Thursday, 17 December 2015

Schopenhauer and the meeting of East and West

Zhuangzi (Chuang Chou, ca 369-286 BC) dreaming of a butterfly,
brush drawing by Lu Chih, 1496-1576

"Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things."
As translated by Lin Yutang

The nineteenth century is my favourite time in history. It was a period of the greatest exploration both geographically and intellectually; it was our last "renaissance". Schopenhauer started to open our western minds to eastern thinking with philosophy, but he was not alone: Richard Francis Burton, more than anyone, epitomizes the spirit of the time in his explorations of far-off lands and their cultures. He translated the Kama Sutra and the Arabian Nights and risked his life to be the first non-Muslim (in disguise) to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Schopenhauer also foreshadowed Darwin on evolution and I think that owes a lot to eastern ideas about the connectivity of life and the universe.

For this final post about Schopenhauer I have picked the butterfly as a suitable metaphor. Most people have heard the story of the man who dreamt he was a butterfly, but few know of its Taoist origins. The "butterfly effect" further emphasizes the eastern, holistic outlook. While western explorers opened up eastern lands to Europeans, Eastern thought opened up western minds. Would postmodernism have even developed without eastern wisdom? I doubt it very much. I think it significant, too, that the more holistic view of culture was the focus of the Japanese Nara conference.

Tomorrow, back to the Celts and the problems of traditional (western) linear thinking. Butterflies flit, they do not plod.

John's Coydog Community page

No comments:

Post a Comment