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Arachne. No. 2

The Lure of the East

The Lure of the East

The Author Believes that people in the West could become conscious of what they lack by reading his introduction to the Hindu doctrines. I have no quarrel with his exposition of the doctrines. It is probably a sound, clear and correct description of those doctrines. His intention to describe them sympathetically from the inside rather than to translate them literally into Western terms has everything to recommend it. And his criticism of professional Orientalist erudition, of theosophy and of all naturalist approaches to religion is both valuable and acute.

The first two parts of the work consist, however, of a criticism of the Western stand-point in religion and philosophy which appears to me both questionable and dangerous. The author starts indeed from the peculiar assumption that there is only one kind of metaphysics; and that all other beliefs are due either to a sentimentalisation of metaphysics, such as religion, or to the naturalistic bias of our Greek habits of mind. On the whole he displays a quite unreasonable prejudice against Western civilisation. He dislikes its unstable character, the continuous quest for new ideas and the growing egalitarianism of our society. As to the first two points, he only states his dislike; as to the third he has a vein of argument; egalitarianism is unsound because human beings are unequal. This we must grant. But he believes that it follows that we must have an hereditary caste system. As if a caste system were not equally unsound for the simple fact that the known inequalities of human beings have never run parallel to any known caste system. The latter rides as roughshod over the inequalities of men as an egalitarian society.

These, however, are minor points. His main thesis concerns the character of metaphysics. He believes metaphysics to be something that it apprehended by intellectual intuition (pp. 116-7). It is a spiritual doctrine of an ultimate synthesis, concerned with the Universal. This ultimate synthesis transcends all individual points of view; it combines them all and it is in the last analysis inexpressible (p. 158). It seems to be a state of ultimate spiritual awareness in which 'one is two and two is one' and all differentiations are reconciled in the one. To embrace all possible states as the principle embraces all its consequences is the state of yogi, the real metaphysical realisation (p. 282). The highest Principle is both personal and impersonal and everything is resolved in the unity of a superior synthesis (p. 224). This theory is in fact the description of a very important and very basic experience. From the East it was carried to Greece and taken up by Plato and other philosophers, although the author does not seem to know this. He merely remarks that Aristotle and the schoolmen showed a rudimentary understanding for such metaphysics (p. 138). He would like his readers in fact to believe that these heights of Eastern thought were never reached by Western thought and that, when they were approached, Western thinkers were prevented by their innate lack of talent from understanding them and had to drop them very soon.

He reinforces this strange belief by his definition of metaphysics. 'To oppose knowing and being ... is the negation of all true metaphysics' (p. 169); and 'to men who are metaphysicians by temperament, naturalism . . . only appears as an aberration' (p.43); and again 'non-dualism . . . alone is genuinely and exclusively metaphysical in its essence.' (p. 155)What he does say is in fact an identification of one specific doctrine with 'metaphysics' He follows from this identification that all thought which rejects this doctrine cannot be meta-physical thought. How far the author is willing to go in his narrow-minded dogmatism is indeed shown by his statement that 'heterodoxy and absurdity are really synonomous' (p. 191). The kind of 'absurdity' he means is page 27 illustrated by his argument against atomism on Even the most rudimentary acquaintance with logic would have shown to him that the argument is not a proof but a begging of the question and that it does therefore not in the least establish the;absurdity' of atomism.

The author is in fact naive. Unfortunately all he knows about Plato is that Plato was a subtle dialectician (p. 40). If he knew more about Plato he would have realised that for instance the doctrine of dharma described by the author on p.211 corresponds exactly with Plato's theory of justice (dikaiosune) and that that wearisome speculations of the Timaios are concerned with just the same sort of idle 'cosmology' or theory of the Universe as the author describes on p.214. And since the influence of Plato was very considerable—Platonism does indeed represent one half of all Western thought—it seems naive, to the present reviewer, to maintain that these heights of metaphysical doctrine were never explored by Western philosophers.

These heights were not only explored by the West; they were eventually even criticised. All criticism is of course heterodox; and therefore, according to the author both absurd and unmetaphysical. But since I do not share this strange dogma, I must be permitted to maintain the superiority of Western philosophy over the Hindu doctrines as expounded by the author. It is certainly true that the Hindus made a startling discovery once, when they developed their metaphysic. And it is also true and generally accepted that the Greeks owed this discovery to the Eastern world. (The author thinks scholars deny this and devotes therefore the first part of his book to a futile polemic against nine-pins he has set up.)

But whereas the Indians stopped at this discovery, the Europeans have examined it. Owing to their restlessness which the author naturally enough despises, they have expanded or criticised or denied these doctrines. They found that these doctrines did not take the natural world sufficiently seriously; they discovered that they lacked in moral sense; they finally even laid bare the questionability of the method of 'intellectual intuition' (Kant)* and worked out that a good many inferences on which it was based were either tautological or false (mathematical logic). No wonder that the author finds it necessary, if he wishes to uphold the Hindu doctrines, to deny that Western thought is real thought at all. I fail to understand how any serious person can be sufficiently naive to accept the proposed identification of metaphysical thought with the Hindu doctrines. The best that can and has been said of these doctrines is that they are one metaphysical doctrine and that they should be evaluated as such.

This naivety, however, surely is not genuine. It is rather an attempt at a rationalisation: the author, for reasons unknown, is dissatisfied with the present state of Western thought. He believes that a radical remedy is required and therefore, for reasons also unknown, turns towards the East. For reasons unknown, the East has indeed little evidence for persuading anybody that it holds a promise of spiritual truth. It may do so; but all the material evidence at least obliges us to believe the contrary. When I suggested once to one of my Indian friends that I would like to visit India in order to study its mode of life, I was told that there was only one mode of life: to imitate the West as much and as far as possible. The author then has turned to the East in his quest for spiritual satisfaction: and since his choice of the East is quite irrational, he has endeavoured to rationalise it by elaborating the weird dogma that the East alone has been capable of metaphysical thought. We have to take cognisance of this choice; we ought to despise however the naively thought out rationalisation. And since this reviewer is more interested in truth than in spiritual satisfaction he will himself continue to walk along the arduous path of critical thought indicated by the tradition of the West. And to all his friends who seem to feel strongly tempted by the lure of the East he would call out what Goethe called out to the young men who were about to read the story of the unfortunate Werther: 'Be a man and do not follow him!'