Eastern and Western Ideals of Happiness by Bertrand Russell
Text … Everybody knows Well’s time machine, which enabled its possessor to travel back ward or forward 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. A European who goes to New York or Chicago sees 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 he created would puzzle him dreadfully. He would feel a little less strange at England, still less strange in France,; but he would not feel really at home until here ached 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 conceives 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 Chinese Republic.
Introductory note ..
Well’s time machine .. It is a fictional machine conceived by the celebrated science fiction writer, H. G. Wells. It was published in the year 1895. Soon, it caught the imagination of the intelligentsia of those times who argued endlessly on the relevance of Well’s ideas in analyzing the many triumphs and tribulations endured by mankind in the past, and for crystal-gazing to the future of the human race, particularly the inhabitants of Europe.
Backdrop of this essay .. Sir Bertrand Russell wrote this essay in 1925. Quite naturally, the events of the previous century (1800AD to1899AD) weighed heavily in his mind when he sat down to write this epic essay.
The western world comprising of the continent of Europe and the United States had witnessed spectacular strides of science and technology in the nineteenth century. The storage battery, the telephone, the electric bulb, even the jean pant, and the fizzy drink Coca Cola entered the lives and homes of millions of common folks. Life got so much easier and exciting. The drudgery of household chores receded gradually releasing women for more productive outdoor roles.
However, happiness eluded Europe as it got engulfed in the First World War. Scores perished in battlefields, homes got pulverized by enemy bombing, and day-to-day necessities became harder to buy, and young men and women were conscripted for war effort. Families were torn apart. The mood of the common folks became gloomy. Despondency and helplessness gripped society. They pined for the olden days when technology had not forayed into family homes and farms.
Sir Russell pondered the contemporary scene with the incisiveness of a master mathematician and the compassion of a philosopher. The outpourings of his brilliant mind make the core of this essay. With the resurgence of China and India in recent decades, his thoughts might appear a bit jaded, but the essay grips the reader’s attention like a vice.
Meaning of the previous paragraph of the essay .. Well’s Time Machine was a unique science fiction novella that was a hit with readers of those days. People could go back and forth in time seeing the days gone by and the shape of things to come in future. Russell felt that such delving into the past, and voyage to the future could be done by moving around the world and analyzing the changes that have taken place in all walks of life.
An European traveler setting his feet in cities like New York and Chicago in America would witness the sweeping changes that have transformed life of people. Clearly, America had raced ahead, leaving the war-torn and economically enfeebled Europe behind. But, all was not lost, Russell felt. To find its feet again, Europe must rid itself out of the economic woes, and then chart its growth path.
If the same traveler went to Asia, he would have a dramatically different view. India was very backward then, mired in poverty, illiteracy, superstition, and primitive social practices like the scourge of untouchability, and the practice of ‘Satee’ (forced widow-burning). Modern schools and colleges were absent, depriving the country of any window to science and technology. The traveler would conclude that India still lived in the middle ages.
China, would, emerge somewhat better to the traveler. It was backward, but still had seen some light of civilization. It would appear to be in the eighteenth century—about a century behind the western world.
Russell’s thoughts return to George Washington, the first President of America, who ruled the country from 1789 to 1797. He was revered for his leadership, administrative skills, love for peace in statecraft, spotlessly clean personal life, love for libertarian values, and dignified conduct in office. He had willed that the slaves under him would be freed on his death. America strayed from his path after his death. There was partisanship, immoral public behavior, and a general decay in decency of life. No wonder, Russell felt that contemporary America would sadden George Washington, if he chose to descend to earth to see things for himself. In his perception England would fare a bit better than his homeland, and France would not annoy him, perhaps due to its clinging to the values of liberty.
China would offer George Washington’s wandering soul some solace, because in this land, he would discover that people cherish life, liberty, and happiness. Americans during the War of Independence led by George Washington had almost identical aspirations as the Chinese. Russell chuckles while imagining that his fascination for Chinese values could catapult him to the chair of the President of China!
Text .. Western civilization embraces North and South America, Europe excluding Russia, and the British self-governing dominions. In this civilization United States leads the van; all the characteristics that distinguish the West from the East are most marked and farthest developed in America. We are accustomed to changes which have happened for 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 much less of this shock to optimism, and in America still less. For those of us who has been accustomed to take progress for granted, it is specially 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?
Meaning of the above paragraph …. Russell proceeds to draw the contours of western civilization. In his view, western civilization embraces North and South America, Europe excluding Russia, and the British self-governing dominions. Quite obviously, America, by virtue of its might, would be the vanguard of this civilizational grouping. For an observer comparing western and eastern civilizations, the American landscape would provide the sharpest contrast.
The western society underwent spectacular advancement in all walks of life in the nineteenth century, thanks to the myriad inventions and discoveries. Almost each of these new finds in science and technology increased productivity, added to personal comforts, generated wealth, and brought unprecedented prosperity. There was nothing to dampen the optimism of the people, who assumed that the march towards higher growth and prosperity would proceed apace in future.
Sadly, such optimism was stolen from Europe by the Great War. The resulting destruction and poverty ravaged the livelihood of common people. Despair drove hope away. Beset with frustration, the disillusioned Europeans yearned for the happiness of the good old days that existed before 1914 – the year the First World War began. They rued that the ‘golden age’ would not return for centuries. Great Britain did not suffer as much as the people in the mainland Europe did. America emerged from the post-war dark period virtually unscathed.
By this time, China had stood still and unchanged for nearly one and half centuries. It was not buffeted by the winds of change that blew across the western civilization areas. If technology-backed changes brought real fast-paced strides towards happiness, how was it that China continued to remain a contented society with people going about their lives merrily? This was the question that perplexed Russell.
Text .. The civilization of China, as everyone knows, is based upon the teachings of Confucius, who flourished five hundred 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 degenerate 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 life time 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 territory 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 Confucius 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 Japanese, that this system has begun to break down.
Meaning of the above paragraph .. Confucius lived in China nearly five centuries before the advent of Jesus Christ. His teachings formed the bed rock of Chinese society. For generations of Chinese, Confucius’s wisdom and his moral sermons have remained as the guiding star. There was a clear distinction between the way the Greek and the Romans perceived progress and the way Confucius did.
The Greeks and the Romans felt that the human race can not remain static and has to continuously evolve. Such tendency is innate among human beings. Confucius held a very different view. According to him, the Chinese rulers who reigned in the days of yore were wiser. They kept their subjects happy. Confucius felt that the Chinese should stay anchored to the age-old values and practices, and resist the temptation to shed them in favour of so-called modern values. Much of the decay of the society during his time could be attributed to the adoption of new-age practices in preference to the old entrenched ones. Confucius was convinced about this.
Russell felt such blind adherence to a moth-balled old value system for ensuring happiness was nothing but a delusion. However, Confucius, like other moral teachers of those times, ensured stability and continuity, maintaining a minimum level of decency, fairness, and justice in the society. Scramble for progress and change would have been very unsettling and disruptive for the society, said Confucius with great conviction.
Confucius succeeded in striking a chord in the heart of his fellowmen. They revered him like a saint and a father figure. For centuries after his demise, his teachings have been held as the ‘gold standard’ of human conduct both inside and outside the home.
During Confucius’s time the Chinese were a relatively small group of kingdoms locked in fratricidal warfare all the time. Later, they expanded to almost the entire geographical area of modern day China emerging as a big power to be reckoned with.
Glued by Confucian values, the fabric of the Chinese society has stood the test of time weathering upheavals, the deadly Mongol and Manchu invasions, and many more disruptive influences. Art, literature, culture and all other hallmarks of a vibrant and stable society were discernible in China for centuries.
It is the competition with West and the aggression of the looming Japan that have frayed China in the edges in recent decades.
Text …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 practice. In essence, what Confucius teaches is something very like the old fashioned ideal of “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. 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.”
Meaning of the above paragraph … Russell is quite impressed with the Confucian value system that has stood the test of time for such a long period of time. It must have its intrinsic strength to survive the winds of change that upend societies with merciless power. Therefore, Russell feels such an enduring value system should merit our respectful appraisal. The Confucian teachings are a set of moral values to be imbibed. It is bereft of any reference to God or any such supernatural power.
Confucius exhorted his people to follow certain ethical practices that were simple requiring no great effort, pain, or sacrifice. In this regard Confucian teachings stand in sharp contrast to the prescriptions of Christianity. The Church proscribes certain practices and advocates some others with vehemence. On the whole, it puts great burden on its followers.
Following Confucian advices are far simpler and ‘doable’ for ordinary mortals. These sermons simply ask the folks to be fair, decent, respectful, courteous, and upright in their conduct. Whether in triumph or in defeat in aduel, one should be decent to the opponent, said Confucius.
Text … He speaks much, as moral teacher is bound to do, about duty and virtue and such matters, but he never exacts anything contrary to nature and the natural affections. This is shown in the following conversation:
“The Duke of She addressed Confucius, saying: We have an upright man in our country. His father stole a sheep, and the son bore witness against him. —In our country, Confucius replied, uprightness is something different from this. A father hides the guilt of his son, and a son hides the guilt of his father. It is in such conduct that true uprightness is to be found.”
Confucius was in things moderate, even in virtue. He did not believe that we ought to return good for evil. He was asked on one occasion: “How do you regard the principal of returning good for evil?” And he replied: “What, then, is to be the return of good? Rather should you return justice for injustice, good for good.” The principal of returning good for evil was being taught in his day in China by the Taoists, whose teaching is much more akin to that of Christianity than is the teaching of Confucius. The founder of Taoism, “Lao-Tze (supposed to have been an older contemporary of Confucius), says : “To the good I would be good ; to the not good I would also be good, in order to make them good. With the faithful I would keep faith; with the unfaithful I would also keep faith; in order that they may become faithful. Even if a man is bad, how can it be right to cast him off? Requite injury with kindness.” Some of Lao-Tze’s words are amazingly like parts of the Sermon on the Mount. For instance, he says:
“He that humbles himself shall be preserved entire. He that bends shall be maid straight. He that isempty shall be filled. He that is worn out shall be renewed. He who has little shall succeed. He who has much shall go astray.”
Meaning of the above paragraphs … Confucius spoke at length about a person’s duty to society and family. He said a lot about the importance of virtue, but he stopped short of recommending anything that ran contrary to a person’s innate nature and his natural instincts. He did not stretch a person’s moral sense unduly.
When a person lies to protect his father or son from prosecution, he should not be faulted, because filial affection overrides the call of virtue. Confucius gave this important concession so that his followers did not feel guilty for minor transgressions.
Moderation was the hallmark of Confucius’s teachings. He did not demand his followers to show the other cheek, when someone slapped you in one cheek.
One of his contemporary moral teacher was the much revered Lao-Tze. His teachings are known as ‘Taoism’. The followers of Taoism were given sterner advice. They were asked to be good towards those who were either good or evil towards them. Thus, taking the policy of an eye for an eye was disapproved of under Taoism.
In this regard, Taoism was nearer to Christianity than was Confucianism. Taoism sought to reform the evil-doers and the wicked and the unfaithful by exemplary conduct. The intent was to reform the wrong-doer through personal sacrifice.
In a great many ways, Taoism resembled the principles underlying ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ of the Bible.
Text … It is characteristic of China that it was not Lao-Tze but Confucius who became the recognized national sage. Taoism has survived, but chiefly as magic and among the uneducated. Its doctrines have appeared visionary to the practical men who administered the Empire, while the doctrines of Confucius were eminently calculated to avoid friction. Lao-Tze preached a doctrine of inaction. The Empire, he says, has ever been won by letting things take their course. He who must always be doing is unfit to obtain the empire.” But 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 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.
Meaning of the above paragraphs … Gradually, Lao-Tze faded from China, but Confucius and his philosophy and practices prevailed. Taoism is there, but only at the fringes – among the lower rungs of Chinese society. Taoism’s protagonists were mainly the elite bureaucracy. Confucianism transcended such class divide and remained relevant by steering clear of any friction. Its simplicity lent to its universal appeal.
Lao-Tze sang the praise of detachment, and inaction. The Emperor found solace in Taoism and became indolent. He allowed matters to drift instead of taking control over them and setting the pace and course of events. In hindsight, we can say that he was too lost in the luxury of the palace to confront the rough and tumble of statecraft.
On the other hand the governors in China were enthused by Confucius’s emphasis on simp0licity, benevolence, courtesy and self-control. Fortunately, the governors drew upon Confucius’s teachings to apply their mind and energy to govern well so that the public got the maximum benefit.
The Chinese bureaucracy practised what they preached. Unlike the modern nations in the west, the values held dear in heart by the bureaucracy were evident in the way they administered the country. No doubt there were deviations, but those were not routine. In contrast, Christianity implored the common people and those in power to observe a set of rules for moral conduct which were too lofty, pious to be followed in practice. Therefore, there always existed a gulf between Church’s preaching, and the doings of the Church-goers. The temptations and the crookedness of the earthly world nearly always succeeded in swaying the mortals off course.
Text .. We have in fact two kinds of morality side by side: one which we preach but do not practice, and another which we practice 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 the 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.
Meaning of the above paragraph ….. According to Russell, we have two sets of morality before us. The first is the set of ethical and moral values we cherish and preach, but do not stick to in our lives. The other type is the code of moral conduct we almost routinely practice, but make little effort to preach.
Asiatic style of thinking has, from the dawn of civilization, been focused on individualism. In other words, it is inward looking, laying great stress on understanding and developing the inner self of a person. Quite liberally, thinkers in Asia forayed into the world unknown, adding a touch of mysticism to their philosophy.
It is to be noted that Christianity, like most other religions [except Mormonism] originated in Asia. The overhang of mysticism and the consciousness about the existence of a world beyond human comprehension might have led to the adoption of non-resistance as a tenet of religions emanating from Asia.
When Christianity spread to Europe, many members of the royalty adopted it. These elite class of people were energetic and restless by nature. They craved for action and adventure. For them, docility, passivity, and non-resistance were unacceptable and impractical values. So, they resorted to selective interpretation of Biblical writings. They laid less emphasis on the sermons that implored humans to give in rather than aggressively wrest one’s rights. The rulers liberally invoked the Biblical line “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” to impose their authority and right over their subjects.
In the modern industrialized society, ruthless competition is the byword. Those who beat others survive; those who can’t fall by the wayside. It is the survival of the fittest, meanest and fiercest.
In such environment, passivity and non-resistance have little relevance. It is true both for individuals and nations. It is out of fashion to lie low and get trampled.
Text … The Chinese do not adopt either our theoretical or our practical ethics. 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 there are no occasions when it is proper to fight and in practice that such occasions are 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. For ages past, administrative posts have been awarded in China on the result 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 has 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 was, however, was very narrow, consisting merely in an uncritical study of the Chinese classics and their recognized commentators. Under the influence of the West, it has come to be known that great geography, economics, geology, chemistry and so on, are of more practical use than the moralizing of the former ages. Young China- that is to say, the students who have been educated on European lines-recognize modern needs, and have, perhaps, hardly enogh respect for old tradition. Nevertheless, even the most modern, with few expectations, retain the traditional virtues of modernization, politeness and a specific temper. Whether virtues will survive a few more decades of Western and Japanese tution is perhaps doubtful.
Meaning of the above paragraph …….. With regard to preaching and practice, the Chinese way is very different from the Western way. The Chinese concede that resort to violence in needed in life, but only very rarely. That means, one has to fight only if there is no other recourse left. In contrast, in the western society, there are strict injunctions against adopting violent ways. In reality though, people fight freely and without any inhibitions in order to safeguard their rights.
When the Chinese rake to fighting, they do so mostly defensively, without any great combative zeal. Military conquests, victories, and victories achieved with much blood-letting do not quite enthuse the Chinese people. Similar aversion to retributive competition is evident in areas of trade and business too.
The Chinese have an abiding love for learning, and spend considerable time and energy for it. Besides this, they like to be urbane in their outlook. They make conscious effort to be courteous in their manners.
For ages, selection for bureaucratic posts was done through written examinations. Thus, merit was the yardstick, not any other consideration like aristocratic lineage. For nearly two thousand years, the Chinese kept away from according privilege to any section of the society based on birth. Instead, they stuck to merit as the basis for administrative posts. As a result, pursuit of learning continued to be the enduring virtue of the Chinese society.
Only the family of Confucius and their descendants continued to enjoy an exalted status long after the noble man’s death.
Feudal Europe, in contrast, accorded high status to people by their birth, depriving citizens of low and middle class of opportunity to compete for civil service posts through merit.
One of the demerits of the Chinese education was its outdated curriculum which remained rooted to the past too rigidly. It underwent no transformation, no updating and no change. A set of old scholars were authorized to write it and interpreted it. The Chinese education system remained cocooned for ages in the study of its old classics. Nothing from the fast-changing European world of learning was incorporated into the texts.
Later, some small number of Chinese students got to study ‘western’ subjects like Chemistry, Geography, astronomy etc. and were greatly thrilled. After such exposure, their respect for their own old system of learning must have waned. But, their traditional values like decency, courteousness, and farness were too ingrained to change. How long such an ideal combination of western education and Chinese values would survive is a moot question considering the fact that Western and Japanese influence loomed large on the Chinese society.
Text … If I were to sum up in a phrase the main difference between 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 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 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 Europeans do, simply because they would be bored if they did not work, nor do they love hustle for its own sake. When they have enough to live on, they live on it, instead of trying to argument it by hard work. They have an infinite capacity for leisurely amusements- going to 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.
Meaning of the above paragraph …. Russell finally draws his own conclusion about the underlying difference between the Western and the Chinese view of happy living. The Chinese strive to derive ‘enjoyment’ from life, whereas westerners crave for power. These people love to dominate over their fellow citizens and over Nature. Building a strong state with iron-clad defence and a loyal bureaucracy helps to subdue dissent and defiance. The expansion of science and technology helps to tame Nature for making it useful to meet our needs.
The Chinese have little appetite for aggressive use of power to coerce enemies to submission or to manipulate Nature to serve human needs. May be they are too lazy and good-natured to attempt either.
Painting the Chinese as lazy may not be correct under all circumstances. The Chinese toil in the fields, as hard as they toil as wage-earners for others. But, they detest the activity-rooted life style of the Americans and Europeans. They can hibernate for long without feeling bored.
The Chinese relax if they have enough food to go by. They do not work during this time to build up stocks of grain for bad days. They have a propensity to chat, go for recreational hobbi9es, appreciate art, or just engage in innocent fun, w3hen there is no work in the field.
To the Western eye, such life style is too laid-back, and slothful. In contrast, the westerner loves a life of incessant activity, no matter for what end.
Text … Living in the East has, perhaps a corrupting influence upon a white man, but I must confess that, since I came to know China, I have regarded laziness as one of the best qualities of which men in the mass are capable. We achieve certain things by being energetic, but it may be questioned whether, on the balance, the things that they achieve are of any value. We develop wonderful skill in manufacture, part of which we devote to making guns, automobiles, telephones and other means of living luxuriously at high pressure, while another part is devoted to making guns, poisons gases and aero planes for the purpose of killing each other whole-sale. We have a first-class system of administration and taxation, part of which is devoted to education, sanitation and such useful objects, while the rest is devoted to war. In England at the present day most of the national revenue is spent on past and future wars and only the residue on useful objects. On the continent, in most countries, the proportion is even worse. We have a police system of unexampled efficiency, part of which is devoted to the detection and prevention of crime and part to imprisoning anybody who has new constructive political ideas. In China, until recently, they had none of these things. Industry was too inefficient to produce either automobiles or bombs; the state too was inefficient to educate its own citizens or to kill those of other countries; the police too inefficient to catch either bandits or Bolsheviks. The result was that in China, as compared to any white man’s country; there was freedom for all, and a degree of diffused happiness which was amazing in views of the poverty of all but tiny minority.
Meaning of the above paragraph …. There is a feeling in the West that living in the East corrupts a Westerner as he loses his active sprightly habits. Russell, however, holds a contrary view. He feels that being somewhat lazy and laid-back like the Chinese may not be that bad after all.
People in the West might accomplish something by being restless and energetic. But, does this extra gain yield some real tangible value to life? This is a big question which deserves to be pondered.
Western creativity manifests itself through amazing advances in manufacturing technology. The West excels in making new types of automobiles, planes, cars, chemicals, arms and ammunitions etc. While cars and telephones enhance our personal comfort, fighter aircrafts, deadly bombs, and poisonous chemicals unleash great terror on earth and bring about annihilation in mass scale. So, manufacturing excellence – a Western contribution to mankind – is a double-edged sword. It heals as much as it hurts.
Even in the areas of governance and administration, Western skill is undoubtedly superior. In areas of collection of revenue and using them for public good, western societies have an enviable record. In the same vein, such impeccable efficiency is used to mobilize war efforts and launch military campaigns that include the evil of Colonization.
In England, a good part of the revenue is spent in healing the scars of the wars of past years, and for mobilizing for future wars. What little is left is spent for public good. This is lamentable.
Such a malaise is present in the countries of mainland Europe to a greater degree.
In England, the police apparatus has reached very high standards of efficiency. However, it detects and prosecutes criminals with as much ruthlessness as it harasses and jails political dissidents.
China does not have such an oppressive police setup. China could not produce cars, failed to impart modern education, and could not raise a modern army. So, it did not venture out to conquer and colonize other lands. The police force was similarly very less intrusive. China did not experience frenzied progress, but did not go through the pain of upheavals and wars either. It became a land of placid and diffused happiness. In other words, only a small section of the people had access to luxury. The vast section of people were far from being rich, but were inwardly happy.
Text … Comparing the actual outlook of the average Chinese with that of the average Western, two differences strike one: first, that the Chinese do not admire activity unless it serves some useful pupose; secondly, that they do not regard morality as consisting in checking our own impulses and interfering with those of others. The first of these differences has been already discussed, but the second is perhaps equally important. Professor Giles, the eminent Chinese Scholar, at the end of his Gifford Lectures on “Confucianism and its Rivals” maintains that the chief obstacle to the success of Christian missions in China has been the Doctrine of original sin. The traditional doctrine of orthodox Christianity still preached by most Christian missionaries in the Far East- is that we are all born wicked, so wicked as to deserve eternal punishment. The Chinese might have no difficulty in accepting this doctrine if it applied only to white men, but when they are told that their own parents are in hell-fire they grow indignant. Confucius taught that men are born good, and that if they become wicked that is through the force of evil example or corrupting manners. This difference from traditional Western orthodoxy has a profound influence on the outlook of Chinese.
Among ourselves, the people who are regarded as moral luminaries are those who forgo ordinary pleasures themselves and find compensation in interfering with the pleasures of others. There is an element of busybody in our virtue: unless a man makes himself a nuisance to a great many people, we do not think he can be an exceptionally good man. This attitude comes from our notion of Sin. It leads not only to interference with freedom, but also to hypocrisy, since the conventional standard is too difficult for most of the people to live up to. In China this is not the case. Moral precepts are positive rather than negative. A man is expected to be respectful to his parents, kind to his children, generous to his poor relations, and courteous to all. These are not very difficult duties, but most men actually fulfill them, and the result is perhaps better than that of our higher standards, from which most people fall short.
Meaning of the above paragraphs ….. There are two main differences between the ways the Chinese, and the westerners look at their lives.
The first is the aversion of the Chinese to engage in any activity unless it yields some tangible end result. They would rather spend the time resting or in leisure than indulging in purposeless frenzy. In contrast, the westerners have an inborn tendency to be restless for action even if there is no need for it.
The second difference is about the perception of morality. The Chinese do not believe in checking their own impulses and interfering in that of the others.
The Christians are told that we all are born wicked and immoral. So, it is incumbent on us to continuously try to rid ourselves of all such evil inheritances. This means moral failings dogged their revered parents as much as they dog them.
The Chinese, seeped in Confucian teachings, hold their parents with great esteem treating them as virtually infallible. So, accepting the idea that all born on this earth suffer from moral blight is unacceptable. This is the reason why Christian missionaries found it hard to convince the common folks to convert to Christianity readily. Assuming that their parents were born corrupt and lived a life of questionable morality was repugnant to the ordinary Chinese. This explains why Christianity could not make easy inroads into Chinese society in the initial stages.
In the Western societies, the individuals who are venerated as spiritual gurus are those who have renounced worldly pleasures themselves, and using their own examples, ask others to resist the temptations of sensual pleasures. The underlying principle of such teaching is that all worldly pleasures are sinful.
In the Western system, the yardstick for measuring the respectability of a spiritual guru is to assess how hard he tries to bring people to his own ascetic ways. The more aggressively he propounds his philosophy of detachment, the more exalted is his status in the public eye. People lose sight of the fact that such gurus interfere unnecessarily in the lives of common mortals by forcing them to stay away from certain innocent pleasures of life.
The Chinese way of leading a moral life has so many positive advices, such as respecting the parents, being loving towards the children, showing kindness to the poor, venerating the teachers, being courteous to others etc. etc. These are simple, and, therefore, easily ‘doable’ things. No wonder, most Chinese follow these prescriptions all their lives.
On the contrary, the Western moral preaching have such a long list of things one must mot do or keep away from. The severity of such advice renders them very difficult to adhere to for ordinary people. So, non-compliance is rampant, and compliance is rare.
Text … Another result of absence of notion of Sin is that men are much more willing to submit their differences to arguments and reasons than they are in the West. Among ourselves, differences of opinion quickly becomes question of “principle”: each side thinks that the other side is wicked and that any yielding to it involves sharing in its guilt. This makes our dispute bitter, and involves in practice a great readiness to appeal to force. In china, although there were military men who were ready to appeal to force, no one took them seriously, not even their own soldiers. They fought battles which were nearly bloodless, and they did much less harm than we should expect from our experience of the fiercer conflicts of the West. The great bulk of the population, including the civil administration, went about its business as though these generals and their armies did not exist. In ordinary life, disputes are usually adjusted by the friendly meditation of some third party. Compromise is the accepted principal, because it is necessary to save the face of both the parties. Saving face, though in some forms it makes foreigners smile, is a most valuable national institution, making social and political life far less ruthless than it is with us.
There is one serious defect, and the 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.
Meaning of the above paragraphs …. In the Chinese system, people settle their differences through arguments and appealing to reason. The opposing sides make efforts to see that either side is not humiliated after the settlement is over. Generally, a friendly mediator acceptable to both sides, is called in to facilitate the resolution of the conflict. The process is based on a give-and-take approach, and both sides resist the temptation to use force. Thus, the end result is almost always fair and free of rancor and bitterness.
Even in army, the generals indulge in bitter acrimony threatening to order use of force, but even the soldiers under them understand the chest-beating as more of sound and fury than a real urge to fight and kill the adversary. As a result, battles in China end with far less bloodletting than in the western world.
The Western way is quite different. Here, arguments are fought to the bitter end. The contestants assume hard-line positions from the very start and do not concede any ground to the opponent. Each side thinks that it is right and the other is wrong. There is no middle ground. Belligerence seems to be built into the westerner’s psyche.
To settle the case, contestants readily resort to force. The duel leads to very bloody devastating wars. The result – continuing animosity, bitterness, and battle scars.
The only infirmity in the Chinese system is that their penchant for amicable settlement of disputes robs them of the vitality to stand up firmly against aggressive and avaricious neighbours or invaders.
Finally, Russell concludes that the world could be free from devastating wars if all nations had the Chinese trait of live and let live. He fears that with China gradually shedding its isolation and trying to draw level with the West, the corrupt western ways might soon besmirch it, resulting in great misery to the human race.