Friday, August 26, 2016

IX. East and West

from The Great Conversation by Robert Maynard Hutchins

AT this point I hear some reader say, "The world community and the world republic of law and justice must be composed of all peoples everywhere. These are great books of the West. How can comprehension of the tradition they embody amount to participation in the world republic of learning? How can such comprehension promote world community, since great books of the East are not included?" 

The Editors reply that there is undoubtedly to be a meeting of East and West. It is now going on, under rather unsatisfactory conditions. The Editors believe that those who come to the meeting with some grasp of the full range of the Western tradition will be more likely to understand the East than those who have attended any number of the hastily instituted survey courses about the East proposed by educators who have been suddenly impressed by the necessity of understanding the East and whose notion is that the way to understand anything is to get a lot of information about it. 

The Editors are impressed by the many reminders given to the West by Eastern thinkers that the parts of the Western tradition that are now the least known and the least respected in America are the very parts most likely to help us understand the deepest thought of the East. On the other hand, the Editors are convinced that those aspects of the West which the East finds most terrifying, its materialism, rapacity, and ethnocentric pride, will get no support from those great books which indicate the main line of the Western pursuit of wisdom. The Editors believe that an education based on the full range of the Western search is far more likely to produce a genuine openness about the East, a genuine capacity to understand it, than any other form of education now proposed or practicable. 


The West can try, as the saying goes, to "win" the East by coming to the meetings between them with a few words adjusted directly to the questions that arise from the manner in which the East is, as the saying goes, "awakening." There is no question that the West will inevitably be represented at these meetings by a good many of those social engineers who feel, in all ignorance, that they represent in splendor what twenty-five centuries of Western civilization have been laboring to produce. Scientific humanism, which has been vigorously and in high places presented as the new religion that the new one world needs, will certainly be represented. Some representatives will surely be making the offer of the magic trro: scientific method, technology, and the American Way of Life. 

It seems safe to predict, however, that these representatives of the West are likely to be understood only by those in the East who have already decided for "westernization." These representatives of the West may be considerably nonpluscd by those in the East who are determined, however much they "awaken" in certain respects, to retain the central convictions and habits of thought of Eastern culture. 

As Ananda Coomaraswamy has said, "It is true that there is a modernized, uprooted East, with which the West can compete-, but it is only with the surviving, superstitious East Gandhi's East, the one that has never attempted to live by bread alone that the West can co-operate." 

In seeking the co-operation of this modernized, uprooted East the Western social engineers will find themselves, as is already menacingly clear, competing with the rulers of the Soviet Union. These rulers are bringing to the meetings of East and West a far more ruthless version of this latter-day shrunken Western voice. Their words are adjusted far more directly to the exact questions that are involved in the "awakening" of the East. The Russians seem prepared to offer the new Easterners a program uncomplicated by any concern about the old East. Perhaps these new Easterners, under Russian guidance, may carry through a new kind of reflexive imperialism, more ruthless toward "the superstitious East, Gandhi's East," than any Western imperialist ever was. 

If the East, contrary to its deepest traditions, becomes totally absorbed with material comfort, there will be little about the East that we shall have to understand, since we already understand that kind of absorption only too well. We have never pictured the East as coming to share it. If the East does come to share it, the change may shock us, but it will raise no very difficult question of understanding. 

If, on the other hand, the awakening East tries to retain, beneath the new vigor of the drive toward material goods, its various forms of traditional religion, metaphysics, and ethics, the West, in trying to co-operate with the East, has something to understand. 

Under these circumstances anyone anywhere, in or out of the universities, who has attained some competence to bring forth a reading of the East that the West can understand, should be encouraged in every way to increase his competence and to make the results of his studies available. But the number of persons who can claim even such an initial competence is very small. Therefore it is absurd to suggest, as many laymen and scholars are doing today, that a large part of the course of study of our educational system should be devoted to "understanding the East." 

Few persons are less helpful to the world than those educators, infatuated with the magic of curriculum changes, who think that the teachers or the teachability of any subject they dream of can spring into existence by curricular decree. It is irresponsible to suggest that the East can be given a major place in the education of everybody when no more than a handful of teachers exists who could decently commit themselves to the teaching of such courses. The "understanding" of the East that would emerge from such courses, taught by instructors who had hastily "read up" on the East, could set communication and understanding back for generations. 

Professor John D. Wild of Harvard has lately commented on some educational proposals of Professor Howard Mumford Jones of Harvard. Mr. Wild says: "I gather that Mr. Jones is worried about our capacity really to understand Russia and to set up a co-operative world community. So am I. But I am unable to follow him in the assumption that these crucially important aims will be achieved merely by setting up more machinery, professors, and secretaries, more fields and areas called 'the study of Russia' and 'the study of the Orient'. How are these things to be studied; from what sort of integrating point of view? Is he proposing an amalgam of Western, Chinese, and Russian culture? If so, what would this be like? Or is he proposing a sort of cultural relativism in which every one seeks to divest himself so far as possible from all the culture he had? I do not believe that Mr. Jones is advocating either of these alternatives. I gather that he is interested in correcting the economic and social injustices that distort our present civilization, that he wishes to see the vast power which modern technology has put into our hands used intelligently for the common good. All this is in line with the best philosophical and religious thought of our western tradition, when properly understood. I gather further that he feels that we should be humble about the rather rudimentary civilization we now possess at this early stage, precious as it is, and that we should be open to suggestions from alien sources. This also is thoroughly in line with what is best in our own tradition. If this is what Mr. Jones means, then what we need most of all is to recall the basic insights and principles (religious as well as philosophical) upon which our western culture was founded, and then apply them to the critical problems of our time." 

So also Professor Louis W. Norris: "Professor Jones has entered a strong and just plea for the relevance of education to its times. But there is grave danger here that the timeliness of education should obscure its timelessness. Socrates and Plato, as Professor Jones says, (and even more truly Aristotle) 'struggled with the local political problem/ But the very reason they were able to make such helpful comments about social, ethical and political questions was, that they were even more concerned to find out the 'forms' of things that were timeless. Without the 'definitions' of Socrates, the 'ideas' of Plato and the 'forms' of Aristotle, their 'radio commentating' would have been shallow gibberish, forgotten as soon as ninety-nine per cent of present commentary. A frantic concern to understand Russia or the Orient will lead us nowhere, unless the student brings to these problems skill in analysis, order in valuing, knowledge of history, and such social experience as gives him a basis for judging what he finds out about Russia and the Orient." 

There is no reason why the West should feel that it must apologize for a determination to retain and renew a sense of its own character and its own range. Western civilization is one of the greatest civilizations to date. Not in a spirit of arrogance, but in a spirit of concern that nothing good be lost for the future, the West should take to its meetings with the East a full and vivid sense of its own achievements. 

Nothing in the main line of the Western tradition leads to ethnocentric pride or cultural provincialism. If the West has been guilty of these sins, it is not because of its fidelity to its own character, but because of the many kinds of human weakness that always afflict any "successful" society. 

Moreover, if we are to believe such an eminent student of this matter as Coomaraswamy, the Western tradition contains within itself elements that permit bridging to the deepest elements of Eastern traditions. Presumably we can build these bridges best if we understand the nature of the ground where the bridge begins. 

Coomaraswamy says: "If ever the gulf between East and West, of which we are made continually more aware as physical intimacies are forced upon us, is to be bridged, it will be only by an agreement on principles. ... A philosophy identical with Plato's is still a living force in the East. . . . Understanding requires a recognition of common values. For so long as men cannot think with other peoples, they have not understood, but only known them; and in this situation it is largely an ignorance of their own intellectual heritage that stands in the way of understanding and makes an unfamiliar way of thinking to seem 'queer'." 

The irony here is that those who talk most about the need to change the course of study in order to promote understanding of the East would be those who would proclaim most loudly the obsolescence of those parts of the Western tradition (for example, Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, and the Western mystical and metaphysical tradition) which are perhaps equivalent, with some transformation, to the important parts of Eastern traditions. Such people would vigorously oppose an education requiring everybody to try to understand those things in the West which have the best chance of leading to a genuine understanding of the East; but for all that they vigorously propose that we understand the East. 

The more dogmatic of those who feel that most of the Western tradition is obsolete, and who take scientific humanism as the new religion, are not likely to regard the problem of relations with the East as one of understanding, though they will use the phrase. They will see in the East little but backwardness, and will mark down Eastern ritual and mysticism as something scheduled for early technological demolition. One can imagine the indignant astonishment with which a beneficent American social engineer would greet the word of an earnest and respected student of the East, Rene Guenon, that "everything in the East is seen as the application and extension of a doctrine which in essence is purely intellectual and metaphysical." 

Any widespread achievement of understanding between East and West will have to wait on the production of an adequate supply of liberally educated Westerners. Meanwhile, the problem is simply how to produce such a supply. The pretense that we are now prepared within the educational system at large to include understanding the East as one main pivot in a liberal curriculum will obstruct, not assist, the solution of the central problem of producing a liberally educated generation. 

Unquestionably all the purposes that validate the publication of great books lead logically to Great Books of the World, not of any part of the world. But at the moment we have all we can do to understand ourselves in order to be prepared for the forthcoming meetings between East and West. Those who want to add more great books of Eastern origin are deceiving themselves. The time for that will come when we have understood our own tradition well enough to understand another. 

We may take to heart the message given the West by one of the great modern representatives of another culture. Charles Malik has said: "In all this we are really touching upon the great present crisis in western culture. We are saying when that culture mends its own spiritual fences, all will be well with the Near East, and not with the Near East alone. We are saying it is not a simple thing to be the heir of the Graeco-Roman-Christian-European synthesis and not to be true to its deepest visions. One can take the ten greatest spirits in that synthesis and have them judge the performance of the Western world in relation to the Near East. The deep problem of the Near East then must await the spiritual recovery of the West. And he does not know the truth who thinks that the West does not have in its own tradition the means and power wherewith it can once again be true to itself." 

The Great Conversation by Robert Maynard Hutchins