Thursday, February 12, 2009

Provoked by Mozi

Mozi said: In ancient times, when mankind was first born and before there were any laws or government, it may be said that every man's views of things was different. One man had one view, two men had two views, ten men had ten views—the more men, the more views. Moreover, each man believed that his own views were correct and disapproved those of others, so that people spent their time condemning one another.... Those with strength to spare refused to help out others, those with surplus wealth would let it rot before they would share it, and those with beneficial doctrines to teach would keep them secret and refuse to impart them.

Mozi wrote his essays sometime after the time of Confucius and before the time of Mencius, so sometime during the fifth century BCE. His essays have always intrigued me, because I agree so profoundly with much of what he says and at the same time shrink bank in horror at the implications of the life he advocates.

Mozi is best remembered for advocating a doctrine of universal love. Nothing but harm, he argued, comes of letting one's love be limited to one's own family, or to one's circle of friends, or to one's own country or to people who share one's beliefs and convictions. If one loves one's own nation, he said, then let one love all nations. To do anything less is to fail to be fully human, and to fail to be fully human is to fail to be satisfactory in the eyes of Heaven. The doctrine of universal love was intimately connected in Mozi's thought to his condemnation of aggressive warfare. When strong nations attack weaker nations for the sake of gaining more land, more population, or better markets, they rarely achieve what they seek and instead reap a harvest of bitterness that no sane person would want: death, destruction of property, wasted resources, and a general disruption of trust and confidence that results in an atmosphere of fear and resentment. Of all the unrighteous things a man can do, says Mozi, none is more unrighteous than beginning a war. Of all the incompetent actions a government can perform, none is more incompetent and counterproductive than beginning a war. With all these sentiments I have always found myself in full agreement.

Where Mozi begins to leave me feeling less sympathetic is in his uncompromising condemnation of music and the arts, and ornamented clothing and fancy houses and splendid carriages. My lack of sympathy here is not without complexity. Having been brought up by parents who had a disdain for all manner of luxury and who wore plain and functional clothing and avoided jewelry and drove practical and efficient automobiles and favored modest housing, I find that my own tastes are basically in accord with those of Mozi. Where I feel uncomfortable is in the stridency of his condemnation of all enterprises that are carried our purely for pleasure and enjoyment rather than for more obviously utilitarian and commercial purposes. The denial of the legitimacy of the pursuit of pleasure strikes me as founded on an unnecessarily narrow understanding of human nature. I keep wanting to argue that people do not thrive when they deny themselves aesthetic pursuits, or when they disdain doing things just for fun.

For most of my adult life, I have been attracted to disciplined ways of living that have little room for pursuits deemed frivolous. The spare lifestyle of the Buddhist monk has always been a source of inspiration to me, and I have always admired those who pursue it (especially since I myself have never been able to pursue it). The idea of having just one set of robes, one bowl out of which one eats one meal per day, and no hair or beard to trim and maintain has always struck me as the noblest way of living in the world. Having no reason to look at oneself in the mirror to see how one might appear to others, one could devote all one's time and energy to undistracted pursuit of wisdom and service to others.

While the Buddhist monk has always been at the top of my list of people to admire, a close second place is held by what Max Weber called secular ascetics, that is, people who earn a livelihood by the sweat of their brow and get married and have a family but who studiously avoid all luxuries so that they can devote all their spare time to undistracted pursuit of wisdom and service to others. Quakers, Shakers, Mennonites, Hutterites, and the Amish have always seemed the very noblest of Christians, the closest to succeeding in living a life that Christ (and the Buddha) would surely approve in full. Among these people there is not much music to be found, not much in the way of ornamented clothing (aside from some pretty amazing quiltwork) or luxurious housing and furnishing (except for some of the most beautiful furniture and carpentry that has ever been produced with simple tools and bare hands).

And yet, despite all my admiration for the plain and disciplined life of monks and so-called primitive Quakers, I cannot suppress my own hedonistic appreciation of music well performed, theater skillfully produced, painting and sculpture beautifully executed, clothing attractively sewn and dyed, and buildings well designed and carefully constructed. Even if I would probably not spend my own money to support the production of such things, I cannot deny being deeply grateful to those who do. Unlike Mozi (and quite a few of my fellow Buddhists and Quakers), I cannot regard the pursuit of beauty wasteful and frivolous. When Mozi rails against such things, I shudder.

I find myself wondering whether my love of discipline on the one hand and my love of beauty on the other is just another one of the many unresolved contradictions in my character. Can one condemn war and partiality and frivolity and praise discipline and wisdom and service but still have time for pleasure and fun without falling into self-contradiction and delusion? I think one can. But I may very well be deluded in this (as in so many other things).