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Friday, February 16, 2007

among barbarians, do what is proper among barbarians

Li Zhi was a Chinese scholar of the Ming period, a contemporary of Yuan Hongdao, (about whom see LI’s Valentine’s Day post). He grew skeptical of the official Confucian doctrine of the day, and wrote books with titles like “A book for burning” – a title that prophesized the book’s fate. Chronologically, his life roughly parallels Giordano Bruno’s. This is from one of his letters:

“When most people write they strive to enter their subject by pushing into it from the outside; hereas I am already in there and make sorties to the outside, carrying the battle under the walls of the enemy, rummaging in his supplies, turning his own men and horses against him.”

Li is famous for, among other things, an essay entitled “Childlike Mind”. Here’s a quote from that essay:

Once people’s minds have been given over to received opinions and moral principles, what they have ot say is all about these things, and not what would naturally come from their childlike minds. No matter how clever the words, what have they to do with oneself? What else can there be but phony men speaking phony words, doing phony things, writing phony writings? Once the men become phonies, everything becomes phony. Thereafter, if one speaks phony talk to the phonies, the phonies are pleased; if one does phony things as the phonies do, the phonies are pleased; and if one discourses with the phonies through phony writings, the phonies are pleased. Everything is phony, and everyone is pleased.

Further, he writes: “… the best in literature always came from the childlike mind, and if the childlike mind continued to exist in this way, moral principles would not be practiced, received impressions would not stand up, and the writing of any age, any man, any form, any style, and any language would all be accepted as literature.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that a man who looks forward to the spontaneous society was considered a dangerous man. In fact, after putting away his wife and children – the usual cutting off of family ties of the male Chinese sage – Li published many pamphlets and essays that steadily cut into Confucian doctrine. In the Confucian system, the primary relationship was the parent-child relationship. For Li, the primary relationship was the husband-wife relationship. As his commentator, Theodore de Barry, from whose account of Li in Learning for Oneself: Essays on the Individual in Neo-Confucian thought, I've taken my quotes, says: … on the basis of the irreducibility of the male and female principles represented by yin and yang, Li denies the existence of any first principle at all.” Li’s notions made him object to the whole patriarchal structure of Chinese society. Even though he believed in the traditional gender stereotypes – the female principle being intuitive, the male rational – he wrote in his letters that the distribution of these principles in actual people was indifferent to sex – men and women, in his view, were intellectually equal. However, of all relationships, the one that counted most for Li was friendship – and even that, he believed, was not going to hold out until the end. This threw Li back on loneliness as an object of his supreme meditations – which is, paradoxically, the endpoint that awaits a number of related philosophic doctrines: the epicurian-materialist-libertine line in particular. You can see it in the Greek pre-socratics, in Sade, in Nietzsche – this movement to a solitude in which the self falls ill. The illness is a necessary metaphysical illness, a leaching into the bone of that colorless, odorless gas, thought thinking thought. This is, of course, the whole point – the point is to test the self against the greatest degree of loneliness, and see what happens. In Li’s case, apparently, he combined the hedonism of the libertines (he was by no means a celibate monk) with the idea of going further until, in 1600, in response to his revisionist history of China, a mob gathered and burned his house. Being a man with a witty sense of the title, he had called his history ‘A book to be hidden away.” In 1602, the government acted. The court ordered his books to be burnt. Li was put in prison, and committed suicide by cutting his throat.

“ The noble man accords with his station in life and does not desire to go beyond it.

In a position of wealth and honor he does what is proper to a position of wealth and honor. In a poor and low position, he does what is proper to a poor and low position. Situated among barbarians, he does what is proper among barbarians. In a situation of sorrow and difficulty, he does what is proper in sorrow and difficulty. The noble man can find himself in no situation in which he is not himself.”

2 comments:

david@ipinch.com said...

Question for LI. Can't seem to get a read on if pleats on men's trousers are back, never left, or have been banished for all time. Not talking about the multipleat 1980 style Zoot suit type, just the basic pleats. I'm a slender 6-foot guy, and was brought up reading that as such, you wanted pleats. Now I hear conflicting info from clothing salesmen.

roger said...

Basic pleats are for chickenshits, honey. Go for the gusto - get those deep, canyonesque pleats. Your friends may tell you you look like the Michelin man - but that is cause they talk behind your back and are trying to bring you down!