The Art of Letting Go

Tranquility
Liberty Magazine
March 2007

by Mark Skousen

“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.”— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Would you do me a favor? Find an easy chair, or better yet, go outside to a secluded spot and read this essay at your leisure.

Ever since my family and I lived in the Bahamas for two years,1 I’ve had an interest in leisure, the lure of breaking away from business and just relaxing, wandering, and letting my mind go. It seems like a very libertarian thing to do. Along with a photo of my family in the Bahamas, I have on my bookshelf a whole list of titles to remind me to walk away from work: The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow; Leisure: The Basis of Culture; and Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness.

But before I go on, would you mind indulging me? As I write this, it’s a beautiful sunny day here in New York, and my wife has just beckoned me to join her at the swimming pool along the Hudson River. I’ll be back in a not-so New York minute . . . (While you wait, go ahead and read the rest of this issue of Liberty, or just listen to the birds sing.) There’s nothing like an opportunity to think, meditate, and relax with friends on a balmy summer day.

In my travels, I make a point of wandering aimlessly around the city or neighborhood I’m visiting, and usually end up at some used-book store. In the mid-’80s, I happened to be in Durango, Colo., a small college town, and came across a first edition of a book called The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang. I’d tried to read Chinese philosophers before, but never found them appealing until this book came along. What makes Lin Yutang so different from Confucius, Mencius, and Lao Tzu? He lived in both the East and the West, and consequently does an extraordinary job of contrasting the cultures. His book was so refreshing and shocking, so charming and witty, that I found myself underlining something on practically every page. And though Lin wrote in 1937, he sounds very modern.

Lin was a 20th-century Taoist known for his philosophy of leisure and “letting go.” He was also a libertarian who despised all forms of government control, especially Marxism-Leninism and Maoism in Red China. Born in southeastern China in 1895 to Christian missionaries, he learned English at St. John’s University in Shanghai and pursued a doctoral degree at Harvard University. He left Harvard early and went to France and then Germany, where he earned a Ph.D. at the University of Leipzig. After 1928, he lived most of his life in New York, where he translated Chinese texts and wrote prolifically. His objective was to bridge the gap between East and West, teaching Westerners about the old Chinese culture in such bestsellers as My Country and My People (1935) and The Importance of Living (1937). Refused permission to return to China by the Communists, Lin moved to Taipei, Taiwan, where he died in 1976.

The Age of Busy-ness

To understand Lin’s Chinese philosophy, I begin by quoting his most famous line, a line that mystifies workaholic Americans: “Those who are wise won’t be busy, and those who are too busy can’t be wise.”

I made the mistake of writing this statement on the blackboard on my first day of class as a professor at Columbia Business School. A third of the students immediately left, and dropped the class. (Fortunately, the majority had an open mind about pursuing interests other than a 24/7 lifestyle, and later rated my class highly.)

Yet there is wisdom in Lin’s statement. If you are too busy in your work, you don’t have time to learn new ideas, to discover new truths, to enjoy life’s little pleasures, or perhaps to pick a winning stock! Beating the market requires you to look down untrodden paths, and you need the free time to do it.

Lin Yutang criticizes most Americans for being too busy, and therefore slaves to the business culture and the old ways. They worry themselves to death. In another startling statement, Lin writes, “The three American vices seem to be efficiency, punctuality and the desire for achievement and success. They are the things that make the Americans so unhappy and so nervous.”2 Gee, I thought they were American virtues!

Life in the West, according to Lin, is “too complex, too serious, too somber, and too involved.” He would agree with Henry David Thoreau: “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” Following Taoist philosophy, Lin warned against “over doing, over achieving, over action . . . of being too prominent, too useful, and too serviceable.” The “perfectly square” house, the “perfectly clean” room, and the “perfectly straight” road rankle in him. He goes on to say, “O wise humanity, terribly wise humanity! How inscrutable is the civilization where men toil and work and worry their hair gray to get a living and forget to play!”

The Art of Loafing

Lin says not to worry: “The Chinese philosoph[er] . . . is seldom disillusioned because he has no illusions, and seldom disappointed because he never had extravagant hopes. In this way his spirit is emancipated.”

Culture, says Lin, is essentially a product of leisure. “The art of culture is therefore essentially the art of loafing. From the Chinese point of view, the man who is wisely idle is the most cultured man.” He likes a messy room, a crooked road, and a leaky faucet!

Lin offers the secret to success for the businessman (busy man?) in this statement: “Actually, many business men who pride themselves on rushing about in the morning and afternoon and keeping three desk telephones busy all the time on their desk, never realize that they could make twice the amount of money, if they would give themselves one hour’s solitude awake in bed, at one o’clock in the morning or even at seven. There, comfortably free, the real business head can think, he can ponder over his achievements and his mistakes of yesterday and single out the important from the trivial in the day’s program ahead of him.”

But the West won the cultural war. Today, 70 years after Lin’s critique of the three American vices, it is the Japanese, the Chinese, the Koreans, and the Indians who dress in Western business suits and spout the Western philosophy of efficiency, punctuality, and goal-setting, and who work 14-hour days and forget to play. In the new China, the roads are straight, the houses are perfect, and everything works. I suspect Lin Yutang would not like the new Asia, especially the regimented Singapore. It’s a paradise lost.

The Individual and the State

Lin Yutang is a champion of the individual and “its unreasonableness, its inveterate prejudices, and its waywardness and unpredictability.” But in today’s society, warns Lin, the individual free thinker is being replaced by the soldier as the ideal. “Instead of wayward, incalculable, unpredictable free individuals, we are going to have rationalized, disciplined, regimented and uniformed, patriotic coolies, so efficiently controlled and organized that a nation of fifty or sixty millions can believe in the same creed, think the same thoughts, and like the same food.” Lin goes on to warn, “Clearly two opposite views of human dignity are possible: the one believing that a person who retains his freedom and individuality is the noblest type, and the other believing that a person who has completely lost independent judgment and surrendered all rights to private beliefs and opinions to the ruler or the state is the best and noblest being.”

I daresay which of the two applies to Liberty readers! Lin dislikes the popular trend of sorting people into groups and classes. “We no longer think of a man as a man, but as a cog in a wheel, a member of a union or a class, a ‘capitalist’ to be denounced, or a ‘worker’ to be regarded as a comrade. . . . We are no longer individuals, no longer men, but only classes.”

Lin Yutang experienced the brutality of Chinese communism and the heavy-handed bureaucracy of Washington durng the New Deal era. Needless to say, he had a low opinion of government: “I hate censors and all agencies and forms of government that try to control our thoughts.”

Favoring persuasion over force, Lin distrusts laws and law enforcement. Quoting Lao Tzu, Lin says government regulation “represents a symptom of weakness.” Lin adds, “the great art of government is to leave the people alone.” Quoting Confucius, Lin suggests that if you regulate people by law, “people will try to keep out of jail, but will have no sense of honor.” But if you regulate the people by moral teaching, “the people will have a sense of honor and will reach out toward the good.” War is never ideal, even when your side is right. Again Lin quotes Lao Tzu: “Where armies are, thorns and brambles grow.”

Lin opposed Mao and the Communists because they placed society above the individual. The Soviet model was “disastrous” and Maoism “the worst and most terroristic regime.” Lin favored a “silent revolution, of social reform based on individual reform and on education, of self-cultivation.”3

He also questioned the establishment economist and forecaster:

“Perhaps I don’t understand economics, but economics does not understand me, either. The sad thing about economics is that it is no science if it stops at commodities and does not go beyond human motives . . . It remains true that the stock exchange cannot, with the best assemblage of world economic data, scientifically predict the rise and fall of gold or silver or commodities, as the weather bureau can forecast the weather. The reason clearly lies in the fact that there is a human element in it, and when too many people are selling out, some will start buying in. . . . This is merely an illustration of the incalculableness and waywardness of human behavior, which is true not only in the hard and matter-of-fact dealings of business, but also in the shape of the course of history.”

He was probably unfamiliar with the one school of economics that does take into account human behavior: the Austrian school of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Undoubtedly Lin would like the title of Mises’ magnum opus Human Action.

Lin Yutang has many more things to say about our culture and how to live a happy and fulfilling life: about growing old gracefully (“The East and West take exactly opposite points of view. In China, the first question they ask is, ‘What is your glorious age?’ ”); the need for women at dinner (“the soul of conversation”); the evils of Western wear (“inhuman”); the only way to travel (“buy a one-way ticket”); and his controversial views on smoking (“one of the greatest pleasures of mankind”). I’ve only scratched the surface of this brilliant Chinese philosopher.

On Buddhism and Christianity

For Lin, Buddhism’s outlook (“life is suffering”) was too pessimistic and its path to happiness (“suppress one’s desires”) too austere. In a chapter called “Why I am a Pagan” in “The Importance of Living,” Lin renounced his parents’ Christianity, which in his age forbade enjoying sex, dancing, food, smoking, drinking, and the good life, in favor of an ascetic lifestyle that suppressed all sinful pleasures to obtain salvation.

Although Lin approved of the Christian emphasis on technology and education, and its banishment of foot binding and drug use in China, he rejected the austerity and social isolationism. “Chinese Christians virtually excommunicated themselves from the Chinese community,” he wrote. While at college, Lin discovered “the vast world of pagan wisdom.” His personal philosophy: “If I had to make a choice between contemplating sin exclusively in some dark, cavernous cor­ner of my soul, and eating bananas with a half-naked girl in Tahiti, entirely unconscious of sin, I would choose the latter.”

Yet in the 1950s, he returned to his Christian roots, although it was a liberal, tolerant, forgiving Christianity. What reconverted him? Not the catechism, but Christian charity, the showing of love, kindness, and good works toward his fellow man as Jesus proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount. “Once this original emphasis is restored and Christians ‘bear fruit’ in their lives, nothing can withstand the power of Christianity.”4

But for now, it is Lin Yutang and his works that are bearing fruit. There is a growing hunger for leisure in a speedy world and for individualism in a conformist globalization. As if speaking today, Lin states, “I am quite sure that amidst the hustle and bustle of American life, there is a great deal of wistfulness, of the divine desire to lie in a plot of grass under tall beautiful trees of an idle afternoon and just do nothing.”

While enjoying that idle afternoon, may I suggest you take along a copy of Lin Yutang’s “The Importance of Living”? In the United States, a Little, Brown edition came out in 2003, although I’m disappointed that it is without Chinese art on the cover or running heads inside the book. Lin would not approve of such an austere edition! A Singapore edition by Cultured Lotus recaptures the beauty of the original and is far superior. Yet I personally prefer the 1937 edition by John Day Company, available by wandering through any dusty, dank, disorganized bookstore.

Notes
1. See “Easy Living: My Two Years in the Bahamas” (Liberty, December 1987).
2. Lin Yutang, “The Importance of Living” (John Day and Company, 1937), p. 150.
3. Lin Yutang, “From Pagan to Christian” (World Publishing, 1959), p. 78.
4. “From Pagan to Christian,” p. 236.

Comments

  1. Vivi says

    I started reading Lin Yutang from middle school and the first one I read was The Life and Times of Su Dongpo, which talks about a famous person who actualy lived his life in a way that Lin would appreciate. I agree that we are living at such a fast pace that we are missing the beautiful view on the way. Maybe it takes a little bit more courage for us to stop what we are busy at and have our minds wonder to a far place.

  2. says

    When one reads the tenants of the muslim faith one becomes aware that This Religion Fails to tolerate Other Religions? Could it be the crusades waged in Europe centuries ago really did recognize the futility of weeding out this cancer?
    Look at Paris France midday at the snarled traffic, while muslims practice their faith to all others exclusion? The Faith of Intolerance flies in the face of competing religious views, by showing their raw audacity? (Try & Stop Us?)

  3. Edward S. Butler, P.E. says

    Wonderful article. It should be reqired reading in schools, whether where students are required to go or choose to go, to initiate thought,

  4. Charles N Rutledge says

    Thank you for the into to Lin Yutang.
    Made me think of two things:

    1) An old quote attributed to John Adams:“I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry, and porcelain.”

    Frankly, I am going to try to do it all.

    2) I am inclined to agree with Rogers because of the modern
    Christian movement in the east. Yutang is laboring under the old influences of the 18th century missionary societies. Modern “Chindian” Christianity, and especially charismatic Christianity is more pro free enterprise than your rank and file American libertarian. Consider the the pastor of the largest mega church in Singapore: http://www.josephprince.org/

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