by The Inmate
a review of
The Importance of Living
by Lin Yutang
published by William Morrow and Company, Inc.
1998, originally published in 1937
paperback, 462 pages
Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times–noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring–belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars.
—Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium
The important thing is living, not simply proceeding from one event to another, but living a contented, happy and satisfied life. It is easy to forget. Instead we pursue not satisfaction, but distraction, anything to divert our thoughts from those things that make life substantial. Life becomes the business of getting things done and in the process one does little living. The more projects we accomplish, the more money we make, the higher we climb in our careers the better life is. Or is it? What is it that we miss? What is gained?
In Pragmatism William James asserted that the best way to test a theory, a religious view, a moral standard or a philosophical tenet is to look at the consequences of holding that particular belief. “What difference,” he wrote, “would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true?” It does not matter if the beliefs are considered right or wrong, what matters is how those beliefs in practice affect an individual’s life. This is the essence of Lin Yutang’s method of evaluating the ways in which people live. Do beliefs ultimately serve the individual? If not, then some other way of living, some other system of belief must be pursued.
Yutang’s view of life which is, he believes, the Chinese ideal of life is that of “high-mindedness.” This comes from a sense of “wise detachment” which could be summed up in his idea of leaving things undone. Do not do today what you can put off until tomorrow or next week or next year. If you can legitimately put it off how important is it? This kind of life is characterized by the ability to “escape the temptations of fame and wealth and achievement.” One is able to “take what comes” and from this comes a “sense of freedom and nonchalance” which allows one to experience a “keen and intense joy of living.” It is the ability to loaf without guilt, to enjoy a lazy afternoon in the park under a tree. China is not, he says gladly, an efficient nation like America. Partly this is the reason it is an old nation. “Four thousand years of efficient living,” he wrote, “would ruin any nation.”
“As far as culture is concerned,” wrote Yutang, “I am inclined to think that the final judgment of any particular type of culture is what type of men and women it turns out.” The overriding culture of the West and more and more of the East is the culture of work that Josef Pieper warned us about in Leisure, the Basis of Culture. This is not solely an American problem. The question becomes what kind of individual does this culture produce? Yutang offers several traits including “artificiality,” “cold-heartedness,” “cruelty,” and the “go-getter.” “Many a prostitute,” wrote Yutang, “lives a nobler life than a successful business man.” Yutang then lists the three great humbugs of life: “Fame, Wealth and Power.” These can be summed up in the “One Great Humbug” that encompasses them all: “Success.”
The Importance of Living has much to say about the culture of work, but it is a book about much more than that. Yutang writes about Christianity, Confucianism, Buddhism, paganism, the joy of smoking, eating, drinking, decorating, flower arrangement and philosophy. When his thoughts intersect with corporate culture it is a devastating critique and as true today as it was 65 years ago. There is not much in this book that is dated. Women may find him hard to take at times, and rightly so. He also made a prediction, admitting that predictions are risky, that, sadly, has not come true:
After all, the machine culture is rapidly bringing us nearer to the age of leisure, and man will be compelled to play more and work less. It is all a matter of environment, and when man finds leisure hanging on his hand, he will be forced to think more about the way and means of wisely enjoying his leisure, conferred upon him, against his will, by rapidly improving methods of quick production.
It was a logical conclusion, one that many others besides Yutang have made. I suppose this has come about to some degree. We no longer spend every waking hour trying produce food and obtain shelter. Many people, however, still choose work over leisure and when they do have time for leisure more often than not they choose to, paraphrasing the title of Neil Postman’s book, “amuse themselves to death.” That is the great irony of American culture: technically we are free; practically we are in chains. If a Hitler type figure invaded America we would fight to the death to keep our freedom and yet with this precious freedom Americans enslave themselves to mortgages, car payments, advertising, consumerism and ignorance. It is not that people should not have mortgages or car payments or purchase goods and services. These are not bad things in and of themselves. Too often, however, the mortgages and car payments are either right at or just above people’s economic means so that life becomes a frenzied pursuit of money to meet obligations that are self-inflicted and life becomes, in a sense, a prison. This is often done without a second thought, as if this is just the way we are supposed to live. 160 years ago Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of America:
Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. . . . it seeks . . . to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
Yutang is a practical man and views life in a practical way. Money is a good thing when it is used as a means to secure a carefree spirit. Financial worries and realities can hinder or even crush that spirit, but so can the continued, frenzied pursuit of monetary immortality. The idea is to find a place between “Success” and “Poverty.” Yutang calls this the philosophy of “half-and-half.” Only under these conditions can one experience “The Importance of Loafing,” my favorite chapter title in the book. In it Yutang wrote,
Culture, as I understand it, 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. For there seems to be a philosophic contradiction between being busy and being wise. Those who are wise won’t be busy, and those who are too busy can’t be wise. The wisest man is therefore he who loafs most gracefully.
I have often considered the busy-ness of the typical corporate executive as one of the main reasons that they tend to be amoral. They have never given themselves the time to think and reflect outside of their own narrow areas of expertise. The combination of power and overwork, as Michael Grant has pointed out in The Twelve Caesars, is a deadly one. They have “compartments of knowledge but not knowledge itself; specialization, but no integration; [they are] specialists but no philosophers of human wisdom.” They are like weight lifters who only work out their right biceps, which is admittedly quite large, but leaves the rest of the body looking not only ridiculous in comparison, but shriveled and atrophied in reality. They do not, however, notice this because they only congregate with each other comparing their biceps with that of their colleague’s. To each other they look normal. We are becoming a nation of the large biceps.
Yutang’s main test of what makes a civilization great will offend many Americans, particularly those who see the American Dream as the right to pursue their careers above all else. However, the test is a good one and it shows that America has a long way to go before it becomes a mature nation. Yutang wrote,
It has seemed to me that the final test of any civilization is, what type of husbands and wives and fathers and mothers does it turn out? Besides the austere simplicity of such a question, every other achievement of civilization–art, philosophy, literature and material living–pales into insignificance.
I leave it to the reader to consider what kind of husbands and wives and fathers and mothers corporate culture now produces and, based upon that answer, to evaluate it.
Yutang’s overriding philosophy is one of play, lightheartedness, spontaneity, laughter and a sensible foolishness. Life should not be taken so seriously. Some of the questions we ask, he argues, may have no answers. What is the meaning of life? If the question was that important Yutang surmises that there might be more of a consensus on the answer. Partly, he says, we do not stop to think practically. What is more important, getting a promotion or having a really good steak with friends? Would you rather at the end of your life hold a stack of commemorative plaques on your lap or an adoring grandchild? Would you prefer to work overtime or make love to your spouse?
Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of eternal recurrence is the idea that each of us lives our life over and over and over again in exactly the same way in an eternal recurring circle. Nietzsche asks us to live in such a way that if that is true we would be content to live our exact life an infinite number of times. He used the Latin phrase amor fati or “love of fate” in conjunction with this. In order to love our fate and to face our deaths with dignity we need to make choices remembering that we will be thinking back on them at the end of life with either satisfaction or regret. Yutang wrote,
“One can learn such a lot and enjoy such a lot in seventy years . . . Anyone who is wise . . . should be perfectly satisfied to rise from his seat and go away saying, ‘It was a good show . . .'”
May it be so for each of us.
- Calvino, Italo, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 1985-86, translated by Patrick Creagh, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988, pg. 12.
- James, William, Pragmatism, Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 1991, pg. 23.
- Postman, Neil, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Penguin Books, New York, 1985.
- Tocqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America, translated by Henry Reeve, revised by Francis Bowen, Edited and abridged by Richard D. Heffner, A Mentor Book, New American Library, 1984, pg. 303.