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[Chalice] The Importance of Living: [Chalice]
Idle Philosophy Born of an Idle Life

Presented February 12, 2006, by Joe Conover

Opening Words:

From the epigrams of the mid-17th century Chinese writer, Chang Ch'ao: "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.

Words for Meditation:

Lin Yutang wrote:

It is wrong therefore to speak of a pagan as an irreligious man: irreligious he is only as one who refuses to believe in any special variety of revelation. A pagan always believes in God but would not like to say so, for fear of being misunderstood. All Chinese pagans believe in God, the most commonly met-with designation in Chinese literature being the term chaowu, or the Creator of Things. The only difference is that the Chinese pagan is honest enough to leave the Creator of Things in a halo of mystery, toward whom he feels a kind of awed piety and reverence. What is more, that feeling suffices for him. Of the beauty of the universe, the clever artistry of the myriad things of this creation, the mystery of the stars, the grandeur of heaven, and the dignity of the human soul he is equally aware. But that again suffices for him. He accepts death as he accepts pain and suffering and weighs them against the gift of life and the fresh country breeze and the clear mountain moon and he does not complain. He regards bending to the will of heaven as the truly religious and pious attitude and calls it "living in the Tao." If the Creator of Things wants him to die at seventy, he gladly dies at seventy. He also believes that "heaven's way always goes round" and that there is no permanent injustice in this world. He does not ask for more.


"All human happiness is biological happiness. That is strictly scientific. Happiness for me is largely a matter of digestion. If one's bowels move, one is happy, and if they don't move, one is unhappy. That is all there is to it."

Happiness - what it is and how to achieve it - is only one aspect of "The Importance of Living," a collection of occasionally polemical essays by the 20th century Chinese writer Lin Yutang, a kind of philosophical how-to for everything from lolling in a chair to discerning the purpose of life. Lin described it as "idle philosophy born of an idle life," but it is certainly not the product of an idle mind. I read somewhere recently that sermons given by lay Unitarians too often tend to be book reviews. As a church friend, I will really do my best to avoid "reviewing" Lin Yutang's book - I know Kevin, Reg and others of you are familiar with Lin and this book - but I will give you a substantial number of his words - for several reasons, including possibly inspiring someone not familiar with Lin Yutang to find this book and read it. It was published in 1937, it was a huge best-seller then, and it's still available now from online booksellers.

After I was invited to talk today, I started rummaging around for a topic and accidentally came across the frayed and fading copy of a Chinese poem I had typed out many years ago, during college in Champaign-Urbana. You will hear this poem as today's closing words. I carried this typed copy with me through Army service, living in Japan, in Washington and back home again. It was long misplaced, I promptly misplaced it again, that led to some Googling and I realized I had discovered the poem in "The Importance of Living" - so this book provides not only the title of this talk but its substance as well - although there is time for only a sampling of it.

In the autumn of 1982, futurist John Naisbett, in his best-selling book, "Megatrends," asserted there were "ten new directions transforming our lives." One of these was the national revival in religious belief and church attendance that we have heard so much about in the decades since. We are well aware of the political implications of that revival - a revival that echoes the resurgence of fundamentalism after World War I, for instance, that cost Harry Emerson Fosdick his pulpit at New York's First Presbyterian Church when in 1922 he challenged the fundamentalists in a courageous sermon he titled "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?"

But a continuing state of religious revival seems to be as American as the proverbial Mom and apple pie - although - something may be happening today that is different from what Naisbett was tracking a quarter-century ago. You may recall a Herald-Whig story last month describing the "open-minded alternative" that would be the focus of Wednesday evening discussions at Vermont Street United Methodist Church. The UU's own Doug Muder, a former Quincyan, has written and sermonized on the need for a positive humanist vision and on what he envisions as "the next religion" - one that will "re-assemble the desirable pieces of our current religions just as Christianity re-assembled pieces from the religions of Roman times." So, perhaps the religious winds can blow down the moderate middle -as well as left or right.

Herbert J. Muller, writing in 1963 in a little book titled "Religion and Freedom in the Modern World," described a religious revival of the early 1960s as "a heterogeneous affair suited to our confused age" and he particularly remarked on "the current revival of the notion of original sin."

"Harping on original sin," he wrote, "obviously indicates no renewed faith in God but a loss of faith in man, and often it insinuates humiliation rather than real humility. Granted what any sensible person knows, that men are naturally inclined to be selfish and frail, I do not think it clarifies matters to give their unoriginal sins this name. Instead it tends to obscure the historical fact that the doctrine of original sin was for many centuries a basic argument for the subjection of the common people, as it was for serfdom and slavery, and that democracy rose only when the doctrine was questioned, and the more faith in ordinary human nature was declared. It may obscure the logical necessity of such faith for a free society; for there can be no hope for a free society unless men are good enough to be trusted with the rights and liberties that neither the medieval church nor the Protestant reformers saw fit to grant them. . . "

There is something profound, it seems to me, in that phrase, "the more faith in ordinary human nature." This is, I believe, the faith that Lin Yutang, the writer-philosopher, would have us share - a faith I would hope could be at least a part of any "open-minded alternative" to the strident certitudes of institutionalized sectarianism.

By way of background, Lin Yutang was born in 1895 in Fujian Province, in southeastern china, the seventh of eight children and the son of a Presbyterian minister. He was educated in Shanghai, at Harvard and at Leipzig. He taught in Chinese universities in the pre-World War II years, and then spent many years in the United States. He was a protege of Pearl Buck and her husband, Richard Walsh, the latter the publisher of many of Lin's 35 books in English. Lin died in 1976, in Hong Kong where he and his wife moved from Taiwan after the suicide of the eldest of their three daughters.

Lin spent most of his life trying to explain the Chinese mind to Westerners, and sometimes vice versa. "The Importance of Living" goes into considerable detail in contrasting the Chinese style, and mindset, with that of the West's European and American models. Lin thought Westerners could learn something of the gentler arts of living if only they would get over the notion that idleness was a sin, that loafing was a waste of time. He asserted, with some seriousness, that the three great American vices were efficiency, punctuality, and the desire for achievement and success. "The modern man," he says, "takes life far too seriously, and because he is too serious, the world is full of troubles."

Spiritually, as a child of East and West, Lin believed Western thinking was too rigid and compartmentalized, and notably lacking the sensual. He believed the essential man - he usually used the word "man" in the generic, non-gendered sense - the essential man was curious, dreamy, humorous and wayward - a glorious scamp, he called him.

"In this present age of threats to democracy and individual liberty," Lin wrote in 1937, "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 on him."

Lin puts great stock in a sense of humor, asserting that humor nourishes simplicity of thinking. "Constant contact with reality," he says, "gives the humorist a bounce, and also a lightness and subtlety. All forms of pose, sham, learned nonsense, academic stupidity and social humbug are politely but effectively shown the door. Man becomes wise because man becomes subtle and witty. I believe a sane and reasonable spirit, characterized by simplicity of living and thinking, can be achieved only when there is a very much greater prevalence of humorous thinking."

Lin compares briefly the traditional Christian theological view of mankind, the Greek pagan view and the Chinese Taoist-Confucianist view, noting that the Christian still believes in man's total depravity, the Greeks saw mortal man subject sometimes to a cruel Fate, the Chinese saw man as the equal of heaven and earth - while the immortality of the human soul is held in common by the Christian, Greek, Taoist and Confucianist views.

The Chinese view of man derives from an animistic background - that man is a compound of physical, mental and moral assets that strives to live in harmony with the human nature given him. Life has its own rhythm and beat, its internal cycles of growth and decay. "No one can say that a life with childhood, manhood and old age is not a beautiful arrangement," Lin writes. The Chinese attitude is to expect neither too much nor too little of man and mankind, an attitude Lin sums up in the phrase "Let us be reasonable."

Lin defends smoking, drinking tea, chatting with friends, travel as "vagabonding," reading, and lying lazily in bed. He deplores the "inhumanity of Western dress," particularly for men who are obliged to wear a collar - a "satanic device," Lin says, that "makes proper ventilation impossible in summer, proper protection against cold impossible in winter and proper thinking impossible at all times."

He goes on at some length about various aspects of the human body, noting that we have strong muscles and we have a mind and we have this bottomless pit called a stomach. "Many men have circumvented sex," he remarks, "but no saint has yet circumvented food and drink. It is but common sense to say that we are what we eat. Our lives are not in the laps of our gods, but in the laps of our cooks."

As for the human mind, Lin sees the average mind as charming rather than noble - "charming in its unreasonableness, its inveterate prejudices, and its waywardness and unpredictability." He notes that the mind was "originally an organ for sensing danger and preserving life" - that the mind eventually came to "appreciate logic and a correct mathematical equation" Lin considers "a mere accident." Lin much prefers the charmingly unreasonable mind to the completely rational mind. "I have no doubt that a society of such perfectly rational beings would be perfectly fitted to survive, and yet I wonder whether survival on such terms is worth having." If he does not doubt the capacity of the human mind to deal with the sciences, he is less hopeful about the general development of a critical mind in dealing with human affairs. "Mankind as individuals may have reached austere heights," he writes, "but mankind as social groups are still subject to primitive passions, occasional back-slidings and outcroppings of savage instincts, and occasional waves of fanaticism and mass hysteria."

So Lin endorses a well-ordered society, but one not too well-ordered. Logical thinking and hard work have their place, but not in the enjoyment of life. "In contrast to logic," Lin writes, "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. The greatest ideal that man can aspire to is not to be a showcase of virtue, but just to be a genial, likeable and reasonable human 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." Thus, Lin comes to the opinion that Western thinkers who try to solve the problem of the purpose of life "beg the question by assuming that life must have a purpose." In Lin's view, "Had there been a purpose or design in life, it should not have been so puzzling and vague and difficult to find out."

"The question may be divided into two:" Lin says, "either that of a divine purpose, which God has set for humanity, or that of a human purpose, a purpose that mankind should set for itself. As far as the first is concerned, I do not propose to enter into the question, because everything that we think God has in mind necessarily proceeds from our own mind; it is what we imagine to be in God's mind, and it is really difficult for human intelligence to guess at a divine intelligence. What we usually end up with by this sort of reasoning is to make God the color-sergeant of our army and to make Him as chauvinistic as ourselves; . . .

"As far as the second question is concerned," Lin says, "the point of dispute is not what is but what should be, the purpose of human life, and it is therefore a practical, and not a metaphysical question. Into this question of what should be the purpose of human life, every man projects his own conceptions and his own scale of values. It is for this reason that we quarrel over the question, because our scales of values are different from one another. For myself," Lin says, "I am content to be less philosophical and more practical. I should not presume that there must be necessarily a purpose, a meaning of human existence. As Walt Whitman says, 'I am sufficient as I am.' It is sufficient that I live and that human life exists. Viewed that way, the problem becomes amazingly simple and admits of no two answers. What can be the end of human life except the enjoyment of it?"

Of course, Lin's implicit answer to that question does not satisfy everyone. It came to not satisfy Lin. Lin had abandoned Christianity during his early years of study in China. He wrote "The Importance of Living" during a time when he called himself a pagan - although as you heard, being a Chinese pagan does not necessarily mean a disbelief in God. Lin biographer Ryan Murray reports that Lin was in his mid-60s and living in New York in 1959, when, with encouragement from his wife, he returned to the Presbyterian Church in which he was raised. "The Sunday morning when I rejoined the Christian church was a homecoming," Lin said in an article for Presbyterian Life that year. That homecoming was possibly rather like what he described later in his memoir, the year before his death, as one of those times in life when there is "a sense of having arrived somewhere, of having settled and having found out what we want."

The world today is far different from what it was when "The Importance of Living" appeared 69 years ago. To some eyes and ears, I'm sure Lin seems more than a bit dated. But I think many of Lin's ideas about the large and small particulars of living as antidote to a too-busy world can still resonate today - in large part because of Lin's faith in the reasonable goodness of ordinary human nature, and because of his own unique expression of an individual's search for a world in which all people are fully recognized, fully accepted, and fully respected as God's creation.

Naively, and perhaps too simply - I might state Lin's general proposition in another way:

We are born through no fault of ours, we then live our lives for better or worse as best we know how, and then we die. This reality alone is good reason, if not the only reason, for us to be always kind to one another - and thereby improve the odds of our enjoying life together.

Closing Words:

The Half-and-Half Song by the 16th century Chinese poet Li Mi-an is a poem I have treasured for more than 40 years. Lin Yutang, its translator, described it - in his words - as "the soundest and most mature philosophy of living comprised in a single poem that I know, although I know, too, that it is one of the most exasperating to the hundred-percenters."

The Half and Half Song:

By far the greater half have I seen through
This floating life - Ah, there's a magic word -
This "half" - so rich in implications.
It bids us taste the joy of more than we
Can ever own. Halfway in life is man's
Best state, when slackened pace allows him ease;

A wide world lies halfway 'twixt heaven and earth;
To live halfway between the town and land,
Have farms halfway between the streams and hills;
Be half-a-scholar, and half-a-squire, and half
In business; half as gentry live,
And have a house that's half genteel, half plain,
Half elegantly furnished and half bare;
Dresses and gowns that are half old, half new,
And food half epicure's, half simple fare;
Have servants not too clever, not too dull;
A wife who's not too simple, nor too smart.

-So then, at heart, I feel I'm half a Buddha,
And almost half a Taoist fairy blest.
One half myself to Father Heaven I
Return; the other half to children leave -
Half thinking how for my posterity
To plan and provide, and yet half minding how
To answer God when the body's laid at rest.

He is most wisely drunk who is half drunk;
And flowers in half-bloom look their prettiest;
As boats at half-sail sail the steadiest,
And horses held at half-slack reins trot best.

Who half too much has, adds anxiety,
But half too little, adds possession's zest.
Since life's of sweet and bitter compounded,
Who tastes but half is wise and cleverest.

©2006 Joe Conover

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Conover, Joe. 2006. The Importance of Living: Idle Philosophy Born of an Idle Life, /talks/20060212.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

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