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Washington Lawyer

Certainity Held in Reserve

From Washington Lawyer, September 2015

By Jacob Stein

spectatorI caught those four words from a lawyer friend of mine. I saw him in a negotiation. He had little to say until the very end. It was then that he spoke with certainty held in reserve. He usually got his way.

That same person gave me a battered book entitled The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang, published in 1937. The book had those four words.

Lin Yutang (1895–1976), born in China, had an extraordinary life. He obtained a good education in China, then at Harvard, and then in other parts of the world. He wrote many books, both in Chinese and English. He also compiled a Chinese–English dictionary.

Now back to The Importance of Living, in which, in addition to those four words, Lin had a study in philosophy, in a writing style that is on a par with the best English essayists.

Reading the book, I wandered off into Lin’s philosophical view of life, one in which Chinese minds have expressed their folk wisdom and their literature over four centuries.

Chinese philosophy consists of common sense, realism, and a sense of the pathos and beauty and terror and comedy of life, viewed by a people who have a strong feeling of the limitations of their existence, and yet somehow retain a sense of the dignity of human life.

Lin wrote that the Chinese philosopher has a waking life, a life with a “dream-world.” With one eye closed and one eye open, he sees the futility of much that goes on around him. He is not disillusioned because he has no illusions. He is not disappointed because he never had extravagant hopes, and in this way his spirit is emancipated.

Lin put together what he called a pseudoscientific formula to identify how the philosophies of different countries differ from the Chinese.

He wrote that mankind divides itself into idealists and realists—idealism and realism. The soundest nations, like Britain, have realism and idealism mixed in proper proportions. Some countries are thrown into perpetual revolutions because the idealists and realists are in improper proportions.

Wisdom, or the highest type of thinking, consists of toning down the dreams or idealism with a good sense of humor, supported by reality itself.

Lin closed his philosophy with “The Scamp as Ideal:”

To me, spiritually a child of the East and the West, man’s dignity consists in the following facts which distinguish man from animals. First, that he has a playful curiosity and a natural genius for exploring knowledge; second, that he has dreams and a lofty idealism (often vague, or confused, or cocky, it is true, but nevertheless worthwhile); third, and still more important, that he is able to correct his dreams by a sense of humor, and thus restrain his idealism by a more robust and healthy realism; and finally, that he does not react to surroundings mechanically and uniformly as animals do, but possesses the ability and the freedom to determine his own reactions and to change surroundings at his will. This last is the same as saying that human personality is the last thing to be reduced to mechanical laws; somehow the human mind is forever elusive, uncatchable and unpredictable, and manages to wriggle out of mechanistic laws or a materialistic dialectic that crazy psychologists and unmarried economists are trying to impose upon him. Man, therefore, is a curious, dreamy, humorous and wayward creature.

. . . In this present age of threats to democracy and individual liberty, probably only the scamp and the spirit of the scamp alone will save us from becoming lost as serially numbered units in the masses of disciplined, obedient, regimented and uniformed coolies. The scamp will be the last and more formidable enemy of dictatorships. He will be the champion of human dignity and individual freedom, and will be the last to be conquered. All modern civilization depends entirely upon him.

Speaking as a Chinese, I do not think that any civilization can be called complete until it has progressed from sophistication to unsophistication, and made a conscious return to simplicity of thinking and living, and I call no man wise until he has made the progress from the wisdom of knowledge to the wisdom of foolishness, and become a laughing philosopher, feeling first life’s tragedy and then life’s comedy. For we must weep before we can laugh. Out of sadness comes the awakening, and out of the awakening comes the laughter of the philosopher, with kindliness and tolerance to boot.

“Certainty held in reserve” was wisdom to me, and I found much more wisdom in The Importance of Living.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at [email protected].