I just completed my 6,000 words Chinese article. It is titled May 4th Movement and the Re-evaluation of Western Civilization.
A few minutes after I finished writing, I read Marianne Williamson’s Instagram post. Marianne recently published a book titled A Politics of Love. In many people’s mind, politics and love don’t mix. Hence, some of her readers asked, “But what does love have to do with politics?” Marianne provided a good answer in her post. She said, “Right now, nothing. And that’s the point. Our lack of love for the planet, our lack of love for each other and our lack of love for animals is literally killing us.”
This coincides with my thoughts today. It seems like another instance of synchronicity. I have been re-evaluating Western civilization in the last two weeks. A hundred and one years ago, on May 4th, 1919, the Chinese students and intellectuals found Western civilization tremendously appealing. Why? Primarily because a big part of Western civilization is based on individual freedom. Personal liberty was very appealing to Chinese youths at that time, due to the fact that traditional Chinese was a collectivist society, even before the arrival of communism. In general, the East prizes collectivism while the modern West prizes individualism. Some of the main themes of the Enlightenment Movement in the 17th and 18th century Europe were reason, individualism, skepticism, and science. The movement is partially a reaction against the preceding centuries of the dominance of organized religion in civil and political life.
In Marianne Williamson’s Instagram post, she made a bold statement. She declared, “We’re on the earth to love each other, and anything we do with any other purpose in mind leads to personal and collective chaos. That’s the radical truth obscured by layers of complexity that do nothing but cause ultimate suffering.” As I re-evaluate Western civilization and review the themes of the Enlightenment Movement, I find something missing. Reason, individualism, skepticism and science are all very important. But what about love, caring and compassion?
The Chinese intellectuals were, and still are, attracted to Western individualism. But there is a downside to individualism and personal liberty. They can easily be abused. It is a problem when personal gains and interests are pursued at the expense of the welfare of others. We should note that Adam Smith, the Scottish moral philosopher who lived in the 18th century, is also a well-known Enlightenment thinker. He is considered the father of modern capitalism. While selfishness and greed are considered as vices in all of the traditional religions, Smith managed to legitimize self-interest. He wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” This is very significant. Prior to Adam Smith, Western people still had a strong sense of the importance of love, caring and compassion. They still had an appreciation of the primacy of the common good. But Adam Smith, through his theory of capitalism, changed all that. He preached that benevolence is not necessary for social well-being. Rather, self-interest alone will serve society’s needs and create a well-functioning economy through competition.
This ideology of Adam Smith is well-accepted in the modern world. If self-interest is sufficient, we don’t need God and we don’t need benevolence or any sense of social duty. Marianne Williamson talks about the lack of love for the planet, for each other and for the animals in our contemporary world. Yes, such apathy is literally killing us. This has much to do with modern capitalist thinking. Marianne Williamson continued with her post with amazement and disbelief:
Why is short term profit for huge corporate interests considered serious political discussion, but the idea that compassion and mercy should guide public policy considered less so? Something that is the only survivable option for the human race is not a less serious conversation.
The belief that one can benefit oneself at the expense of others stems from a lack of organic and holistic thinking. Today, I wrote about the big difference between Eastern civilization and Western civilization. Western civilization sees humans as independent agents. It also sees humans as separate from the natural world. Modern Western history is a history of humans trying to conquer nature. The Eastern worldview, on the other hand, sees humans as an integral part of it. For this reason, the Chinese and the Indians don’t talk about the conquest of nature. Rather, they see the Tao or Brahman as everywhere, inside all living beings and pervading nature. How can we conquer something which is all around us and also inside us?
Due to the intimate link between humans and nature, humans cannot harm nature without suffering serious consequences. The Western world often thinks about using technology to conquer nature. Pesticides, for example, were invented to kill pests and protect crops. Remember DDT? Rachel Carson wrote extensively about the problematic use of pesticides in her book, Silent Spring. Humans evolved from nature and are still an integral part of nature. Can we really use technology to eliminate a part of nature without bringing about our own demise? Anyone who has studied modern biology will understand the important of the food chain and realize that we are a part of an intricate ecosystem. The significance of being in a system is that we cannot take out any member or aspect of that system without experiencing the ripple effects throughout the entire system.
The Buddha knew about the importance of systems some 2500 years ago. The central tenet of Buddhism is Dependent Origination, which says that everything is linked and dependent on the others for its existence. Buddha said, “In protecting oneself, one protects others. In protecting others, oneself is protected.” This certainly makes sense, especially considering the current situation of a global pandemic. The opposite is also true. If we harm others, we will suffer the consequences too. Einstein is known for his worry about the extinction of bees. If the bees disappear, it would not be long before we will follow suit. Should our use of pesticides and herbicides bring about the demise of the bees, we will have a heavy price to pay. All lives are linked.
On the 101st anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, we suddenly awaken to an unprecedented crisis which is caused by centuries of antagonism and apathy towards nature. Western civilization typically treats the indigenous tribes’ worship of nature as primitive and ignorant. Similarly, it views the East’s subsistence farming as backward and prefers the acceleration of economic growth through industrialization and global trade as the gold standard for development and a sign of progress. As the destruction of the natural environment/habitats through industrialization and deforestation accelerates, new diseases arise. Today, scientists are looking to indigenous peoples of the world to learn sustainable living. Isn’t it a great irony?
Most people understand Western civilization. But not many understand Eastern civilization. Eastern civilization, such as that of the Chinese, Indian and Native American, emphasizes harmony with nature. It also stresses the principle of ahimsa (the protection of other lives). All of a sudden, we realize that Eastern civilization is not really backward. It has it own wisdom. For by protecting the lives of others, we may also protect our own. This is the significance of the circle of life. We’d better learn it now.