Thoughts from Horseback
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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