5 April 2013
Previously I have written about The Cognitive Value of Horseback Riding and The Cognitive Value of Walking, and as I both rode and walked today at the Estancia Tierra Santa I was in a position to appreciate this sentiment again.
One of the fundamental differences that divides Occidental and Oriental civilization is the attitude to enlightenment: in the west, enlightenment comes from engagement with the world; in the east, enlightenment come from disengagement with the world and turning inward to what Augustine called the “inner man” — except this latter phrase is too personal, too individual, and altogether too western to describe (much less explain) the eastern attitude to enlightenment.
As a westerner, even when I am thinking I want to be actively engaged in some activity, like riding or walking or canoeing or evening simply listening to music. Nietzsche, whom I have quoted previously on this topic, said that only thoughts reached by walking have any value. I read somewhere that Seymour Cray, the designer of Cray supercomputers, dug tunnels in his backyard. This may sound eccentric, but anyone who has ever immersed themselves in their work until they reach a point that psychologists call a “flow state,” which is essentially meditative in character, knows what this is like. And it is paradigmatically western.
The eastern tradition is very different. In Yoga, for instance, the idea of meditation is that, if only one can perfectly still the mind, then the truth will appear out of the depths of that stillness. The westerner, by contrast, does not seek stillness, but activity and agitation.
Here is how one westerner, Will Durant, saw the tradition of India:
“Here and there, constituting one-fifth of the land, the primitive jungle remains, a breeding-place of tigers, leopards, wolves and snakes. In the southern third, or Deccan, the heat is drier, or is tempered with breezes from the sea. But from Delhi to Ceylon the dominating fact in India is heat: heat that has weakened the physique, shortened the youth, and affected the quietist religion and philosophy of the inhabitants. The only relief from this heat is to sit still, to do nothing, to desire nothing; or in the summer months the monsoon wind may bring cooling moisture and fertilizing rain from the sea. When the monsoon fails to blow, India starves, and dreams of Nirvana.”
The very act of placing Indian religious philosophy in its biological and climatological context reveals Durant as a westerner, but it is far better to try to understand the east as a westerner than to pretend that one understands as a native a tradition to which one has not been born.
At the extremes of the world, we find the extreme exemplifications of western extroversion and eastern introversion. In Japan, at the far east of the eastern world, we have the tradition of Zazen, or sitting meditation, in which monks sit virtually motionless for hours in meditation. In North America, at the far west of the western world, we have the idealization of unreflective activity. And while meditation can descend into ineffectual quietism, unreflective activity can descend into frantic nihilism.
Because of the western focus on activity and worldly engagement, philosophy has always been a marginal activity in the west, and while Plato dreamed of a Philosopher-King, philosophers never had the social status or communal approbation of scholars and wise men in the east; they were persecuted more often than they were praised.
At the same time, I think that the case can be made that it was the western tendency to seek active engagement with the world that was the essential source of modern science. Science in its modern form is almost entirely a production of western civilization, and this in itself has been a source of tension between western civilization, which in the form of industrial-technological civilization is driven by science, and the civilizations of the eastern, which have adopted science pragmatically, but for which it is not a natural expression of the greatest intellects native to the tradition.
In so far as industrial-technological civilization has demonstrated that it is capable of preempting other forms of civilization, there wouldn’t seem to be much of a future for other forms of civilization, and this would seem to spell the ultimate doom of eastern civilizations. One could easily suppose the the habit of science, adopted pragmatically, may eventually displace ancient culture traditions and come to be as intuitive and instinctive for the peoples of the east as it is for the west.
It is, however, equally as much a possibility that some entirely new kind of civilization will emerge from the collision of western science and eastern introspection, just as a new form of civilization emerged in the western hemisphere from the collision of European civilization and the native traditions of the Americas. The civilizations of the New World were annihilated by the collision, but many of the attitudes, intuitions, instincts, perspectives, and the overall intellectual orientation were not annihilated, and continue to shape the world to the present day, although in a much less direct fashion than western civilization shapes the world at present.
I do not think that this is the only possibility for the future of civilization, i.e., that the melding of western science and eastern introspection is the sole source of future civilization. I also think that the peculiar traditions of western civilization will continue their development in the western hemisphere, even as European civilization fades into the past in the eastern hemisphere. And from the continued development of science from western engagement and activity in the world will come a science that is so sophisticated and subtle that it will demand an account of its own foundations, and this will force westerners into a more reflective appreciation of the world that science has revealed to us.
In each case, something essential will be retained of the fundamental division between eastern and western approaches to enlightenment, and the character of enlightenment too, being, ultimately, human, all-too-human, will change — a moving target defined by the changing human condition.
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15 April 2012
Say what you will, those of us in the Western hemisphere can be rightly proud of the fact that all but one nation-state in the Americas is roughly democratic in its constitution. Many of these democracies are highly imperfect and leave much to be desired, but if we compare the western hemisphere where it is today to where it was in the 1970s and 1980s — with hyperinflation, numerous proxy wars for the Cold War, strongmen (caudillos) ruling countries for decades, and military regimes installed in some of the largest nation-states in the hemisphere — things look pretty good at present.
That sole exception — Cuba — was one of the points of contention at the Sixth Summit of the Americas, that just wrapped up business in Cartegena, Colombia. The BBC reported in Summit of the Americas ends without final declaration that, “The leaders failed to reach agreement on whether Cuba should attend the next gathering.”
It has been the steadfast position of Canada and the US that Cuba not be invited because it is not democratic. Many if not most of the other nation-states sending their representatives to the Summit feel that Cuba ought to be invited. I personally find this disappointing, that there is not more support for the intrinsic good of reinforcing the democratic character of the Western hemisphere, but this points to the fact that the different members of the Organization of American States view the purpose of the organization and of the summits differently. Other than the US and Canada, political leaders want the summit to be inclusive, regardless of content or intent.
Constanza Vieira of IPS quoted Uruguayan analyst Laura Gil in Last Summit of the Americas Without Cuba as saying:
“…there will not be another summit without Cuba. Either Cuba is included, or there will not be a summit at all. The absence of (Ecuadorean President Rafael) Correa is a red alert…”
“This summit reminds us that ideologies are still a force to be reckoned with. The limitations are plain to be seen…”
Although this remark was intended as a criticism of the exclusion of Cuba on ideological grounds, it is good to be reminded the ideologies are a force to be reckoned with, and it is appropriate the the OAS should take a stand against repressive regimes and in favor of democracy. Without this, the OAS becomes another talk-shop and a place for grandstanding to no purpose. It would also forfeit the legitimacy of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
Also, truly enough, the limitations are plain to be seen, as the limitations of Cuba are plain to be seen from decades of repressive misrule by the Castro brothers. Cuba’s simultaneous repression and impoverishment are not accidental; each is implicated in the other, and the OAS should not tolerate as a member or as a participant a nation-state that imposes such misery (not to mention avoidable misery) on its people. There is no principle here represented by Cuba that is worth defending.
José R. Cárdenas in Americas Summit: Obama needs to rescue the democratic charter has a number of quotes from other Latin American representatives about their desire to include Cuba in any further OAS summits. If this is true, it is a disturbing and disappointing trend, and if it comes to the point of either inviting a non-democratic Cuba or not having another summit, I hope that the US will make no concessions to including Cuba for the sake of inclusion. That being said, I wonder how members would react to a proposal to allow Cuba to send an observer. This is a possible compromise that need not force the OAS to recognize a non-democratic nation-state but would allow Cuba to be present after a fashion.
The President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, as noted in the above quote, felt so strongly about Cuba’s exclusion that he boycotted the summit and stayed home (Ecuador to boycott Americas summit over Cuba exclusion). Risa Grais-Targow of Foreign Policy has asked, Is Rafael Correa about to become the next Hugo Chávez? Certainly with Hugo Chávez dying of cancer (and receiving most of his medical treatment in Cuba), it is time to pass the leftist firebrand torch in South America, and Correa seems to have nominated himself. He stands to benefit from the David and Goliath dividend.
José R. Cárdenas is not the only one over at Foreign Policy taking Correa to task. There was a very strongly worded piece by Otto J. Reich and Ezequiel Vázquez Ger, How Ecuador’s immigration policy helps al Qaeda. The authors write:
These examples show how Rafael Correa’s Ecuador is becoming a failed state, hosting all sorts of dangerous actors. They also help to understand the context in which various financial, commercial, and energy agreements are being developed by Ecuador with the governments of Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela. While many of the agreements are not yet completed, they serve as “government-authorized illicit tunnels” through which anything and anyone can pass, from terrorists and drugs to money and arms.
It would probably be difficult to find much common ground between the sort of sentiments expressed by Laura Gil earlier, and those expressed just above. What these expressions of discontent manifest in common is a lack of diplomacy. It might sound disingenuous of me to say that Cuba could send an observer who was strictly identified as an observer but not a participant and not a member of the OAS, but this is the very essence of diplomacy. If diplomacy can make something possible that would not otherwise be possible, then it is a facilitator of events. Not to be a facilitator of events is to be an obstructionist.
It strikes me as perfectly appropriate if Cuba should send an observer to the Seventh Summit of the Amnericas, if there is one, and even that there should be meetings and many photo opportunities that give the impression to the public and to the media that Cuba was being “included.” Even a Rafael Correa or a Hugo Chávez could take this home as a symbol that they have vanquished the hated Yanqui.
Yet it is entirely possible to be both diplomatic and tough-minded (like Richard Holbrooke, whom we recently lost). If Cuba could be “included” in the sense described above — included in pictures, included in parties, included in rhetoric — but then taken into the back room and given a thorough drubbing beyond the view of the press, this could send an effective message. If words were followed by deeds, it would send even a stronger message.
The danger here is that some people — indeed, some diplomats — cannot sustain the illusion and simply lack the intestinal fortitude to make nice in public and then be brutal in private. But this is exactly what we need. There should be no compromise whatsoever over Cuba’s impoverishment, immiserization, lack of popular sovereignty, lack of the rule of law, and flaunting of the very idea of human rights, but all of these things can be maintained, pristine and intact, even while everyone is smiling for the cameras.
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19 January 2012
Since I last wrote I have experienced a dramatic change in hemispheres, going from the snow of rural Oregon, pictured above from just a few days ago, to the overcast heat and humidity of Lima, Peru. The contrast would have been even more striking had it been as sunny as I expected the southern hemisphere to be in January, but it is still a dramatic hemispherical shift. There is a scene in Goethe’s Faust when Faust requests grapes (or some other fruit — I can’t precisely recall), and Mephistopheles disappears only to return momentarily with the grapes. Although the feat is magical, Faust does not ascribe it to magic, but furnishes the explanation to Faust that on the opposite side of the world it is summer even as it is winter in Faust’s Europe. This is how the man of the Northern Hemisphere views the exotic climes of the Southern Hemisphere.
Even while taking leave of the Northern Hemisphere I have remained within the Western Hemisphere, and I am very pleased to be back in Peru, since it has been almost twenty years since I was last here. Peru is the fons et origo of civilization in the Western Hemisphere. Like Anatolia and Mesopotamia, the history of civilization runs deep here. The succession of peoples and cultures has left stratified layers in time, and this stratigraphy of history gives a definite shape to the past.
There has also been a succession of empires through the ages. When I was last in Ecuador, at the Hacienda San Agustin — which in its earlier iterations was an Inca outpost on the periphery of empire — the Ecuadorians spoke of the Peruvians as warlike and given to quarrel. I do not know if this is true, but I do know that when they spoke, they spoke with the knowing look of a neighbor on their faces.
We should not be surprised at this. Civilization and war are born twins. Recently on Twitter I wrote that one could uncharitably say of civilization that is is merely epiphenomenal of war, or one could say more charitably that war is merely epiphenomenal of civilization. Perhaps each is epiphenomenal of the other, and there is no one, single foundation of organized human activity — it is simply that large-scale human activity sometimes manifests itself as civilization and sometimes manifests itself as war.
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