‘I have done my best.’ That is about all the philosophy of living one needs.
I first learned of Lin Yutang in the long-ago days of my 20s, when a coworker came in with a photocopy of the section “The Importance of Loafing” from his remarkable book The Importance of Living. It was so different from American thought that I believed it was satire at first. Especially when he talked about how Chinese editors would deliberately leave some mistakes for readers to catch. But something I’ve learned over the years since is that Chinese and Japanese whimsy conceals a lot of very serious thought. You’ll likely see that for yourself if you ever read The Importance of Living.
Dr. Lin brought Chinese thought to the American consciousness back around the 1930s. He also figured out how to design a typewriter that can write in Chinese. This is no small matter for a language written with thousands of individual characters rather than an alphabet.
The above quote resonates for me, not least because the one true thing I’d like etched into whatever little memorial plaque marks my passing is “Quantum in me fuit,” which roughly translates to “I did the best I could.” Most of us would like to be able to say that. The nice thing is, and as you’ll learn if you ever read Liu Yutang’s delightful book, doing our best doesn’t mean we can’t spend an entire afternoon doing absolutely nothing:
If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.
The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten the words? He is the one I would like to talk to.
Even if you don’t know his name, you know this ancient Chinese philosopher: he’s the one who dreamt he was a butterfly. He did a lot else beside that.
One of the things I love most about Chinese and Japanese philosophers is how they can turn concepts on their heads. The other thing I love is how they can ask a seemingly simple question that turns out to be nearly impossible. Chuang Tzu could have held his own with the Zen patriarchs, and he wouldn’t have been out of place among the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove.
Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.
Oh, yes, even atheists can love Gautama Buddha. He’s one of the few religious figures who lived to a ripe old age instead of dying spectacularly, who didn’t run about starting wars, and who didn’t think all that much of the gods (although that depends on which Buddhist tradition you’re listening to – some of them seem to think the Buddha was all about gods, which rather misses the entire point of what he was trying to get across).
If time travel ever comes available, he’s one of the historic figures I’ll want to sit down with. And I hope that Flower Sermon story is based on actual events. In the meantime, I shall be giving myself to my world with all my heart, because that’s damned good advice.
Ignorance is the night of the mind, but a night without moon and star.
Dear, wise old Master Kong! You’ve all probably heard of him at some point: ancient Chinese philosopher, wrote the Analects, comes across as rather uptight and all about propriety and ritual and so forth. Stuffy. At least, that’s the impression I’d gotten of him before I started reading up on him. He actually had a delightful sense of humor, a wise way of seeing the world, and while he was very interested in proper conduct, he wasn’t quite the boring old conservative square pants he’s painted as by the Taoists.
Confucius is a Latinization of his Chinese name, which is Kong Fu-Tzu, Old Master Kong. I’ve come to love dear old Master Kong. His Analects are a smooth read, if not exactly an easy read. They’re like water, really: they’re powerful, and you have to work hard to keep up with the current, but highly enjoyable all the same.
He was a man who truly loved wisdom, and did his best to ensure that if people didn’t have sunlight, they’d at least have moon and stars.
Here’s another quote from him that any scientist could live by, and every teacher should remember:
I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.
One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present.
I had a hard time choosing one quote from Golda Meir to highlight. She could be by turns witty, wry, or profound. Some of my favorite quotes regarding war come from here, and I’ll just share one of many here:
A leader who doesn’t hesitate before he sends his nation into battle is not fit to be a leader.
She was Prime Minister of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. She spoke from experience.
Golda’s one of those complex figures of history, neither perfect saint nor sinner. She had her flaws, among them her tendency to dismiss Palestinians and their concerns outright for far too long. But she was an iron-strong woman who fought like fury for her people, an incisive world leader who could call bullshit like no one else, and who never fell in love with war. Just one final quote, then, which demonstrates that last:
It is true we have won all our wars, but we have paid for them. We don’t want victories anymore.
Now if only more leaders could come to that conclusion, there might be no need for victories.
Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risks of infection.
– Richard von Weizsacker
Especially in this age of Godwin’s Law, Holocaust denial, and the distressing tendency of the American right to call everyone and everything they don’t like a Nazi, it’s important to remember the true horrors perpetrated in the name of an ideology. Richard von Weizsacker, President of Germany from 1984 to 1994, gave a speech on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II that speaks of the importance of that remembrance. Here’s the above quote in context:
The vast majority of today’s population were either children then or had not been born. They cannot profess a guilt of their own for crimes that they did not commit. No discerning person can expect them to wear a penitential robe simply because they are Germans. But their forefathers have left them a grave legacy. All of us, whether guilty or not, whether old or young, must accept the past. We are all affected by its consequences and liable for it. The young and old generations must and can help each other to understand why it is vital to keep alive the memories. It is not a case of coming to terms with the past. That is not possible. It cannot be subsequently modified or made undone. However, anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risks of infection.
…What the world has always needed is more heretics and less authority.
–Louis L’Amour, The Walking Drum
Yes, that Louis L’Amour. I am quoting an author of Westerns. You gotta problem with that?
Louis was a seriously good writer, and he wrote some seriously great books. The one that tops my list is The Walking Drum, which I burbled about once. Okay, twice. I remember the heft of that book in my young middle-school hands. I remember being so enthralled that I memorized passages, and regularly recited one of them to Mars when it hung bright and red in the sky. Changed my life, that book did, and now I look at so many of the quotes I pulled from it, I realize it’s an excellent book for skeptics.
The wider my knowledge became the more I realized my ignorance. It is only the ignorant who can be positive, only the ignorant who can become fanatics, for the more I learned the more I became aware that there are shadings and relationships in all things.
In my knowledge lay not only power but freedom from fear, for generally speaking one only fears what one does not understand.
Not to mention:
…Question all things. Seek for answers, and when you find what seems to be an answer, question that, too.
Just one more:
It is a poor sort of man who is content to be spoon-fed knowledge that has been filtered through the canon of religious or political belief, and it is a poor sort of man who will permit others to dictate what he may or may not learn.
L’Amour’s hero Kerbouchard thunders across the 11th Century world kicking ass, taking names, kissing the ladies, and engaging in fiery, passionate book learning. I don’t think I’ve ever come across an author who can make scholarship look more macho and ultra damned sexy. And Kerbouchard puts all that studying to use in situations you might not necessarily expect it, especially not in an action novel, and always with a rapier wit that leaves enemies thoroughly punctured while he rides off with the woman. He’s like the MacGuyver of the medieval world, only he has better hair and social graces.
What I’m saying is, just go read the damned book, m’kay?
The problem in dealing with people is that people can deal back.
–Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
So can animals. Just ask any pet owner who’s left the buggers alone for a weekend, and upon their return discovered that revenge is a dish that may be served cold, in several expensive pieces, or as a steaming pile of unspeakable horror left on one’s pillow.
Under controlled experimental conditions of temperature, time, lighting, feeding, and training, the organism will behave as it damn well pleases.
–The Harvard Law of Animal Behavior
This is one of those gems I plucked from The Blank Slate. Research involving animals (or small children) can, I gather, be horribly frustrating.
Having tried to modify my cat’s homicidal behavior in times of unwarranted optimism, I can completely empathize.
Wonderful theory. Wrong species.
That’s Wilson’s verdict on Marxism. I love how he can stuff so much political, behavioral and philosophical thought in just four simple words.
This is the man who managed to make ants fascinating. And he’s a phenomenal writer, so if you haven’t yet, pick up one of his tomes. And you might want to catch Nova’s Lord of the Ants sometime. You will never forget his demonstration of the defensive tactics of fire ants. I guarantee it.