The Three Gifts of the East, the West, and Ancient Greece

Some epigrams may, if we don’t dismiss them as mere caricatures, reveal to us certain truths about the East and the West. So the American poet and deep ecologist Gary Snyder: “The mercy of the West has been social revolution. The mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.” So D.T. Suzuki translating, in 1906, some lectures by Reverend Soyen Shaku delivered before an American audience: “Generally speaking…, the West is energetic and the East is mystical.”

While I believe that Rev. Shaku and Gary Snyder are bringing out something special and important about these differences, I want to add a third dimension to this picture. The East is mystical; as such, it’s been concerned with self-transformation (vita contemplativa). The West, being energetic, has been focused on social transformation (vita activa). But what of Ancient Greece? Its focus was human excellence. Here is Pindar: “[H]uman excellence grows like a vine tree, fed by the green grass, among men wise and just, raised up to the liquid sky.” A schema:

  • The Christian and secular west: justice.
  • The East: oneness.
  • Ancient Greece: human excellence.

To riff on Snyder, we need all three.

But what has happened instead? To begin with, in the West, the justice telos, good so far as it goes, has become hegemonic, with the result that meditation has become instrumentalized or therapeuticized and rightful human excellence villified. Furthermore, the corruption of human excellence in the form of power has reared its ugly head. With these two points, I’m talking about the deep and persistent conflict between the entrenched left and the entrenched right. Third of all, all these final aims have been corrupted.

The corruption of justice is two-fold: victimhood and, in Nietzsche’s sense, decadence. The latter refers to what happens to the human spirit when, under conditions of great comfort, it lacks struggle, exertion, fight. I have sometimes call this bourgeois.

The corruption of oneness is two-fold: retreat (witness the ways in which retreats have sprung up as forms of escape from, say, the world of total work) and the cult of personality (the creation and worship of infallible gurus).

The corruption of human excellence is two-fold: power (so, not to be great or masterful at some craft for its own sake, not to be a truly excellent or fine human being but to wield power over others, i.e., to be Great) and spectator sports (the shift from art to sport and the creation of the spectator as the passive consumer of others’ excellence).

How to bring together all three teloi in their uncorrupted forms is not an easy question; I don’t pretend to have the answer. As I see it, there will be contestations, negotiations, and local priorities. Yet the point still stands: neither justice nor oneness nor excellence can become hegemonic, claiming to be the “only game in town,” and we desperately need all three in order to have a good society.

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