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

[Addendum 25 Mar 2010]:


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.


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

  1. Jeff,

    I guess I did intend it this way, at least for a little while. A few reasons for doing so:
    Firstly, am trying not to overstate the point(s) in this series of posts. A little space may allow the earlier posts to go down better, while leaving the last title as a pointer.
    Secondly, after the rather long posts earlier in the series (at least the 1st one), another longish post here may be too much, for both the reader and the writer.

    I actually thought that someone reading the earlier posts would probably have their eyes glazed over by the 2nd long paragraph. And for anyone who perservered and made it to Part III and is still interested, the title alone would be enough to point him in the right direction to source out the relevant material for himself.

    But the real reason why I may have done this ’empty-post-title-only’ thing here (and elsewhere… yep, am guilty of repeated offences), is that I’m actually hoping that someone would perceive from the title, my intentions and thoughts, and so post a comment referencing the area and direction he sees my title pointing to. That would be most delightful…

    After all, the things left unsaid always contains the richest possibilities:
    The emptiness of what is unsaid is yet filled with the fullest of potential.

    Am delighted in your interest; will be tippity-tap typing away to serve up the above post in the soonest.


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