By Wan Lixin | 2012-11-20 | NEWSPAPER EDITION
Illustration by Zhou Tao
Photo by Zhou Tao
I received a response to my "Online amenities create utopia of idiots, curb serious thinking" (November 12, Shanghai Daily), from a "paper book" loving gentleman who hates audio books and has difficulties "reading on a screen for a long time."
His children also grew up with books and are to this day addicted to them. But it is a different story with his grandchildren, aged 10 and 13.
His question is, among others, "Are they less happy and less fulfilled (than we)?"
The question I asked myself is: Is happiness really "our being's end and aim" (Alexander Pope)?
And what is happiness in the first place?
We must confess that happiness, as it is widely seen today, is elusive, largely conceived in terms of Western "affluence" and "prosperity." The Chinese people felt more contented and grateful before they were initiated into this kind of "happiness."
We used to have a saying that "the pains of life start with literacy," because education was first of all about rituals, constraints, and obligations.
It exacted respect from us for heaven, the earth, and the Way of the world, and in so doing instilled in us a kind of humility.
Our forefathers were warned that insincerity and hubris would incur the wrath of heaven.
Even the English "happiness" has its origin in "hap," which means chance. Alas, most people missed their chance, did not get their deserts, got trapped on an endless treadmill. How then can the masses of people avoid a life of "quiet desperation" (Henry David Thoreau)?
By comparison, the life poisoned by the opiate of religion affords the consolation of hope, of an afterlife. Faith and belief is much more powerful than knowledge.
It was belief that prompted Buddhist monk Xuan Zang (Chen Yi) (600-664) to embark on a 17-year trip to India.
But on the whole, we Chinese are said to have no religion. We make up for that by having great reverence for the teachings of our forefathers.
Unlike the glory of an afterlife hinted at by major religions, we aspire to the governance by Yao, Shun, and Yu, ancient monarchs of the distant past. So the challenge of later generations is to strive to approximate the blissful conditions of the good old age of Yao, Shun, and Yu.
That's why it has been observed that all the six Confucian classics are essentially historical.
You can imagine our surprise that about 30 years ago, a scholar named Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the "end of history" by suggesting that Western liberalism is the final form of human governance and represents the ultimate phase of the human ideological evolution.
The past decades have been an unending mockery of that prophesy.
This blissfully ignorant prophet derived much of his confidence from his understanding of a proposition of French philosopher Alexandre Kojeve, who explained in his "Introduction to the Reading of Hegel" (1934) that the end of human Time or History suggests the disappearance of wars and bloody revolutions.
Philosophy would also go. Since Man himself no longer changes essentially, there is no longer any reason to change the way he understands the world and himself. So the ultimate Man would be kept in a perpetual state of bliss by art, love, play, etc.
In criticizing Hegelian philosophy, a French sinologist once observed that philosophy must be conceived in the context of history, and failing that it can easily get bogged down in the abyss of abstraction, as in the case of Hegel.
He said that Hegelian understanding of Oriental philosophy was deeply flawed because he did not understand the glorious past of the Oriental people.
If we study human beings from a historical perspective, we would find that the species has changed very little. We Chinese have a saying that it is easier to change the rivers and mountains than the human heart.
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