Western philosophy has its roots in Athens, Rome and JudeoChristianity while Eastern philosophy is derived from Confucianism, Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. As Greek and Latin are to Western civilisation, so classical Chinese is to East Asian civilisation. I will focus on four major differences between Eastern and Western philosophies. 1. Western Individualism and Eastern Collectivism In the Greco? Roman tradition, the image of Prometheus powerfully illustrates the struggle for individual freedom.
Prometheus had gone against Zeus, the all powerful god who ruled the sky from Mt. Olympus. Prometheus annoyed Zeus by creating human beings. To protect the human beings from Zeus, he stole fire from Hephaestos, the blackmith god and gave it to the human beings. This angered Zeus to the extent that Prometheus was chained to a rock and an eagle tore out his liver. In European consciousness, Prometheus had become the hero who: “… defied the patriarchy in the name of individual freedom, who brought light into our darkness.
He was the saviour who sacrificed himself for the sake of mankind, the benefactor who brought the gift of technology down from heaven, the teacher who taught us that we are not at the whims of the gods any more, who showed us how to use our intelligence to take control of the world”. The Christian tradition has also reinforced the notion of individual rights. The Bible speaks of God creating Man in His own image and letting him “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle and over all the earth, and every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26).
By comparison, the Chinese live in a world of obligations: “… obligations to serve the ruler, obligations to work for the family, obligations to obey elders, obligations to help relatives, obligations to do well to glorify the name of ancestors, obligations to defend the country in times of trouble, and obligations to oneself to cultivate one’s own virtue. It would also seem that rights only belong to one individual ? the Son of Heaven. Confucianism promotes conservatism and this stifles creativity and robs the people of self? introspection. 2. Fragmentary and Holistic
According to Fritjof Capra, the emphasis of rational thought is epitomised in Descartes’ celebrated statement,’Cognito, ergo sum’ ? ‘I think, therefore, I exist. ‘ This has forcefully encouraged Westerners to equate their identity with their rational mind rather than with the whole organism. This division between the mind and the body has led to a view of the universe as a mechanical system consisting of separate objects, which in turn were reduced to fundamental building blocks whose properties and interactions were thought to completely determine all natural phenomena.
This mechanistic conception of the whole world is still the basis of most of our sciences and continues to have a tremendous influence on our lives. Academic disciplines become fragmented and this has served as a rationale for treating the universe as if it consisted of separate parts to be exploited by different groups. The essence of the Eastern world view is the awareness of the unity and the mutual inter? relation of all things and events, the experience of all phenomena in the world as manifestation of a basic oneness.
All things are seen as independent and inseparable parts of a cosmic whole, as different manifestations of the same ultimate reality. The Eastern traditions refer to this ultimate, indivisible reality as Brahman in Hinduism, Dharmakaya in Buddhism and Tao in Taoism. 3. Conflict and Harmony The Marxist view of history saw change as arising from a ‘dialectic ‘interplay of opposites ? hence class struggle and conflict. Western civilisation based itself on the struggle between the Good and Evil, God and Satan or Psyche and Cupid. Eastern philosophical thought is based on this notion of the Yin and the Yang.
Frithjof Capra describes the Yang as the strong,male creative power associated with Heaven while yin is the dark,receptive, female and maternal element. The dark yin and the bright yang are arranged in a symmetrical manner. They are dynamic ? a rotating symmetry suggesting very forcefully a continuous cyclic movement. The two dots in the diagram symbolise the idea that each one of the forces reaches its extreme, it contains in itself the seed of the opposite. ‘Life’ says Chuang Tzu’is the blended harmony of the yin and the yang. ‘
Taoism permeates the economic and social lives of the Chinese through geomancy, qigong, Chinese medicine and idol worship. As Chan observes:”Almost every hotel, office and commercial building that has gone up within the last decade adheres to certain principles of geomancy or “Fengshui” ? the art and science of harmonising man and nature. 4. Idealism and Pragmatism. The Western idea of democracy does not fit into the Eastern scheme of things easily. In an interview by the Daily Telegraph on 16 October 1989 the former Prime Minister remarked that:
I think in a mainly Chinese electorate, the idea of a loyal opposition and an alternative government does not come easily. You’re either for or against the government. The Confucianistic idea of social hierarchy where a person’s existence is relational, extending from his family, society and country. The pragmatism of the East is exemplied in the way Confucianism has been used to emphasize order through social hierarchy and the rules and conventions. Taoism provided the meaning of life and thus compliment Confucianism. Confucius preached the doctrine of the here and now.
The emphasis is one of “life and life” and not “life and death. ” The sage hoped to “hear the right way in the morning, and die in the evening without regret. “What lays the foundation of life for the Chinese is the family and the continuation of the family also means the passing on of experience, culture and thought. The Taoists has an equal view of life and death seeing life and death as the coming out and going back of a human form of existence. Chuang Tsu talks of “coming and going “. Lao Tzu said,”out to life, in to death. ” The crux of the matter is to make the best of the present.