Rise Of The West (The Short Answer), or, Is Getting Back To Normal Becoming Less And Less Of A Possibility?
By C. Ikehara
18 May, 2016
Apart from [mathematics], everything else [Europeans] do is excessive ingenuity. … So often to play around with things is to bring a myriad burdens on oneself. They have investigated to the utmost such cruel things as firearms. (Chinese scholar Cheng Tingzuo [1691-1767])
- But what are the opinions of reasonable men against iron and steel? ("Lost Horizon";1933,Hilton)
- Western Civilization was responsible for a paradigm shift in history. It created the industrial and scientific revolutions that enabled the birth of a transportation, communications and knowledge revolution unprecedented in the 5 billion year history of this planet. Unfortunately this revolution took place amidst a moral vacuum at the very top of the power structure. It is as if a three year old child had been given control over both a candy story and a shotgun. He was able to use the shotgun to get all the candy he wanted but he had no idea what to do next. Whenever somebody tried to tell him too much candy was bad for him, he shot the person who said that. (Benjamin Fulford)
- [Westerners] were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force — nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. ("Heart of Darkness";1899,Conrad)
Concerning the recent article, "Economic growth: The issue that matters"(May4) which called for government to do more to stimulate the economy, haven't we come to feel that it should be doing all it can to promote prosperity for its citizens? Wouldn't an elected official or political hopeful in the West be booed off the stage and be committing career suicide if he ever dared to give a speech promising "moderate" prosperity?:
- As capitalism falters, the rich move their money out of the country, violence increases, and politicians promising prosperity are elected. (Robert Kiyosaki)
"Moderate prosperity" is just what the leader of China promised in a recent speech which I feel reflects the thinking of the Neo-Confucian ruling elite from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) onward as to their belief that more important than growth was control. They realized the wisdom of the words of reformer Wang An-Shih of the earlier Song dynasty (960-1279) who said, "The state should take the entire management of commerce, industry and agriculture into its own hands, with a view to succoring the working classes and preventing them from being ground into the dust by the rich":
- ...Imperial bureaucracies inhibit capitalist dynamism through their taxes, their regulations, and their general subordination of economic development to political stability. ("Capitalism: A Very Short Introduction,2d ed.;2015,Fulcher)
The late 1970's found China finally entering the global market by beginning to industrialize itself. This was probably due to the fact that they noticed that capitalism was creating a world where those who were once satisfied with less were now finding themselves increasingly at the mercy of those who would never be satisfied with more:
- In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy. (Ivan Illich)
Or could they have realized that those who had acknowledged and accepted limits were being left behind by those who sought to explore possibilities by breaking through limits and boundaries? Also, could they have come to understand that those who had worked for the system were being steamrolled by those who had figured out ways to get the system to work for themselves?
China now seems to be turning inward as it tries to prune and give shape to the growth seen in the decades since then. To those who feel it strange that its leadership seems to now be shifting gears, have we lost sight of something that they have come to realize?:
- Civilizations commonly die from the excessive development of certain characteristics which had at first contributed to their success. (Rene Dubos)
- The whole history of civilization is strewn with creeds and institutions which were invaluable at first, and deadly afterwards. (Walter Bagehot)
The author of "Science and Civilization in China", Joseph Needham (1900-1995), wondered why China from about the 1500's seemed to have abandoned technological innovation although it had led the world in that area up until then. The "Needham Question" has been debated ever since.
I feel that the reason is because the Neo-Confucian ruling elite of that time came to believe that developing and utilizing artificial means (e.g., technology, credit) and depending on them to not only keep things going but also to extend capabilities might result in temporarily improved efficiency and short-term gains in productivity in the short-term, but at the expense of growing disorder, increased potential for abuse and ultimate loss of control which the officials of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) felt was a threat to their own authority.
With regard to disorder and anarchy, the destructiveness of all-out war was once humanity's greatest worry:
- For it would have been better that man should have been born dumb, nay, void of all reason, rather than that he should employ the gifts of Providence to the destruction of his neighbor. (Quintilian)
- In my opinion the only salvation for civilization and the human race lies in the creation of a world government, with security of nations founded upon law. As long as sovereign states continue to have separate armaments and armament secrets, new world wars will be inevitable. (Einstein)
- ...There must be a power which can restrain the different nations from action harmful to their neighbors, a set of rules which defines what a state may do, and an authority capable of enforcing these rules. (Hayek)
The recent development of artificial intelligence now means that machines can take action without human intervention. If there was once no worse fate than to be killed at the hands of the enemy, now the horror of being caught in the crossfire of out-of-control weapons (possibly even one's own) is no longer just a nightmare or an idea being mulled over in the mind of a science fiction writer. When Thoreau said, "Men have become the tools of their tools," could he have foreseen that men would become the sitting ducks of their very own weapons? The worst case scenario may be far worse than we can even begin to imagine because we are turning over more and more control to more and more of our newly created technologies:
- At times, we forget the magnitude of the havoc we can wreak by off-loading our minds onto super-intelligent machines, that is, until they run away from us, like mad sorcerers' apprentices, and drag us up to the precipice for a look down into the abyss. (Richard Dooling)
And concerning abuse, until recently the primary concern was that powerful weapons would fall into the "wrong hands." As Ovid said, "There is no useful thing which may not be turned to an injurious purpose." However, that danger has been superseded by the threat of an increasing number of technologies that man has made so powerful that when it comes to human error, if once upon a time a split second mistake could have been corrected in time, now the briefest inattentiveness of being distracted for even just a split nanosecond, the minutest miscalculation or the slightest lapse of judgment not to mention the tiniest technical failing or malfunction in the smallest component of a complex device full of interacting components can bring about unintended, unexpected and even unimaginable consequences that can serve to trigger what ultimately turns out to be irreversible as well as unleash the cumulative when it comes to setting in motion destructiveness snowballing out of control, i.e., a fast spreading hell on earth of our own making of a magnitude and acceleration which may overtake and overwhelm us before we even realize it:
- Progress is based on perfect technology. (Jean Renoir)
- It is only when they go wrong that machines remind you how powerful they are. (Clive James).
If the anti-technology stance of the Mandarins brands them as "rebels against the future", they probably would have agreed with the Luddites whose views were summarized in the 1995 book "Rebels Against the Future..." (Sale):
- Technologies are never neutral, and some are hurtful,
- Industrialism is always a cataclysmic process, destroying the past, roiling the present, making the future uncertain,
- Only a people serving an apprenticeship to nature can be trusted with machines,
- The nation-state, synergistically intertwined with industrialism, will always come to its aid and defense, making revolt futile and reform ineffectual,
- But resistance to the industrial system, based on some grasp of moral principles and rooted in some sense of moral revulsion, is not only possible but necessary,
- Philosophically, resistance to industrialism must be embedded in an analysis--an ideology, perhaps--that is morally informed, carefully articulated, and widely shared,
- If the edifice of industrial civilisation does not eventually crumble as a result of a determined resistance within its very walls, it seems certain to crumble of its own accumulated excesses and instabilities within not more than a few decades, perhaps sooner, after which there may be space for alternative societies to exist.
Although the Mandarins/Scholar-Officials are thought of as a social class, could they have hindered technological innovation and technology transfer and opposed free trade and business development because they were possibly organized or functioned along the lines of a guild (which also required the passing of examinations to gain entrance) existing more to protect their own interests and less to think and act in terms of the long term common good as leaders should? When the Mandarins/Scholar-Officials weren't paranoid about outsiders who might bring about any kind of change that would affect the status quo. they were often involved with internal power sturggles:
- [Guilds] were believed to oppose free trade and hinder technological innovation, technology transfer and business development. According to several accounts [towards the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century in Europe], guilds became increasingly involved in simple territorial struggles against each other and against free practitioners of their arts. ("Fall of the Guilds",Wikipedia)
When it comes to their role as the ruling elite of China, as far as those Mandarins were concerned, nothing could begin to function properly without a strong central authority in control of everything in society. They wouldn't have needed to have read Hobbes' '"Leviathan" to have been convinced that "... During the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man...To this war of every man against every man, this also in consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the cardinal virtues...No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."
With regard to historian Barbara Tuchman's observation of our own times that, "We are too unsure of ourselves to assert [standards], to stick by them, or if necessary, in the case of persons who occupy positions of authority, to impose them...It should be the task of leaders to recognize and state the truth as they see it. It is their task not to be afraid of absolutes," those Mandarins intended to provide standards for society in the way of creating norms which among other things imposed order and stability by defining how people in their varying roles and different social levels should interact with each other in terms of reciprocal responsibilities and mutual obligations based on tradition. They would have agreed with Jose Ortega Y Gasset's who said, "Barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made."
The Neo-Confucian elite would have felt that a sign that our own society is going into decline is the growing frequency with which yet another "new normal" is proclaimed--evidence that citizens see traditional norms less as guideposts and more as bonds to be broken free from with "modern" men now feeling almost compelled to instantly antagonize and attack authority, immediately tear apart and trash traditions, insolently rebel against and reject responsibilities and in a flash obliterate obligations and discard duties:
- There is nothing new, then, in the defiance of duty by the reformer: every step of progress means a duty repudiated, and a scripture torn up. (George Bernard Shaw)
- The so-called new morality is too often the old immorality condoned. (Lord Shawcross)
- What once were vices are manners now. (Seneca)
With regard to the importance of cultural continuity and modernity's promise of "freedom", the Mandarins would certainly have understood Nietzsche's point of view:
- Our institutions are no longer worth anything: that is a matter of which we are unanimous. But the fault is not in the institutions, but in us. After we have lost all instincts out of which institutions grow, the institutions themselves are being lost, because we are no longer suitable for them. Democratism has always been the decadence type of organising power: I have already...characterised modern democracy...as a declining type of the state. In order that there may be institutions, there must be...a will for tradition, for authority, for responsibility throughout centuries, a will for the solidarity of chains of generations forward and backward in infinitum. When this will exists, something established itself like the Imperium Romanum...The entire western world no longer possesses those instincts out of which institutions grow, out of which futurity grows; perhaps nothing is so much against the grain of its "modern spirit." We live for the present, we live very fast,---we live very irresponsibly: that is precisely what we call "freedom." That which makes institutions in reality, is despised, hated, and repudiated: wherever the word "authority" even becomes audible, people believe themselves in danger of a new slavery. Decadence goes so far in the appreciative instinct of our politicians and political parties, that they prefer instinctively what disintegrates, what hastens the end...
As far as the Neo-Confucian officials were concerned, nothing could be more barbaric than the belief that "the end justifies the means" (actually a mistranslation of Machiavelli's "The Prince") which they would have said perfectly describes the way we think and do things in the 21st-century. They would have agreed with what he really said, which was: "In the actions of all men, and especially of princes, where there is no impartial arbiter ('dove non è iudizio da reclamare'), one must consider the final result."
And they intended to play the role of "impartial arbiters" and would have especially restrained those who acted on the belief that the end justified the means, especially when it came to trying to allow the artificial (e.g, technology, credit) to subordinate ethics by deviating from norms..
In addition, if the growing utilization of technology and credit by the masses began changing their way of thinking to the extent that they would become anxious to believe that anything is possible, and then become overanxious to believe that it's never too late to deal with the subsequent problems that would arise due to out-of-control technology and mounting debt, the Neo-Confucian officials probably worried that growing political, social, and economic disorder would result.
Rather than acknowledging and accepting boundaries, citizens would start allowing notions of the promise of potential and possibilities not to mention the prospect of profits and prosperity to preoccupy their minds with creating ever more leeway for themselves and having achieved that they would then want to see how far they could go.
In the process, they would lose their fear of transgressing limits and think nothing of deviating from norms by bending rules, taking advantage of loopholes and even trying to get away with breaking laws. Things may reach a point where they begin to believe that there is no such thing as treating themselves better than they deserve. As they begin to see themselves as exceptions to any rule or law, their moral standards would begin to decline as they start to become more careless, reckless, destructive and self-destructive--ultimately derailing themselves and society:
- When people once begin to deviate they do not know where to stop. (George III)
- Ah! to what gulfs a single deviation from the track of human duties leads! (Byron)
- Deviation from either truth or duty is a downward path, and none can say where the descent will end. He that despiseth small things shall fall by little and little. (Tryon Edwards)
Because the Neo-Confucian officials believed that not acknowledging and accepting limits would bring about adverse effects and even unexpected consequences, they felt that, rather than experimenting with the new, they were better off looking to past experience as a guide to solving problems. They would have praised Edward Gibbon who said, "I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past." And Quintilian's comment which still has meaning far beyond his own time since it even influenced those who lived during the Renaissance would have been well understood by the Mandarins: "Antiquity has given us all these teachers and all these patterns for our imitation, that there might be no greater happiness conceivable than to be born in this age above all others, since all previous ages have toiled that we might reap the fruit of their wisdom." Those teachers and patterns existed for the Chinese less as catalysts and springboards serving to stimulate their imagination and to promote creativity to the extent that occurred in the West during the Renaissance and more to be preserved and emulated so that the wisdom of those teachers and patterns could be contemplated and appreciated even by future generations. Concerning Edward de Bono's comment, "There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns," the Mandarins would have been horrified at the notion of "thinking outside of the box" and would have said that the preservation of the patterns of the past that have proven their worth over time can no longer take place and will be lost to future generations once people begin to feel that repeating the same proven patterns to be a waste of time:
- Much of the social history of the Western world over the past three decades has involved replacing what worked with what sounded good. In area after area - crime, education, housing, race relations - the situation has gotten worse after the bright new theories were put into operation. The amazing thing is that this history of failure and disaster has neither discouraged the social engineers nor discredited them. (Thomas Sowell)
In contrast, the West wanted to see how far it could take things and was not afraid to enlarge the scale and scope of technological operations and economic activity:
- It is well to observe the force and virtue and consequence of discoveries, and these are to be seen nowhere more conspicuously than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, and of which the origins, although recent, are obscure and inglorious; namely, printing, gunpowder, and the magnet[compass]. For these three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world; the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes, insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries. (Francis Bacon)
It's ironic to realize that printing, gunpowder, and the magnet were first invented by the Chinese whose officials subsequently restrained the use of those three technologies so as to avoid the possibility of any resulting social disorder that would cause things to go out of control in their society.
With regard to going down modernity's path with its lure of "progress", the Neo-Confucian officials would probably have agreed with Charlton Ogburn Jr, who said: "I was to learn later in life that … we tend … to meet any situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization." And as Martin Jacques pointed out, "China has existed within very roughly its present borders for over two millenia and for virtually the whole of that period saw itself as a 'civilization state'. It was only when it was too weak to resist the Western powers in the early 20th century that it finally acquiesced in an arrangement that was alien to it."
And those Mandarins wouldn't have needed to have read Marx's "Communist Manifesto" to have understood the pervasiveness and invasiveness of the capitalistic economic system: "The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. [Capitalism] compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the [capitalist] mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become [capitalists] themselves."
When it comes to economic management, the Neo-Confucian officials would have gone along with Adam Smith who said: "Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things" (1776, Wealth of Nations). Unlike Western Europe and later the United States who competed among themselves for economic domination, the leaders of China never deliberately set out to become more prosperous than other countries even though at several times in world history, the largest city in the world was in China. According to Professor Nathan Sivin, "By 700 the three largest and most sophisticated cities in the world were Chinese":
- Men achieve a certain greatness unawares, when working to another aim. (Emerson)
Although the Ming dynasty was founded in 1368, by the 1400s, the largest city in the world was Nanjing (which was the initial capital of the dynasty); in the 1500s, the largest city in world became Beijing. And the Ming officials probably felt that commerce was like art and religion and would have seen the wisdom of Oliver Madox Hueffer's observation: "... Art is like Religion. As long as you do your best to stamp it out of existence, it flourishes in spite of you, like weeds in a garden. But if you try to cultivate it and it becomes a popular success, it goes to the dogs at once." The Mandarins regulated and restricted commerce and would have understood Gore Vidal's warning: "Commercialism is doing well that which should not be done at all.”
The Neo-Confucian officials believed that order should be the norm, and the prolonged peace of the Ming dynasty brought about an increase in population. Concerning continual technological innovation, they probably worried that it would put more people out of work and would have agreed with Friederich Engels' view that, "...The perfecting of machinery is making human labor superfluous. If the introduction and increase of machinery means the displacement of millions of manual [workers] by a few machine workers, improvement in machinery means the displacement of more an more of the machine-workers themselves...Thus it comes about, to quote Marx, that machinery becomes the most powerful weapon in the war of capital against the working-class; that the instruments of labor constantly tear the means of subsistence out of the hands of the laborer; that [the] very product of the worker is turned into an instrument for his subjugation."
The understanding that technological innovation increases unemployment was not lost on leaders even in ancient times:
- It is said to have been reported to one of the Roman emperors, as a piece of good news, that one of his subjects had invented a process for manufacturing unbreakable glass. The emperor gave orders that the inventor should be put to death and the records of his invention should be destroyed. If the invention had been put on the market, the manufacturers of regular glass would have been put out of business; there would have been unemployment that would have caused political unrest, and perhaps revolution. (Toynbee)
The Mandarins may have been afraid of that since the population of China kept increasing from the 1400's. Concerning the "Needham Question", had the Mandarins not put a stop to technological innovation from the 1500's, they might have subsequently also faced a growing population of unemployed workers who had lost their jobs due to being replaced by new technology. When the Qing took over China after the Ming in 1644, they continued the suppression of technological innovation:
- No one is allowed, on pain of death, to invent anything new, or to make known any new discovery. (Sun Yat-Sen who was born and raised during the last years of the Qing Dynasty)
In the 1500's, we can find another example of technological suppression in England. According to the 1979 book "Giving Up the Gun: Japan's Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879"(Perrin), "A subject of [Queen Elizabeth I] named William Lee had invented a knitting machine, with which he hoped to replace hand-knitting as the universal method of making stockings in England. He succeeded in interesting the Queen's cousin, Lord Hunsden, in this early bit of automation. Lord Hunsden, in turn, tried to get Elizabeth both to grant Lee a patent and to invest crown funds in a prototype factory. She would do neither. 'My Lord,' she said, 'I have too much love for my poor people who obtain their bread by knitting to give money to forward an invention which will tend to their ruin, by depriving them of employment.' That was in 1589." About a decade later in Shakespeare's play "The Merchant of Venice", one of characters says, "...You take my life, When you do take the means whereby I live."
Population increases also put additional pressure on natural resources, and the Mandarins would have gone along with Justice William O Douglas who in 1970 said: "... We must subject the machine-technology to control and cease despoiling the earth and filling people with goodies merely to make money":
- To conquer nature is, in effect, to remove all natural barriers and human norms and to substitute artificial, fabricated equivalents for natural processes. (Alex Campbell)
With regard to Kipling's, "Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet...", it may seem that the East and West have nothing in common. However, Professor Sivin points out, "Old Chinese attitudes such as reverence for the past, willingness to accept philosophical orthodoxy, and separation of science and technology were also the European norm in 1600."
Concerning our "end-justifies-means" times where every decision now seems to have become just another "business" decision, shouldn't every decision also be examined for an ethical/moral dimension? If the Ming dynasty officials could somehow see how we live today, they would hardly want to trade places with us in spite of our relatively easy access to credit not to mention all the comforts and conveniences that modern technology provides us. They would feel that the lack of a strong global central authority in the 21st-century to solve large-scale problems (e.g., environmental, terrorism) and resolve disagreements (e.g., territorial disputes) is causing things to slip out of control in a world which could hardly be described as being on an even keel:
- You look at the large problems that we face--that would be overpopulation, water shortages, global warming and AIDS, I suppose--all of that needs international cooperation to be solved. (Molly Ivins,d.2007)
The only doubt that they would have about us is whether we have lost our compass and are barely treading water, or if we are simply living directionless lives because we just don't know any better:
- Those not ruled by the rudder will be ruled by the rocks. (Welsh proverb)
- O wretched man, wretched not just because of what you are, but also because you do not know how wretched you are! (Cicero)
Even though we seem to be on the verge of drowning in debt or may finally be overwhelmed by the next tsunami of technological innovation (e.g., artificial intelligence), the Mandarins would probably be amazed that we have somehow managed to stay afloat and are seemingly resigned to trying to navigate with one hand the self-created rough waves and choppy seas of growing economic and political uncertainty, turmoil and chaos, while grasping at technological straws with the other hand:
- We have perhaps a natural fear of ends. We would rather be always on the way than arrive. Given the means, we hang on to them and often forget the ends. (Eric Hoffer)
In his 1921 book "Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic", author Raymond Melbourne Weaver wrote, "Thou shalt know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad." Have 21st-century men allowed their obsessions (e.g., progress, ambitions) trigger their self-destructive tendencies? Have we become crazier than Captain Ahab because we don't even have a motive nor object?:
- All my means are sane, my motive and my object mad. ("Moby Dick")
Although the scientist George Gaylord Simpson said, "Species evolve exactly as if they were adapting as best they could to a changing world, and not at all as if they were moving toward a set goal," does man exist only to surrender to any circumstance that he may find himself in?:
- Set your course by the stars, not by the lights of every passing ship. (Omar N. Bradley)
- It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. (Jiddu Krishnamurti)
Or what about a sick system like imperialism where China's efforts to take the high road by not jumping on the colonizing bandwagon caused it so much suffering?:
- The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous. (Machiavelli)
- The virtuous man is driven by responsibility, the non-virtuous man is driven by profit.
Is there nothing which sets us apart from other animals?:
- Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they should be. (Hazlitt)
- ...The ethics of evolution must be human ethics. It is one of the many unique qualities of man, the new sort of animal, that he is the only ethical animal. The ethical need and its fulfillment are also products of evolution, but they have been produced in man alone. (George Gaylord Simpson)
- ...The only important question to us: "What shall we do and how shall we live?" (Tolstoy)
And although the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard said, "The world is not dialectical - it is sworn to extremes, not to equilibrium, sworn to radical antagonism, not to reconciliation or synthesis. This is also the principle of evil," didn't the Chinese ruling elite of the past believe that norms would not only help man to achieve the goal of a more orderly society that would be better able to weather extreme changes over time, but also that a stable society contributes to the positive moral development of its citizens and that they would more likely be pressured to resort to evil in a chaotic disorderly environment?
Rather than passively giving in to change, the Mandarins felt that change should first be evaluated in terms of whether it caused any deviation from the norms they had already created to promote order to provide them with a clearer view of reality:
- The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds. (R.D. Laing)
- [Progress (change)] is something we can guide, and direct, and even stop. (Noel Perrin)
If change is not managed by leaders and is allowed to go out of control, won't it create a public that craves the novelty that comes along with change? And without their realizing it, won't unbridled change transform thoughtful citizens into mindless consumers who become addicted to the exaggerated and extreme? Marx warned of the danger of "... subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites" where "Excess and intemperance [would become the new normal]." Don't we now live in times where there is no such thing as excessive, extreme, or exaggerated?
Without leaders avoiding anarchy by anticipating the adverse effects of change at its worst and putting in place systems that mitigate those effects, social order is undermined. For those who chafe at the thought of being at the mercy of the will of authoritarian Mandarins, the alternative may be ending up as slaves at the mercy of the whims of a 21st-century Hitler:
- A population weakened and exhausted by battling against so many obstacles--whose needs are never satisfied and desires never fulfilled--is vulnerable to manipulation and regimentation. The struggle for survival is, above all, an exercise that is hugely time-consuming, absorbing and debilitating. If you create these "anti-conditions", your rule is guaranteed for a hundred years. (Ryszard Kapuscinski)
In the 1430's, the termination brought about by the Ming dynasty officials of a series of large-scale imperial naval expeditions is today perceived by many as the folly of follies, considering that Europeans launched their own Age of Exploration, which would not only surpass the optimal state that China had achieved but also begin to dramatically change the future of the entire world. A mentality solely obsessed with maximizing profits would begin to lose sight of the need to recognize an optimum model whose norms would restrain and keep in check human tendencies to see how far one could go. All former rational approaches to preserving and maintaining any kind of optimal model would be steamrolled by a gold rush mentality of trying to get rich fast as if nothing else mattered:
- So often, when financial reward is the main goal, common sense, safety, ethics and decency take flight. (Chris Day)
- The Chinese did not seek foreign contact. It was the Europeans who sought trade and commerce with them. Furthermore, it was the European view that the interests of these Eastern peoples with their exotic customs could simply be disregarded; they were there for the Westerner to exploit. ("A Traveler's Guide to China;1986,Huntington)
The Mandarins would have praised Emerson who said, "For me, commerce is of trivial import; love, faith, truth of character, the aspiration of man, these are sacred; nor can I detach one duty, like you, from all other duties, and concentrate my forces mechanically on the payment of moneys."
According to the 1992 book "China: A New History" by John King Fairbank:
- [The] disparaging judgment [that Ming China almost purposely missed the boat of modern technological and economic development] comes out of the context of the late twentieth-century, when technology and growth have created innumerable disorders in all aspects of life all over the world without disclosing as yet the principles of order that may postpone the destruction of human civilization. In time the self-contained growth of Ming China with its comparable peace and well-being may be admired by historians, who may see a sort of success where today we see failure.
So what are those "principles of order"? The Mandarins would probably have said that no one, especially those in positions of authority, should ever allow the desire to chase after and exploit opportunities to blind them to the necessity of solving problems because the longer problems remains unsolved, the more likely they will evolve into a "new normals." Returning to normalcy and order becomes less and less of a possibility with each "new normal". And growing accumulation of "new normals" may even contribute to anarchy by spawning yet even more "new normals" which will eventually lead to the turmoil and confusion of the uncivilized state putting it at the mercy of a 21st-century Hitler:
- Progress is obtained only by exploiting opportunities, not by solving problems. When you solve problems, all you do is guarantee a return to normalcy. (Peter F. Drucker)
Are we now slowly realizing that we may have been taking normalcy for granted and have been too quick to sacrifice it to "progress'? Has the time finally come to get off our knees at the altar of "progress" so that we can identify and begin to solve the problems of the nightmarish hell on earth that we have created by trying to play god? Instead of promoting prosperity, if a government isn't busy solving problems, then shouldn't it be too busy trying to prevent them:
- Hell is truth seen too late--duty neglected in its season. (Tryon Edwards)
- Religion is the dream of the human mind. But even in dreams we do not find ourselves in emptiness or in heaven, but on earth, in the realm of reality; we only see real things in the entrancing splendor of imagination and caprice, instead of in the simply daylight of reality and necessity. (Ludwig Feuerbach)
- An intelligent hell would be better than a stupid paradise. (Victor Hugo)
If the Mandarins were less concerned with progress and its innovations, then what were they more concerned about? They never allowed the desire for prosperity to cause them to take survival for granted and therefore imposed political and social order knowing that greater economic self-sufficiency would occur as a byproduct:
- Their principle concern...was to preserve the stability of a large agrarian society, not to promote rapid economic development through trade. ("Traditions and Encounters...",5th ed.;2011,Bentley et al.)
Is the excessive ingenuity that Cheng Tingzuo complained about now turning out to be less about increasing efficiency and more about hastening our own self-destruction by fanning the flames of our desire to see just how far we can go with whatever we've learned or discovered? Will we soon be paying the price of being too smart for our own good?:
- The mind is ever ingenious in making its own distress. (Oliver Goldsmith)
- The human race's prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenseless against tigers than they are today when we have become defenseless against ourselves. (Arnold J Toynbee)
- It is not clear that intelligence has any long-term survival value. (Stephen Hawking)
- Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they COULD that they didn't stop to think if they SHOULD. ("Jurassic Park";1993)
- ...That supreme moment of complete knowledge..."The horror! The horror!"...The appalling face of a glimpsed truth...("Heart of Darkness";1899,Conrad)
C. Ikehara is a freelance writer.