In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 3: The West and the Rest

Previous: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 2: Western Civilization and the Common Core

 

The inevitable ramifications of the propagation of a combined ignorance of and hostility toward Western Civilization among the inheritors of that civilization are disastrous. A person who is so entirely out of touch with the sources of his own ideas and the various institutions around him is a person who is alienated from self and from society. He is unable to understand either of them. More than that, the individual who is ignorant of and hostile to his own culture cannot help but be ignorant of and hostile to other cultures. He cannot understand them on their own terms nor appreciate them for their own merits. His alienation has fostered within him a radical individualism which allows him to see himself, contrary to objective reality, as an isolated cell rather than a part of a larger whole: a community, a society, a nation, a culture, a civilization, or even mankind itself. He only accepts, and in fact he only understands, that with which he agrees. This is perhaps one of the primary reasons the architects of the Common Core have chosen so many modern texts which represent the experience of immigrants to the United States or, more often, second-generation Americans, who write with a hostility toward their newly adopted nation and its traditions while there is a dearth of material listed in their recommendations which can be said to be authentically representative of the native literary and intellectual traditions of the civilizations from which these immigrants have come.

The obsessive focus on “global perspectives,” in the terminology of the Michigan Department of Education, ignores a key aspect of the contemporary global situation, namely, the worldwide predominance of ideas and institutions whose origins are deeply rooted in the history of Western Civilization. China, a rising world power and the most populous nation on earth, provides an outstanding example. The current official name of China is the People’s Republic of China, a nomenclature which reflects the reality of their adoption of Western political and economic ideas. Their political and economic system is a mixture of the free market ideas which originated in early modern Britain; the ideas of Karl Marx, a German-born Jewish immigrant to Britain; and the democratic and republican political ideals of the Greeks and Romans. The native tradition of Confucianism, which dominated political, economic, and social thought in China for millennia plays no role outside of certain lasting and largely unconscious vestiges in custom and perspective. In the popular uprisings which overturned traditional Chinese government and culture in the first half of the twentieth century, the Chinese largely discarded and destroyed their own Confucian cultural heritage, intentionally reforming their nation along a Western model.

The same is true in large part in India, another rising world power and the second most populous nation in the world. One of the great historical ironies of the twentieth century is the overwhelming inspiration ideas with Western origins provided to the nationalists and anti-colonialists in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Nowhere is this more amply demonstrated than in India, where the leaders of the nationalist movement were almost to a man educated in Western schools, or in Western-style schools in India. The most famous leader of the independence movement in India, Mohandas Gandhi, for example, received his primary and secondary education in schools administered by the British government. All but one year of his post-secondary education was completed at University College London.

In his 1959 The Movement of World Revolution, Christopher Dawson provides an illuminating statement by Sardar K.M. Panikkar, one of the leaders of the Indian nationalist movement, to this effect:

In the first place [says Panikkar] the system of higher education in English provided India with a class imbued with social purposes foreign to Hindu thought. The continuity and persistence of those purposes achieved the socio-religious revolution on which the life of modern India is based. While British administration did little or nothing to emancipate the spirit, to extinguish the prejudices, to eradicate the ravages of ignorant custom and pernicious superstition, the New Learning which came to India through its introduction to the English language on a nation-wide scale undoubtedly did all this. Indeed it may be argued that the essential contradiction of the British rule in India lay in this: the constituted government upheld the validity of customs, maintained and administered laws which denied the principles of social justice, refused to legislate for changes urgently called for by society, watched with suspicion the movement of liberal ideas, while the officially sponsored and subsidized educational system was undermining everything that the Government sought to uphold. … In the educational system the Government created and maintained an opposition to itself in a place where its own methods were ineffectual.

The mining of the ancient fortress of Hindu custom was a major achievement, for the reason that it was uniformly spread all over India. Had the new education been through the vernacular languages, the emphasis of the movement would have been different from province to province. … There would have been no “master plan” of change, and instead of the Hindu community being unified, it would have split into as many units as there are languages in India. … From this development India was saved by the common medium of education which Macauly introduced into India.

In the second place it is a point of major significance in the evolution of India as a single nation that this uniform system of education throughout India through a single language produced a like-mindedness on which it was possible to build. That it gave India a common language for political thinking and action is of less importance than the creation of this like-mindedness, this community of thought, feeling and ideas which created the Indian nationality.1

It was the exposure to Western thought through the medium of the English language, in other words, which made the Indian nationalist movement possible. The Western focus on social responsibility and political action, with origins in Greece and in Judaism, inspired the Indian nationalists. The unity of thought and expression brought about by the common language, both in words and ideas, in which they were educated made their unified movement possible. Today, India is rightly proud of its great past, displaying, for example, the symbol of the Emperor Asoka, the ancient king who unified India almost 2300 years ago, on their national flag. They are also a nation with a government and a burgeoning economy centered in sciences and technologies which all originate in the history and thought of Western Civilization.

 

Notes

1 Sardar P.K. Panikkar, quoted in Christopher Dawson, The Movement of World Revolution (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1959), 124-126.

Next: In Defense of Dead White Men, Part 4: Origins of the Western Difference

The Tao in Cross-Cultural Comparison

The idea of an objective, transcendent, and eternal force, law, or “way of things” is one that is found in nearly every culture of the world. In schools of Chinese philosophy such as Taoism and Confucianism, this idea has been called the Tao, or Way; in ancient Greek thought as well as in later Jewish and Christian philosophy and theology, this concept was labeled as Logos, or Word; and, in Indian thought including both Hinduism and Buddhism as well as other varieties of Indian religion, the idea was first referred to as Dharma and later identified as Brahman. The content of these ideas as they were developed within their respective cultural, religious, and philosophical homes reflects both the diversity of cultural expression as well as a remarkable fundamental unity in thought across civilizations, geography, and time.

According to Alan Chan, a professor of philosophy, “a key term in the philosophical vocabulary, it [the Tao] informs early Chinese philosophy as a whole” (“Laozi”). The idea, however, “is interpreted differently” throughout the thought of the various philosophical schools of ancient China.

One of the earliest and fullest treatments of the Tao in Chinese thought is found in the philosophy of Kongzi (551-479 BCE), better known in the English-speaking world as Confucius (Ivanhoe, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 1). For Kongzi, the Tao, as the Way of heaven, is largely a concept that reflects ancient Chinese morals and mores. He urged his students to “set your heart upon the Way, rely upon Virtue, lean upon Goodness, and explore widely in your cultivation of the arts” (Kongzi, The Analects, 7.1, in Ivanhoe, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 21). In the thought of Kongzi, there was a golden age which had preceded the current age of decline. In that golden age, people observed all of the customs and conventions associated with propriety and virtue in ancient China. Since then, however, people had fallen away from observing the proper rituals and, as a result, Chinese society had entered a period of decline. While viewing the Tao in spiritual terms, as the Way of Heaven, Kongzi’s concern is largely social and political, rather than religious or otherwise metaphysical.

For Laozi (a legendary figure held by popular mythology to be a contemporary of Kongzi), the only other Chinese thinker whose ideas can be said to have had an influence equivalent to or greater than that of Kongzi, the Tao was something similar but simultaneously quite different (Ivanhoe, p. 161). Laozi maintained the earlier view, reflected in Kongzi’s thought, that the Tao is the Way of Heaven, the all-pervading and governing principle of the universe. He also maintained Kongzi’s view that there had once been a golden age during which people had been at harmony with the Tao, and therefore with themselves, with each other, with the world around them, and with heaven itself. They had lost their original harmony with it through too much ambition, striving, strain, and stress; they had thereby injured themselves by separating themselves from their nature and from the Tao. This is the point at which Laozi separates from Kongzi in his analysis and prescription. Rather than viewing the problem as fundamentally social and turning to traditionalism and social conservatism for salvation, Laozi viewed the problem as, at heart, a spiritual problem, a problem in the soul of man, and one whose only solution was in man’s soul and, according to Laozi, this solution often entailed a retreat from the social world altogether. According to Jacob Needleman, a professor of philosophy, in the view of Laozi, “man is built to be an individual incarnation of this whole [the Tao]. His good, his happiness – the very meaning of his life – is to live in correspondence and relationship to the whole, to be and act precisely as the universe itself is and moves” (Feng and English, Tao Te Ching, p. xiv).

In viewing the Tao in terms of nature, spirit, and the individual, Laozi’s thought departs widely from that of Kongzi, which viewed the Tao in terms of society, ritual, and organization. The two thinkers are agreed, however, in the fundamental assertion that there is a Tao, a Way of Heaven, a law, guiding force, and governing principle in the cosmos. In this harmony, they also find agreement with thinkers from a wide variety of other cultures; fascinatingly, many of these thinkers with similar ideas were their contemporaries and near-contemporaries.

In Greece, at the nearly the same moment that Kongzi and Laozi were developing and teaching their ideas of the Tao, the philosopher Heraclitus (535-475 BCE) introduced the concept of the Logos, a word meaning both “Word” and “Reason,” into Greek thought. According to Richard Tarnas, a professor of philosophy and psychology, in Heraclitus’s thought, the Logos was “the rational principle governing the cosmos” (The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 45). Frederick Coplestone, a historian of philosophy, describes Heraclitus’s logos as “the universal law immanent in all things, binding all things into a unity and determining the constant change in the universe according to universal law” (A History of Philosophy, p. 43). This is an idea, developed nearly simultaneously with the views of Kongzi and Laozi but thousands of miles away and in a very different cultural context, that bears a remarkable resemblance to the concept of the Tao in Chinese thought, especially in the thought of Laozi. The views of Heraclitus in regards to man’s relationship with the Logos are also remarkably similar to the views of Laozi. According to Coplestone, Heraclitus urged that “man should … strive to attain to the viewpoint of reason [that is, of the Logos] and to live by reason [the Logos]” (A History of Philosophy, p. 43), a view nearly synonymous with those of Laozi.

The concept of the Logos would later be taken up by both Jewish and Christian philosophers in the Greek-speaking world. It would be identified in those religious traditions with the Word of God. Later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Christian missionaries in China recognized the notable similarity between the Greek concept of the Logos and the Chinese concept of the Tao, and took up using the word “Tao” as a Chinese translation for the word “Logos.” For example, a 1911 translation of the Bible into Cantonese by the American Bible Society opens the Gospel of John with the proclamation:

In the beginning was the Tao,
And the Tao was with God,
And the Tao was God.
The same was in the beginning with God. (Damascene, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 8)

The word “Tao,” of course, is here being used to translate the word “Logos” in the original Greek of the biblical text.

In addition to this similar idea from Western thought, Indian thought also provides examples of concepts very similar to the concept of the Tao in its ideas of Dharma and Brahman. According to James C. Livingstone, a professor of religion, “in the Vedas,” which texts represent some of the earliest developments in Indian religion and philosophy, “the word dharma stood for an eternally fixed moral law that underlies the universe” (Anatomy of the Sacred, p. 362). So central to ancient Hindu thought was the concern for coming into concord with this law that, “in the later law books,” such as the Law of Manu, “dharma came to refer specifically to the duties and obligations of social life” (Livingstone, Anatomy of the Sacred, p. 362).

Whereas from its inception the Logos of Heraclitus bore a similarity to the Tao as it was developed in the thought of Laozi, the Dharma in its inception bears a much closer resemblance to the Tao as enunciated in the thought of Kongzi. As in Kongzi’s philosophy, the earliest Indian thought on Dharma viewed it largely as a matter of social important, a set of laws, rituals, customs, and conventions to be followed in order for people to attain social harmony and person prosperity. In later Indian thought, however, the Dharma would come to resemble something much more similar to Laozi’s more spiritual and personal version of the Tao.

In Hinduism, for example, the Dharma would be associated closely with the idea of Brahman, the “God [who] is being, awareness, and bliss” (Smith, The World’s Religions, p. 60). Just as meditation on the self-identification of the God of Judaism and Christianity as “I AM,” or the root source, underlying principle, and governing force of existence, in Exodus 3:14 would lead later Jewish and Christian thinkers to an identification of God with the Logos of Greek thought, this very similar description of the Supreme Being in Hinduism demonstrates the similarities of Brahman, Dharma, and Tao.

Also remarkably similar is the Hindu treatment of the relationship between man and Brahman. According to Hindu thought as developed in the Upanishads, a set of mystical, theological, mythological, and philosophical texts, the most important of which were written between 1000 and 600 BCE, Brahman is also identical with the atman, the personal soul of each individual human being. This identification of the atman with Brahman sounds very much like the identification of the Logos, as universal Reason, with the reason inherent in each person, as well as with Laozi’s concept of each man as intended to be an embodiment and reflection of the Tao. There is also a further similarity with Jewish and Christian thought here in the biblical assertion that human beings were created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27).

Although the Buddha (563-483), a contemporary of Kongzi, Laozi, and Heraclitus, rejected the Hindu concept of Brahman, in splitting with the Hinduism developing during the period of the composition of the Upanishads, his ideas concerning Dharma also present a noteworthy comparison here. According to professor and spiritual leader Eknath Easwaran, in the thought of the Buddha, “dharma expresses the central law of life, that all things and events are part of an indivisible whole” (The Dhammapada, p. 12). Here again there is emphasis on an underlying principle which in some sense unites and governs the cosmos. And, in the Buddha’s thought, yet again emphasis is placed on the need for each individual to come into harmony with that principle and thereby attain peace for one’s self and for the world.

Across cultural boundaries and, in the ancient world, nearly insurmountable geographic expanses, at a point in time nearly simultaneous, several of the great civilizations of the world, China, Greece, the Middle East, and India, saw thinkers introduce and develop concepts that bore a remarkable similarity to each other. As Kongzi and Laozi developed their ideas of the Tao in China, Heraclitus expounded upon the Logos in Greece, Jewish thinkers developed their first ideas about a God who is Being Itself, and the authors of the Upanishads and the Buddha taught about Dharma in India. In these ideas, there is a display of cultural uniqueness and of divergence in thought, but also, and far more noteworthy, a fascinating similarity in their assertion that there is a uniting and governing underlying source which transcends and yet remains imminent within it and that man, for his own salvation both as a species and as individuals, must come into harmony with this principle.

ReferencesChan, Alan, “Laozi”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

Coplestone, Frederick. (1946). A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1946.

Damascene, Hiermonk. (2004). Christ the Eternal Tao. Platina: Valaam Books.

Easwaran, Eknath. (1999). The Dhammapada. Tomales: Nilgiri Press.

Feng, Gia-Fu and Jane English. Translators. (1989). Tao Te Ching. New York: Vintage Books.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. and Bryan W. Van Norden. (2005). Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy: Second Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Livingstone, James C. (1998). Anatomy of the Sacred: An Introduction to Religion, Third Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Smith, Huston. (1991). The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers.

Tarnas, Richard. (1991). The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books.

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