Path of Vision; pocket essays of East and West/Part Second, 6
THE ORIENTAL HERITAGE
SLOWLY but eagerly, like a child, the Orient is moving towards an object of irresistible attraction. Nay, modern thought is gradually lifting it from the depths of hebetude and pious contentment up to the heights of progress and unrest. But whether progress will eventually overcome its unrest or unrest will soon or late disenchant it with progress, remains to be seen.
One thing, however, is certain. The Orient can not keep up with the modern pace of science. Swathed in cant, saturated with tradition, given to abstractions, lulled in magnifications of speech and thought, the Oriental mind can not grasp the infinity of detail as well as the scope of scientific vision. The grafting of modern ideas upon it may prove, in certain instances, the contrary; but the elements hostile to its growth and development, though not visible always on the surface, are as vital, as potent in the liberal thinkers, who are making an honest effort to keep abreast of the times, as in the straitlaced conservatives.
Moreover, the psychology of the Orientals is essentially deductive. Which gives them, it is true, a certain sweep of vision, but deprives them of the faculty of coordination. They have yet to acquire the scientific habit of mind and to reconcile themselves to certain elemental truths about this planet, which have also a sociological and moral application. Evolution, conservation, even the law of gravity has not yet attained a decent footing among them. For they live not in the world; they live in the universe. They can see what is behind a mountain, but they can not see what is before their eyes. That is why, I think, they can better bear the burden of life. From the vantage of a sublimated resignation they see life as a whole. But that is why, too, when their vision fails or their resignation loses its divine support, they become irreconcilable, irrepressible, and absolutely irrational.
As subjects of the State, for instance, they have behind them centuries of submission checkered by anarchy and assassination. Blindly they adhere to authority, blindly they rebel against it. Their obedience and their insurgency are both born of religion,—prompted by the fanaticism of one faith or another. To be sure, they have often risen against tyrants, but against tyranny itself, seldom or never. They can see a throne, but not the things of which a throne is made.
On the other hand, they seldom lose, entirely and forever, their heritage of spiritual wisdom. And when they find it, after a religious upheaval or a period of political devastation, it soon becomes again a vital and vitalizing power. This is true of the past. But are they now in danger of losing it forever? I said that the Oriental mind, in its present state, can not encompass the vision of science. And the Orientals to-day can only see in science, in spite of all its seductions and promised blessings, a searchlight revealing distant material goals. And they are beginning to see also that in the rush to reach these goals thousands fall at the first spreading point of light. Which is true. For if people have the will to strive, have they the power to sustain the will?
I doubt whether the Orientals have. And I doubt too whether the Occidentals, having the power, have also the wisdom to see when that power becomes an instrument of destruction instead of progress. For even as human machines fed from the inexhaustible power-house of Civilization, there is a course which the Orientals and the Occidentals can safely pursue,—a course that will save one people from the destructive effects of rust and another people from the more destructive effects of abrasion. For indolence and strenuosity are the two poles of one evil. And if a machine in disuse is a loss, an abused machine is the forerunner of losses manifold.
But who in the Western world to-day, where accident risks are reduced to a minimum or covered by an insurance company, prefers to go at a reasonable, rational pace to his goal, if only to enjoy the scenery or to better enjoy the leisure moments of life?—or to be able, at least, to hear a fellow traveller who might be calling on the way for help? Who, indeed, when science, like the horned Gentleman in Faust, holds out before us every day a new temptation?
And even the Oriental stands bewildered, bewitched. He would turn back, if he could. He would follow, even to the end, if he did not have to run. But he will learn to read the directions—begin even with the hornbook—and take his time about it. If he fails eventually, however, in mastering the details of science or in grasping the immense scope of its vision or in the practical use of the machinery of progress, his failure should not be looked upon as a sign of hopeless incompetence or degeneration. His failure is the triumph of something innate in him, which, in spite of his yielding to the material seductions of the times, prevents him from becoming a human machine. And in this failure is a lesson for the people of the West, if they would profit by it.
I said that the Oriental mind is saturated with traditions. But the Occidental mind, no matter how modern, how insurgent, is not wholly free from it. Nor can it or should it be. In fact, every nation has its traditions, which illumine its history and enrich its life. From tradition springs the flower of culture. On it chiefly depends the cultivation of the character, the customs and manners, of a people. There is this difference, however, between the Oriental and Occidental nations: the first allow their traditions to grow to seed, to run wild and impoverish the soil, while the latter seldom neglect its cultivation. In other words, the Eastern people allow their traditions to accumulate throughout the centuries, without ever attempting to reduce or overhaul the pile, while the Western people seldom hesitate to abandon what has become more or less effete in the process of acquiring or creating new traditions. And in this eliminating and sifting process is a lesson for the Orientals, if they would profit by it.