Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Trick

Looking around, seeing arrogance, confusion, turmoil.

Upright things fall on deaf ears, despite their intention to help those wounded and in pain.

"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts." -T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia

So simply put, so elegant. For now, there's nothing else to say.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The wisdom of Xunzi, Part Three


In this third and final post on Xunzi (Part One, Part Two), I want to share his thoughts on what a Great Man is. As many of us strive to improve ourselves, it helps to have some image to hold in our minds as a goal. Xunzi says,
He who has such enlightenment may sit in his room and view the entire area within the four seas, may dwell in the present and yet discourse on distant ages. He has penetrating insight into all beings and understands their true nature, studies the ages of order and disorder and comprehends the principle behind them.

He surveys all heaven and earth, governs all beings, and masters the great principle and all that is in the universe. Broad and vast-who knows the limits of such a man? Brilliant and comprehensive-who knows his virtue? Shadowy and ever changing-who knows his form? His brightness matches the sun and moon; his greatness fills the eight directions. Such is the Great Man. [1]

To be great one need not master others, one need master one's self. One must be unified in one's thinking and focus, for how can one progress when walking two paths? Xunzi's description of the cultivated mind gives much food for thought as we move forward. He says,
The mind may be compared to a pan of water. If you place the pan on a level and do not jar it, then the heavy sediment will settle to the bottom and the clear water will collect on top [...].

But if a faint wind passes over the top of the water, the heavy sediment will be stirred up from the bottom and the clear water will become mingled with it, so that you can no longer get a clear reflection of even a large object.

The mind is the same way.

If you guide it with reason, nourish it with clarity, and do not allow external objects to unbalance it, then it will be capable of determining right and wrong and of resolving doubts.

But if you allow petty external objects to pull it about, so that its proper form becomes altered and its inner balance is upset, then it will not be capable of making even gross distinctions. [1]

Is your mind clear?

Stoic Living for the Modern Soul My book on stoicism.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The wisdom of Xunzi, Part Two


(Part One Part Three) Beyond the implications of Xunzi's philosophy and wisdom on our society, are the implications it has on our personal development. What does it mean to be a gentleman? Gentleman is used here as the chosen word often selected by those translating Confucian philosophers to mean the highest developed, and most honorable of men. Xunzi, and other Confucians, would argue that this should be the chief aim of men. So what does Xunzi tell us about this path of development, and how do we attain it? Xunzi says,
Learning should never cease. [...] The gentleman is by birth no different from any other man; it is just that he is good at making use of things. [...] [1]

How does a man make use of things? By learning, about ourselves, our world, and our place in it. By cultivating ourselves, we raise ourselves. By doing so, we see farther, and other's can see us more clearly . Time spent in self-reflection and learning is key. Observe yourself every day, and you may learn a lot. Knowing your true motivations for things, whether they be fears, desires, or hope for a certain outcome, can mean the difference in your chosen actions. To act and not know yourself and your true motivations can be disastrous. Xunzi also tells us what may happen when we allow ourselves to stray from our path.
The glory or shame that come to a man are no more than the image of his virtue. Meat when it rots breeds worms; fish that is old and dry brings forth maggots. When a man is careless and lazy and forgets himself, that is when disaster occurs. [1]

I know this from personal experience all too well. So much of my life was spent in this disaster. I strayed from my path, and I paid the price. There's no comparison between myself today and the self I once was. Were I able I'd be tempted to go back in time and ask myself some questions.

How much of your day is spent seeking some meager pleasure or profit? How mean are you in your dealings with other men? Do you fill your heart with sympathy or coldness? To do one is to be a man, to do the other is to be a beast.

Some may ask, "Yes, but how does this help me to get ahead in the world?" A man walking past the door of his home, and trying to climb the fence.

Some will attempt to devalue and mock what they don't understand. Beware, for this is the mark of an uncultivated mind.

At some point your quest for pleasures will run its course. What then? You may be surprised to find that you have much work to do. Yet is learning not a pleasure in itself? And is it not fulfilling to discover how much is offered to you freely when you enrich yourself and stop yearning for things you do not have? I don't say that pleasures will cease, only that they take their proper place, and are thus more fully enjoyed.

How powerful you become simply by cultivating yourself.

I'll delve into Xunzi's description of this power in Part 3, which will be posted tomorrow morning.

Stoic Living for the Modern Soul My book on stoicism.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The wisdom of Xunzi, Part One


(Part Two Part Three)

Recently I've been reading quite a bit of Confucian philosophy, namely that of Xunzi. He's somewhat the polar opposite of Mencius, in that he believed that the nature of man is evil, while Mencius believed that the nature of man is good. Regardless of how literally one takes these positions, both philosophers have their place and elucidate many issues. For whatever reason, Xunzi resonates more with me, though I don't necessarily think that the nature of man is pure evil, per se. Perhaps  a better term would be undeveloped, or misguided. 

Either way you slice it up, his philosophy and thinking is as relevant to our times as it was relevant then. Just like Confucius himself, or Seneca, or a number of other writers and thinkers, when reading them we are confronted with the humbling fact that there truly is nothing new under the sun, and that we'd be hard-pressed to contribute anything as worthy as them. And indeed, there have always been serious problems in life, despite our temptation to think that we are the first to be burdened by them. We could all benefit from learning from the wisdom of men like Xunzi.

To begin with, here's a good introduction to part of Xunzi's thought that is particularly relevant to our times:
Much of Xunzi's philosophy is based upon a distinction between what is natural or spontaneous and what is a product of human effort. Xunzi conceived of nature—including human nature—as an unchanging context for human action and organization. In his view, human endeavors succeed or fail because of how they respond to this fixed context—not because of any natural advantages or disadvantages, and especially not because nature rewards the virtuous and punishes the wicked. In particular, he believed that the stability of a society largely depends on its ability to respond to the fact that natural human desires outrun naturally available resources. Central to his defense of the Way that he advocated was the claim that it was uniquely capable of doing this, by strengthening and enriching the state, by providing social and political structures to regulate people's attempts to satisfy their desires, and by fundamentally transforming people's characters. [1]

It should be obvious that we as a society are failing in a number of domains. In particular, it is obvious that we have failed to deal properly with men's desire to profit and have more in the face of limited resources. A society that is so perversely top-heavy, meaning wealth and resources are concentrated at the top, a society in which the majority have no faith or trust in the leadership, is doomed to fail. Xunzi says,
Thus, a king enriches his people, a dictator enriches his soldiers, a state that is barely managing to survive enriches its high officers, and a doomed state enriches only its coffers and stuffs its storehouses. [2]

Sound familiar? He goes on to say,
But if its coffers are heaped up and its storehouses full, while its people are impoverished, this is what is called overflow at the top but dry up at the bottom. Such a state will be unable to protect itself at home and unable to fight its enemies abroad, and its downfall and destruction can be looked for at any moment. [2]

What downfall and destruction means specifically is of course, open to interpretation.

Xunzi believed that societies naturally needed hierarchy, and I'm inclined to agree with him. Though it's a nice idea to have everyone be on the same footing, it doesn't quite work well in reality. However, the difference between how Xunzi envisioned things working and how things work in our society, and in most workplaces, is the fact that the people at the bottom are generally unequal in several important ways. To sum it up, he says,
If a ruler...treats his inferiors and the common people with ordinary lenience and bounty, then he may dwell in safety. ... If a ruler is arrogant and cruel ...and his treatment of the common people is quick to exploit their strength and endanger their lives but slow to reward their labors and accomplishments ...then he will surely face destruction. [2]

It isn't necessary that everyone be equal in station, but treating everyone with dignity and respect leads to better things. Naturally, there are people who add little to society, and there are those who actively take away from it. Xunzi deals with them harshly, and I'll leave it to you to read his thoughts on that. I will continue in Part 2 on a different aspect of Xunzi, that of the development of the self. Part 2 will be posted tomorrow morning.

Stoic Living for the Modern Soul My book on stoicism.