Time Makes a Sage, Research Time, 22/04/2015

How quickly does humanity forget? Maybe it only takes a thousand years. If there are creatures out there who think on the temporal scales of planets and stars, and we can certainly conceive of them if we could produce Douglas Adams, they would condescend to us as we to do gnats, goldfish, and fireflies. Pretty creatures, we humans, who live in the pure flash of the present.

Only a thousand years. 

How long is an infinity for human memory?
I say this after reflecting on a curious point that Barry Allen raises in the chapter of his Vanishing Into Things about the Neo-Confucian school of medieval Chinese philosophy. This was a school of thought that began with a scholar named Zhi Xi, who was the first to organize and codify the works of Confucian genesis as we have them today. These would be the Four Books: The Analects, Mengzi, The Great Learning, and Doctrine of the Mean.

The funny part is, as Barry mentions, Kongzi, the man we call the Institute, could never have read all the books that constitute the foundational corpus of the philosophical tradition that we give his name. The foundation itself was only indexed and laid well over a thousand years after his death.

There's that number again. Over a thousand years.

In the Chinese language, the idiom for the number so large as to be uncountable is “the ten thousand things.” Not meant to be taken literally, of course, just a poetic way of expressing in everyday colloquial language that some idea, experience, or referent lies just beyond the human ability to make direct sense of it.

The Russians say “numberless" to express this idea. For English, it used to be infinite, though that term has taken on quite a few very precise meanings over the last couple of centuries. Blame Georg Cantor for taking some of the poetry out of European languages and blasting it into logic and mathematics instead. Perhaps we could say sublime, but I think we’ve drifted away from that word by now.

It’s a reasonable question to ask though. What are the limits to human understanding? In the context of this curious little historical idea I had the other day reading the chapter of Vanishing Into Things about Neo-Confucianism, you could ask it with a slightly different focus. How long does it take for us to lose our connection with our ancestors?

At my current age, I even realize that the band Sublime
just isn't the same as it felt when I was 19.
I have this thought because I compared the reverential attitude Zhi Xi and the other scholars in this revival of Confucian philosophy held toward Kongzi, Mengzi, and Xunzi, with the reverence that those three legendary thinkers had for their own era of sages and idealized perfections, the Xia Dynasty. 

There were important differences, of course. So little of Xia writing and thought survived in a direct form even in Kongzi’s day, for example, and there was so much evidence of the Confucian genesis that Zhi Xi could edit the whole volume in a single, legendary omnibus. But there is still that feeling of reverence, as though achieving equal wisdom to them is a goal. 

Kongzi thought of himself as a sage, probably not even someone who was wise enough to idolize at all. Kant never thought of himself so highly either. Even so, I’ve met lots of Kantians.

It was about a thousand years between the Xia era and Kongzi’s life. It was just over a thousand years when Zhi Xi began the Confucian revival, a reaction to the growing prominence of Buddhist philosophy in Chinese society. New gods returned.

A thousand years doesn’t take that many generations to unfold. Humanity's memory is short.

No comments:

Post a Comment