Ever git that locked in feelin’ that’s common ter serfs? …  Sometimes in Spring when yer in the fields hoein’ turnips, yer watch the welcome swallows flyin’ fast and free over the fields, returnin’ from their long migration … You wish, serf, you wish.

The Wise Move, the Good Stay Still.

Concerning journeys and interconnections. In ‘A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, Fung Yu Lan quotes Confucius in the Analects:

‘The wise man delights in water, the good man delights in mountains. The wise move; the good stay still. The wise are happy, the good endure.’ (V1,21.)

This quote by Confucius, Fung Yu Lan says, suggests something of a different mind set between the people of ancient China and those of ancient Greece that relates to their geographical experiences. China is a continental country. From the time of Confucius until the end of the 19th century, no Chinese thinker had the experience of venturing upon the high seas, whereas Socrates, Aristotle and Plato, living in a maritime country, traveled from island to island. There are two expressions in Chinese which can be translated as ‘the world.’ One is ‘all beneath the sky,’ the other, ‘all within the four seas.’ Fung Yu Lan observes that to a maritime people like the Greeks, these would not be synonymous expressions.

The ancient Chinese and Greek philosophers also experienced different economic and social conditions. In China, most people made their living by agriculture. In the thinking of the Chinese philosophers, there is a distinction between what they refer to as ‘the root’ and ‘the branch.’ Agriculture is concerned with production, ‘the root,’ and commerce is merely exchange, ‘the branch.’ Throughout history, philosophy and policy gave emphasis to the root and slighted the branch. The two honorable classes of Chinese society were the scholars, who were usually landlords and whose fortunes were tied up with agriculture, and the peasants who worked the land. The lowest classes of society were the artisans and merchants who dealt with the branch.

In the’Lu-shih Ch’un-ch’iu,’ a compendium of various schools of philosophy written in the 3rd century B.C, there is a chapter entitled ‘The Value of Agriculture’ comparing farmers with merchants. Simple farmers, their material properties complex and difficult to move, do not abandon their country in times of war and are obedient and unselfish. Corrupt merchants, disobedient and selfish, have simple property, easy to move, and are able to abandon their county in times of danger.

Confucianism and Taoism, the two main Chinese philosophies,  says Fung Yu Lan, (p19.) though ’poles apart from one another, yet are also the two poles of one and the same axis and both express, in one way or another, the aspirations of the farmer.’ Confucianism reflects and rationalizes the social system of an agrarian society based on the family, Taoism expresses an unworldly idealization of nature.

The poetry of the two philosophies reflect these different attitudes:

‘The Master said.’ by Confucius.

’The Master said,
“It is by the Odes that the mind is aroused.”
It is by the Rules of Propriety that the character is
“It is from music that the finish is received,”
The Master said,
“The people may be made to follow a path of action.
But they may not be made to understand it.’

The Taoist poet T’ao Ch’ien:

‘I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,
Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach,
Would you know how that is possible?
A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
Then gaze long at the distant mountain hills.
The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day;
The flying birds two by two return.
In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we express it, words suddenly fail us.’

Over the Sea.

‘All things are made of water, ‘said Thales of Miletus, believed to be the first of the Greek philosophers. This view may not be as far fetched as it first appears, says Bertrand Russell, (Wisdom of the West.) Hydrogen, the stuff that generates water, has been held, in our time, to be the chemical element from which all other elements can be synthesized. Living near the sea, Thales would easily have observed that the sun evaporates water, that mists rise from the surface to the clouds, which again dissolve in rain.

Thales lived on the Ionian coast, a busy cross-roads for trade and commerce. The centuries preceding Athens’ experiment in political democracy had seen the development of a new sea faring class, dramatized in Homer’s two great epic poems, ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey.’ Among the civilizations of the world, Greece was a late-comer, but what changes it brought. Western civilization has evolved its great philosophic and scientific traditions from these beginnings in Greece, two and a half thousand years ago.

When Greeks took to the sea and began to trade and build colonies around the Aegean Sea, coming into contact with other cultures, the old tribal certainties began to weaken.The philosopher Heraclitus developed the idea that all things are involved in some form of movement, a concept of change unfamiliar to tribal societies where social customs were regarded as god-given immutable regularities. Another philosopher, Democritus, formulated the doctrine that human institutions, language, customs, laws, are man-made, followed on by Socrates’ teachings in Athens, that we are responsible for our individual actions and his argument, in the spirit of scientific criticism, that we should have faith in human reason but avoid dogmatism.

You Will Not Move.

Socrates pupil, Plato, rejected the faith in an open society, expressed by these earlier philosophers. Born into a period of political turmoil, the period of the Peloponnesian Wars and its aftermath of civil war and epidemics, Plato sought to arrest all change. Through his theory of immutable essences, Plato was able to extract something permanent from the Heraclitean process of flux and historical corruption. From his theory, Plato was able to argue for a return to a previous golden age period that might stem the tide of change by creating an hierarchical social system based on Plato’s  necessary ‘noble lie’ of the metals in men.

Like ancient Greece, prior to the entrenched hierarchical system that developed in China under the Ming Dynasty, there was a time when China might have engaged with the rest of the world. In the period when the Tang Empire came to an end and the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms fought incessantly, China experienced its most spectacular burst of invention and prosperity. By the late 1000s Chinese were masters of silk, tea, porcelain production, paper and printing and made coke from coal to smelt high grade iron. Industrious peasants were working for cash as well as subsistence and using their cash to buy goods.

Then came the calamities of the Mongol invasion and the Black Death. The Black Death,  as in Western Europe, decimated the population and presumably resulted in surplus land to supply disposable income. In Western Europe however, there were regions of independent city states run by merchants who would adapt positively to these challenges. China was governed by the Ming emperors who nationalized industry and created state monopolies for salt  iron, tea, foreign trade and education. The first of these Emperors, Hongwu, forbade all trade and travel without official permission, forced merchants to register an inventory of their goods once a month, and permitted peasants to grow food only for their own consumption .

Before the Ming period, China had been extending its sea power for three hundred years. Chinese merchants had developed a trade network in spices and raw materials with Indian and Muslim traders to the fringe of the Indian Ocean. By the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, China had reached a peak of naval technology, including development of the magnetic compass, that was unsurpassed in the world. The second Ming Emperor, wishing to impress Ming power on the world, had a massive treasure fleet built, greater than the Spanish Amada, which made seven voyages, sailing as far as East Africa.

China had the means to trade with the world and the Chinese people were ready to do it but Yong-le’s successor brought an end to China’s maritime history by banning ship building and trading abroad. This was steered by the Emperor’s officials who instinctively distrusted innovation as a threat to their own positions. As Matt Ridley points out in ‘The Rational Pessimist,’(Ch5,) the officials had high status and low salaries, a combination that bred corruption and rent-seeking.

Postscript: China has a rich history of peasant rebellion before and following the Ming dynasty era. Chinese society was founded on Confucian principles of an established social order in which each human being accepts his or her destiny as a constituent element. The mandate of Heaven guarantees the overall harmony of this world. Only if this harmony is disrupted through degeneration of dykes and canals, crop failures and failure to maintain grainery reserves collected by the taxes of the peasants, may the emperor, as its holder, and his corrupt bureaucracy be overthrown. Peasant rebellions were frequent and were sometimes powerful enough to bring down an emperor, including the Ming emperor in the seventeenth century. But as one dynasty was replaced by another, sometimes a new dynasty of a peasant leader, Chinese society was never able to free itself from the historical fabric of ancient China. No industrial revolution in China.

An Anatomy of Melancholy.

Robert Burton, Oxford don, devoted an immense amount of scholarship in ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ to showing that travel was a cure for melancholy, for depressions brought forth by the sedentary life. Nature itself shows the way…

‘The heavens themselves run continually round, the sun riseth and sets, the moon increaseth, stars and planets keep their constant motions, the air is still tossed by the winds,  the waters ebb and flow, to their conservation no doubt, to teach us  that we should ever be in motion.’

Geoffrey Chaucer was aware of it :

‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which virtu engendred is the flour:
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heath
The tender croppes, and the yonnge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve course yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.’

(‘Canterbury Tales.’)

Melville’s Ishmael knew it too:

‘Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul … and especially whenever my hypos gets the upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.’

Bruce Chatwin in ‘Songlines’quotes Darwin’s example of Audubon’s goose that when deprived of its pinion feathers, started out to walk the  yearly migration journey on foot. Darwin also describes ‘the suffering of a bird, penned up at the season of its migration, which would flail its wings and bloody its breast against the bars of its cage.’

Say, here’s another journey, and what a journey. Giulio Tonono, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has written a book exploring the mysteries of human consciousness entitled, ‘Phi ; A Voyage From the Brain to the Soul.’

A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul.

Tononi’s book is not a scientific paper but instead, a poetic narrative with a dreaming Galileo as its central character. With Galileo, we are taken on a journey of discovery about different facets of consciousness and as in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy,’ the traveller is accompanied on his journey by a guide.

Galileo’s voyage is in three parts. In each part Galileo’s guide is a different famous scientist. The first guide is Frick, the biologist Francis Crick, who reveals to Galileo, through meetings with historical figures suffering from different brain diseases, the parts of the brain that reveal consciousness. The second guide is the mathematician Altura, Galileo is hard of hearing and mishears the name Alan Turing. Turing debates with Galileo his belief that even simple machines can produce conscious experience.Galileo’s third guide, known only as the old bearded man, is Charles Darwin, who conducts Galileo through the implications of Phi, the concept of integration of ideas that Galileo dubs ‘consciousness.’

This allusive voyage through the labyrinth of consciousness is by way of metaphor and rich imagery and a medley of voices talking to each other, even including the echoing narrative of a bat in a cave. At the end of each chapter, a mysterious note taker comments and gives context to the artistic and scientific references. Some examples:

Chapter 4 Cerebellum. In which it is shown that the cerebellum, though having more neurons than the cerebrum, unlike the cerebrum, does not have consciousness.

Cerebelum 1


 Cerebellum 2


   Chapter 16. Integrated Information, the Many and the One. In which is shown that consciousness  lives where information is  integrated by a single entity above and beyond its parts

 conciousness 1


 conciousness 2

   Chapter 27, Consciousness Evolves. In which it is said that animals are conscious too.


Evolution 1

evolution 2

Well, time ter git out and about, I guess …

Gaudama Buddha’s last words to his disciples: ‘Walk on!’

Wilhem Kempff , ‘The Tempest.’ Beethoven


  1. “You lean from the window, your last pipe reeking whitely into the darkness, your body full of delicious pains, your mind enthroned in the seventh circle of content; when suddenly the mood changes, the weathercock goes about, and you ask yourself one question more: whether, for the interval, you have been the wisest philosopher or the most egregious of donkeys? Human experience is not yet able to reply; but at least you have had a fine moment, and looked down upon all the kingdoms of the earth. And whether it was wise or foolish, to-morrow’s travel will carry you, body and mind, into some different parish of the infinite.”

    Stevenson knew travel. One can still walk his old donkey trail in the Cevennes; the French themselves call it Le Stevenson. I’m off to do it one of these days.

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