Books and World Culture

Address at the conference on Oriental Classics, Columbia University, New York, September 12, 1958.

In the light of the very thoughtful discussions you have had during the course of the day and are likely to have tomorrow, you must not expect me, in these lighter moments of the conference, to say anything novel or even useful. All that I hope to do is perhaps add a personal accent to some of the thoughts around the theme of this conference which you will be expounding and annotating with a distinction all your own.

It is pleasurable to take part, in whatever humble capacity, in a conference which is essentially concerned with books. We are living in an age of books. This is not just a truism. I believe that today, more than in any other epoch in history, there are books on almost every conceivable subject under the sun. Actually, I should say that we are living in an age of words. But if you exclude printed words, what remains? The millions of words impinging on the ionosphere that emanate from politicians, propagandists, and quiz masters. These, for the moment, we can ignore. Between ourselves, I do not think that we shall be ignoring anything valuable. So let's return to books.

Those of us who during the last war were separated from our own or any other important source of books, who were perhaps in a remote part of the world, must have shared with many in my part of the world, in addition to the horror of murder and pillage and destruction, the horror of being separated from books. Books were not plentiful, editions were limited and were exhausted as soon as they were produced. I know of some people who made difficult journeys during those first hazardous days of 1939-40, in order to get closer to books.

But if books in plenty are a blessing, they also create a difficulty. The difficulty is not that there are books, but, alas, that there are too many books, and to make a choice is a baffling task. Sir William Haley, the editor of the London Times who, as you know, was for many years a book reviewer on the Manchester Guardian - one of those book reviewers who did read the books he reviewed - said in a lecture that if he read at the rate of a hundred pages an hour, which, mind you, is a difficult pace to keep, and that if at this rate he read for four hours a day for forty years, he could not hope to read more than about 6,000 books. This means that persons who could have read 10,000 books are extremely rare. Six thousand books out of the millions that are produced - what would we not give for the choice to be made easy!

This conference is concerned, among other things, with making the choice somewhat easy and telling us what good and significant books there are to read. I'm grateful to any organization, any discussion, any intellectual cooperation, which makes me aware of the gold so that I can keep away from the dross. It would be a great service for any teacher to perform in this age if he but confined himself to suggesting the books that his students should read. I therefore welcome a conference like this. I know that its avowed aim is limited, but, while you pursue your specialists’ interests, the larger aim is also fulfilled.

There is another aspect also which these books, that you have chosen and value and are determined to pass on to the next generation, have in common. They have a moral standpoint. In the last resort, they're concerned with what is valuable. They are concerned with problems of good and evil, and for those of us who believe, as I do, that the moral and the aesthetic and the great are but aspects of the same elevation, a book with a moral standpoint elevates a man in all these ways. These books are concerned intensely with the problem of evaluation of human conduct. They may differ from each other in many ways, they may differ from the classics which have their origin in other lands and other ages, but in all such cases it's not the answer that's important. The important thing is that they all raise the same important question.

It is good to remind ourselves that that question is an eternal question to which every man within the sanctity and solitude of his own soul, with whatever help he can get from fellow human beings, must find an answer. In our age and time there are many forces, and many currents of thought which are deterministic and fatalistic in their effect and which make one's awareness of the value in conduct or of transcendental values somewhat dim.

I suggest to you an experiment which I've tried with some students, both my own and others. If you ask an average young man or woman to name what he or she considers to be, say, the six most important virtues, you will seldom get a clear or a prompt answer. In fact, you will probably cause great confusion. First of all, the word "virtue" will fall strangely upon the ear. It is a word which is gradually falling into disuse. And secondly, it would take an average student brought up in our environment a long time before he could think of or name such qualities as kindness, love, tolerance. He will think of various other things, but on the whole he will be on the rack trying to define what those qualities of human conduct and human attitudes are which he must inculcate.

The need for bringing to the notice of everybody including ourselves books which have a moral standpoint is, I venture to suggest, very great, apart from the fact that these books have already inspired large numbers of people over centuries. For a long time amongst the illiterate and the untutored people of the East, a book meant a good book. In my home town in my childhood, and I dare say even now, you would find a man illiterate come across a stray piece of paper in the street. He wouldn't know what's written on it, but he would pick it up carefully and carry it until he came to a niche in a wall into which he might safely tuck it, because if it is paper with something written on it, it must be sacred and it must not be trampled upon. This is the attitude that he has toward books, and it is the attitude that I think we might try to inculcate amongst ourselves and amongst our students. For that purpose, the classics of the Orient will stand you in good stead, as, indeed would similar books from other regions. I do not wish to give the impression that such literature is confined to the Orient.

There is a great need for mutual understanding in the world today. We are living, as you heard from a very thoughtful teacher, Father Berry, this morning, in a multicultural world. Now that does not mean that we are living at a time when many cultures co-exist, because that would not be a statement worth making. There was no time when there were not many cultures in the world. What, therefore, do we mean when we say we are living in a multicultural world?

What we mean is that each one of us today is exposed to many cultures as he never was before. In fact, some of the advances made in the first half of the century have made this exposure so easy that it is inescapable. The development of printing, the development of colour photography (which has made paintings available to people who had never hoped to see them); and, above all, the development of scientific anthropology, which has brought other cultures nearer to us so that we can study them in a spirit of humility or at least open-mindedness and which has taught us that cultures, simply because they are foreign and exotic, need not be shunned as corrupting the mind - all have helped the process. It is in this sense that we are living in a multicultural world. We cannot escape the impact on our minds of various cultures across and around the globe. In fact, one might borrow a phrase from Mr. Andre Malraux, who talked of "the imaginary museum" in which an artist today lives. An artist today is much more aware of art allover the world than, say, Leonardo da Vinci. What is true of the artist is true of the scholar, and what is true of the scholar is true of the common man, in varying degrees. It is imperative, this exposure being there, to know what to do with. it. If some attempt is not made at understanding other cultures, we shall be living in a neglected manner.

I do not believe that the study of Oriental literatures by the Occident, or of Occidental literatures by the Orient, will immediately bring about an era of peace on earth. An era of peace on earth is a matter of the heart not of the head. But it is quite true that a large number of mistakes could be avoided if one knew the motives, the moral and intellectual background of other nations.

Take the political problems posed by Islamic movements today. It would be impossible, I think, fully to understand the urges of Muslim countries or even the urges of the Arab world without studying the Quran which laid down not merely a religion but the requirements of a new society. To understand the Muslims, one is driven to a study of the book from which the conception of Islamic society takes its origin.

There must be some people who keep up such studies in the hope that they will somehow find the means of passing their understanding on to those who are in a position to act. Those who act have no time to think and others who think are not in a position to act, and the problem always has been how the benefit of the studies of those who think, which preeminently includes this group, can be passed on to those who act. The passage between them, the channel, has never been very easy. How to give every Alexander an Aristotle? And would he listen to Aristotle after he is at the peak of his glory? That is the great question. Your efforts, in your own sphere, could, I believe, lead to a better education of those who are in a position to act and with whom lies the comparative tranquility of the world, if not the total abolition of war.

Even, therefore, if we take a pragmatic, a politically international view, it should be an asset for a nation to know other people. I don't believe anyone roams the globe more than the Americans. They do it partly because they have lots of money. But aside from that, I think they have a wanderlust. Also, their duties and their position in the world will force them to look into the four corners of the earth and to be pioneers not in one place but in a thousand. Therefore, it is far more important for the young generation of this nation, more than of any other, to try and lay the groundwork for that kind of understanding which make its wanderlust rewarding.

There is yet another purpose which this kind of study might have. I have seen the learned paper of Father Berry which he read this morning. Many wise men hold the view that he holds (and I probably belong to the undistinguished minority in this matter) that there is no universal culture, that a universal culture is not a dream, but an illusion. Well, with me it's a dream not an illusion. Father Berry strongly holds the view - and so do many other distinguished thinkers - that the best equipment for the study of other cultures is to be firmly implanted in one's own.

I think a difference of opinion might be permitted on this issue. You can either think of the scholar (by the scholar I mean the inquirer, any inquirer a student, a teacher), you can either think of him after the image of Donne's lover, resembling a pair of compasses with one leg firmly implanted in the centre and the other leg out and moving around and coming back home whenever required. Or you can conceive of him as a dome with many coloured windows. I conceive of him as the second. There are green windows and blue and yellow, and the light that comes through each takes the hue of the glass. But in the mind itself the various colours do not lie snugly side by side. They mingle and form a new and rich and subtle colour which represents my dream of a universal culture.

Is this obtainable? Yes, but it is yet a hazardous and a difficult task. It imposes on the scholar a great mission and a great loneliness. He will find his community not always around him, but across the seas and across continents. I think this aristocracy (I use the word with trepidation in a ferociously democratic country) is the aristocracy which eventually might solve some of the worst problems of the world. It is not an aristocracy to which a person has to be born; anyone can be admitted to it, and therefore I hope that some of the objections that might have arisen in your mind at the first sound of the word will in the end be quieted. It is an aristocracy to which one can belong by the bond of understanding. There's a growing number of people in the world today -cosmopolitan, if you like to call. them - who beckon to each other across the darkness - whenever it is dark and get much moral support from each other.

This does not mean any dissipation of loyalties. One of the characteristics of our age is that loyalties are being reexamined in a curious topsyturvy way. The loyalties of friendship are becoming somewhat undervalued and yet, as Mr. E. M. Forster reminds us, Dante put Brutus into hell for betraying his friend. Other loyalties are being substituted for the older ones, and perhaps most of us are undecided and confused. But I ask for no dissipation of loyalties. I only ask for higher and higher loyalties as one goes on.

Let this not have us a-trembling. As Mr. Justice Frankfurter has said, "The true mark of a civilized man is the confidence in the certainty and the strength derived from an inquiring mind." That is the citadel within which, you will sit and not within the citadel of any temporary or valueless loyalty which we might hear preached.

I would urge upon every individual to avoid total involvement in a culture, and to look around him freely, because what is human is worth! studying, perhaps worth embracing, and it makes no difference where the source lies. It is what we bring to it, the readiness to learn, and to feel warmth, which is the essential factor.

Let me remind you, also, that what you're undertaking is not an isolated project. There are, I learned the other day, about six hundred organizations of private citizens in America which are concerned with intellectual cooperation with and study of Asian countries. Six hundred is a very large number. I do not believe that any other country in the world can come anywhere close to this in studying foreign cultures, and .in intellectual cooperation with people not born in one's native land. That's an achievement of which you can justly be proud. The programme you have set before you, therefore, forms a very important sector in the total attack upon human ignorance and cultural isolation.

One word more and I would have finished. There's one other reason why I welcome this conference and the attention that you pay to Oriental classics. With your help, shamed by your efforts, and inspired by your efforts, and inspired by your challenge, some of us in the East -myself most of all -might let us hope, read a few more of their classics.

First published in Approaches to the Oriental Classics, edited by William Theodore de Barry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959, pp. 39-46.