Monday, December 24, 2007

Lin YuTang: The Importance of Living

Lin YuTang

The Importance of Living

Cultured Lotus, 2001

(First published by The John Day Company, Inc 1937)

‘The Importance of Living’ by Lin YuTang is a personal testimony, a testimony of his very own experience of thought and life. The main ingredient of his thought is matter-of-fact prose (the ordinary language people use in speaking or writing), natural leisure discourse. Lin YuTang called his writing, a “Lyrical Philosophy” to express his thoughts which is based on highly personal and individual outlook. It lays no claim to establish eternal truths.

When I started reading this book, I was jolted when I read a passage he wrote in the Preface: “I am not deep and well-read. If one is too well-read, then one does not know right is right and wrong is wrong.”

I pondered hard to discover what Lin was trying to express. I am still puzzled and blank.

In the Preface, he expressed his philosophical limitations and said he had not read John Locke or David Hume or Berkeley, and had never taken a college course in philosophy, but only read life at first hand. His sources of knowledge comes from: Mrs. Huang, an amah in his family, a Soochow boat-woman, a Shanghai street car conductor, the cook’s wife, a lion cub in the zoo, a squirrel in New York, a deck steward, and all news in boxes. That’s his source of philosophy of mankind.

While I continued reading, I gather that, Lin had being quoting various sources from (1) Chinese Philosopher & Poets such as: Su Tungpo, ChuangTse, Mencius, Confucius, TseSse (Confucius’ grandson), LaoTse, Po Chuyi, Yuan ChungLang, Chang Tai, Tu ChihShui, Li ChowWu, Chang Chao, Li LiWeng, Yuan TseTsai, Chin ShengTan, Tao YuanMing, Li Mi-an; (2) Western & Greek Philsophers such as: Thomas Hobbes, Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, Plato, Dr Alexis Carrel (Man, the Unknown), Clarence Day (This Simian World), Lord Balfour, Omar Khayyam, Mussolini, William James, James Harvey Robinson (The Mind in the Making), Shakespeare, Aesop, Chaucer, Swift, Anatole France, Einstein, Newton, Hans Christian Andersen (The Mermaid), Kaiser Wilhelm Hodenzollern, Hitler, Hegel,Walt Whitman (Democratic Vistas), Napolean, Marx, Stalin, Emerson, Amiel, Joubert, James Bryce, George Santayana, and so many, many, more.

The writings in this book covered wide views on human awakenings, views of mankind, animal heritage, human dignity and life’s enjoyment, the importance of loafing, celibacy and sex appeal, enjoyment of nature, culture and travel, man’s relationship to God, and the art of thinking.

This philosophical book is a difficult read. You have to have passion and yearnings to want to learn and find out more about the philosophical views of mankind, in particular, the wisdom and thoughts of a Chinese philosopher; otherwise, you would throw the book away.

In Lin’s own words, “I am only interested to present a view of life and of things as the best and wisest Chinese minds have seen it and expressed it in their folk wisdom and their literatures.” It was surely an idle philosophy born of an idle life which evolved with the time.

I love it when he said that “The Chinese philosopher is one who dreams with one eye open, who views life with love and sweet irony, who mixes his cynicism with a kindly tolerance, and who alternately wake up from life’s dream and then nods again, feeling more alive when he is dreaming than when he is awake, thereby investing his waking life with a dream-world quality.

A “Dream-world” quality, what a nice phrase

Dr Lin was born in Changchow in the Fukien province of China on Oct 10th 1895, son of a Christian Minister. He was raised as a Christian, but soon abandoned Christianity for the old Chinese Pagan religions of Taoism and Buddhism, only to rediscover Christianity later in his life.

He took his degrees in St. John's (Shanghai), Harvard, and Leipzig. He was a teacher at Tsinghua University, Beijing in 1916-1919; married and went with his wife to Harvard in 1919 where he studied Comparative Literature under Bliss Perry and Irving Babbitt until 1920. They then moved to France, where Dr Lin worked with the YMCA for Chinese labourers at Le Creusot, 1920-1921. He studied at Jena and Leipzig (where he received his Doctorate) 1921-1923; was Professor of English at Beijing National University 1923-1926 and Dean of Women's Normal College in 1926.

It was in 1937 that Lin first published the book The Importance of Living. It was pure philosophy, and an ancestor of modern "self-help" books, and it achieved instant fame in the United States.

Though Lin's subsequent works contained many philosophical ideas, The Importance of Living is the only one of his books dedicated solely to the mystery of life and the secret to living it successfully.

In 1959, at the encouraging of his wife, Lin attended the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. The minister's sermon about eternal life left Lin curious and intrigued, and he began to return "again and again." After some time, he said:

"The scales began to fall from my eyes. I no longer ask, 'Is there a satisfying religion for the modern educated man?' I know there is. Returning to the Bible, I have found in it not merely a record of historical events but an authentic revelation that brings God, through Christ, within my reach. I have returned to the church. I am happy in my accustomed pew on Sunday morning. I believe we go to church not because we are sinners, and not because we are paragons of Christian virtue, but because we are conscious of our spiritual heritage, aware of our higher nature and equally conscious of our human failings and of the slough of self-complacency into which, without help from this greater power outside ourselves, we so easily fall back…. Looking back on my life, I know that for thirty years I lived in this world like an orphan. I am an orphan no longer. Where I had been drifting, I have arrived. The Sunday morning when I rejoined the Christian church was a homecoming.

The result of Lin's conversion was a book, From Pagan to Christian. It is a text that provides valuable biographical information, and a detailed discussion of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, with a final discussion on why he finally chose Christianity. He asserts that no person can rightly claim to have "a monopoly of truth," and spends much of the book pointing out the qualities of other religions.

Lin Yutang died in 1976 and was buried at his home in Yang Mingshan, Taiwan. His old home has now been turned into a museum, which is run by Soochow University.

Chapter 1: The Awakening

I like to share some of his thoughts about mankind. In the first chapter ‘The Awakening’, Lin said that, “It is generally known that the Chinese mind is an intensely practical, hard-headed one … and profoundly sensitive, profoundly poetic and philosophical. It was evident that the Chinese as a nation are more philosophic than efficient, and that if it was otherwise, no nation could have survived the high blood pressure of efficient life for 4,000 years. 4,000 years of efficient living would ruin any nation, says Lin.

Lin expressed: “In the West, the insane are so many that they are put in an asylum, while in China, the insane are so unusual that we worship them, as anybody who has knowledge of Chinese literature will testify.” (Hahahaha, I truly love this phrase.)

In Lin’s thesis, Mankind seems to be divided into idealists and realists, and idealism and realism are the two great forces molding human progress. The forces of idealism and realism tug at each other in all human activities, and real progress is made possible by the proper mixture of these two ingredients, so that the clay is kept in the ideal pliable, plastic condition, half moist and half dry, not hardened and unmanageable, nor dissolving into mud. Some countries are thrown into perpetual revolutions because into their clay has been injected some liquid of foreign ideals which is not yet properly assimilated, and the clay is therefore not able to keep its shape.

A vague, uncritical idealism always lends itself to ridicule and too much of it might be a danger to mankind, leading it round in a futile wild-goose chase for imaginary ideals. If there were too many of these visionary idealists in any society, revolution would be the order of the day.

Human society would be like an idealistic couple forever getting tired of one place and changing their residence regularly for the simple reason that no one place is ideal and the place where one is not seems always better because one is not there.

Very fortunately, man is also gifted with a sense of humor, whose function, is to exercise criticism of man’s dreams, and bring them in touch with the world of reality. It is therefore important that man dreams, but it is perhaps equally important that he can laugh at his own dreams.

So then, wisdom of the highest level of thinking consists in toning down our dreams, or idealism with a good sense of humor, supported by reality itself. That is to say, Reality + Dreams + Humor = Wisdom.

The Dreamer says: “Life is but a dream.” The Realist replies: “Quite correct. And let us live this dream as beautifully as we can.” But the Realist is a poet and not a business man, who is like an old man running his finger through his flowing beard, and speaking soothingly. And the dreamer is a peace lover, for no one can fight hard just for a dream. He will be more intent to live reasonably and well with his fellow dreamers.

But the chief function of realism is the elimination of all non-essentials in the philosophy of life, holding life down by the neck, for fear that the wings of imagination may carry it away to an imaginary and possible beautiful, but unreal, world.

The problem of life for the Chinese is the impatience with metaphysics and the pursuit of knowledge that does not lead to any practical bearing on life itself. It also means that every human activity, whether the acquiring of knowledge or the acquiring of things, has to be submitted immediately to the test of life itself and its subservience to the end of living. The significance is that, the end of living is not some metaphysical entity – but just living itself.

Therefore, the philosophy of the Chinese becomes a matter of direct and intimate feeling of life itself, and refused to be encased in any system. For there is a robust sense of reality, a sheer animal sense, a spirit of reasonableness which crushes reason itself and makes the rise of any hard and fast philosophic system impossible.

Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are robust, yet common sense dilutes them all and reduces them all into the common problem of the pursuit of a happy human life. The mature Chinese is always a person who refuses to think too hard or to believe in any single idea or faith or school of philosophy whole-heartedly. When a friend of Confucius told him that he always thought 3-times before he acted, Confucius wittily replied, “To think twice is more than enough.”

The final product of this culture and philosophy is that, man lives a life closer to nature and close to childhood, a life in which the instincts and the emotions are given free play and emphasized against the life of the intellect, with a strange combination of devotion to the flesh and arrogance of the spirit, of profound wisdom and foolish gaiety, high sophistication and childish naiveté.

This philosophy of life is characterized by: (1) a gift for seeing life whole in art; (2) a conscious return to simplicity in philosophy; (3) an ideal of reasonableness in living. The end product is, strange to say, a worship of the poet, the peasant, and the vagabond.

Man’s dignity consists of the facts that which distinguish man from animals. First, man has a playful curiosity and a natural genius for exploring knowledge; second, that man has dreams and a lofty idealism (often vague, cocky & confused); third, that man is able to correct his dreams by a sense of humor, and thus restrain his idealism by a more robust and healthy realism; and finally, that man does not react to surroundings mechanically and uniformly as animals do, but possesses the ability and the freedom to determine his own reactions and to change the surroundings at his will.

Somehow, human mind is forever elusive, uncatchable and unpredictable, and wriggle out of materialistic dialectic that crazy psychologists and unmarried economists are trying to impose upon him. Man, therefore, is a curious, dreamy, humorous and wayward creature.

The Scamp as Ideal.

My faith in human dignity consists in the belief that man is the greatest scamp on earth. Human dignity must be associated with the idea of a scamp and not with that of an obedient, disciplined and regimented soldier.

In this present age of threats to democracy and individual liberty, only the scamp and the spirit of the scamp alone will save us from becoming lost as serially numbered units in the masses of disciplined, obedient, regimented and uniformed coolies. The scamp will be the last and most formidable enemy of dictatorships. He will be the champion of human dignity and individual freedom, and will be the last to be conquered. All modern civilization depends entirely upon him.

I do not think that any civilization can be called complete until it has progressed from sophistication to unsophistication, and made a conscious return to simplicity of thinking and living, and I call no man wise until he has made the progress from the wisdom of knowledge to the wisdom of foolishness, and become a laughing philosopher, feeling first life’s tragedy and then life’s comedy. For we must weep before we can laugh. Out of sadness comes the awakening and out of the awakening comes the laughter of the philosopher, with kindliness and tolerance to boot.

This world is far too serious and being far too serious, it has need of a wise and merry philosophy. The philosophy of the Chinese art of living can certainly be called the “gay science”. After all, only a gay philosophy is profound philosophy; the serious philosophies of the West haven’t even begun to understand what life is. To me, the fundamental view is that, the only function of philosophy is to teach us to take life more lightly and gaily than the average business man does. The world can be made a more peaceful and more reasonable place to live in only when men have imbued themselves in the light gayety of this spirit. The modern man takes life far too seriously, and because he is too serious, the world is full of trouble. We ought, therefore, to take time to examine the origin of that attitude which will make possible a wholehearted enjoyment of this life and a more reasonable, more peaceful and less hot-headed temperament.

This is perhaps the philosophy of the Chinese people, a philosophy that transcends these and other ancient philosophers, for it draws from these fountain springs of thought and harmonizes them into a whole, and from the wisdom, it has created an art of living in the flesh, visible, palpable and understandable by the common man.

(The above is only chapter 1. I will cull some of the interesting thoughts and essays later).


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your detailed introduction of Dr.Lin Yutang's books, especially his most well-known ones.

I like Dr.Lin's works very much, though I cannot claim to be a I-have-read-all-his-works fan. In fact in my view it's very difficult to understand all the profound meaning of Dr.Lin's works, though as a Chinese, I have more intimate knowledge of the examples (the cultural background) in Dr.Lin's works.

I'm very glad to read commentaries like yours about Dr.Lin and his fantastic writings. Hope to read more of them.

Jeremiah said...

"I call no man wise until he has made the progress from the wisdom of knowledge to the wisdom of foolishness, and become a laughing philosopher, feeling first life’s tragedy and then life’s comedy. For we must weep before we can laugh.'

The tone of Dr Lin's essay is very much like that of Ecclesiastes. Only difference is that both the fool and the wise man meet the same fate if they do not glorify God in this topsy turvy world:

"The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure."
Chapter 7, verse 4

Anonymous said...

It might be interesting to note that Lin eventually found greater light in the words of Jesus Christ, and even did a development on TOL, with TOU (The Importance of Understanding) Tang-lover. Love, Light and Peace.