Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Description of the World - Part 49

Alan Riding, Distant Neighbors: a Portrait of the Mexicans (For me, Mexico is at once a hallucination and the most ordinary place in the world because I grew up with Chicanos and worked summer jobs digging ditches with them but I also dreamed about the Aztecs and Mayans and flamboyant Mexican baroque and Under the Volcano and Don Juan the Yaqui shaman, not to mention Sor Juana. I don’t think Riding contributed anything much to the stew.)

John Keegan, The Price of Admiralty (This is Keegan’s attempt to do for naval warfare what he did for land warfare in Face of Battle. He wanted to capture the experience of sea battles as he had for land battles.)

Ki-baik Lee, A New History of Korea (Perhaps because I grew up in a town with a large Japanese-American population, I took it for granted that understanding history had to involve more than understanding the doings of one scraggly peninsula—Europe, that is, not Korea—and I’ve dutifully followed that up by reading histories of most of the countries of the world. Assimilating all that information is another matter, of course. I’ve spent enough time with Japanese, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Indian history to have a sense of places and times. What I retain of Korean history is largely a sense that there is a considerable there there. The rest is fragments. On the other hand, I’ve known many Koreans and, as a denizen of the Pacific Rim, don’t confuse them with the Chinese or Japanese. Whatever your skepticism about national characteristics, the Koreans I’ve spoken with believe in them, insisting in particular on the contrast between their individualism and Japanese group think. My experience is congruent with that, at least as far as the Koreans go. The Koreans I’ve been friendly with would all make lousy ants.)

Mark Edward Lewis, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (I’m obviously a person afflicted by curiosity, but as wide-ranging (or defuse) as my interests may be, I have a fairly small number of questions to ask the world. I just ask the questions of more parts of it. One of the fattest dossiers I maintain is on issue of how radically the world’s various traditions of thinking differ from one another. How big is the space of possible modes of understanding and how much of the space has ever been occupied? The domestic policy version of the question is the true extent of the internal diversity of Western philosophy—as it might have been put in my youth, is there more to English philosophy than cricket jokes? Is continental philosophy theosophy for the carriage trade? The foreign policy version has to do with whether Nagarjuna or Mo Ti were philosophers or perhaps practitioners of a distinct but analogous occupation. Of course a similar set of questions can be and often is asked about science, mathematics, theology, jurisprudence, philology, and literary criticism considered not in regards their results but their practices. If you assume that philosophy and the rest ask inevitable, obvious questions, the game is over before it begins. You’re like a Newtonian who thinks of infinite space and eternal time as a given. I’m taking the side of Leibniz side of this one. We ants shouldn’t just take it for granted that we’re crawling across an infinite plane. Maybe we’re on a sphere. Maybe on a donut. We’ll have to figure that out from right here. Similarly, I’m not willing to simply assume that philosophy comes down to figuring out the answer to the traditional obvious questions of what is, how do we know, and what should we do. I want to look and see.

Well, that’s kind of a tangent, not that I’m adverse to those. But the connection to the Lewis’ book is this: One way of looking at the question of modes of thinking is the relationship of thinking to power. The scribal sages who developed the international proverb business in the ancient Middle East presumably sought the ear of the king just as the sophists sold rhetoric lessons to the leaders and would-be leaders of the Demos. Just what the political vocation of the philosophers, strictu sensu, was is somewhat harder to say. Like Vito Corleone, Thales claimed to buy and sell olive oil for a living, but that was just his day job. Plato famously got in trouble trying to advise a tyrant; and Aristotle “played the taws upon the bottom of a king of kings,” though Alexander didn’t use the Politics as a practical guide to conquering the world. It’s in China that a tradition of sages grew up that not only aspired to advise kings but eventually succeeded in creating an imperial ideology, or rather two of them, the totalitarian legalism of the Qin and the Confucian humanism of the Han. If the Chinese sages are philosophers, as Europeans in the Enlightenment certainly thought they were, then China provides one of the first instances before 1917 of philosophy (supposedly) in charge. Can secular thinkers design a world and call it into being? What are the limits of that ambition? We think of China so often as the homeland of spontaneity, of the Tao, of inaction (wu wei), of the sage doing nothing and everything being accomplished that we forget that it’s institutions were premeditated to a remarkable degree.

The legalist thinkers devised a plan and the Qin monarchs followed it, eventually unifying the warring kingdoms. It was a top-down operation. Confucian and Taoist orthodoxy did a pretty good job of obscuring how much they learned from this ruthless program. The apologists for the Han claimed that they corrected the violence and inhumanity of the Qin, but the Han and subsequent dynasties continued many its fundamental innovations: the insistence that the empire is “all under heaven,” the central role of the Emperor, and the establishment and standardization of a single writing system. If the Chinese imperial system had an author, it was Lord Shang, not Master Kung.

Of course the Legalists were extremely hostile to the humanistic doctrines of the other sages. According to the Book of Lord Shang, which is more than a little analogous to the Management of Savagery, the state suffers when it is infested by the twelve lice: rites, music, odes, history, moral culture, filial piety, brotherly love, sincerity, benevolence, duty, criticism of the army, and being ashamed of fighting. It’s small wonder the Han successors were anxious to disassociated themselves from this cruel purism; but it built the state once and for all, which is why the Communists rehabilitated the Legalists; and to this day make sure that the First Emperor, Shi Huangdi, is always represented deferentially in historical movies.)