China’s Hope and the World’s Hope
by Jay McDaniel
Hendrix College, Conway, Arkansas, USA
Translated (into Chinese) by Bangxiu Xie
1. An ecological aesthetic is more than a philosophy of art. It is an attitude toward life that can be embodied by artists and philosophers, but also by farmers and physicians and store clerks. It lies in a sense of respect for life and environment and a desire to live in harmony with the surrounding world.
2. The harmony of an ecological aesthetic is not sameness. Instead it takes delight in diversity – diverse opinions, diverse personalities, and diverse forms of life. It knows that diversity makes the whole richer.
3. The harmony of an ecological aesthetic is not stagnant. Instead it takes delight in novelty – new ideas, new experiences, and new ways of perceiving. It knows that life needs adventure. It does not hide from surprise. It welcomes unpredictability.
4. The harmony of an ecological aesthetic has a sense of balance to it. The balance is not rigid or fixed but rather dynamic and changing, moving through time. The harmony is akin to the harmony of music in which multiple instruments are played at the same time, producing sounds that are both consonant and dissonant but which are somehow together in the minds and hearts of the listeners. As the musicians play their instruments they may be working from pre-determined musical scores but they also improvise along the way. They are building upon creative harmonies but also making up new harmonies as they go. They are improvising.
5. We see this kind of improvisation in the natural world, when individual organisms adapt to new environments. The improvisation may or may not be conscious and it may or may not be intentional. But certainly it is creative. When we human beings adapt to new situations in creative ways, we are collaborating with a creativity that dwells within other living beings, too. Biological evolution is a creative process in which individual organisms improvise responses to new situations.
6. There is also repetition in the natural world. The natural world includes the rhythmic cycles of seasons: fall, winter, spring, and summer. Still there is novelty. Each season is unique and slightly different from those that came before. No two summers are the same. The natural world also includes the rising and setting of the sun each day. But here again there is novelty. Each day is unique, slightly different from the previous day and slightly different from whatever follows. No two days are exactly the same. Even the ostensibly repetitive harmonies – the movements of the seasons and the recurrence of the days – have their novelty. There is a repetition of novelty.
7. In our time this sense of the repetition of novelty is enriched and deepened through an awareness that nature as a whole is evolving over time. There was once a time when people thought of nature as a closed system, as if all the elements were created in a distant past and were merely reshuffled over time. But today scientists tell us that nature is itself a journey through time, in which new things are happening all the time. Human life is historical, but nature is historical, too. Human history occurs within, not apart from, the larger history of nature. The future is open at all levels. An ecological aesthetic includes this sense of an open future.
8. An ecological aesthetic can be articulated through many different kinds of intelligence: mathematical-logical, verbal-linguistic, musical-rhythmic, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential. Each person is a unique blending of these many forms of intelligence, which means that each person is a unique ecology of different kinds of knowing.
9. Each form of intelligence has – or can have – its own kind of beauty. An ecological aesthetic is sensitive to the ecology of mind and thus to the many forms of beauty that can be found in human life. Other animals, too, have their intelligence. An ecological aesthetic is sensitive to the wisdom of animals and plants as well as people. It is not anthropocentric.
10. An ecological aesthetic recognizes, along with Confucius, that the process of blending the different forms of intelligence takes a lifetime and perhaps longer:
The Master said, “At fifteen, I set my mind on learning. At thirty, I took my stand. At forty, I was free of doubts. At fifty, I understood heaven’s command. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. And at seventy, I could follow my heart’s desire without crossing the line.” (Analects 2.4)
What was Confucius looking for? He was looking for the kind of harmony described above. It can be felt in the commands of heaven and the desires of the heart. Heaven is the harmony of harmonies within which all things unfold. Heaven is God.
11. The purpose of an ecological aesthetic is to help individuals find fulfillment in life and to help them build harmonious societies. A harmonious society consists of local communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, equitable, respectful of diversity, and ecologically wise, with no one left behind. It is both democratic and socialist. It embodies harmony among individuals and harmony with the earth.
12. The communities at issue can be workplaces, schoolrooms, villages, cities, or provinces. They can also be called sustainable communities. They can be sustained into the indefinite future, given the limits of the earth and local bioregions to absorb pollution and supply renewable resources, and they provide sustenance – material and spiritual – for human life.
13. The emergence of sustainable communities in different parts of the world requires profound alterations in public policy. Agriculture must be renewable, education must be for wisdom and not just service to the economy, economies must serve the biosphere, habitats must be resource efficient, manufacturing must be local. (See John Cobb’s Ten Ideas for Saving the Planet: http://www.jesusjazzbuddhism.org/ten-ideas-for-saving-the-planet.html.)
14. The emergence of sustainable communities also requires a fundamental rethinking of basic assumptions of civilization. (See John Cobb’s Foundations for a New Civilization: http://www.jesusjazzbuddhism.org/ten-ideas-for-saving-the-planet.html.) There needs to be a shift toward post-anthropocentric ways of thinking, a critique of isolated individualism and life-denying collectivism, an emphasis on events not substances as the building blocks of life.
15. But above all the emergence also requires the development of a new sensibility, a new attitude toward life, in which respect for life and environment has primacy, and in which human beings respond to a beckoning – from heaven itself – toward harmonious community. As it moves beyond the shallowness of scientism and consumerism, reclaiming and renewing the wisdom of its own past, China can play and should play a leading role in helping humans hear that beckoning. This is China’s role in a 21st century Enlightenment.