In private messages, Stephen Walker recently came back to points he’d made before about the three basic ways of life I had identified before (asceticism, traditionalism and libertinism). He noted, correctly I think, that that scheme as it stands is Indo-Eurocentric; many Chinese thinkers (especially pre-Buddhist ones) do not fit it comfortably.
The problem is not merely a matter of some thinkers lying between ways of life – if, say, Mozi lies between traditionalism and libertinism, as Aquinas lies between traditionalism and asceticism. Schemes like this are (and probably must be) Weberian ideal types: the possibility that real-world examples will fall somewhere in between the categories is not just anticipated, it’s intended. The point is to have a universal heuristic to understand the particulars better, not to have a classification where one can file everything neatly into one folder or the other. (There is something rather Platonic about the ideal-type method, in that one never expects to encounter a perfect or exact manifestation of the category in the real world.)
No, the serious problem is more particular to the scheme, with its third category of “libertinism” encompassing those thinkers who do not embrace asceticism and whose critiques of tradition are relatively radical. Chinese tradition features many such thinkers – but, contrary to my category of “libertinism” as defined in the earlier post, almost none of them highlight pleasure as a (let alone the) central feature of a good life. Continue reading →