Tracing Mythos and Monsters

beowulf_and_grendel

Saxonic-Old Germanic monsters…

Grim and greedy, brutally cruel […]
This gruesome creature was called Grendel,
notorious prowler of the border land, ranger of the moors,
the fens and the fastness; this cursed creature lived in a monster’s lair…

Beowulf

 

And their possible origins…

OF THE ORIGIN OF ROMANTIC FICTION IN EUROPE

That peculiar and arbitrary species of Fiction which we commonly call Romantic, was entirely unknown to the writers of Greece and Rome. It appears to have been imported into Europe by a people, whose modes of thinking, and habits of invention, are not natural to that country. It is generally supposed to have been borrowed from the Arabians. But this origin has not been hitherto perhaps examined or ascertained with a sufficient degree of accuracy. It is my present design, by a more distinct and extended inquiry than has yet been applied to the subject, to trace the manner and the period of its introduction into the popular belief, the oral poetry, and the literature of the Europeans.

[…]

… In a word these volumes are the first specimens extant in this mode of writing. No European history before these has mentioned giants, enchanters, dragons, and the like monstrous and arbitrary fictions. And the reason is obvious: they were written at a time when a new and unnatural mode of thinking took place in Europe, introduced by our communication with the east.

–Thomas Warton, The History of English Poetry

 

Of the Norse pantheon…

A few years before the birth of Christ, soon after Mithridates had been overthrown by Pompey, a nation of Asiatic Goths who possessed that region of Asia which is now called Georgia, and is connected on the south with Persia, alarmed at the progressive encroachments of the Roman armies, retired in vast multitudes under the conduct of their leader Odin, or Woden, into the northern parts of Europe, not subject to the Roman government, and settled in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and other districts of the Scandinavian territory. As they brought with them many useful arts, particularly the knowledge of letters, which Odin is said to have invented, they were hospitably received by the natives, and by degrees acquired a safe and peaceable establishment in the new country, which seems to have adopted their language, laws, and religion. Odin is said to have been stiled a god by the Scandinavians; an appellation which the superiour address and specious abilities of this Asiatic chief easily extorted from a more savage and uncivilised people.

–Thomas Warton, The History of English Poetry

夜深人靜獨坐觀心 In the deep of the night

夜深人靜獨坐觀心,
使覺妄窮而真獨露,
每於此中得大機趣;
既覺真現而妄難逃,
又於此中得大慚忸。

In the deep of the night, stilling your self, sitting alone, to reflect upon and perceive your heart/being,
You may feel all passions and thoughts hushed, and the true self revealed in sharp relief,
Only at this moment may you grasp the encompassing real joy of life;
Yet the realization dawns that the true self is fleeting, and alas, wordly passions and thoughts are impossible to flee from,
And at this same moment the deepest of shame engulfs.

–菜根譚 Vegetable Roots Discourse

Names

On second thoughts, this comment should be a post in itself.
From the post 墨经 — MoJing (the science of the Mohist canons).

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I mentioned Mohist logic and Names, on a rejoinder to an amusing musing on Ideas and Things, previously here:

Brooke is superficial, she talks only about things rather than ideas:
http://www.dailyspeculations.com/wordpress/?p=4125

I said:

Interesting and amusing post. Actually, its all about the Names…

“Names are names of things, not of our ideas. ”
“Are names more properly said to be the names of things or of our ideas of things?”
“The mind can conceive a multitude of individual things as one assemblage or class, and general names do really suggest to us certain ideas or mental representations…”

-John Stuart Mill, Philosophy of Scientific Method – Book I “Of Names and Propositions”

[See Nominalism]

And the chinese “School of Names” (especially of Hui Shi and Gongsun Longzi):
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/school-names/index.html

The “White Horse Discourse” and “Pointing and Things” of Gongsun Longzi:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/school-names/pointing.html

And of course Mohist logic and philosophy of language in “Names and Things”:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mohist-canons/#4

Am taking this opportunity here on this post on the 墨经/MoJing to list the various nominalist and anti-nominalist teachings in chinese philosophy:

–Confucius: 正名说-Rectification of Names

–Taoism: 无名论-Doctrine of the Nameless

–Mohism: Mozi’s pragmatism in saying:

故我曰瞽不知白黑者,非以其名也,以其取也.
Hence the reason that I say the blind do not know white from black does not lie in the matter of definition but in the process of selection.

–from the Mozi, the book of 貴義 – Esteem for Righteousness

and the later expanded Latter-Mohist logic in their 名实观-“Names and Things”.

–The Chinese 名家-School of Names: 名实论-Doctrine of Names and Things; which includes GongSun LongZi and HuiShi and their fascinating paradoxes.

–荀子/XunZi: in his objective expansion of Confucius’s 正名说-Rectification of Names:

制名以指實,上以明貴賤,下以辨同異。貴賤明,同異別
To rectify names by pointing to what is real, of foremost to clarify between the good (of significance) and the poor (of insignificance), and latterly to distinguish between things that are the same and those that are different.

Reminds us of a certain greek categorizer eh…

Bertrand Russell on the Chinese III: Time travel & other things

[Addendum 25 Mar 2010]:

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From Bertrand Russell’s book, Sceptical Essays (1928); from the chapter: “Eastern and Western Ideals of Happiness”.

Opening paragraph:

Everybody knows Well’s Time Machine, which enabled its possessor to travel backwards or forwards in time, and see for himself what the past was like and what the future will be. But people do not always realize that a great deal of the advantages of Well’s device can be secured by travelling about the world at the present day. [that is, at Russell’s time of writing, 1928] A European who goes to New York and Chicago sees the future, the future to which Europe is likely to come if it escapes economic disaster. On the other hand, when he goes to Asia he sees the past. In India, I am told, he can see the Middle Ages; in China he can see the eighteenth century. If George Washington were to return to earth, the country which he created would puzzle him dreadfully. He would feel a little less strange in England, still less strange in France; but he would not feel really at home until he reached China. There, for the first time in his ghostly wanderings, he would find men who still believe in ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, and who conceive these things more or less as Americans of the War of Independence conceived them. And I think it would not be long before he became President of the Chinese Republic.

Russell describes Western civilization briefly:

Western civilization embraces North and South America, Europe excluding Russia, and he British self-governing dominions. In this civilization the United States leads the van; all the characteristics that distinguish the West from the East are most marked and furthest developed in America. We are accustomed to take progress for granted: to assume without hesitation that the changes which have happened during the last hundred years were unquestionably for the better, and that further changes for the better are sure to follow indefinitely. On the Continent of Europe, the war and its consequences have administered a blow to this confident belief, and men have begun to look back to the time before 1914 as a golden age, not likely to recur for centuries. In England there has been less of this shock to optimism, and in America still less. For those of us who have been accustomed to take progress for granted, it is especially interesting to visit a country like China, which has remained where we were one hundred and fifty years ago, and to ask ourselves whether, on the balance, the changes which have happened to us have brought any real improvement.

Russell describes Chinese civilization briefly (and rather naively):

The civilization of China, as everyone knows, is based upon the teachings of Confucius, who flourished five hundred years before Christ. Like the Greeks and Romans, he did not think of human society as naturally progressive; on the contrary, he believed that in remote antiquity rulers had been wise, and the people had been happy to a degree which the degenrate present could admire but hardly achieve. This, of course, was a delusion. But the practical result was that Confucius, like other teachers of antiquity, aimed at creating a stable society, maintaining a certain level of excellence, but not always striving after new successes. In this he was more successful than any other man who ever lived. His personality has been stamped on Chinese civilization from his day to our own. During his lifetime the Chinese occupied only a small part of present-day China, and were divided into a number of warring states. During the next three hundred years they established themselves throughout what is now China proper, and founded an empire exceeding in teritory and population any other that existed until the last fifty years. In spite of barbarian invasions, Mongol and Manchu dynasties, and occasional longer or shorter periods of chaos and civil war, the Confucian system survived, bringing with it art and literature and a civilized way of life. It is only in our own day, through contact with the West and with the westernized [and industrialized-militarist!] Japanese, that this system has begun to break down.

A system which has had this extraordinary power of survival must have great merits, and certainly deserves our respect and consideration. It is not a religion, as we understand the word, because it is not associated with the supernatural or with mystical beliefs. It is a purely ethical system, but its ethics, unlike those of Christianity, are not too exalted for ordinary men to practise. In essence, what Confucius teaches is something very like the old-fashioned ideal of a ‘gentleman’ as it existed in the eighteenth century. One of his sayings will illustrate this (I quote from Lionel Giles’s Sayings of Confucius):

The true gentleman is never contentious. If a spirit of rivalry is anywhere unavoidable, it is a shooting-match. [Confucius teaches that a gentleman practices the six arts: ritual, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy and arithmetic] Yet even here he courteously salutes his opponents before taking up his position, and again when, having lost, he retires to drink the forfeit-cup. So that even when competing he remains a true gentleman.

Russell on ethics and morality (somewhat tongue-in-cheek):

It is characteristic of China that it was not Lao-Tze but Confucius who became the recognized national sage. Taoism …[and] Its doctrines have appeared visionary to the practical men who administered the empire, while the doctrines of Confucius were eminently calculated to avoid friction. […] Chinese governors naturally preferred the Confucian maxims of self-control, benevolence, and courtesy, combined, as they were, with a great emphasis upon the good that could be done by wise government. It never occurred to the Chinese, as it has to all modern white nations, to have one system of ethics in theory and another in practice. I do not mean that they always live up to their own theories, but that they attempt to do so and are expected to do so, whereas there are large parts of the Christian ethic which are universally admitted to be too good for this wicked world.

We have, in fact, two kinds of morality side by side: one which we preach but do not practise, and another which we practise but seldom preach. Christianity, like all religions except Mormonism, is Asiatic in origin; it had in the early centuries that emphasis on individualism and other-worldliness which is characteristic of Asiatic mysticism. From this point of view, the doctrine of non-resistance was intelligible. But when Christianity became the nominal religion of energetic European princes, it was found necessary to maintain that some texts were not to be taken literally, while others, such as ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’, acquired great popularity. In our own day, under the influence of competitive industrialism, the slightest approach to non-resistance is despised, and men are expected to be able to keep their end up. In practice, our effective morality is that of material success achieved by means of a struggle; and this applies to nations as well as to individuals. Anything else seems to us soft and foolish.

Russell on the Chinese’s theory and praxis of their ethic in application to engaging in conflcit:

The Chinese do not adopt either our theoretical or our practical ethic. They admit in theory that there are occasions when it is proper to fight, and in practice that these occasions are rare; whereas we hold in theory that they are no occasions when it is proper to fight and in practice that such occasions are very frequent. The Chinese sometimes fight, but are not a combative race, and do not greatly admire success in war or in business. Traditionally, they admire learning more than anything else; next to that, and usually in combination with it, they admire urbanity and courtesy.

On Chinese learning past and present (ie. 1928) and a rather prescient observation:

For ages past, administrative posts have been awarded in China on the results of competitive examinations. As there has been no hereditary aristocracy for two thousand years –with the sole exception of the family of Confucius, the head of which is a Duke– learning had drawn to itself the kind of respect which, in feudal Europe, was given to powerful nobles, as well as the respect which it inspired on its own account. The old learning, however, was very narrow, consisting merely in an uncritical study of the Chinese classics and their recognized commentators. [Not true. The very fact that there were noted commentators and their critical commentary and sometimes, even revisions; which flourished at different times of the last two thousand years, is testament to the spirit of critical inquiry within some, if not all, of the scholars of the classics.]
[…] Young China–that is to say, the students who have been educated on European lines–recognize modern needs, and have perhaps hardly enough respect for the old tradition. Nevertheless, even the most modern, with few exceptions, retain the traditional virtues of moderation, politeness, and a pacific temper. Whether these virtues will survive a few more decades of Western and Japanese tuition is perhaps doubtful.
[Rather prescient here. In just a few years from the time of Russell’s writing, the Japanese military machine made its move into China to widen its ‘Sphere’ of influence, and proceeded to unleash its horrors of the 1930s.
And in another book, Russell, wondering which of the West’s ideologies fomenting
at that time in the 1920s might take hold in China, remarked that the Bolsheviks may become a major influence. Indeed…]

Here Russell is being a little frivolous, and certainly not wholly accurate:

If I were to try to sum up in a phrase the main difference between the Chinese and ourselves, I should say that they, in the main, aim at enjoyment, while we, in the main, aim at power. We like power over our fellow-men, and we like power over Nature. For the sake of the former we have built up strong states, and for the sake of the latter we have built up Science. The Chinese are too lazy and too good-natured for such pursuits. To say that they are lazy is, however, only true in a certain sense. They are not lazy in the way that Russians are, that is to say, they will work hard for their living. Employers of labour find them extraordinarily industrious. But they will not work, as Americans and Western Europeans do, simply because they will be bored if they did not work, nor do they love hustle for its own sake. […] They have an infinite capacity for leisurely amusements–going to the theatre, talking while they drink tea, admiring the Chinese art of earlier times, or walking in beautiful scenery. To our way of thinking, there is something unduly mild about such a way of spending one’s life; we respect more a man who goes to his office every day, even if all that he does in his office is harmful.
[Yep, Russell…You and my father both.]

Russell ends the chapter with:

There is one serious defect, and only one, in the Chinese system, and that is, that it does not enable China to resist more pugnacious nations. If the whole world were like China, the whole world could be happy; but so long as others are warlike and energetic, the Chinese, now that they are no longer isolated, will be compelled to copy our vices to some degree if they are to preserve their national independence. But let us not flatter ourselves that this imitation will be an improvement.

Bertrand Russell on the Chinese II: Time-frames

From the biography, The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell (1951):

I was invited to China where I spent nearly a year. I loved the Chinese, but it was obvious that the resistance to hostile militarisms must destroy much of what was best in their civilization. They seemed to have no alternative but to be conquered or to adopt many of the vices of their enemies. But China did one thing for me that the East is apt to do for Europeans who study it with sensitive sympathy: it taught me to think in long stretches of time, and not to be reduced to despair by the badness of the present. Throughout the increasing gloom of the past twenty years, this habit has helped to make the world less unendurable than it would otherwise have been.

Bertrand Russell on the Chinese I: Chinese & Western civilization contrasted

From Bertrand Russell’s book, The Problem of China (1922), from the chapter: “Chinese & Western civilization contrasted”.

The chapter opens with this paragraph:

There is at present in China, as we have seen in previous chapters, a close contact between our civilization and that which is native to the Celestial Empire. It is still a doubtful question whether this contact will breed a new civilization better than either of its parents, or whether it will merely destroy the native culture and replace it by that of America. Contacts between different civilizations have often in the past proved to be landmarks in human progress. Greece learnt from Egypt, Rome from Greece, the Arabs from the Roman Empire, mediæval Europe from the Arabs, and Renaissance Europe from the Byzantines. In many of these cases, the pupils proved better than their masters. In the case of China, if we regard the Chinese as the pupils, this may be the case again. In fact, we have quite as much to learn from them as they from us, but there is far less chance of our learning it. If I treat the Chinese as our pupils, rather than vice versa, it is only because I fear we are unteachable.

Here Russell speaks of Chinese humour:

Lao-Tze’s book, or rather the book attributed to him, is very short, but his ideas were developed by his disciple Chuang-Tze, who is more interesting than his master. The philosophy which both advocated was one of freedom. They thought ill of government, and of all interferences with Nature. They complained of the hurry of modern life, which they contrasted with the calm existence of those whom they called “the pure men of old.” There is a flavour of mysticism in the doctrine of the Tao, because in spite of the multiplicity of living things the Tao is in some sense one, so that if all live according to it there will be no strife in the world. But both sages have already the Chinese characteristics of humour, restraint, and under-statement. Their humour is illustrated by Chuang-Tze’s account of Po-Lo who “understood the management of horses,” and trained them till five out of every ten died. Their restraint and under-statement are evident when they are compared with Western mystics. Both characteristics belong to all Chinese literature and art, and to the conversation of cultivated Chinese in the present day. All classes in China are fond of laughter, and never miss a chance of a joke. In the educated classes, the humour is sly and delicate, so that Europeans often fail to see it, which adds to the enjoyment of the Chinese. Their habit of under-statement is remarkable. I met one day in Peking a middle-aged man who told me he was academically interested in the theory of politics; being new to the country, I took his statement at its face value, but I afterwards discovered that he had been governor of a province, and had been for many years a very prominent politician. In Chinese poetry there is an apparent absence of passion which is due to the same practice of under-statement. They consider that a wise man should always remain calm, and though they have their passionate moments (being in fact a very excitable race), they do not wish to perpetuate them in art, because they think ill of them. Our romantic movement, which led people to like vehemence, has, so far as I know, no analogue in their literature. Their old music, some of which is very beautiful, makes so little noise that one can only just hear it. [*Perhaps Russell heard a rendition of a Taoist guqin tune? An example in comment section below] In art they aim at being exquisite, and in life at being reasonable. There is no admiration for the ruthless strong man, or for the unrestrained expression of passion. After the more blatant life of the West, one misses at first all the effects at which they are aiming; but gradually the beauty and dignity of their existence become visible, so that the foreigners who have lived longest in China are those who love the Chinese best.

On Chinese pacificism:

If any nation in the world could ever be “too proud to fight,” that nation would be China. The natural Chinese attitude is one of tolerance and friendliness, showing courtesy and expecting it in return. If the Chinese chose, they could be the most powerful nation in the world. But they only desire freedom, not domination. It is not improbable that other nations may compel them to fight for their freedom, and if so, they may lose their virtues and acquire a taste for empire. But at present, though they have been an imperial race for 2,000 years, their love of empire is extraordinarily slight.

Although there have been many wars in China, the natural outlook of the Chinese is very pacifistic. I do not know of any other country where a poet would have chosen, as Po-Chui did in one of the poems translated by Mr. Waley, called by him The Old Man with the Broken Arm, to make a hero of a recruit who maimed himself to escape military service. Their pacifism is rooted in their contemplative outlook, and in the fact that they do not desire to change whatever they see. They take a pleasure—as their pictures show—in observing characteristic manifestations of different kinds of life, and they have no wish to reduce everything to a preconceived pattern. They have not the ideal of progress which dominates the Western nations, and affords a rationalization of our active impulses. Progress is, of course, a very modern ideal even with us; it is part of what we owe to science and industrialism. The cultivated conservative Chinese of the present day talk exactly as their earliest sages write. If one points out to them that this shows how little progress there has been, they will say: “Why seek progress when you already enjoy what is excellent?” At first, this point of view seems to a European unduly indolent; but gradually doubts as to one’s own wisdom grow up, and one begins to think that much of what we call progress is only restless change, bringing us no nearer to any desirable goal.

On tolerance and happiness:

I think the tolerance of the Chinese is in excess of anything that Europeans can imagine from their experience at home. We imagine ourselves tolerant, because we are more so than our ancestors. But we still practise political and social persecution, and what is more, we are firmly persuaded that our civilization and our way of life are immeasurably better than any other, so that when we come across a nation like the Chinese, we are convinced that the kindest thing we can do to them is to make them like ourselves. I believe this to be a profound mistake. It seemed to me that the average Chinaman, even if he is miserably poor, is happier than the average Englishman, and is happier because the nation is built upon a more humane and civilized outlook than our own. Restlessness and pugnacity not only cause obvious evils, but fill our lives with discontent, incapacitate us for the enjoyment of beauty, and make us almost incapable of the contemplative virtues. In this respect we have grown rapidly worse during the last hundred years. I do not deny that the Chinese go too far in the other direction; but for that very reason I think contact between East and West is likely to be fruitful to both parties. They may learn from us the indispensable minimum of practical efficiency, and we may learn from them something of that contemplative wisdom which has enabled them to persist while all the other nations of antiquity have perished.

Russell ends the chapter with:

When I went to China, I went to teach; but every day that I stayed I thought less of what I had to teach them and more of what I had to learn from them. Among Europeans who had lived a long time in China, I found this attitude not uncommon; but among those whose stay is short, or who go only to make money, it is sadly rare. It is rare because the Chinese do not excel in the things we really value—military prowess and industrial enterprise. But those who value wisdom or beauty, or even the simple enjoyment of life, will find more of these things in China than in the distracted and turbulent West, and will be happy to live where such things are valued. I wish I could hope that China, in return for our scientific knowledge, may give us something of her large tolerance and contemplative peace of mind.