Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Progress and the Unreasonable Man

George Bernard Shaw wrote: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”  (from “Man and Superman.”)

This quote sums up for me both what I find attractive about Taoism and Buddhism and at the same time, why I find the wisdom of these ancient Eastern traditions insufficient.  Both Buddha and Lao Tzu, in different ways, teach the way of Shaw’s reasonable man.  As such teaching attest, we have considerable power over our ability to adapt ourselves to the world, and with the aid of techniques such as meditation and yoga, we can greatly increase that power.  Our ability to change the world is always limited, even if we are rich and powerful.

A simple example:  It is a common American practice to try to improve one’s house.  People at all levels of society are trying to add on, redecorate, relocate in order to make their house conform to their desires.  House discontent, however, is potentially infinite.  Even Ludwig of Bavaria with his Neuschwanstein and William Randolph Hearst with his San Simeon were not content with their abodes.  On the other hand, one can be very content with a simple one room apartment or rustic cabin.  One can adapt oneself to one’s domicile, or one can try to adapt the domicile to one’s wants.  But if contentment with one’s domicile is the goal, the way of adaptation will get you there much more quickly (and cheaply) than trying to shape the structure to fit one’s desire for the perfect home.

As strategies for finding contentment in this world, Taoism and Buddhism are good ones.  And contentment is nothing to sneeze at.  If there were ever to be a Utopia, it could only come from communities of people who found deep contentment within.  It would not come from restless souls shaping and reshaping the world and its institutions to conform to shifting needs and wants.  Left uncontrolled, such needs and wants always will outpace what institutions can deliver.

The simple life of a Zen hermit, such as the poet Cold Mountain living in his cave, has a certain appeal to me.  But I also love the crazy Western world and its restless creative impulses leading to ever expanding advances in the arts, sciences, and technologies.  As Shaw suggests, this creativity is spurred by a fundamental dissatisfaction with the way the world is – a dissatisfaction with Nature as it is given (yet this dissatisfaction is given by Nature: it is a result of Darwinian natural selection).

In the end, Western discontentment with its commitment to technological solutions will not lead to Utopia; it may lead to great destruction.  But I think that Nature itself is creative and human creativity is an extension of the natural creativity that forms galaxies and the biosphere of the Earth.  Lao Tzu’s way of Nature ignores this creativity and Buddhism considers it something of an evil.  That is why I could never give either my full allegiance.  But it is also why I do give them my partial allegiance.