The Importance of Living - by Lin Yutang

Approach to Life

The Chinese philosopher is one who dreams with one eye open, who views life with love and sweet irony, who mixes his cynicism with a kindly tolerance, and who alternately wakes up from life's dream and then nods again, feeling more alive when he is dreaming than when he is awake, thereby investing his waking life with a dream-world quality.

In China, as compared with the West, man lives a life closer to nature and closer to childhood, a life in which the instincts and the emotions are given free play and emphasized against the life of the intellect, with a strange combination of devotion to the flesh and arrogance of the spirit, of profound wisdom and foolish gaiety, of high sophistication and childish naivete. I would say, therefore, that this philosophy is characterized by: first, a gift for seeing life whole in art; secondly, a conscious return to simplicity in philosophy; and thirdly, an ideal of reasonableness in living. The end product is, strange to say, a worship of the poet, the peasant and the vagabond.

The Scamp as Ideal

In short, my faith in human dignity consists in the belief that man is the greatest scamp on earth. Human dignity must be associated with the idea of a scamp and not with that of an obedient, disciplined and regimented soldier.

In this present age of threats to democracy and individual liberty, probably only the scamp and the spirit of the scamp alone will save us from becoming lost as serially numbered units in the masses of disciplined, obedient, regimented and uniformed coolies. The scamp will be the last and most formidable enemy of dictatorships. He will be the champion of human dignity and individual freedom, and will be the last to be conquered. All modern civilization depends entirely upon him.

On Being Human

We had better find out what it is that we have got to be proud of, what is the essence of human dignity. This human dignity, as I have already hinted at the beginning of this book, consists of four characteristics of the scamp, who has been glorified by Chinese literature. They are: a playful curiosity, a capacity for dreams, a sense of humor to correct those dreams, and finally a certain waywardness and incalculability of behavior. Together they represent the Chinese version of the American doctrine of the individual.

Almost all animals, especially the young, have also the play instinct, but it is in man alone that playful curiosity has been developed to an important extent. It is for this reason that I hate censors and all agencies and forms of government that try to control our thought. I cannot but believe that such a censor or such a ruler is wilfully or unintentionally insulting human intelligence. If the liberty of thought is the highest activity of the human mind, then the suppression of that liberty must be the most degrading to us as human beings. Euripides defined the slave as a man who has lost his liberty of thought or opinion. Every autocracy is a factory for turning out gorgeous Euripidean slaves. Don't we have fine examples of them, East and West, in the twentieth century and at the very home of culture? Every autocratic government, no matter in what form, therefore, is intellectually retrograde. We have seen it in the Middle Ages in general, and in the Spanish Inquisition in particular. Short-sighted politicians or clergymen may think that uniformity of belief and thought contributes toward peace and order, but historically the consequence is always depressing and degrading to the human character. Such autocrats must have a great contempt for the people in general when they do not confine themselves to ordering a nation's external conduct, but proceed also to regiment the people's inner thoughts and beliefs. They have a naive assurance that human minds will put up with this uniformity and that they will like or dislike a book or a concerto or a moving picture exactly as the official propagandist or chief of publicity bureau tells them to. Every autocratic government has tried to confuse literature with propaganda, art with politics, anthropology witih patriotism, and religion with worship of the living ruler. It simply can't be done, and if the controllers of thought go too far in running against human nature itself, they are thereby sowing the seeds of their downfall. As Mencius put it, "If the ruler considers the people as blades of grass, then the people will consider their ruler as a robber or enemy." There is no greater robber in this world than he who robs us of our liberty of thought. Deprived of that, we might as well go down on all fours, call the whole biped experiment of walking on two legs a mistake, and revert to our earlier posture of at least some 30,000 years ago.

On Being Wayward and Incalculable

We no longer think of a man as a man, but as a cog in a wheel, a member of a union or a class, an alien to be imported by quotas, a petit bourgeois to be referred to with contempt, or a capitalist to be denounced, or a worker to be regarded as a comrade because he is a worker. It seems that to label a man as a petit bourgeois or a "capitalist" or a "worker" is already to understand him completely, and he can be conveniently hated or hailed as a comrade accordingly. We are no longer individuals, no longer men, but only classes. May I suggest that this is an over-simplification of things? The scamp has completely disappeared as an ideal, and so has the man with his gloriously scamp-like qualities of reacting freely and incalculably to his external surroundings. Instead of men, we have members of a class; instead of ideas and personal prejudices and idiosyncracies, we have ideologies, or class thoughts; instead of personalities, we have blind forces; and instead of individuals, we have a Marxian dialectic controlling and foreshadowing all human activities with unfading precision. We are all progressing happily and enthusiastically toward the model of the ants.

The best social philosophies do not claim any greater objective than that the individual human beings living under such a regime shall have happy individual lives. If there are social philosophies which deny the happiness of the individual life as the final goal and aim of civilization, those philosophies are the product of a sick and unbalanced mind. As far as culture is concerned, I am inclined to think that the final judgment of any particular type of culture is what type of men and women it turns out.

Who Can Best Enjoy Life?

Anyone who refuses to take the entire panorama of reality on its surface value, or refuses to believe every word that appears in a newspaper, is more or less a philosopher. He is the fellow who refuses to be taken in. There is always a flavor of disenchantment about philosophy. The philosopher looks at life as an artist looks at a landscape—through a veil or a haze. The raw details of reality are softened a little to permit us to see its meaning. At least that is what a Chinese artist or a Chinese philosopher thinks. The philosopher is therefore the direct opposite of the complete realist who, busily occupied in his daily business, believes that his successes and failures, his losses and gains, are absolute and real.

The only problem unconsciously assumed by all Chinese philosophers to be of any importance is: how shall we enjoy life, and who can best enjoy life? No perfectionism, no straining after the unattainable, no postulating of the unknowable; but taking poor, mortal human nature as it is, how shall we organize our life that we can work peacefully, endure nobly and live happily?

The contrast between Confucianism and Taoism is relative, the two doctrines setting forth only two great extremes, and between them there are many intermediate stages. Those are the best cynics who are half-cynics. The highest type of life after all is the life of sweet reasonableness as taught by Confucius' grandson, Tsesse, author of The Golden Mean. No philosophy, ancient or modern, dealing with the problems of human life has yet discovered a more profound truth than this doctrine of a well-ordered life lying somewhere between the two extremes—the Doctrine of the Half-and-Half. It is that spirit of sweet reasonableness, arriving at a perfect balance between action and inaction, shown in the ideal of a man living in half-fame and semi-obscurity; half-lazily active and half-actively lazy; not so poor that he cannot pay his rent, and not so rich that he doesn't have to work a little or couldn't wish to have slighdy more to help his friends; who plays the piano, but only well enough for his most intimate friends to hear, and chiefly to please himself; who collects, but just enough to load his mantelpiece; who reads, but not too hard; learns a lot but does not become a specialist; writes, but has his correspondence to the Times half of the time rejected and half of the time published—in short, it is that ideal of middle-class life which I believe to be the sanest ideal of life ever discovered by the Chinese.

The happiest man is still the man of the middle-class who has earned a slight means of economic independence, who has done a little, but just a little, for mankind, and who is slightly distinguished in his community, but not too distinguished. It is only in this milieu of well-known obscurity and financial competence with a pinch, when life is fairly carefree and yet not altogether carefree, that the human spirit is happiest and succeeds best. After all, we have to get on in this life, and so we must bring philosophy down from heaven to earth.

The Feast of Life

Let us not lose ourselves in the abstract when we talk of happiness, but get down to facts and analyze for ourselves what are the truly happy moments of our life. In this world of ours, happiness is very often negative, the complete absence of sorrow or mortification or bodily ailment. But happiness can also be positive, and then we call it joy. To me, for instance, the truly happy moments are: when I get up in the morning after a night of perfect sleep and sniff the morning air and there is an expansiveness in the lungs, when I feel inclined to inhale deeply and there is a fine sensation of movement around the skin and muscles of the chest, and when, therefore, I am fit for work; or when I hold a pipe in my hand and rest my legs on a chair, and the tobacco burns slowly and evenly; or when I am traveling on a summer day, my throat parched with thirst, and I see a beautiful clear spring, whose very sound makes me happy, and I take off my socks and shoes and dip my feet in the delightful, cool water; or when after a perfect dinner I lounge in an armchair, when there is no one I hate to look at in the company and conversation rambles off at a light pace to an unknown destination, and I am spiritually and physically at peace with the world.

Art should be a satire and a warning against our paralyzed emotions, our devitalized thinking and our denaturalized living. It teaches us unsophistication in a sophisticated world. It should restore to us health and sanity of living and enable us to recover from the fever and delirium caused by too much mental activity. It should sharpen our senses, re-establish the connection between our reason and our human nature, and assemble the ruined parts of a dislocated life again into a whole, by restoring our original nature. Miserable indeed is a world in which we have knowledge without understanding, criticism without appreciation, beauty without love, truth without passion, righteousness without mercy, and courtesy without a warm heart!

The Importance of Loafing

The most bewildering thing about man is his idea of work and the amount of work he imposes upon himself, or civilization has imposed upon him. All nature loafs, while man alone works for a living. He works because he has to, because with the progress of civilization life gets incredibly more complex, with duties, responsibilities, fears, inhibitions and ambitions, born not of nature, but of human society.

I cannot believe that, with the coming of better material conditions of life, when diseases are eliminated, poverty is decreased and man's expectation of life is prolonged and food is plentiful, man will care to be as busy as he is today. I'm not so sure that a more lazy temperament will not arise as a result of this new environment.

Culture, as I understand it, is essentially a product of leisure. The art of culture is therefore essentially the art of loafing. From the Chinese point of view, the man who is wisely idle is the most cultured man. For there seems to be a philosophic contradiction between being busy and being wise. Those who are wise won't be busy, and those who are too busy can't be wise. The wisest man is therefore he who loafs most gracefully.

This cult of idleness was therefore always bound up with a life of inner calm, a sense of carefree irresponsibility and an intense wholehearted enjoyment of the life of nature.

A sad, poetic touch is added to this intense love of life by the realization that this life we have is essentially mortal. Strange to say, this sad awareness of our mortality makes the Chinese scholar's enjoyment of life all the more keen and intense. For if this earthly existence is all we have, we must try the harder to enjoy it while it lasts. A vague hope of immortality detracts from our wholehearted enjoyment of this earthly existence.

The peculiar contribution of Taoism to the creation of the idle temperament lies in the recognition that there are no such things as luck and adversity. The great Taoist teaching is the emphasis on being over doing, character over achievement, and calm over action. But inner calm is possible only when man is not disturbed by the vicissitudes of fortune.

Evidently this kind of philosophy enables a man to stand a few hard knocks in life in the belief that there are no such things as hard knocks without advantages. Like medals, they always have a reverse side.

From the Taoist point of view, an educated man is one who believes he has not succeeded when he has, but is not so sure he has failed when he fails, while the mark of the half-educated man is his assumptions that his outward successes and failures are absolute and real. Hence, the distinction between Buddhism and Taoism is this: the goal of the Buddhist is that he shall not want anything, while the goal of the Taoist is that he shall not be wanted at all. Only he who is not wanted by the public can be a carefree individual, and only he who is a carefree individual can be a happy human being.

The three great American vices seem to be efficiency, punctuality and the desire for achievement and success. They are the things that make the Americans so unhappy and so nervous. They steal from them their inalienable right of loafing and cheat them of many a good, idle and beautiful afternoon. One must start out with a belief that there are no catastrophes in this world, and that besides the noble art of getting things done, there is a nobler art of leaving things undone.

Our quarrel with efficiency is not that it gets things done, but that it is a thief of time when it leaves us no leisure to enjoy ourselves and that it frays our nerves in trying to get things done perfectly.

The Enjoyment of the Home

It has seemed to me that the final test of any civilization is, what type of husbands and wives and fathers and mothers does it turn out? Besides the austere simplicity of such a question, every other achievement of civilization—art, philosophy, literature and material living—pales into insignificance.

For individualism and worship of the intellect are likely to blind a man to the beauties of home life, and of the two, I think the first is not so wicked as the second. A man believing in individualism and carrying it to its logical consequences can still be a very intelligent being, but a man believing in the cold head as against the warm heart is a fool. For the collectivism of the family as a social unit, there can be substitutes, but for the loss of the mating and paternal- maternal instincts, there can be none.

Celibacy as an ideal in the form of "personal career" carries with it not only an individualistic, but also a foolishly intellectualistic taint, and is for the latter reason to be condemned. I always suspect the confirmed bachelor or unmarried woman who remains so by choice of being an ineffectual intellectualist, too much engrossed with his or her own external achievements, believing that he or she can, as a human being, find happiness in an effective substitute for the home life, or find an intellectual, artistic or professional interest which is deeply satisfying. I deny this. This spectacle of individualism, unmarried and childless, trying to find a substitute for a full and satisfying life in "careers" and personal achievements and preventing cruelty to animals has struck me always as somewhat foolish and comical.

Is it not true that marriage is the best profession for women? My feminist readers must have sensed this all along, and bit by bit have begun trembling with rage as I grew more and more enthusiastic about the home, knowing that the cross of the home eventually must be borne by women. Such is exactly my intention and my thesis. It remains to be seen who is kinder to women, for it is with women's happiness alone that we are concerned, happiness not in terms of social achievements, but in terms of the depths of personal being. Even from the point of view of fitness or competency, I have no doubt that there are fewer bank presidents really fit for their jobs than women fit for mothers. We have incompetent department chiefs, incompetent business managers, incompetent bankers, and incompetent presidents, but we rarely have incompetent mothers. So then women are fit for motherhood, they want it and they know it.

"Water flows downwards and not upwards," the Chinese always say, and therefore the affection for parents and grandparents is something that stands more in need of being taught by culture. A natural man loves his children, but a cultured man loves his parents. The Chinese have not got the sense of individual independence because the whole conception of life is based upon mutual help within the home; hence there is no shame attached to the circumstance of one's being served by his children in the sunset of one's life. Rather it is considered good luck to have children who can take care of one. One lives for nothing else in China.

The Enjoyment of Living

Such a supreme pleasure as a perfect conversation with a friend at night is necessarily rare, for as Li Liweng has pointed out, those who are wise seldom know how to talk, and those who talk are seldom wise.

Of course, night is the best time for conversation, because there is a certain lack of glamour in conversations during the daytime.

There is no question but we need the presence of women in a cultured conversation, to give it the necessary frivolity which is the soul of conversation. Without frivolity and gaiety, conversation soon becomes heavy and philosophy itself becomes foolish and a stranger to life. It has been found in all countries and in all ages that, whenever there was a culture interested in the understanding of the art of living, there always developed a fashion of welcoming women in society.

There is a wise thought in the suggestion that the modern dictators of Europe are so dangerous to humanity because they don't drink.

Taking the broader view of food as nourishment, the Chinese do not draw any distinction between food and medicine. What is good for the body is medicine and at the same time food.

The Enjoyment of Nature

Only those who take leisurely what the people of the world are busy about can be busy about what the people of the world take leisurely. There is nothing that man enjoys more than leisure, and this does not mean that one simply does nothing during that time. Leisure enables one to read, to travel to famous places, to form beneficial friendships, to drink wine, and to write books. What greater pleasures can there be in the world than these?

To talk with learned friends is like reading a rare book; to talk with poetic friends is like reading the poems and prose of distinguished writers; to talk with friends who are careful and proper in their conduct is like reading the classics of the sages; and to talk with witty friends is like reading a novel or romance.

The Enjoyment of Travel

In the first place, the true motive of travel should be travel to become lost and unknown. More poetically, we may describe it as travel to forget. Everyone is quite respectable in his home town, no matter what the higher social circles think of him. He is tied by a set of conventions, rules, habits and duties. A banker finds it difficult to be treated just as an ordinary human being at home and to forget that he is a banker, and it seems to me, the real excuse for travel is that he shall be able to find himself in a community in which he is just an ordinary human being.

A true traveler is always a vagabond, with the joys, temptations and sense of adventure of the vagabond. Either travel is "vagabonding" or it is no travel at all. The essence of travel is to have no duties, no fixed hours, no mail, no inquisitive neighbors, no receiving delegations, and no destination. A good traveler is one who does not know where he is going to, and a perfect traveler does not know where he came from.

The Enjoyment of Culture

The aim of education or culture is merely the development of good taste in knowledge and good form in conduct. The cultured man or the ideal educated man is not necessarily one who is well-read or learned, but one who likes and dislikes the right things. To know what to love and what to hate is to have taste in knowledge. Nothing is more exasperating than to meet a person at a party whose mind is crammed full with historical dates and figures and who is extremely well posted on current affairs in Russia or Czechoslovakia, but whose attitude or point of view is all wrong. Such persons have erudition, but no discernment, or taste. Erudition is a mere matter of cramming of facts or information, while taste or discernment is a matter of artistic judgment.

An educated man, therefore, is one who has the right loves and hatreds. This we call taste, and with taste comes charm. Now to have taste or discernment requires a capacity for thinking things through to the bottom, an independence of judgment, and an unwillingness to be bulldozed by any form of humbug, social, political, literary, artistic, or academic.

Art is both creation and recreation. Of the two ideas, I think art as recreation or as sheer play of the human spirit is more important. Much as I appreciate all forms of immortal creative work, whether in painting, architecture or literature, I think the spirit of true art can become more general and permeate society only when a lot of people are enjoying art as a pastime, without any hope of achieving immortality.

The man who has not the habit of reading is imprisoned in his immediate world, in respect to time and space. His life falls into a set routine; he is limited to contact and conversation with a few friends and acquaintances, and he sees only what happens in his immediate neighborhood. From this prison there is no escape. But the moment he takes up a book, he immediately enters a different world, and if it is a good book, he is immediately put in touch with one of the best talkers of the world. This talker leads him on and carries him into a different country or a different age, or unburdens to him some of his personal regrets, or discusses with him some special line or aspect of life that the reader knows nothing about.

The art of writing is very much broader than the art of writing itself, or of the writing technique. In fact, it would be helpful to a beginner who aspires to be a writer first to dispel in him any over-concern with the technique of writing, and tell him to stop trifling with such superficial matters and get down to the depths of his soul, to the end of developing a genuine literary personality as the foundation of all authorship. When the foundation is properly laid and a genuine literary personality is cultivated, style follows as a natural consequence and the little points of technique will take care of themselves.

Very rarely does one find clear thoughts clothed in unclear language. Much more often does one find unclear thoughts expressed clearly. Such a style is clearly unclear. Clear thoughts expressed in unclear language is the style of a confirmed bachelor. He never has to explain anything to a wife. E.g., Immanuel Kant.

The best way of studying any subject is to begin by reading books taking an unfavorable point of view with regard to it. In that way one is sure of accepting no humbug. After having read an author unfavorable to the subject, he is better prepared to read more favorable authors. That is how a critical mind can be developed.

There are two mines of language, a new one and an old one. The old mine is in the books, and the new one is in the language of common people. Second-rate artists will dig in the old mines, but only first-rate artists can get something out of the new mine. Ores from the old mine are already smelted, but those from the new mine are not.

Genuine literature is but a sense of wonder at the universe and at human life. He who keeps his vision sane and clear will have always this sense of wonder, and therefore has no need to distort the truth in order to make it seem wonderful.

Relationship to God

The trouble with orthodox religion is that, in its process of historical development, it got mixed up with a number of things strictly outside religion's moral realm—physics, geology, astronomy, criminology, the conception of sex and woman. If it had confined itself to the realm of the moral conscience, the work of re-orientation would not be so enormous today. Religion should, and will, confine itself to the moral realm, the realm of the moral conscience, which has a dignity of its own comparable in every sense to the study of flowers, the fishes and the stars. Let religion respectfully keep its mouth shut when teachers of biology are talking, and it will seem infinitely less silly and gain immeasurably in the respect of mankind.

So we are left with the uncomfortable and yet, for me, strangely satisfying feeling that what religion is left in our lives will be a very much more simplified feeling of reverence for the beauty and grandeur and mystery of life, with its responsibilities, but will be deprived of the good old, glad certainties and accretions which theology has accumulated and laid over its surface. Religion in this form is simple and, for many modern men, sufficient.

Great pagans have always had a deeply reverent attitude toward nature. We shall therefore have to take the word in its conventional sense and mean by it simply a man who does not go to church (except for an aesthetic inspiration, of which I am still capable), does not belong to the Christian fold, and does not accept its usual, orthodox tenets. On the positive side, a Chinese pagan, the only kind of which I can speak with any feeling of intimacy, is one who starts out with this earthly life as all we can or need to bother about, wishes to live intently and happily as long as his life lasts, often has a sense of the poignant sadness of this life and faces it cheerily, has a keen appreciation of the beautiful and the good in human life wherever he finds them, and regards doing good as its own satisfactory reward.

Love among men should be a final, absolute fact. We should be able just to look at each other and love each other without being reminded of a third party in heaven. Christianity seems to me to make morality appear unnecessarily difficult and complicated and sin appear tempting, natural, and desirable. Paganism, on the other hand, seems alone to be able to rescue religion from theology and restore it to its beautiful simplicity of belief and dignity of feeling.

The Art of Thinking

Thinking is an art, and not a science. One of the greatest contrasts between Chinese and Western scholarship is the fact that in the West there is so much specialized knowledge, and so little humanized knowledge, while in China there is so much more concern with the problems of living, while there are no specialized sciences.

The outstanding characteristic of Western scholarship is its specialization and cutting up of knowledge into different departments. The over-development of logical thinking and specialization, with its technical phraseology, has brought about the curious fact of modern civilization, that philosophy has been so far relegated to the background, far behind politics and economics, that the average man can pass it by without a twinge of conscience. The feeling of the average man, even of the educated person, is that philosophy is a "subject" which he can best afford to go without. This is certainly a strange anomaly of modern culture, for philosophy, which should he closest to men's bosom and business, has become most remote from life. It was not so in the classical civilization of the Greeks and Romans, and it was not so in China, where the study of the wisdom of life formed the scholars' chief occupation. Either the modern man is not interested in the problems of living, which are the proper subject of philosophy, or we have gone a long way from the original conception of philosophy.

Before we can humanize Western philosophy, we must first humanize Western logic. We have to get back to a way of thinking which is more impatient to be in touch with reality, with life, and above all with human nature, than to be merely correct, logical and consistent.

Be Reasonable

In contrast to logic, there is common sense, or still better, the Spirit of Reasonableness. I think of the Spirit of Reasonableness as the highest and sanest ideal of human culture, and the reasonable man as the highest type of cultivated human being. No one can be perfect; he can only aim at being a likeable, reasonable being.

Humanized thinking is just reasonable thinking. The logical man is always self-righteous and therefore inhuman and therefore wrong, while the reasonable man suspects that perhaps he is wrong and is therefore always right.

The genial thinker is one who, after proceeding doggedly to prove a proposition by long-winded arguments, suddenly arrives at intuition, and by a flash of common sense annihilates his preceding arguments and admits he is wrong. That is what I call humanized thinking. We can imagine a letter, in which the logical man speaks in the body of the letter and the reasonable man, the truly human spirit, speaks in the postscript.

The reasonable spirit humanizes all our thinking, and makes us less sure of our own correctness. Its tendency is to round out our ideas and tone down the angularities of our conduct. The opposite of the reasonable spirit is fanaticism and dogmatism of all sorts in thought and behavior, in our individual life, national life, marriage, religion and politics.