25 April 2017

Gu Hongming’s commentary on the Confucian Way


Gu Hongming 辜鴻銘

It has been my profound pleasure to have run across the writings of the half-Peranakan, half-Portuguese man-of-letters, polyglot and Confucian gentleman, Dr. Thompson Gu Hongming 辜鴻銘. I happened to come across a witticism of his about the British parliament being ‘originally a witan, a meeting of wise men’, but ‘now a meeting of interested men’. I then learned that he authored a book called The Story of a Chinese Oxford Movement (now on my to-read list), and was hooked from there. I have been on record considering the great institutional reformer and constitutionalist Kang Youwei to be a representative of Chinese radical High Toryism, but I’m now wondering if the ‘eccentric’ Dr. Gu might actually fit the bill a bit better. Most of his books have been written in English (the man knew at least ten languages including Ancient Greek, Latin, Russian and German as well as the local English, Malay and Minnan); so it wasn’t too hard for me to find a digital copy of his 1915 book The Spirit of the Chinese People, which I’m currently halfway through.

It is – so far – an eloquent defence of the Chinese genius as such, has much in common with the Slavophil and pan-Slav defences of the Russian genius, and indeed draws from many of the same German Romantic wellsprings. His idea of the Chinese genius being an ‘imaginative reason’ born of filial love and loyalty comes within very near shades of Kireevsky’s ‘integral knowing’. His writing is peppered throughout, as befits an apologia of Chinese civilisation to a Western audience of the time, with references to Goethe, Johnson, Wordsworth, Ruskin, Carlyle, Arnold, Emerson and a number of other literary figures from the Western canon, with a specific eye to the Romantics. His writing is additionally coloured by his liberal use of Pauline epistolary language and references to the Hebrew Scriptures. And yet he is no mere dilettante; his understanding of the down-to-earth Confucian reasoning with regard to the most mundane aspects of human conduct runs remarkably deep; like the Slavophils, he does not put the Chinese person on a pedestal to be admired, but rather illustrates certain admirable facets of the ordinary, all-too-human character and personality, which can shine through despite the faults and flaws to which individuals are prone. He is keen, indeed, to make the Confucian Way to be not so much an élite philosophy of government, but instead something akin to and a replacement for religious faith among the masses – a habit and an honour code both, living in the institutions and the unwritten rules of what he calls the ‘real Chinaman’, not to be confused with the modernising literati.

He places a keen emphasis on two interrelated concepts, both of which he traces to the Chunqiu 春秋: the ‘mingfen dayi’ 名分大義 or the ‘Great Principle of Honour and Duty’; and the ‘junzi zhi dao’ 君子之道 or the ‘Law of the Gentleman’. (It is of great interest to me that he singles out the Spring and Autumn Annals as a central text here. Might he not have been subject to the radical influence of the New Text scholars, despite his well-publicised disagreements with some of their notables?) He attempts to show how these unwritten principles and laws form the Chinese character, influence and infuse with reverence the common-sense respect for parents and care for spouses and children, and provide a religious-psychological ground for good behaviour that modern Europeans have lost, and thus require the iron hand of the law, the policeman and the soldier to keep in line. He writes from a heartfelt revulsion – common to authors more radical than he himself – for the twin spirits of capitalist commercialism and iron-clad militarism that, at the time he wrote this work, were gripping the West in a Great War; and he sees the Chinese genius as something the nations of the West can learn from.

In any event, it would be a great disservice to Dr. Gu to write him off as a reactionary or a mere obscurantist – though I can already tell there is indeed something of the Tory-radical, anarcho-monarchist streak which runs through his writing. It seems he’s been given somewhat short shrift by later commentators on nineteenth-century Chinese thought – perhaps unfairly, given how heavily the (modernising, anti-Confucian) May Fourth intellectuals figure into such analyses, and how thoroughly out-of-step Dr. Gu is with the great bulk of them. But I hope to have some further thoughts on Dr. Gu as I read more of his work.

24 April 2017

Plato on wealth and sōphrosunē

‘Isn’t it by now plain that it’s not possible to honour wealth in a city and at the same time adequately to maintain moderation among the citizens, but one or the other is necessarily neglected?’
- Plato, The Republic, 555c

Even though the ‘city in speech’ which Socrates and his interlocutors in The Republic craft for themselves is indeed an exercise in utopianism, it’s still worth considering what Plato intended to use this city for. The understanding of justice that Plato wants to point us to, is emphatically not that advocated by Cephalus, Polemarchus or Thrasymachus in the opening books of the Republic. Cephalus’ view, reflective of the ‘oligarchic man’, of justice being merely obedience to the laws and respect for private property, is instantly ridiculed by Socrates with the example of a madman with a weapon, and whether it would be just to let the madman have the weapon – his own lawful private property, after all – to do with it what he pleased. Polemarchus’ view, which reflects the ‘timocratic man’ and insists on doing good to friends and evil to enemies, is closer to the truth but still lends itself to certain dialectical antinomies (as Socrates leads Polemarchus to admit that the just man must be a thief). And Thrasymachus’ attack on Socrates, to the effect that justice consists in the will of the strong over the weak, the rulers over the ruled, the many over the one, reflects the mature ‘democratic’ and proto-‘tyrannical’ attitudes of Callicles in the Gorgias, and lends itself to the same routes of examination. (Bloom’s analysis has it that Thrasymachus represents and prefigures the Athenian jury which ultimately tried and executed Socrates.)

Thus it is left to Socrates’ fellow-travellers Adeimantus and Glaucon (Plato’s brothers, as a note of interest) to draw out how Socrates would defend and define the just, by bringing to bear the strongest possible form of Thrasymachus’ attack. To do this, Glaucon crafts a scenario – the infamous Ring of Gyges – which would allow a person to reap all the earthly rewards: sexual favours, power, prestige and renown, which are due to a just man, whilst at the same time actually taking part in the worst forms of intrigue and murder (indeed, regicide). And Adeimantus points to certain ambivalences in the nature of the universe and the personality of the gods, which arise from reading the great poets, including Homer. And this is the ground from which Socrates is forced to defend justice as such – and actually, with it, the entirety of virtue including wisdom, courage and sōphrosunē.

Cephalus has left the dialogue, and appeals to the authority of the elders no longer have any weight. Political logic has disappeared. From the point at which Thrasymachus, Glaucon and Adeimantus have steered the conversation, we’re in something like Hobbes’s ‘state of nature’ or Nietzsche’s wasteland, a war of all against all wherein the strongest, most ruthless and most cunning define what is and is not ‘just’. (What’s truly eerie about reading the Republic is that Plato seems to have anticipated these turns in our philosophical thought, and sought to answer them pre-emptively!) And in such a post-political wasteland Socrates must build the city anew, ‘in speech’, to find out where justice truly lies.

Socrates’ ideal city is, from the outset, a macrocosm of the soul of man ‘written in large print’, so that his interlocutors can see clearly what a well-ordered soul would look like through the lens of a well-ordered city. Thus, the ‘city in speech’ is not simply an exercise in political utopianism (though it is also that): it is an exercise in examining the soul and determining what sort of man one should become and be, regardless of which régime one lives in. In the well-ordered city each person and each class of people minds his own business and does not necessarily seek first after his own happiness and comfort, but after harmony and peace with the others; the logic which Socrates attempts to draw out of Adeimantus and Glaucon, is that the well-ordered man must also seek harmony and peace within himself. The noetic part of the soul – that part of the soul that learns and understands and reflects and humbles itself before the divine – must be allowed to rule the willing and desiring parts of the soul, and the willing and desiring parts of the soul must be reasoned with and their good sought.

As soon as that part of the soul that loves glory and demands respect is allowed to rule the man, the downward slide begins toward disordered love of wealth, toward strife within the soul, toward all the manner of depravities which Gyges indulged. That is why Socrates is so emphatic that wealth – that which is sought out of proportion by the desiring part of the soul as the medium to the ends with which it feeds itself endlessly – is an implacable enemy of sōphrosunē, that only what wealth is necessary should be allowed within the city, that it should as far as possible be shared in common (particularly among the ruling class), and that concentrations of wealth should be shunned. It is impossible for a very poor man to be proficient at his own business, and it is even more impossible for a very rich man to keep to his own business. Plato sees inequality not so much as an evil in itself, but a sure indicator of evils within the soul of the city and thus also within the souls of the citizens.

There is much, much more that can be said about the Republic, but I thought it might be worth exploring a little bit here, some of Plato’s thought on wealth and its distribution within the city.

22 April 2017

Pointless video post - ‘Dead Revolution’ by Hammers of Misfortune


It’s been awhile since I posted one of these. But I’ve been on a prog bender for awhile now; Hammers of Misfortune is an old favourite of mine (quirky af heavy metal drenched with Hammond organs and cowbells and a seventies retro vibe); and the lyrics from the title song of their most recent album (as well as John Cobbett’s commentary on the same) reflect much of my current mood.
Drag me into your exhausted future
Do I have a choice?
Your revolution has gone on so long
Heed your master’s voice
Never realise the tyranny is coming from the inside
And an evil eye has opened in your own private sky
Born on the wrong side of the divide
Million miles across
Are you still waitin’ for your invitation
Maybe it was lost
And every teardrop falls
Like Moses coming down from the mountain
And an evil eye has opened in your own private sky
Lenses and mirrors, a looking-glass world
Shot from every side
The next contestant to try and survive
Maze of your design
The better world you are trying to build
Is laughing in your face
The better world you are trying to build
Is on fire

21 April 2017

Many happy returns

For Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s ninety-first birthday. God save our gracious Queen, and grant her many, many years!

19 April 2017

The prophet Solzhenitsyn


I just finished reading The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century, written 23 years ago now, and once again I find myself stunned by Solzhenitsyn’s perspicacity and profundity on the topics of modern geopolitics, œconomics and even the climate. He speaks with a moral clarity, urgency and conviction that few in his own day, let alone ours, can hope to match.

Here is what he has to say on the topic of the environment and climate change:
When a conference of the alarmed peoples of the earth convenes in the face of the unquestionable and imminent threat to the planet’s environment and atmosphere, a mighty power (one consuming not much less than half of the earth’s currently available resources and emitting half of its pollution) insists, because of its present-day internal interests, on lowering the demands of a sensible international agreement, as though it does not live on the same earth, then other leading countries shirk from fulfilliing even these reduced demands. Thus, in an economic race, we are poisoning ourselves.
On the dangers of capitalist materialism:
The ruble-dollar blow of the Nineties shook our character in yet a new way: those who still possessed the kindly traits of a bygone time turned out to be the least prepared for the new way of life, helpless useless losers, unable to feed their families (a horrible feeling for parents before their own children!), and, suffocating, goggled at a new breed steamrolling over them with a new cry: ‘Booty! booty at any price! no matter if through fraud, rot, depravity or the sale of Maternal wealth!’ ‘Booty’--became the new (and how paltry!) Ideology. A smashing and destructive alteration, which has as yet failed to bring any good or success to our economy and does not promise soon to do so--thickly breathed decay into the national character.

God forbid this decay become irreversible.
And again:
We must build a moral Russia, or none at all—it would not then matter anyhow. We must preserve and nourish all the good seeds which miraculously have not been trampled down in Russia. Will the Orthodox Church help us? It was ravaged more than anything else in the Communist years. In addition, it was undermined internally by its three-century-long subordination to the State and lost the impulse for strong social actions. Now, with the active expansion into Russia of well-funded foreign confessions and sects, with the ‘principle of equal opportunities’ for them and the impoverished Russian Church, the process of pushing Orthodoxy out of Russian life altogether has begun. Incidentally, the new explosion of materialism, this time a ‘capitalist’ one, threatens all religion.
And still again:
We have allowed our wants to grow unchecked, and are now at a loss where to direct them. And with the obliging assistance of commercial enterprises, newer and yet newer wants are concocted, some wholly artificial; and we chase after them en masse, but find no fulfilment. And we never shall.

The endless accumulation of possessions? That will not bring fulfilment either. Discerning individuals have long since understood that possessions must be subordinated to other, higher principles, that they must have a spiritual justification, a mission; otherwise, as Nikolai Berdyaev put it, they bring ruin to human life, becoming the tools of avarice and oppression.
On the Ukraine:
Leaving aside the swift turnabout of Ukraine’s Communist chieftains, we have seen the Ukrainian nationalists, who in the past so staunchly opposed Communism, and in all, it seemed, cursed Lenin, sorely tempted from the first by his poisoned gift: eagerly accepting the false Leninist borders of Ukraine (including even the Crimean dowry of the petty tyrant Khrushchev). Ukraine (like Kazakhstan) immediately set upon a false imperial path.

I do not wish the burden of great power status upon Russia, nor upon Ukraine. I sincerely express the best wishes for the development of Ukrainian culture and distinctiveness, and genuinely love them; but why begin not with the restoration and spiritual strengthening of the national nucleus, not with cultural work within the bounds of the Ukrainian population and territory
propre, but with an impulse to become a ‘Great Power’? … Do the current rulers of Ukraine and of her public opinion fully realise what a gigantic cultural task lies before them? A sizeable portion of the ethnic Ukrainian population itself does not even use or have command of the Ukrainian language…

Meanwhile, we read accounts of discrimination against Russian schools and even kindergartens in Galicia, hooligan-like attacks on them; of the suppression in places of Russian television broadcasts; even bans on librarians to converse with readers in Russian—can this truly be the path of development for Ukrainian culture? We hear slogans like ‘Russians out of Ukraine!’, ‘Ukraine for the Ukrainians!’—although numerous ethnicities populate Ukraine. Practical measures have been implemented as well: those who did not become Ukrainian citizens are experiencing constraints in employment, pensions, ownership of real estate, and are not allowed to take part in privatisation—but these people did not come to Ukraine from abroad, they have always lived there…
And on the topic of empire generally, from the Letter to the Soviet Leaders:
The aims of a great empire and the moral health of the people are incompatible. We should not presume to invent international tasks and bear the cost of them so long as our people is in such moral disarray.
May we learn wisdom from the words of this prophet of our times.

God’s personality, at Bethlehem shown

But than to affirm that the Divine Will is thus solely and without cause the author of their condemnation, what greater calumny can be fixed upon God? and what greater injury and blasphemy can be offered to the Most High? For that the Deity is not tempted with evils, and that He equally willeth the salvation of all, since there is no respect of persons with Him, we do know; and that for those who through their own wicked choice, and their impenitent heart, have become vessels of dishonour, there is, as is just, decreed condemnation, we do confess. But of eternal punishment, of cruelty, of pitilessness, and of inhumanity, we never, never say God is the author, who telleth us that there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth. Far be it from us, while we have our senses, thus to believe, or to think; and we do subject to an eternal anathema those who say and think such things, and esteem them to be worse than any infidels.
- Patriarch Dositheos II (Notaras) of Jerusalem, The Confession of Dositheos, 1672

18 April 2017

The Resurrection and the œconomy of kenōsis


In this Bright Week we are celebrating the rising from the tomb of Our Lord. Having witnessed the Pascha and the Holy Fire as it was brought out from the altar this year, let me tell you that it is a truly sublime experience – eerie, otherworldly, awe-inspiring. Just as it should be when a dead man returns, past all human expectation or hope, back to life. The Resurrection is an interruption; indeed, it is a eucatastrophic overturn of the entirety of our experience of reality, and the Liturgy breaks upon us in exactly the same fashion – shaking us wholly out of our routines and our mundane understandings of creation. This eucatastrophe, this overturn, of the entire fallen order – this utter defeat of death, the one certainty of that fallen order – has profound implications across the entirety of our lived experience. Why, then, in light of this bold defiance of death and Hell by the Son of Man, should we then be hesitant to speak a few words on how it impacts (or should impact) the material dimension of our lives?

It is to be understood, first, that the Incarnation, and secondly that the Crucifixion, are both acts of sublime self-emptying (or kenōsis, to use the Greek). The very Logos of God – that is to say, the divine and eternal principle which underwrites the entirety of the created order from the beginning – limited Himself, confined Himself within a suffering, bleeding, ageing, mortal human body, descended into the existence of a poor, working-class Jewish man under Roman rule. He took on Himself every single one of our physical and emotional weaknesses – hungering, thirsting, heat and cold, anger and fear – with the exception of sin. And for the sake of the world He gave Himself up to mockery and public scorn, to be subjected to the most humiliating and excruciating forms of public execution reserved for enemies of the Emperor, traitors and bandits. And thus He died. The ultimate expression of self-emptying love.

And then happened the Resurrection on the third day, the appearance of Christ to His forlorn, demoralised and distraught disciples. In the flesh, so to speak.
O death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory? Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is Risen, and life is liberated! Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
So speaks Saint John Chrysostom directly to us, every year on the Paschal feast. These are words of comfort, especially to someone like me who has been so lax and so out of tune with the season. The great Church Father was deeply sensitive to the impact this new reality, this eucatastrophe that renders death powerless and overturns the iron laws of necessity, and his approach to ethics is undergirded entirely by this impact. A reality in which the human, mortal, dying face of God, the face of Christ in each person, is elevated to the eternal, inescapable either now or in the hereafter, Chrysostom comes to understand care for the poor and powerless as all the more pressing:
Let us men imitate the women [who went to the tomb]; let us not forsake Jesus in temptations. For they for Him even dead spent so much and exposed their lives, but we neither feed Him when hungry, nor clothe Him when naked, but seeing Him begging, we pass Him by!
Instead of the reality of the Resurrection being a cause for nonchalance in our care for the very least of our brothers, Chrysostom saw it instead as a call to deepen and intensify the work of Christ in the world and for us to become active participants in that work. The importance of material acquisition in this life, the expectations of enjoyment of œconomic goods here and now, pale utterly and shrink before the demands of the salvific labour in kenōsis to which the Cross and the empty Tomb call us!
The purpose of His dying was not that He might hold us liable to punishment and in condemnation, but that He might do good unto us. For this cause He both died and rose again, that He might make us righteous.
For this reason, taking into account the wise words of the Holy Father John Chrysostom, let us continue to meditate on both the grace that the Resurrection extends to us and also the challenge: that we might become participants in an œconomy of love and an œconomy of kenōsis, rather than continuing in the hopeless logic of death and succumbing to the capitalistic œconomy of philautia (self-love) which our fallen nature and our fallen culture mire us in.