that moral principles prevail. If an individual "has the Way" he acts as he should act, and is a person of high moral character. The conception is not, however, as colorless as this description might suggest.

Confucius once said, "My Way is pervaded by [literally, "is strung upon"] a single principle." What the principle was we are never told. But if we study the Analects closely, in its historical setting, we can see it plainly enough. It was a vision of a cooperative world. It was the conviction that antagonism and suspicion, strife and suffering, were largely unnecessary. It was a profound faith that men’s true interests did not conflict but complemented each other, that war and injustice and exploitation injured those who profited by them as well as those they caused to suffer. This was, indeed, a thread which "ran through" all of Confucius' thinking, and from which much of his philosophy can be derived by logical deduction. The conception of the Way, as the way in which this vision of a better world could be made into reality was thus no sterile moral code of not doing wrong, but a body of principle that demanded positive and sometimes dangerous action.
When Confucius speaks of a man or a state as "having" the Way, this sounds as if he conceived of it as a thing, perhaps as a metaphysical entity. Clearly, the idea was well adapted to being so conceived, and in later Chinese thought this was done. For Confucius, however, it remained a way, or better the way, of conduct. This is evident when he says, "Who can go out of a house except by the door? Why are there none who follow this Way?" Yet it is clear that he considered it of the highest importance, as shown by the famous passage, "The Master said, 'If one hear the Way in the morning, he may die in the evening without regret.'"

Precisely because the Way summed up the totality of his philosophy, Confucius never clearly defined it; to understand it we must look at his philosophy as a whole. We can, however, learn something of the source of its central conception, the idea of a cooperative world. It is probable that it was essentially based on the relationship which existed between the members of a family.
Even more revolutionary, in his day, was Confucius' insistence that men of all classes possessed worth in themselves, and must be treated not merely as the means by which the state accomplished its purposes, but as the ends for which the state existed. That he held this is clear, for instance, from the fact that he said that the end of government was that it should make the people happy.
In a cooperative world made up of agents who are (within limits) free, as opposed to a world dominated by coercion, the individual is paramount. The world can be no better than the sum of the individuals who compose it, and if a significant proportion of them are wanting in morality, the world is in danger. Thus Confucius begins with the individual. He emphasizes the necessity of self-examination, of the cultivation of virtue, and of education. He himself concentrated on the education of men who were, he hoped, to govern; there was a tremendous job of education to do, and this seemed the most important place to begin. But it has not been sufficiently noted that several passages in the Analects make it clear that his goal included at least some education for all the people. This was logically necessary; the totally ignorant may blindly obey, but they cannot cooperate for they do not know how.
What reward did Confucius promise those who should be loyal to principle and cleave to duty, forsaking all others? Wealth, rank, and power? Not at all. Not only are they uncertain, but he considered it beneath the dignity of a gentleman to make such private gain his controlling object. Immortality, happiness after death? Confucius never mentions them. Then what in the world is it that men can want so much that they will be willing, "seeing danger, to sacrifice their lives?"

It is this: The man who cultivates and practices virtue, who loves the Way and does his best to try to realize it in the world, has fulfilled the whole duty of man. <…​> "The Master said, 'Do not be concerned that you are not in office, but only about making yourself fit for one. Do not be concerned if you win no recognition; only seek to make yourself worthy of it.'" It was in this sense that it could truly be said of Confucius that he was "one who knows that what he is trying to do is impossible, and yet goes on trying." A nice calculation of one’s chances of success was irrelevant. "If upon looking into my heart I find that I am right," Confucius is quoted as having said, "I will go forward though those that oppose me number thousands and tens of thousands." It was only necessary that one determine what he ought to do and then do his best.

Thus Confucius offered that most priceless possession, peace of mind. "If, looking within his own heart, one finds no cause for self-reproach, why should he worry, what shall he fear?" He put peace of mind within the reach of each individual, without regard to the vagaries of the external world. "Is virtue a distant thing?" he asked. "If I really want virtue, then it is here." Thus the individual possessed a kind of majestic autonomy; his heart was his castle. "Even the general of a great army may be kidnaped, but no force can steal the determination of even the humblest man." Historically this was very important. It enabled the Confucian "when the state had the Way, to take office; when the state lacked the Way, to roll up his principles and preserve them in his bosom." It made possible the continuance of Confucianism as a doctrine of the private scholar, biding its time, with little public recognition, until the Han dynasty.
Clearly enough, Confucius thought that men have certain tendencies toward good and tremendous capacity to be influenced by education. "It is only the wisest and the most stupid," he said, "who cannot be changed." He also thought that there were some so perverse that it was futile to waste one’s time with them.
How then do men acquire knowledge? More important, when they have acquired it how can they evaluate it; how does one distinguish the true from the false? And what is virtue? It is said that one should practice the Way, but how does one find out what the Way is? What is the great standard by which all things are to be measured? This is perhaps the most searching question that can be asked of any philosophy. And when we ask it of Confucius, we receive our greatest surprise.

He has no such standard.

He did not say that one need only imitate the ancients, such as the mythical emperors Yao and Shun. <…​> Nor did he say that the standard of truth was to be found in any book, or any set of books. We have seen that he himself did not depend on books as the sole source of his ideas, and there is no indication that he advised others to do so. Although Confucianism did in time come to regard certain books (the Classics) with the utmost veneration, there are indications that this tendency arose late, as part of what was in reality a reaction against the essence of Confucius' own teachings. Finally, he did not set up his own words as an ultimate authority; on the contrary, as we have seen, he made no claim to infallibility and permitted his disciples to differ with him unrebuked.
And we will get no answer to this question from Confucius. If we could put it to him, he would undoubtedly reply that every man must find it for himself. That is the only answer possible in a truly cooperative world. A machine is operated, but it cannot cooperate. And in a world in which there is a fixed standard of truth and authority, the role of the individual is no more creative than that of a machine. He may refuse to conform, or he may conform, but he cannot truly contribute. If men have responsibility for the achievements of society, they must also have the opportunity to help in the choice of its ends, which means in the discovery (not merely the unveiling) of truth.
Here again we are back to the individual. Are we to conclude, then, that one man is just as capable of judging what is right and true as any other? In one sense, yes. We are dealing here with a type of thinking which is similar to that of science. The scientist, like Confucius, looks to experience for his data and tries to link it all with one pervasive hypothesis, or series of hypotheses. The scientist also believes that essentially one normal man is potentially as good a judge of truth as another; royal birth or the possession of a billion dollars will not increase the respect accorded to a man’s opinions as a scientist. The only things that will increase that respect are education, experience, and demonstrated competence.
It may be asked whether, if this be true, the Chinese should not then have developed scientific method long ago. This may or may not be the case, but as we shall see these aspects of Confucius' thinking were soon lost, in large degree, from Confucianism.

Science, like Confucius, has no unalterable standard for truth; it is searching for truth, not deducing it from a prearranged formula. Yet this is not to say that it gives us no help toward finding the truth. It does not tell us what truth is, but it gives us a great deal of advice as to how to look for it. So does Confucius.

Surely few philosophers, or at any rate few prescientific philosophers, have laid such emphasis on flexibility as did Confucius. In the Occident we have tended to think of truth as being immutable, and to think that a god or a very wise man must partake of the unbending character of absolute truth. The ancient Mesopotamians (who are, through the Hebrews, among our intellectual ancestors) considered inflexibility to be an attribute of godliness; "The king’s word is right; his utterance, like that of a god, cannot be changed!" We have commonly felt that it infringes the dignity of a man of position to change his mind and admit himself at fault; this shows that he was not, as he should have been, in possession of the immutable truth.

Confucius argued differently: "To be mistaken, and yet not to change; this is indeed to be in error." "If you have made a mistake, do not be afraid to admit the fact and amend your ways." He stressed this theme repeatedly.
In <…​> advocating some education for all, and undertaking to make educated "gentlemen" out of ambitious commoners, Confucius was striking a blow that was ultimately fatal to the hereditary aristocratic order. It is hard for us, who take universal education for granted, to realize how revolutionary this was. Writing of Western Europe, C. Delisle Burns says that "the spread of education hardly began before about 1850. In former centuries it was regarded as useful only for the ruling classes." It is true that Confucius trained his students to serve in the government, but he accepted for such training poor men of relatively humble origin; this was subversive of the status quo. This point was appreciated by an English clergyman, the Reverend J. Twist, who in 1822 wrote a pamphlet on The Policy of Educating the Poor in which he warned that "the possessing of those classes with the absurd notion that they are on a footing with their superiors, in respect of their rights of mental improvement, may be in effect as dangerous to the public peace as the projects of certain revolutionary maniacs who teach the people that the convenience of man, and not the will of God, has consigned them to labour and privation."[9]

V: In Which The Taoists Set a Heffalump Trap

Toggle visibility
…​it is well recognized that Taoist thinking soon came to influence the whole stream of Confucian thought profoundly.

Taoism is a subject to which justice could be done only in volumes, but here it must be dealt with in a thumbnail sketch. The most important Taoist works are, as is well known, the Lao Tzu and the Chuang Tzu. The traditional view has been that the Lao Tzu (also called the Tao Te Ching) was written by a slightly older contemporary of Confucius, named Lao Tzu. More recently evidence has been brought forward to show that Lao Tzu is perhaps a legendary character and that the book called Lao Tzu was written no earlier than about the time of Mencius, if that early. This latter view seems clearly to be correct, and today is probably accepted by most scholars although the subject is still debated. Chuang Tzu is believed to have lived at about the same time as Mencius.
Taoism was essentially a reaction against the prevalent modes of thinking. The rulers and their lackeys were intent upon enslaving and exploiting as much of mankind as they could. The Confucians and the Moists, in their different ways, proclaimed men’s duty to enlist in the struggle for peace, justice, and humanity toward men. The Taoist said, "A pox on both your houses!" and declared his right as an individual to live an independent life of his own. Men talk about one’s duties, but who knows what they are? Men eat steaks, owls eat mice; which is right? And if all things are relative, what happens to the validity of the benevolence and righteousness about which the Confucians talk? "Formerly Chuang Chou [i.e., Chuang Tzu] dreamed that he was a butterfly flying about enjoying itself. He did not know that he was Chou. Suddenly he awakened and was himself again. But now he does not know whether he was formerly Chou dreaming he was a butterfly, or is now a butterfly dreaming he is Chou."

This is basically a mystical philosophy. The Tao, which for Confucius was a way of conduct, is for the Taoist the basic principle and stuff of the universe. It was originally formless, desireless, without striving, supremely content and therefore happy. It existed before Heaven and Earth. In the course of the generation of things and institutions, the farther man gets away from this primal state the less good and the less happy he is. Therefore all artificiality is bad. Virtues came into vogue only after virtue had ceased to exist. Study is futile and even dangerous since we may overstrain ourselves. Anyway, "the wise are not learned, and the learned are not wise." "When we renounce learning we have no more troubles." Government, as an artificial institution, is wrong. "Small robbers are put in prison, but great ones become feudal lords." The Lao Tzu inveighs, in a manner quite like that of the Confucians, against oppressive punishments, excessive taxes, and war. The Taoist sage values contentment, and refuses high office or even the throne itself if it is offered to him.

This aspect of Taoism ends in almost pure individualism. "The true object of the Tao is the regulation of one’s own person." When a Taoist is asked in the Chuang Tzu how to govern the world he replies, "Let your mind find its enjoyment in pure simplicity; blend yourself into the ether in idle indifference; accord with the natural order of things; and admit no selfish consideration. Do this and the world will be well governed."

Thus far Taoism is challenging, brilliant, and consistent. This basic core of Taoist philosophy has touched the mind of every Chinese, of whatever school of thought or religion. It is responsible for much of their good-humored scepticism, their tolerance, and their ability to enjoy life regardless of circumstances. Without it, painting and poetry in China would be very different things. It is one of the prime ingredients of Chinese culture.

There is another aspect of Taoism, however, which had less happy consequences, since it led to the endorsement of totalitarianism. It should perhaps be considered an abandonment of "pure" Taoism, but it is found in some parts of even the earliest texts. Since the Taoist sage recognizes his identity with the totality of the universe, insult, injury, even death cannot harm him. Thus he is impregnable and (note the transition) therefore irresistible. Since he cannot be either raised or humbled, he is the highest of all creatures. Being at one with the Tao he has its attributes and wields the mighty power of Nature itself. Like Heaven and Earth, he is not benevolent but treats the mass of little men as his playthings, indifferent whether he seem kind or cruel. In fact, the Taoist sage plays God.

Since men ought to return to a state of primitive simplicity it was difficult, at least for some Taoists, to resist the feeling that they should compel them to do so. Thus we find rather surprising statements concerning the manner in which the Taoist may "get control of the world," and how he should rule, restraining the people and making them desireless. "The sage rules," the Lao Tzu tells us, "by emptying the people’s minds and filling their bellies, weakening their wills and strengthening their bones, constantly keeping them in a state without knowledge and without desire." In the Chuang Tzu we read, "What is harsh, and yet must necessarily be set forth, is the law." Such ideas clearly conflict with the philosophic kernel of Taoist thought, and they may represent perversions of it, but they have been extremely influential.

The Lao Tzu never refers to Confucius or the Confucians by name, though it clearly attacks their philosophy. The Chuang Tzu recognizes Confucianism as its chief foe, and discusses Confucius in no less than twenty-one of its thirty-three chapters. In some passages the Chuang Tzu attacks Confucius directly, accusing him of misdemeanors and ridiculing and reviling him. Usually however it is much more subtle and claims that Confucius came to see the error of his ways and was converted to Taoism. Thus Confucius is repeatedly quoted as talking in a thoroughly Taoist manner and making fun of those who practice Confucianism.
No modern man can read these Taoist books, with their dazzling paradoxes and trenchant criticisms, without being profoundly impressed. It is no wonder that they struck the thought world of ancient China with the impact of a thunderbolt. A very large proportion of those who called themselves Confucians were deeply influenced. After all, had not the Master himself been a disciple of Lao Tzu, according to Chuang Tzu? Thus we find that in the latter part of the Analects, which was put together relatively late, there is a good deal of Taoist influence even on what Confucius himself is supposed to have said.

This was merely one aspect of a wholesale infiltration of Confucianism by a type of thinking that, if not all Taoist, tended to be associated with Taoism. We have seen that the common run of Confucians found Confucius' formula for arriving at truth—​study and hard straight thinking—​much too arduous. The Lao Tzu offered a much easier way. If one achieved the enlightenment of a Taoist sage he could "without going out the door know the whole world, without looking out the window see the way of Heaven. …​ Therefore the sage does not travel yet knows, does not see things yet is able to call them by their right names, does not work and yet achieves." This was most attractive.

Other short cuts to knowledge were being developed. The theory that all things consist of yin and yang, the negative and positive principles, and that complex natural phenomena could be explained very easily on this basis, grew up around this time. Men also began to be fascinated with numbers, regarding them as a simple key to the mystery of the universe.
Confucius believed that knowledge is a thing hard won through experience and thinking, but the Book of Changes offered a far easier way. One needed only to study this book, with its mystic science of numbers ("the number corresponding to all things is 11,520") and its hexagrams; one who has done so sufficiently "knows everything."[10]
Confucius, as we saw, was an exceedingly hard taskmaster to his students, demanding the unceasing search for truth. The Taoists ridiculed this, declaring that such exertion was both useless and dangerous. Such a position has great appeal to men’s natural desire for moderation, not to say laziness. The Chuang Tzu says, "Our life has a limit, but knowledge has no limit. To use the limited to seek the unlimited is indeed dangerous."[9]

VI: In Which the First Emperor Gives Birth to Imperial China and Gets Two Presents (Legalism and Taoism)

Toggle visibility
[P]rocess of political decentralization reached a culmination around the time of Confucius. Disorder became so great that the necessity for a remedy was widely recognized, and many different men undertook to reunite China by different means. Confucius hoped for a voluntary association of enlightened men. His ideal had considerable resemblance to that of modern democracy, but since education was not general and he devised no machinery for putting democracy into effect, this hope was not capable of realization.
There were others, however, who had plans that seemed much more practical. They are known as the Legalists, because they emphasized the role of law in government. In fact, however, they might even more descriptively be called totalitarians, for they advocated the strongest kind of centralized administration and wished to make the individual wholly subservient to the state.
There was a considerable Taoist element in Legalism. Han Fei Tzu, probably the greatest thinker among the Legalists, quoted Lao Tzu, and the Historical Records stated that his ideas were based upon Taoism. Both Taoism and Legalism were archenemies of Confucianism. We have already seen that while Taoism ought logically to have espoused anarchism, it in fact licensed the ruler, if only he were a Taoist sage, to play God as an unbridled despot. It seems to be a tendency of totalitarianism, which can be seen in other places than ancient China, to couch its claims in wild and mystical rhetoric. In Taoism the Legalists found such language waiting for them. The later Chinese conception of the emperor as a mysterious sage of awe-inspiring power, occupying a "dragon throne," did not come originally from Confucianism, but from Taoism by way of Legalism.

Furthermore, the wedding of Taoism and Legalism was in line with the tendency of the times to seek easier ways to do things. In many respects Legalism was extremely hard-headed and realistic, but the Legalists were by no means averse to presenting their formulae as having metaphysical authority and an almost magical efficacy. The most Legalistic ruler in Chinese history, the First Emperor of the Ch’in dynasty, was steeped in Taoist superstition and magical practices. Such a man could not fail to be attracted by the Legalists' claim that, if he would only use their methods, he might "repose on a couch and listen to the sound of stringed and bamboo instruments, yet the empire would be well governed."
The Legalists wished to abolish feudalism, which had made strong central government impossible. Nevertheless the kind of totalitarian power they sought for the ruler was in fact most closely akin to that which the feudal lord had exercised over his helpless and ignorant serfs. Thus they, like the Taoists, wished to "weaken the people" and keep them in a state of simple ignorance. From this point of view the Lao Tzu diagnosed the case perfectly when it said, "The reason the people are hard to govern is because they know too much."

But this poison of enlightenment, which both Taoists and Legalists quite correctly blamed on the Confucians, had corrupted the more civilized parts of China too thoroughly; the calendar could not be turned back permanently although the Legalists tried very hard. A glance at history would seem to indicate that totalitarianism has seldom really flourished except among peoples long habituated to be submissive to discipline and despotic rule. <…​> it was only in the far western state of Ch’in that their doctrines were fully appreciated and practiced.

There is manifold evidence that Ch’in was culturally <…​> "a backward country, more than half 'barbarian' in origin." Constant fighting with neighboring barbarian tribes had kept its people warlike and given them little leisure for culture. This appears to have kept them, as individuals, well disciplined and submissive to authority. When the Confucian philosopher Hsun Tzu visited Ch’in he noted with great admiration that everyone went strictly about his business as it was laid down by the state, having "no private concerns." His words sound as if he were describing an ant hill. He seems to have liked very much the fact that the people "were deeply afraid of the officials, and obedient" (a circumstance on which Confucius would certainly have commented differently). Indeed, the only fault Hsun Tzu could find with the situation was that there were not many Confucians in Ch’in. He was like some modern men who like both the freedom of democracy and the so-called efficiency of totalitarianism, and see no reason why it is not possible to have both.

Ch’in is supposed to have been set upon the path of glory by Shang Yang, a scion of the ruling house of the state of Wei. He was unappreciated in the east but was given honor and power when he went to Ch’in, about the middle of the fourth century B.C. As a high minister he is said to have reformed the government, repressing the nobility and instituting a strong central administration. He introduced economic reforms, broke up the unity of the patriarchal family, and set the people against each other by offering rewards to informers. In various ways, according to the tradition, he strengthened Ch’in for the coming battle for China, and as a general extended its territories both by strategy and by treachery.

For more than a century the contest continued, as Ch’in gradually enlarged its territories and the other states struggled against extinction.
An important role was played by two students of Hsun Tzu. That Confucian scholar <…​> had given up <…​> the ideal of a cooperative society advocated by Confucius, in favor of authoritarian control, and his idea that human nature is evil suggests Legalism as one of its possible corollaries. Thus it is not wholly surprising that his brilliant pupil, Han Fei Tzu, became the greatest Legalist philosopher.

Han Fei Tzu was a prince of Han, a neighboring state and principal enemy of Ch’in. He is said to have turned to writing because of an impediment in his speech. The book called Han Fei Tzu that has come to us certainly includes additions and interpolations, but it seems possible to distinguish certain sections which are clearly his. They set forth, with ruthless clarity and astringent logic, a system of utter totalitarian despotism. Han Fei Tzu recognizes the supremacy of nothing but force, and aims at making the ruler rich and powerful. The people are to be used completely as instruments of the ruler’s designs, living or dying as suits his purpose. For a ruler to be benevolent, or oppressive, is equally bad and equally irrelevant. The poor should not be helped for this only pauperizes them, and the good will of the people is worthless. The ruler must firmly hold all power himself. He must choose his ministers for their ability and reward them with wealth and rank, but not with power and influence. They need not be virtuous; such men are few. They ought not to be wise; such men would deceive the ruler. They should not be pure; such men would be deceived by the people. The ruler need only keep them and all of his subjects in such a state of fear that they will dare to do no wrong. Above all, he must compel every individual to live only for the state. Every personal thought and feeling must be suppressed. "All speech and action which is not in accord with the laws and decrees is to be prohibited."

After Han Fei Tzu, the policies of Machiavelli’s Prince seem timid and vacillating. Upon reading two of Han Fei Tzu’s essays the ruler of Ch’in is reported to have been delighted and declared that he wished to see him. A little later Han Fei Tzu was sent as ambassador to Ch’in, where he did see the ruler, but another Legalist had preceded him to that state.

This was Li Ssu, previously his fellow student under Hsun Tzu. Li was much less brilliant than Han Fei Tzu and seems to have known it, but he had the advantage in that he had been in Ch’in for some time and had the ruler’s confidence. He contrived to have Han Fei Tzu put to death. Thereafter Li Ssu steered Ch’in to victory, guided chiefly, it would seem, by the ideas of his murdered colleague.

Ch’in’s rise was bloody. It is recorded that on one occasion 400,000 soldiers who had surrendered to Ch’in were massacred; the figure is undoubtedly exaggerated, but suggestive. By 221 B.C. Ch’in had swallowed up all of China. The Legalist, totalitarian state had become supreme.

Efficiency was the order of the day. "Laws and regulations were made uniform, weights and measures standardized, cart wheels spaced the same distance apart, and the forms of written characters made uniform." In the same spirit of simplification the Ch’in ruler took the title of "First Emperor," and directed that (since there would never again be a change of dynasty) his successors on the throne should simply be numbered "up to a thousand and ten thousand without end." If this suggests megalomania the impression is correct. We have already noted that the First Emperor was very superstitious. In 219 he became angry with a mountain and sent 3,000 convicts to cut down every tree on it. At this we may smile, but when human beings were the objects of his wrath or his whim the results were less humorous. Savage punishments were imposed, on Legalist principle, for small infractions of the law. Great numbers of persons were transported to distant regions, like pawns. He built many palaces and vast public works with convicts and forced labor. In the area near the capital alone he is said to have had 270 palaces, all filled with fine things and beautiful women. On his tomb 700,000 men are said to have labored; the building of the Great Wall cost a great many lives. Extremely heavy taxation was necessary to support these projects.
Han Fei Tzu had denounced learning, declaring that time spent in study was time taken from useful work, and thus interfered with the people’s duty to strengthen the state and enrich the ruler. "Therefore in the state of an enlightened ruler there is no literature."

The scholars, among whom the Confucians were a prominent element, proved hard to assimilate into the First Emperor’s totalitarian state. They even had the temerity to criticize the First Emperor, a practice which he found "utterly unspeakable." <…​> they gave enough trouble so that it was considered necessary to prevent them from agitating the populace. Approval was given to a proposal by Li Ssu that, in order to prevent the spread of "doubt and disorder among the people," all books in the hands of the people, except works on medicine, divination, and agriculture, were to be burned. Those who failed to give up their books were to be branded and sent to forced labor. All persons who henceforth dared to discuss the Book of Poetry or the Book of History, or to "use the past to discredit the present" were to suffer death.
The amount of literature that is lost to us as a result of "the burning of the books" has perhaps been exaggerated, and the persecution of Confucianism under Ch’in probably strengthened it as a movement, rather than the reverse. The real harm done to Confucianism by Legalism was not its suppression, but its perversion. It has often been remarked that the authoritarian Confucian orthodoxy of Han times had in fact more than a little of Legalism in its character. We have already seen that Hsun Tzu, in his authoritarianism and his approval of punishment as a means of social control, leaned toward Legalism. In fact, Legalism seems to have steadily infiltrated Confucianism over a long period.
It is impossible to date the infiltration of Legalist doctrine into Confucianism with entire precision; it appears to have continued well into the Han period. But one thing is clear: by the time the Legalists had completed their work of sabotage, the true nature of the thinking of Confucius had been thoroughly obscured.[9]

VII: In Which the Government Comes to Swallow Confucianism, and The Empire Has The Examination System

Toggle visibility
Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty is one of the most important of all Chinese rulers. His reign is of outstanding importance in the history of Confucianism. His action in giving state recognition to Confucianism has been compared with Constantine’s espousal of Christianity. Wu was well trained in literature, and his edicts have a distinctly Confucian flavor. They speak repeatedly of his concern for the common people, stress the importance of li, music, and study, and quote from the Book of Changes and the Analects. His reign was celebrated for the rediscovery of ancient literature, especially the Confucian Classics.

In his first year on the throne he approved a memorial proposing that, among certain scholars who had been recommended for office, those who had studied Legalist doctrines should be dismissed. He established the positions of official "scholars of wide learning" for each of the Confucian Five Classics, and provided livings for each of fifty disciples of these scholars, who were the official exponents of learning at the court. This laid the foundation of the Imperial University, from which as time went on most of the minor officials of the government were drawn; this fact assured that the government would increasingly be permeated by Confucianism. By repeated examinations Wu drew learned men into the government; he gave offices to two descendants of Confucius. He appointed to the highest office in his government a former swineherd who had achieved reputation for his knowledge of the Spring and Autumn Annals. It is not surprising, therefore, that many scholars have fixed upon the reign of Emperor Wu as the period of the triumph of Confucianism.
The things that happened to Confucianism under the Han Emperor Wu had lasting effects. Thenceforward, with some vicissitudes, Confucianism continued to be subsidized by the government, at times very lavishly. Inevitably a large proportion of those who called themselves Confucian became more or less responsive to the wishes of those who dominated the government, and Confucianism came sometimes to be used as a tool for the control and even for the oppression of the people. The subsidizing of scholarship by the government had, in many periods, the unfortunate effect of tending to standarize thought.

The conception of Confucius that was officially sanctioned, and generally received, was one very far from the truth. This, however, was difficult to regulate. For every scholar studied the Analects, and in every age some of them saw, through all of the veil of hair-splitting commentary and official interpretation, the things that the lonely scholar of Lu had been trying to say. When the Manchus conquered China in the seventeenth century and imposed a regime of considerable harshness, they took over and cultivated official Confucianism as a technique of control. Some of the most able scholars of the period, however, not only held aloof from taking office under the Manchus but vigorously attacked the whole elaborate structure of Confucian doctrine that had been developed over nearly two thousand years. They condemned absorption in the mere study of books, insisting that scholars must concern themselves, as Confucius had done, with the practical affairs of the world. With remarkable vigor and scholarly acumen they went back to the basic texts of the Analects and Mencius, and even rejected many of the early Taoist corruptions of the truth about Confucius. They saw that he had been no doctrinaire, formulating dogmas to bolster imperial despotism, but an earnest, practical, and experimental seeker for truth. Naturally, the pioneering efforts of these seventeenth-century scholars had their imperfections, but they laid the foundation for the great critical movement in Chinese scholarship which continues to the present day.

Nor were the efforts of rulers like the Han Emperor Wu, to control Confucianism by subsidizing it, by any means wholly successful. The government tried to swallow Confucianism, but the question is, who swallowed whom? The filling of government posts by means of examinations on the Confucian Classics did allow the court to influence the interpretation of the Classics, but it also ensured that most of the officials and most of the emperors would be heavily influenced by those works. And some of them are, from the point of view of a government with despotic tendencies, decidedly dangerous books.
The insistence of Confucius that the administration should be placed in the hands of the most capable men in the land, selected solely on the basis of their virtue and education, resulted in the examination system, which was gradually elaborated from Han times onward. Its specific organization differed from period to period. During the Manchu dynasty it consisted of three kinds of examinations, local, provincial, and national, held every two or three years. The candidates competed, at each level, for three successively higher degrees. The competition was intense; in each examination, only a small proportion of the candidates could hope to pass. Naturally there was corruption, but elaborate precautions were taken to prevent it, and during the better periods under Chinese rulers they seem to have been remarkably successful.

Even the lowest degree gave its possessor, though he might be the son of the poorest peasant, great social distinction. In some cases those who held it were given government stipends, or minor posts in the local administration, which meant that in effect they received state assistance in continuing their education. Possession of the highest degree did not always assure that its holder would be appointed to office, but under Chinese dynasties a large proportion of the most responsible posts were normally filled by men who had excelled in the examinations. Although office might be attained in other ways, it appears that, in many periods at least, the man who had passed the examinations had the best prospect of reaching the top of the official hierarchy.
The content of the examinations was designed chiefly, though by no means exclusively, to test the candidates' knowledge of the Confucian Classics. Confucius had never laid eyes on a number of these books and would certainly have taken sharp issue with a good deal of their content. He would have deplored the emphasis that the examinations laid on mere knowledge of books as such.
Despite its shortcomings, the examination system gave China a unique kind of government which had many advantages. It brought many of the ablest men in the country into government service. In so far as it was effective, it assured that officials were men of culture, not mere wasters who had inherited their positions. Because its very basis was the philosophy and the ethics of Confucianism, it inculcated a body of shared ideals which produced a very unusual esprit de corps. Although it fell short of what we today consider political democracy, it gave to the common people a kind of representation in the government, since in each generation some of their number normally won official posts. It did not make a classless society since education automatically raised the status of its possessors, but it did bring about a degree of social democracy that has probably never been equaled in so great a country over such a long period. Where every peasant’s son may in theory hope to become the most powerful minister in the government, and one of their number does occasionally reach such a position, a certain limit is set to social stratification.

It will be recalled that Confucius insisted that a minister should consider loyalty to principle above loyalty to his ruler, and must criticize fearlessly. This doctrine received institutional expression in the post of the official censors. It was their duty to examine the conduct of everyone in the government, including the emperor, and to criticize any dereliction without fear or favor. Naturally, the manner in which these duties were discharged varied with the integrity and the courage of the censors; at some times, indeed, they seem even to have been used as the tools of despotic emperors. Nevertheless, there is no question that some of the censors filled their office with the highest idealism. To be sure, the emperor could always condemn a troublesome censor to exile or even to death, but only at the risk of creating a troublesome martyr.

Altogether, these things made for a degree of democracy that is surprising in a theoretically absolute monarchy. Yet the fact remains that it fell far short of fully democratic government. Confucius had made a remarkable beginning toward democratic government, but too little had been added to the principles which he formulated. And principles are not enough. For effective democracy the people in general must have an effective voice in choosing their rulers. This requires that specific techniques for this purpose be created. In China these were never developed; this achievement took place on the other side of the world. Nevertheless Confucianism played an interesting and significant role in connection with it. To consider this we must transfer our attention to Europe.[9]

VIII: In Which The Jesuits Leads The Western World to The Chinese Dream

Toggle visibility
In the Western world democratic institutions made their most rapid and dramatic gains in connection with the American and French Revolutions. It is no doubt true that these revolutions were not "caused" by the philosophic movement known as the Enlightenment; but it is true that this new pattern of thought determined, in very considerable measure, the direction in which men moved once the revolutions had given them freedom of action.

The philosophy of the Enlightenment has some very remarkable similarities to Confucianism. Since it developed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and this was precisely the period at which Confucianism came to be effectively known in Europe, it has inevitably been asked whether Chinese philosophy did not suggest some of these European ideas. To give a judicious answer is not easy. If one is especially interested in China, he tends to note all influences from that source and pay less attention to any others. In an impressively documented volume on The Influence of Chinese Thought on European Culture published in 1940, a Chinese scholar went so far as to declare that "Chinese philosophy was without doubt the basic cause of the French Revolution." Others, contemptuous of both China and the revolution, have sought to discredit the latter by associating it with the former. Less than forty years after the revolution Macaulay, belaboring the "French academicians" of the eighteenth century, asserted that in their circle stories about China "which ought not to have imposed on an old nurse, were gravely laid down as foundations of political theories by eminent philosophers." Another enemy of the revolution, the brilliant French critic and social philosopher Ferdinand Bruneticre (1849-1906), blamed much that he did not like in French democracy on the Chinese. Of the French system of education, Brunetiere wrote: "There is nothing more Chinese! The Revolution organized the system, but its principles were laid down by 'philosophy,' and by those philosophers who admired and panegyrized China. Everything to competitive examinations and nothing to favor, but above all nothing to heredity! their envious spirit has been seduced by that conception of the mandarinate."

On the other hand, some students of the French Revolution seem almost completely to ignore the fact that Chinese ideas played any role at all in its background. Georges Lefebvre, who has been called "the most distinguished living authority on the period of the Revolution," found it possible to publish, in 1939, an entire volume on the background of the revolution which made no mention of China whatever. Quite naturally, he paid primary attention to social, economic, and political conditions within France itself.
However correct this may be, it is also true (1) that in certain very important respects the thinking of the Enlightenment moved to positions much more similar to those of Confucianism than to those of the contemporary Church, and (2) that this fact was recognized and widely proclaimed by leading figures of the Enlightenment.

At the time this was not only well known but even notorious. When Christian Wolff, in an oration, said of the Chinese that "in the Art of Governing, this Nation has ever surpassed all others without exception," he is reported to have been ordered to leave the University of Halle within twenty-four hours "under pain of immediate death." The result was to cause his speech to be read with enthusiasm as far away as England. Much the same thing had been said before and would be said again by many. Leibniz wrote of the Chinese: "Even if we are equal to them in the productive arts, and if we surpass them in the theoretical sciences, it is certainly true (I am almost ashamed to admit) that they surpass us in practical philosophy, by which I mean the rules of ethics and politics which have been devised for the conduct and benefit of human life." Voltaire asserted that "the constitution of their empire is in truth the best that there is in the world …​ the only one in which a governor of a province is punished if, when he quits his post, he is not acclaimed by the people …​ four thousand years ago, when we did not know how to read, they knew everything essentially useful of which we boast today."
When François Quesnay first set forth the political principles of his very influential Physiocratic doctrine, he did so in an exposition of the government of China, as he understood it. In the introduction to his final section, concerned with "the natural principles in accord with which prosperous governments are constituted," he stated that it was merely "a systematic account of the Chinese doctrine, which deserves to be taken as a model for all states."

If these things are sometimes forgotten, a part of the reason lies in the peculiar circumstances which surrounded the introduction of Confucianism to Europe, and its rise to and fall from popularity. Although travelers had told tales about China for centuries, most of them had learned very little about Chinese culture, and therefore could report little. It was different, however, with the Jesuit missionaries who, after the greatest difficulties and with superb ingenuity, gained access to China just before 1600 A.D. A learned order, the Jesuits used their learning to gain and hold a position in Chinese intellectual circles, and even in the imperial court itself. They served the emperors as astronomers (one of their number held the important office of vice-president of the Board of Astronomy), physicians, diplomats, and even casters of cannon. A few of them came to be intimate friends of emperors. They not only spoke Chinese but read and wrote it, and they came to have an intimate knowledge of China that many later scholars have cause to envy. They kept up a voluminous correspondence with members of their own order and with some of the most famous men of the day in Europe. Some of these letters were published as books and others became the basis on which books were written.

These letters, and the new information about China, became a sensation in Europe. Virgile Pinot has concluded, after a careful study, that in eighteenth-century France China "seems to have been more in favor than England itself," despite the fact that this was also the century in France of "Anglomania." By 1769 it could be written that "China is better known than some provinces of Europe itself"; indeed, it seems probable that literate Occidentals knew more about China in the eighteenth century than they do in the twentieth.
It is perfectly true that the Confucianism which the Jesuits reported with such enthusiasm in their letters to Europe was not the Confucian orthodoxy that was commonly current in China in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. That orthodoxy, commonly called Neo-Confucianism, was a complex doctrine. It embodied many of the ideas of Confucius, but these were woven into an elaborate system of metaphysical philosophy that derived many of its elements from Buddhism. Confucius would not have understood it, and it would not have been received sympathetically in Europe by men like, for instance, Voltaire. Nor did it appeal to the Jesuit missionaries, who were men of keen and critical minds. Furthermore, they had their own system of metaphysics, and felt no need of another.

The more they studied the Confucian texts, however, the more they became convinced that this contemporary philosophy was not the same thing as the original Confucianism at all.
The Jesuits naturally had an optimistic view of a government which had signally favored them; and indeed as compared with the governments of Europe at the time there was no doubt some justification for their description of its organization as "perfect and exact." But the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were not the best in which to observe its virtues. They began with the corrupt and oppressive rule of late Ming times, continued with the Manchu conquest, and saw the Manchus establish their reign with peculiarly harsh repression. The Ch’ien Lung emperor, during whose reign Voltaire lauded the Chinese as an example of tolerance, was one of the greatest destroyers of literature (in the name of the suppression of "dangerous thought") in all history.
A little later, however, Europeans learned more about the later forms of Confucianism, which as we saw earlier were in part a perversion of that philosophy designed to make it serve the purposes of monarchic authority. Simultaneously it was emphasized that in fact the government of China, which had been so highly praised, had at least many of the characteristics of a despotism; indeed, some of its very champions hailed it as such. It was concluded that the virtues of Confucius and of Chinese government had alike been inventions of the Jesuits, perpetrated for purposes of propaganda. At this same time the Jesuit order became so thoroughly discredited that in 1773, after it had been expelled from one country after another, it was dissolved by the Pope. Disillusionment became complete; the "Chinese dream" was over. Never again in the West, since the end of the eighteenth century, has interest in China and esteem for that country risen so high.

This curious chain of events has caused many of those who trace the background of the French and American Revolutions completely to disregard the fact that Chinese ideas contributed to the growth of democratic philosophy. Alan F. Hattersley, in his Short History of Democracy, does recognize that new ideas derived from "Asiatic states of ancient civilization" played a role in the development of the ideals of "equality, charity and fraternity." In general, however, even those who are well aware that China influenced the West during the eighteenth century do not emphasize this point. Since China is identified as a despotism, and Confucius with China, it is often supposed that his ideas could hardly have contributed to the growth of democracy.
The concept of natural law, so important in Europe, is very like the Confucian conception of the Way, as both Leibniz and Wolff recognized; it has been suggested that it was on this basis that Turgot, who was a minister of Louis XVI and whom we know to have been deeply interested in China, suggested to his royal master certain modifications in the operation of the French monarchy. Also common to eighteenth-century France and to China were the ideas that the proper end of government is the happiness of the people, and that government should be a cooperative rather than a competitive enterprise; even Montesquieu praised the government of China on this latter score, commenting, "This empire is formed on the plan of a government of a family."

Since it is impossible even to summarize the evidence on all these points, let us consider only two principles that were fundamental to the French Revolution: first, the right of revolution itself; second, human equality.

The revolutionary National Convention declared, "When government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people, and for every portion of the people, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties." Although this was completely at variance with the political theory of medieval Europe it was not, of course, by any means the first European challenge to the older conceptions. This challenge must have been significantly reinforced by the discovery of Chinese political theory. For in China, which was widely proclaimed to be the best governed and most orderly of nations, the principle that in the face of oppression revolution is precisely "the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties" had long been accepted as an axiom. It is implicit in the Analects and explicit in the Mencius. The fact that in China the danger of revolution was an everpresent deterrent to tyranny was early reported by the missionaries and was mentioned long before the revolution by a number of writers, as various as Quesnay at the court of Louis XV and Oliver Goldsmith in England. Montesquieu wrote that "the emperor of China …​ knows that if his empire be not just, he will be stript both of empire and life."

The case of the principle of equality is also of interest. In 1789 the Assembly adopted a Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen; Article I states: "Men are born, and always continue, free and equal in respect of their rights. Civil distinctions, therefore, can be founded only in public utility." The resemblance of these words to the preamble of the American Declaration of Independence has often been remarked. It is also worthy of note that a similar statement had been published in Paris at the early date of 1696, by the Jesuit Le Comte. He wrote that in China "nobility is never hereditary, neither is there any distinction between the qualities of people; saving what the offices which they execute makes."

Harold J. Laski has written that "the French Revolution may be said to have contributed to democratic theory the insistence that the career must be opened to the talents, which was, what­ever its limitations, a denial that birth or race or creed can bar the road to equality." There is some doubt, however, about the originality of this contribution, since long before the revolution wide publicity had been given to the idea that in China offices were filled strictly on the basis of worth. Virgile Pinot has pointed out that "the admirers of China believed that they found there, and there only, a country where merit permitted one to attain to the highest dignities of the state, a country where each person was classed in the social hierarchy according to his merit, while neither the favor of the prince nor the ad­vantages of birth could permit him to insinuate himself fraudulently into a place to which he was called neither by his virtues nor by his learning. The thing must have been rare or even non-existent in Europe, for all the missionaries, of whatever nationality they might be, celebrated in dithyrambic terms this marvelous Chinese hierarchy which was founded on nothing but merit."

Such reports by the missionaries were made as early as 1602 and continued in unbroken sequence. In a widely read work published in 1735 Du Halde asserted that in China "a student, though the son of a peasant, has as much hope of arriving at the dignity of Viceroy, and even of Minister of State, as the children of the greatest persons of quality."
In short, at the time when the French Revolution "contributed to democratic theory" the principle that men should be chosen for office purely on the basis of their individual character and attainments, it had been common knowledge for a very long time that this was the theory, at least, of government in China.

Are we to conclude, then, that the new knowledge of China was "the cause" of the French Revolution? Certainly not. The revolution was brought on by many factors, political, economic, social, and intellectual, an exhaustive inquiry into which would be out of place here. Our concern is not so much with the revolution as such, as with the spiritual revolution that gradually re-oriented the thinking of the entire Western world, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in the direction of democracy. It goes without saying that the new knowledge of Confucianism was only one of many factors which lay back of this spiritual revolution.

It was a factor, however, of which the importance has not been adequately recognized, nor sufficiently investigated. In Eu­rope, and in France in particular, the whole pattern of thought became transformed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and after the transformation it was in many respects similar to the thinking of Confucius.
Gilbert Chinard has pointed out that "the whole Christian civilization had been built on the idea that happiness is neither desirable nor obtainable in this vale of tears and affliction." Those who had protested against this were many, but in general they were lone voices, or small groups.

Then the discovery of the East opened to European eyes, as Voltaire graphically put it, "a new moral and physical universe." In China they found a nation which claimed to be the most ancient in the world, and which indisputably possessed that least questionable of all credentials, prosperity, which in calm self-sufficiency regulated itself by principles which were in many respects the very opposite of those prevailing in Europe. Here happiness was not frowned upon, but was rather considered the highest end, not only of the individual but even of the state. Human equality was not denied; rather, those who reported on China asserted, it was the very basis of social and political theory.

Inevitably this "new universe" was appealed to by European nonconformists in support of heterodox notions. No longer could it be said that any practice which conflicted with Euro­pean tradition "would not work" or "was not done." Voltaire asserted with glee that "the same men who maintain <…​> that a society of atheists is impossible, assert at the same time that the oldest government in the world [the Chinese] is a society of atheists." When defenders of the status quo declared that it would be subversive of good government and order to give political power, on the basis of merit alone, to men of no hereditary status, Budgell could now reply that "this glorious Maxim is most strictly follow’d and observ’d in the Largest, the most Populous, and the best Govern’d Empire in all the World: I mean in China."
…​the principle that men should be selected for office on the basis of their capacity, rather than their popularity, has received recognition in Western democracies in the institution of a civil service recruited through competitive examinations. As to the origin of this system in the British Empire, we need no longer speculate. In 1943 Teng Ssu-yu published a carefully documented study showing that the British system was inspired by that of China. Among other evidence, he showed that such examinations were first held by the East India Company, at its Indian establishments which were in touch with China, and that when the adoption of the system was being debated in Parliament its supporters and opponents alike made reference to the Chinese system.

In the United States of America, the institution of civil service examinations was adopted subsequently, chiefly under British influence. It is worthy of remark, however, that while the measure was pending before Congress, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that in the matter of "requiring that candidates for public office shall first pass examinations" to show themselves qualified, "China has preceded us, as well as England and France, in this essential correction of a reckless usage."[9]

IX: In Which The Republic of China Is Entirely Surrounded by Water

"Marxism for us is ABC
As Marx has never swum Yangtze
The Chairman Mao, the Chinese
Brought Marx the Jew to their knees"

— Vladimir Vysotsky (1967)


Toggle visibility
The view that Confucius was a political reactionary even in his own day, that he had given strong support to monarchical despotism, and that Confucianism was in large part a tool for propaganda by means of which the emperors kept their subjects in submission, has of course made the name of Confucius anathema in some circles under the Republic of China. The undeniable fact that during the first half of the twentieth century the name of Confucius has often been exploited by warlords and other persons who were, at best, but dubious friends of democracy, has not contributed to his popularity. It is quite understandable, therefore, that there has grown up an impression that the relation between Confucius and the Republic of China is chiefly a negative one, and that the Chinese Revolution[11] was a process in which Confucianism was supplanted by democracy, which was imported from the West.

There is some truth to this, if Confucianism is limited to mean only the rigid state orthodoxy that was sponsored by the Manchu dynasty.
If many Chinese of the twentieth century have failed to distinguish adequately between the orthodox state Confucianism and the early thought of which it was a perversion, this is by no means true of all of them. <…​> Of the greatest practical importance is the fact that Sun Yat-sen, "father of the Republic of China," was fully aware of it.
In his lectures, which in their printed form had tremendous circulation and influence, Sun repeatedly hailed Confucius as a democrat. He asserted that "both Confucius and Mencius were exponents of democracy. …​ Confucius always quoted the words of Yao and Shun, because they did not hold the empire as a hereditary possession. While their government was monarchical in name, it was in fact democratic, and this is why Confucius honored them."

Although Sun recognized that he had borrowed much from the West, he did not consider himself to be a mere importer of Western democracy. In fact he declared that "China anticipated Europe and America by developing a democratic philosophy thousands of years ago." And again, "Europe surpasses China, not in political philosophy, but only in material civilization. …​ What we need to learn from Europe is science, not political philosophy. As for the true principles of political philosophy, the Europeans need to learn them from China."

In his famous work called The Three Principles of the People, Sun declared that if China were to be restored to her rightful position in the world it was essential "to revive our ancient morality." He then enumerated the virtues that are usually called Confucian as those which must be practiced.
Undoubtedly, one of the reasons why Sun made such statements was his desire that the Chinese should regain their self-confidence. But it would be a great mistake to interpret them as nothing but empty patriotic gestures, or to suppose that he was not profoundly influenced by China’s own philosophy. Paul M.A. Linebarger has said of Sun’s thinking that "the form was Western but the content was still Chinese." That this is true is evident from even casual study of his utterances. It is well known that Sun was influenced by Karl Marx, but when Marx and Confucianism clashed Marx sometimes emerged the loser.
[T]he class struggle is not a cause of progress but a symptom of disease in the social process, Sun concludes, and "we should call Marx not a social physiologist but a social pathologist." Here it is apparent that Sun was influenced by the Chinese, and Confucian, emphasis upon the necessity for cooperation between all the members of society.
The Chinese Constitution is based, not on the threefold division of powers that we know in Western democracies, but on a fivefold division devised by Sun Yat-sen. <…​> Sun himself made it clear that that plan was based on a blend of ideas both Western and Chinese, and on a philosophy indebted both to Montesquieu and to Confucius.
In studying the constitutions of various democracies and the way they worked out in practice, Sun decided that two functions were lacking. He further concluded that these were precisely functions which had been performed in the Chinese Empire under Confucian auspices, and by officials who enjoyed a large measure of independence from interference by the emperor. The results had been so good that Sun made these two functions independent powers, vesting them in two of the five Yuan.

It will be recalled that the duty of a minister to reprove error on the part of his ruler, which Confucius stressed, came to be vested, under imperial rule, in particular officials. These censors also had the duty of searching out and denouncing corruption anywhere in the government. Although Sun recognized that the functions of criticism are performed in Western governments by legislative bodies and by the courts, he believed that there is great virtue in having in the government such a body of elder statesmen, whose explicit function it is to criticize without fear or favor, and to impeach officials guilty of corruption. He therefore incorporated the institution of the censorate in his five-power constitution, as the Control Yuan.

The examination system, upon which Sun’s fifth power is based, was not devised by Confucius. Its foundation, however, was clearly laid by Confucius, who repeatedly urged the necessity of "promoting the upright" and of putting the administration of the government into the hands of the virtuous and capable. He also urged that such persons, having been prepared for administrative responsibilities by suitable education, should be selected for government posts without regard to any qualifications except character and capacity. The examination system was an attempt to put these principles into practice.

Sun Yat-sen <…​> was convinced that the practice of democracy in Europe and America had fallen far short of what might be expected of it, and he laid a large share of the blame upon a false conception of human equality. He did not believe, any more than did Confucius or Jefferson, in a hereditary aristocracy, but like both Confucius and Jefferson he believed that in fact "men are not naturally equal." The only kind of equality that can be realized is equality of opportunity. He said, "If we pay no attention to the differences of intelligence and ability between individuals, but push down those who distinguish themselves in order to insist upon absolute equality among men, humanity will not advance but retrogress. Thus when we speak of democracy and equality, yet wish the world to advance, we are speaking only of political equality. For equality is not a thing given in nature, but is created by men; and the only equality which men can bring about is equality of political status."

Sun therefore believed that while every man should have equal power to control the government, through suffrage, only those possessing the requisite knowledge and ability should hold office. All men should be given equal opportunity to become qualified, but their qualifications should be tested by a system of examinations. He planned, therefore, that "all candidates for office, whether elective or appointive, national or local, must first pass examinations administered by the Central Government in order to insure that they possess the necessary qualifications."

The possibility for political manipulation in such a system is obvious. Sun hoped, however, to minimize this by vesting the control of examinations in a separate organ of the government, the Examination Yuan, modeled to some extent after the corps of officials who administered this function under the empire.

By adding to the three powers of government recognized in the West these further two derived from Confucianism, Sun believed that it would be possible to correct the deficiencies of democratic government as it is practiced in the West, and to establish "the most complete and the finest government in the world." It should be noted that, whatever the merits of this hope, they cannot be judged upon the basis of the functioning of the Chinese government up to this time. For while it includes both a Control Yuan and an Examination Yuan, these organs have never, in this transitional period, been given the scope or the powers which Sun Yat-sen desired for them.[9]


Toggle visibility
For a century two ways of life and thought have been at war for possession of the Chinese people. One is that of the West, the other that of their forefathers. A hundred years ago[12] every Chinese vastly preferred the latter. The Chinese long believed themselves more intelligent, more cultured, and more capable than any other people. But a series of rude shocks gradually undermined their assurance. They found it impossible to protect themselves in a military sense, so that their borders were invaded. As a result, they were compelled to permit Europeans and Americans, whom they did not want, to live in China. This led to a still more disturbing invasion of the mind.

It soon seemed evident that in some ways the Chinese were not so capable as the Westerners. They did not make war so well. They were not such good mathematicians. They had little command of the sciences. They knew little of machinery and therefore could not produce goods in the fabulous volume that factories make possible.

At first these things did not greatly impress the Chinese. After all, these were for the most part material matters, in which "barbarians" (they thought of the Westerners as barbarians) might be expected to excel. We know that the barbarians of ancient Europe excelled on the field of battle at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, but that does not convince us that the barbarians were, on the whole, better human beings than the Romans. We know that Eskimos and other people who live close to nature know far more about wild life and are far better hunters than most of us, but that gives us no sense of inferiority. In the same way, it was a long time before the Chinese were overawed by the feats of Western technology. They looked on them as one does on the tricks of a magician-startling, but not really important.

Far more than these material things, the Chinese valued the things of the mind. They could see the value of skill that could combine various materials to make a machine to produce goods cheaply, but they thought more highly of the art of making it possible for human beings to live together in harmony and happiness. They valued wealth—​the Chinese have always valued it—​but they could see little usefulness in wealth that did not bring its owner satisfaction, a fuller enjoyment of life, and a sense of security in the esteem of his fellow-men. In these respects they were by no means sure that the way of the West was better.

By a process that we shall have to consider <…​>, many and perhaps most Chinese were brought, in time, to doubt the superiority of their traditional way of life and thought. Many of them were converted to the Western philosophy known as Communism—​enough of them to give the political control of China to the Chinese Communists.

Some of us may be reluctant to think of Communism as a Western doctrine. To be sure, Russian Communism has its own peculiarities, and Russian culture has undergone a certain amount of Asiatic influence. But the philosophy of Marx and Lenin is one of the end-products of a line of thinking that can be traced far back in Western philosophy. In its tendency to control people by organizing them into large groups, its emphasis on material things, and the importance it gives to economics, it is far more similar to the philosophy of the West in general than to the traditional thought it has displaced in China.

It might have been expected that when the Chinese adopted one variety of Western doctrine, this would have brought them into greater sympathy with the West as a whole. As everyone knows, it did not. On the contrary, the Chinese Communists bitterly denounced the Western democracies, and Chinese soldiers engaged in open warfare against the forces of the United Nations in Korea.

These actions profoundly shocked a great many people in the West. They felt that the Western democracies had demonstrated, time after time, that they were the truest friends of China. They had sent missionaries, teachers, doctors, and vast sums of money to China. They helped her in her struggle against Japan. Yet the Chinese turned upon them. Many are ready to conclude that the mysterious East is mysterious indeed and that it is impossible to understand the Chinese.

However natural this feeling may be, it solves no problems. And for us the Chinese are a very pressing problem. By this time it is perfectly clear that five hundred million[12] Chinese cannot be ignored. We shall have to deal with them, in one way or another. We cannot deal with them successfully unless we understand them. Why did the Chinese turn against the Western democracies? Why did they become Communist?

According to Communist dogma, all social changes and political revolutions are to be explained primarily in economic terms. Thus Communists, as well as many who are not Communists, interpret the success of Chinese Communism as due almost entirely to the revolt of China’s oppressed and poverty-stricken masses. This is partly true. But what it omits is perhaps the most important part of the picture. All students of Chinese Communism seem to agree that it has been organized and led, not by peasants or factory workers, but by students, professors, and the intellectuals in general.

When we ask why China’s intellectuals were attracted to Communism, we get a curious answer. There is no one explanation, but more important than any other single reason is their burning desire to achieve, for their nation, a position of independence and a place of equality, respect, and esteem in the eyes of the world. They felt, not without justification, that the world regarded them as incapable, disorganized, and backward. They saw in Communism a method of national vindication. They found in Soviet Russia a nation that undertook to treat them as equals.

This leads us to a rather strange conclusion. The Chinese abandoned their traditional ways of life and thought (in so far as they did abandon them) in protest against the attitude and actions of the West, which branded their traditional ways as backward. In rejecting the claim to superiority of Western thought in general, they accepted as superior a particular variety of Western philosophy, Communism.

This had another paradoxical result. During the first half of this century the Chinese had a tendency to feel apologetic about their culture; undoubtedly this was linked with the decline in power and prestige of the Chinese state. Soon after the Chinese Communists came to power, their soldiers could claim to have won victories over the troops of some of the world’s most powerful nations, and Communist China became a force to be reckoned with. Thus, while it may seem surprising, it is not unnatural that in their new-found self-confidence the Chinese Communists, whose official philosophy is of European origin, should point with pride to the glories of Chinese history and claim the great Chinese thinkers of the past as belonging to the intellectual heritage of the Chinese Communist party.[13]

X: In Which Confucius Trusts The Human Race, and We Say 'Do Likewise'

Toggle visibility
[Confucius'] ideas (though often considerably transformed) have played varied roles of some importance in the history of diverse civilizations. Reflecting upon these facts, it is impossible not to ask what is the reason for the extraordinary persistence of his influence. Since Confucius was primarily concerned with social and political philosophy, the reason will probably be found in that sphere.

The organization of states may be divided, in the broadest possible manner, into two types: authoritarian and democratic. It goes without saying that there are many varieties of each and combinations of the two. In authoritarian states power is ultimately vested in one or more individuals, while a large proportion of the people have no effective share of power. In democratic states power is ultimately vested in the people as a whole. Under authoritarian government the end is commonly conceived to be "the good of the state," which may sacrifice to itself the welfare of a great many of its citizens. A true democracy, on the other hand, must be concerned with the welfare and the happiness of each of its citizens, since each one is fully a member of the state.

History has shown that true and effective democracy is a political condition difficult to bring about, and still harder to perpetuate. By comparison, authoritarianism is a hardy growth. There are a number of reasons for this. Under authoritarian rule the philosophy of the state and the duty of the individual are prescribed by the government, with relative clarity. In a democracy, however, the state has no philosophy (except democracy in the broadest sense), and the duty of the individual is not at all clear. It may be his duty either to support or to oppose the government, and no tribunal save his own conscience can tell him which it is.

There are many, however, who are eager to tell the citizen of a democracy what is his duty, with every artifice of oratory. Quite rightly, the citizen regards with scepticism those who are so zealous to do his thinking for him. He is faced by a difficult choice. Shall be entrust the fortunes of the state to professional politicians, who may be of questionable integrity, or to the well-meaning but unskilled efforts of amateurs?

There is an even greater dilemma. In a democracy, the ultimate authority lies with the whole body of the people, who, as regards the political sphere, are too often not even amateurs. For an amateur is a "lover," and the citizens of democracies are not always fond of participating in the processes of politics. The more satisfactory their government is, the less interest they will take in it. Thus a good democratic government is, in a sense, its own greatest foe. For when its citizens are not vigilant, there is always the danger that enemies of democracy may be able to take over the state.

Democracy is also faced by a more subtle intellectual dilemma. Political philosophers are agreed with Confucius that in a cooperative state the people must have faith in their government. Furthermore, since all must take some part in determining the ends and even the methods of the government, they must be in some measure of agreement upon a basic philosophy of government. Yet no democracy can prescribe such a philosophy to its citizens, nor can it declare that any belief whatsoever is beyond criticism and not subject to discussion, without placing itself on questionable ground. It is for this reason that democracies always have been, and always must be, somewhat vulnerable to authoritarian propaganda. Against this they must defend themselves, yet without prohibiting the reasonable exercise of free speech.

Not every thinker who has approved of democracy as an abstract principle has been able to provide for it a consistent philosophy fulfilling its rather difficult requirements. The philosophy of Confucius did this to an unusual degree, and it is suggested that it is for this reason that his ideas have met with such widespread sympathy. To say that the philosophy of Confucius was democratic in the full modern sense of that term would be going too far. On the other hand, it does not go too far to say that Confucius was a forerunner of democracy, a voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the way. Furthermore—​and this is the heart of our story—​he had an appreciation of some of the basic principles underlying successful cooperation between men that has seldom been surpassed, and not frequently equaled, by other philosophers. He did not merely approve of the cooperative state; he was passionately devoted to its realization. He provided for democracy not merely a philosophy but a battle cry. Still more remarkable, he was able to combine the utmost zeal with a thoroughly judicious temper, and to call for sacrifice in the name of the democratic cause without ever making excessive claims which would have undermined the logical integrity of its position.

Confucius seems to have been aware that the greatest battle of democracy is not a dramatic contest against evil, but the quiet struggle that goes on within the heart of the individual against boredom. Authoritarianism tempts him with pageantry and with final solutions to all the problems; democracy offers only simple human dignity and a chance to work unceasingly for human happiness, with no reward save the opportunity to go on working. The last battle of democracy can never be fought. Nor can the supreme goal of democracy be a perfect state or a perfect system of government, in the sense of static perfection, for it is an illusion to suppose that things will ever cease to change. Democracy can hope only to produce men and women who are capable of meeting new situations effectively.

Confucius seems to have recognized the threefold danger that is risked by him who lays down, for the guidance of society, any unalterable standard, whether it be a system of metaphysics, or books, or laws, or merely principles. First, it stifles initiative. Second, it may do harm, when conditions arise that were not foreseen by the lawgiver. Finally, if criticism (which cannot be stifled in a cooperative society) destroys the people’s faith in the standard, they may be left completely without guidance. Confucius did not seek to impose any absolute authority.

Yet some authority there must be if the state is not to lapse into anarchy. That authority Confucius was willing to confide to men. Not to just any men, but to men imbued with the Way. The Way was not, however, a fixed code; still less was it concerned with metaphysics. It was a body of ideals which men had made and which men must continue to develop. "Men can enlarge the Way; the Way cannot [of itself] enlarge the man." It resembled what is today called the "democratic way of life," except that Confucius advocated it with more zeal and enthusiasm than is often associated with modern democracy. He knew that without such enthusiasm the cooperative society is impossible.

Confucius put his faith in men. Not in all men, he was not so naive. But he believed that most men were honest. He did not think that all men were capable of taking part in the government. He did advocate, however, that all of them should be given some education, to make them truly members of the cooperative state, and he proposed that those among them who showed themselves able and virtuous should be given further education and placed in positions of authority. Once there, he was willing to permit them to govern according to their own best judgment. And he believed that in the long run the people in general would be able to distinguish the good official from the bad.

He trusted the human race.[9]

Concluding Remarks

Confucius' vision of cooperative (towards happiness) society requires at least three interconnected preconditions:

  • potential equality of all the people

  • education and exams for management positions

  • moral autonomy of the individual

In largest part of the today’s world, these preconditions do not exist, or exist partially.

But, and that’s interesting, even in places where these preconditions are realized quite fully, there is no global cooperation between people (look here for some aspects of this).

Why is that and how could we move towards cooperation, is a theme for another post. There are at least three issues to be discussed:

  • Decision making plane

    While 'democracy' is a floating signifier[14], Liquid Democracy isn’t since it’s algorithmically defined (an analogy would be 'fiat money' ↔ cryptocurrency)

  • Production and distribution of goods. That’s a very delicate issue[15], which probably could not be solved without the solving the next issue:

  • The structure of Human Motivation

    This is a complex sociobiological issue (because social rewards, even imaginary, are transformed by the brain into very real hormones and neurotransmitters). Both Pythagorean katharsis and Buddha’s way can contribute here. Consumerism (in a very broad sense, as "having" not only things, but also emotions, cultural ranks etc.) needs to be replaced with, essentially, an altered state of consciousness.

Two more remarkable points:

  • "No coherent vision of the future" is not a bug of a good democracy, but a feature.

  • To add to the list of the greatest historical overturns (such as American Great Party Switch) the fact that the West and China switched social ideologies (Marxism ↔ Confucianism).

Buddha: def __del__(self): The Breakdown of the Polycameral Mind

It was a profound instant permitting him to grasp for a fleeting instant the structure of his own existence, his possibilities as a being.
A twisted, dented and distorted something crossed the field of Dasein’s awareness. He recognized the kernel of selfdom. The thing had lost all useful shape. He discarded it, chuckling.
Who discarded it? Dasein wondered.
Who chuckles?

— Frank Herbert, "The Santaroga Barrier"

This is Tathagata. He is not. Be like Tathagata.

Toggle visibility
For Buddhism it is clear <…​> that badness is unhappiness. The true unhappiness, however, is not poverty but attachment, which is virtually its opposite, and the bad that there is in attaching oneself consists not in the attachment but in the self that is attached. Fortunately, however, this 'self' does not really exist, it is merely an illusion. One simply has to become aware of this for one’s attachments, and therefore one’s miseries, to cease.

In order to prove that the 'self' does not exist, Buddhism employs a fairly impressive argument. It consists in considering the person as a set of simple elements which has no reality in itself but only in the mind of the observer. And one is advised to apply this perspective to oneself, whilst taking great care to ensure that the corresponding knowledge is itself a set of elements belonging to those that it uncovers. If one genuinely succeeds in bringing off this ploy, all discomfort would seem to disappear. One would also seem to require more than one life to understand it, and several to apply it, declares the tathagata Guatama (the Tibetan Milarepa, a long time after him, is the only one to have effected this in a single life). All the more reason, then, to start straightaway.

One begins by acknowledging that a person is composed of several elements. The profane person would see this as a 'decomposition' of the still perceptible person into several elements. One would then make him see that what he believed to be a person is only this set of elements that he stubbornly persisted in regarding as a whole: there is nothing else, the world is empty of 'self'.[16]

Dhammas all the way down

Toggle visibility
The West has long been habituated to such analytic dismantling of being. From Plato, through Descartes to Freud, we find a division between appetite, reason and mind, or we hear of the ghost in the machine, or of id, ego and superego, or of conscious and subconscious, or of conscious, unconscious and preconscious, or of the cognitive, the conative and the affective, etc. But the dismantling that the Buddha (a century before Plato) proposes is infinitely more refined than the crude divisions into two or three elements imagined by Westerners. Even when Hume says, much as a Buddhist would, that 'the mind is only a bundle or collection of different perceptions' linked by causalities, he only grasps one out of the six skandhas (it may be that he employs the word 'perception' in a slightly wider sense, but he is hardly explicit about this).

Buddhism is concerned with elementary or simple, indecomposable elements, ontological 'atoms', as it were, which are said by it to be the only things enjoying any reality, and which are called dharmas in Sanskrit (dhammas in Pali). This word also refers to the Buddha’s doctrine, a double reference which is frequent in Buddhist language (dharma has many other meanings also, and although most Buddhist terms have several meanings it is probably the richest of them all). As a consequence, the first two words of the Buddhist credo, ye dhamma, mean both 'I follow the doctrine' and 'I am only [composed of] simple elements'. If these two apparently very different meanings coexist, it is because the deepest meaning of dharma is 'ultimate reality' (or 'ultimate truth'). These dharma elements occur in many different forms. The elementary manuals in the monasteries describe several dozen of them, but several hundred are said to exist. These types of dharma are classed in different ways, according to different criteria. Before being ordained as bhikkhus, the novices must learn three of these classifications: in terms of skandhas, in terms of ayatanas, and in terms of dhatus. The most famous is the classification in terms of skandhas or 'aggregates' (of dharmas), which are five in number. To begin with, there are the ten properties of matter, of material things which, where a person is concerned, means his body and the things which he owns, with the body referring also to his ideas, thoughts and mental images. Then there are the sensations of the six senses (the sixth sense involves perception and sensation of ideas, thoughts and mental images by the mental and cerebral organ - an expression that John Locke was later to reinvent). Then there are the fifty-eight volitions, impulses or 'mental formations'. Finally, the consciousnesses of all the above crown the whole series. The classification into ayatanas obeys a cognitive criterion; its twelve categories are the six senses and the things that they know, the latter being the sixty-four types of mental dharma. The division into dhatus serves to describe the 'current' (santana) of causal relations between dharmas which seem to constitute an 'individual' (pudgala). It consists of eighteen classes, adding the consciousnesses of the corresponding properties-perceptions-sensations to the twelve of the preceding classification. But Buddhism sometimes puts itself at the level of modern scholarship by distinguishing three categories, matter, spirit and forces, a classification which it teaches to small children and to them only. The dual division between spirit and matter is also present.[16]

Demolition of Man

Toggle visibility
The important point to note is that, once the person is dissolved in this way, Buddhism sees no reason to reassemble these elements into so-called individuals. It dismantles the human machine conceptually, and with great finesse, but then it disdains to put it together again. Man remains in detached and scattered pieces. A Buddhist observing you will see a pile of elements, a bag containing several hundred types of things, an aggregate of aggregates, a flux of events, a current of causal relations, but not you. The Buddhist gaze is a ray which disintegrates being. It is fortunate, then, that it is himself that a Buddhist will spend his time thus scrutinizing.

What thus is this thing which so interests people, which activates their passions, which they care for so intensely, about which they talk so much, their 'self'? It is a concept, a construction of the reason and of the imagination, a way of seeing and of composing the world, but not an entity which really exists. In other words, it is an illusion. But does not man excel most at transforming his ideas into suffering? The idea of the 'self', Buddhism says, is the heart of all pain. The worst possible thing to do would therefore be to reassemble the robot, and to believe that this montage on the part of the mind has a real existence.

The idea of the 'self' is not the only thing, Buddhism generously adds, to which this argument applies. The same is true of every mental construction. For instance, a cart consists of wheels, shafts, frame, etc. It is these elements; the entity 'cart' is a creature of the mind, an illusion. Or, to put it another way, one must not say that this fruit has this form, this colour, this smell, but rather that this fruit is this form and this colour and this smell and so on. Likewise, the mind doesn’t have sensations, sentiments, ideas, volitions, etc., but what one calls 'mind' is these things. And the 'self' is that plus material elements. But to believe in a cart or in a pear does not have the same consequences as believing in oneself.

The main conclusion we can draw from this is that the 'self' is a mental construction, and by realizing this one may suppress pain. Precise analysis of the causes of suffering, of the perceptions which bring it, of its sensation of the consciousness of these facts, enables one either to remove this conscious sensation or to take a detached and objective view of it, and thereby to remove the pain. It is worth noting that Buddhism claims that this latter method is its own peculiar achievement, arrived at thanks to the no-self (the cutting off of sensation, reputed to have been the means employed by the Buddha’s last guru, did not satisfy the Buddha, inducing him to search for his own answer by embarking upon a long meditation, from which he was to emerge 'awakened' to the solution.) At any rate, more or less training is required to produce these results. This is particularly the case with physical sufferings, where one has to overcome the danger and the fear that its absence would deprive us of the warning that the body is incurring some serious destruction. And things are much easier in the case of self-love, jealousy, hatred, pride, and of shame, honour or love! When one understands the causes and mechanisms of suffering, when one becomes aware of their basic sequences, suffering ceases. In the West, Spinoza (in his Ethics, in particular) had certain intuitions about this phenomenon, but he provided no account of the precise mode of functioning, or even of the structure of the psyche such as would enable one to understand it, and such as Buddhism provides. One is tempted, however, to improve the latter doctrine by saying: only strive to dismantle mentally those things which do you harm; attach yourself when it is possible and painless or agreeable, disengage yourself when it ceases to be so; opt for the agreeable side of things, and only analyse the rest in a Buddhist manner! This should be all the more possible that Buddhist psychology provides all the warning and knowledge which are required in order to prevent that a voluntary attachment turns into a sadistic master.

In this diagnosis of the cause of human unhappiness, and therefore in the therapeutic practice which derives from it, Buddhism proves to be the exact opposite of the Western tradition (which includes both Marx and Freud). The latter sees unhappiness, despair, neurosis, alienation, etc. in human beings who are divided, in fragments and internally dismembered, and equilibrium, the necessary condition for happiness (and a concept reminiscent of that of nirvana), in the integrated personality. Buddhism, by contrast, regards the latter as the cause of all ills. In order to remedy it, it shatters man (the illusion of man in man’s eyes) and is only too glad to leave him in pieces. Is there then a fundamental contradiction between these two theories, each of which is firmly anchored in a tradition? The important thing to note is that the divisions of the personality identified by these two traditions are by no means the same. In Buddhism, the elements are psychological categories which, although connected, belong to different planes, whilst for Freud, for example, the superego and id may collide head-on over particular choices.

To be more precise, however large the number of 'things' (or, more exactly, of 'facts') Buddhism sees in an 'individual', there is one which he will not find there, namely, the 'I', the heart of being, which would be at once the subject of volitions and the object of suffering, and therefore a link between desire and dukkha. Chapter 19 in Kolm (1982) analyses precisely and in detail this question of the 'I', and it explains that Buddhist advanced philosophy considers in fact many kinds of 'I', some of which are real by definition or by nature and some of which are illusory. It is the illusion of the 'I in itself, both based upon and providing the basis for desires and attachments, which Buddhists hold to be the specific cause common to all sufferings. Critical examination of the 'self' enables one to show that an individual contains no entity of this sort. When, therefore, one has succeeded in realizing this and in convincing oneself of it, both desires and pains fade away.[16]

To understand recursion…​

Toggle visibility
There is nothing more fascinating than the Buddhist method and logic of knowledge, action and cure. It is the very essence of Buddhism. It is fairly difficult to explain, and it is not presented as being easy to understand, still less to apply, Buddhist doctrine simply asserts that it is possible to understand and to apply it in various degrees, and even completely with enough time, effort, luck and inspiration. The difficulty arises from three linked features: relation to oneself (self-reference and self-production), negation (or criticism), and the mixture of genres or multi-dimensionality. I would hasten to add that, as well as giving rise to difficulties, these features also account for Buddhism’s success. Reference back to oneself signifies that the aim of Buddhism is to cure oneself, the means it employs being action upon oneself, and this action in turn is effected by means of knowing oneself (which itself is, as I shall try to show below, a prerequisite for cure, the result of all this being the disappearance of the 'self'). The second feature is negativity: in order to suppress suffering, one criticizes conceptions and denounces illusions, beginning with that which oneself constitutes. Finally, by the mixing of genres I mean that this process implies all the dimensions of man and man’s thought about himself, in a very interlocked manner[17]. At the level of knowledge, Buddhism thus mobilizes all its logics, psychology, physiology, ontology, epistemology, methodology, ethics and eschatology, in such a way that these cannot be distinguished one from the other. Western categories are therefore not very relevant here. Thus it is clear that Buddhism succeeds in being, in the extreme, an analytic phenomenology[18] of the sort that the West has gambled upon producing, as well as a practice. The most remarkable aspect of this venture, and the key to its success, is the relation to oneself.

Let us consider how this works. The aim is to suppress suffering. To achieve this. one must act (on oneself in this case). To act effectively, one must understand the mode of operation of the thing one wishes to influence (and therefore why it operates as it does), that is, one must find remedies for suffering and thereby understand its cause. But, in order to understand, one requires a calm, clear, lucid and penetrating mind, and one may only achieve this by freeing oneself from suffering.

Is this impossibly contradictory? There are several reasons why it need not be taken to be so.

First of all, the sequence works out in such a way that, by setting up the conditions for an end to suffering, the objective is actually realized. Therefore, by seeking to set up these conditions. one reduces one’s suffering. By doing what is required to understand the causes of suffering, the suffering itself abates. Understanding suffering implies that one is master of it, although the mastering of suffering also implies that one understands it. The two cannot help but advance together. If someone teaches the cause of suffering, he clearly enables his pupil to combat it effectively; but if he teaches a process, however mechanical it may be, which reduces suffering, he thereby enables his pupil to understand it and therefore to act by himself in relation to it. La Fontaine’s fable, 'The labourer and his children', is a good single illustration of this Buddhist dynamics. Look out for the treasure. You will not find it, because it does not exist - there is no 'I' which suffers. But it is the activity of looking for it which will in the end give you what you are looking for - wealth, in the case of the labourer’s children, the end of suffering, in the case of those who follow the Buddha. The end is immanent in the means. The means are the end.[19]

On the other hand. the circle described above is not necessarily vicious one, for there are degrees of both knowledge and assuagement. A little knowledge enables one to reduce one’s suffering a little more, which enables one to increase one’s knowledge, and therefore to reduce one’s suffering still more, and so on. The process could, a priori, be blocked, either at the start or in the middle. But it is Buddha’s hypothesis that this does not necessarily occur. The progression may reach a 'fixed point', an 'equilibrium', between the two relations of suffering to knowledge and vice versa, and this is described as perfect knowledge, the absence of all suffering, nirvana.[20] The various stages of the progression are described in terms of the successive 'lives' of the metempsychosis.

Another example will serve to show how self-reference is coiled at the very heart of the problem. What kind of knowledge is in question here? 'I suffer.' Why? Let us begin at the beginning. Why do we say 'I'? The 'self' turns out to be a set of 'aggregates' and even of 'elementary phenomena', of skandhas and dharmas. It itself is merely an illusion. It is worth noting that one could ask whose illusion it is, and one could answer that it is my own, I, who am an illusion. It is therefore an illusion of an illusion. And so on. Even if there is an infinity of interlocking illusions, they will still have no real existence. This illusion (or these illusions) is in fact a set of dharmas: some 'idea of oneself', a 'sensation of oneself' and awareness of these facts, exist without there being a 'self', or rather they are the things which constitute it, along with other dharmas of sensations, perceptions, volitions, sentiments, matters and awarenesses of all these things. If I know that this is how it is, what is this 'self' which knows? It is a set of skandhas or of dharmas, etc. More precisely, this knowledge is a set of dharmas: ideas, sensations, consciousnesses, 'mental formations', etc. But what is it to know all that? A set…​ Everything is simply dharmas and relations between dharmas. The self does not exist.[16]

The Our Ouroboros

Toggle visibility
We can draw the following lesson from this example. Plato, with his 'Know thyself', is a Buddhist too, and this injunction is the Buddha’s advice, remedy, basic activity and his goal (since to know is, as we have seen, to cure). But, in analysing oneself, what does one discover? That one does not exist. To know oneself is to deny oneself, to destroy oneself, to register 'one’s void', and thereby even to cure oneself, since the hooks of suffering no longer have anything to hook on to. It is an implosion of the husk of the illusion of the 'self' in its inner void. This image is, moreover, the Buddha’s own, since the word sunna-sunya, which is translated by 'void', means 'hollow' and, still better, 'swollen'. The ego is a painful abrasion, and the source of all pains; the self is a painful swelling; it is a balloon which explodes under the dharma's piercing gaze.

As well as being in many ways self-referential, Buddhism is also self-productive in the extreme. If to know is to change oneself, what is one to say of one’s knowing oneself? To know oneself is first to have a conception of oneself, therefore, in Buddhist terms, to make oneself, but only for the purpose of becoming aware that one is merely this conception, which is constructed upon a basis that does not imply it. Buddhism, however, places more emphasis upon necessity: to know oneself implies to make oneself and vice versa, if only because one must calm one’s mind, exercise one’s perception and refine one’s intelligence, and because to achieve these things one must know oneself. A man who is advanced in Buddhism is certainly more nearly his own creator than anyone else is. But he is, rather, his own destroyer, since. for him, to make himself is to unmake himself. In order to change itself, being must understand itself; and by changing itself, it understands itself, including with the traditional deep requirement - such as stated in the West by Croce for instance - of being the maker of the object of the understanding; but this change is a dislocation and what is understood is that there is nothing and no one to understand (no 'self' which could be an object of knowledge nor, at any rate, any 'I' which could know). Will erases representation.

Buddhist ontology somewhat resembles the snake that catches its own tail, gulps it down and disappears by swallowing itself; even if it cannot go right to the end, its apparent self may at any rate diminish drastically in length.[16]

Concluding Remarks

If a considerable part of the humanity will see the truth in Buddha’s main idea, the human history will never be same again.

The following list is a spoiler for a future post(s) developing this thesis:

  • Some modern thinkers, e.g. Jiddu Krishnamurti, Thomas Metzinger.

  • The root of, or at least a condition for, almost all past and current wars, is a difference in national or/and religious identity of the fighting parties. Those identities are the first to flake off in an unselfing person.

  • A truly cooperative world, as per Confucius' dream, is impossible in the current common state of consciousness.

  • Unselfing people live today in a state that for a self-believing person would be described as an altered state of consciousness.

1. Heath, T. L. (1921). A history of Greek mathematics (Vol. 1). Oxford University Press.
2. Koestler, A. (1959). The sleepwalkers: A history of man’s changing vision of the Universe. Macmillan.
3. Kahn, C. H. (2001). Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A brief history. Hackett Pub.
4. Zhmudʹ, L. I., Windle, K., & Ireland, R. (2012). Pythagoras and the early Pythagoreans (1st ed). Oxford University Press.
5. An example of a cognitive metaphor, I need to write about it - G.D.
6. Hence the short-cuts, or short-circuits, between different sets of symbols in Pythagorean mystic number-lore, such as the correlation of odd and even numbers with male and female, right and left; or the magic quality atrributed to the pentagram.
7. The simplest manner of proving this is as follows. Let dd be represented by a fraction mnm\over{n}, where mm and nn are unknown. Let a=1a = 1, then d2=12+12d^2 = 1^2 + 1^2 and d=2d = \sqrt{2}. Then m2n2=2{{m^2}\over{n^2}} = 2. If mm and nn have a common factor, divide it out, then either mm or nn must be odd. Now m2=2n2m^2 = 2n^2, therefore m2m^2 is even, therefore mm is even, therefore nn is odd. Suppose m=2pm = 2p. Then 4p2=2n24p^2 = 2n^2, therefore n2=2p2n^2 = 2p^2 and therefore nn is even, contra hyp. Therefore no fraction mn{m}\over{n} will measure the diagonal.
8. Losee, J. (1980). A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Oxford University Press.
9. Creel, H. G. (1949). Confucius, the man and the myth. John Day.
10. At first glance this seems to be similar to Pythagorean thought. However, the restricting "short cuts to knowledge" didn’t helped: as per Lao Tzu, "Good mathematicians do not use counting rods" - G.D.
11. Xinhai Revolution of 1911 - G.D.
12. The quoted book was published in 1953 - G.D.
13. Creel, H. G. (1975). Chinese thought from Confucius to Mao Tsê-tung. Univ. Pr.
14. Need to explain this term, meanwhile a quotation: "Nodal points are the privileged signs around which a discourse is organised. But these signs are empty in themselves. Actually, discourse theory has a term for those elements which are particularly open to different ascriptions of meaning, and that is floating signifiers…​ Floating signifiers are the signs that different discourses struggle to invest with meaning in their own particular way. Nodal points are floating signifiers, but whereas the term ‘nodal point’ refers to a point of crystallisation within a specific discourse, the term ‘floating signifier’ belongs to the ongoing struggle between different discourses to fix the meaning of important signs." (Jørgensen, M., & Phillips, L. (2002). Discourse analysis as theory and method. Sage.). Tao was one of the first floating signifiers ever.
15. Some interesting projects to take inspiration from are Jacque Fresco’s ROE, Chiliean Cybersyn, some intentionall communities such as Israeli Kibbutz.
16. Kolm, S.-C. (1986). The Buddhist theory of “no-self.” In J. Elster (Ed.), The Multiple self. Cambridge University Press.
17. In Hindu thought. knowledge is not something purely intellectual, as it is liable to be in the West. 'Pure' knowledge, sometimes fuelled by 'fundamental research', is an alien conception to it. Hindu knowledge is, on the contrary, a priori meant to guide action, it is meant to be effective and considers itself to be such. It conceives itself as being by and large a know-how. Its spirit thus is not very far, by its type of intention, from that of contemporary economic science. If Marx had been Hindu, he would undoubtedly have felt no need to give a dialectical account of the relations between theory and practice.
18. And relatively anti-Husserlian, negating any 'transcendental ego'.
19. Psychoanalysis seems here, as in much else, to present a sketch, albeit a vague and incomplete one, of what Buddhism is. See, for example, Jung (1959).
20. "Buddhist Nirvana …​ evolved from Sanskrit nir-dva-n-dva where dva means "two", and the whole expression implies that the state of absolute blessedness is attained through the extinction of individual existence and becoming "one" with the Universe. (These negative connotations of the idea of "two" survive even in modern European languages where it carries association with the idea of "doubt": cf. Latin dubius, German Zweifeln, and Goethe’s description of Mephistopheles)." (Manin, I. I. (2007). Mathematics as metaphor: Selected essays of Yuri I. Manin. American Mathematical Society.) - G.D.