A Philosophy to Cure Philosophy

Painting of Yoshida Kenkō by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (c.1840s)

Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave,’ Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Hegel’s metaphysics — these are a few of the things one studies in philosophy. Much of philosophy, including these topics, remain remote and abstracted from the realities of everyday life. Sure Plato, Kant, and Hegel were intellectual giants. But they are, in my opinion, terribly overrated as far as being practical sources of advice on how to live and navigate the complexities of the world.

A major problem with many giants in the history of philosophy is that they tend to be systems thinkers with vast plans to reorganize society or attempt to turn human nature into something inhuman. One can find a better approach among thinkers who are more bottom-up, rather than top-down. Yes, they may be influenced by grant metaphysical ideas but they remain focused in a practical direction and do not sacrifice the irrational nature of humanity and complexities of navigating the real world in favor of castles in the sky. Some interesting insights can be found in the work of Yoshida Kenko (c.1283-c.1350) — a medieval Japanese monk who recorded his thoughts at different times on different pieces of paper which were then bound together into a single work.

Yoshida Kenko was a worldly monk who lived at a time of war and chaos in Japan. Just before he was born, the Mongols tried twice to invade Japan. By the time he died, the Kamakura Shogunate had fallen and a weaker dynasty took the reigns of power. Japan was becoming more feudal and decentralized. It was in this environment, the end of Kamakura rule and the uncertainties that came with it, that Kenko wrote his famous work Essays in Idleness (also known as The Harvest of Leisure).

Yoshida Kenko’s Essays in Idleness is a work whose real value is as a collection of observations — just as one cannot truly appreciate an Impressionist painting by focusing on each brushstroke, so too Kenko’s great work is best appreciated as a whole, a bottom-up perspective, a kind of philosophy (or anti-philosophy) built by hand and without the excesses of theoretical systems-building.

Below are two of the things Kenko wrote in his Essays in Idleness — to give a quick glimpse into the varied nature of topics:

“If our life did not fade and vanish like the dews of Adashino’s Graves or the drifting smoke from Toribe’s burning grounds but lingered on for ever, how little the world would move us. It is the ephemeral nature of things that makes them wonderful.”

“One shouldn’t put new deer antler to the nose and sniff it. There is a tiny insect in it that will enter through the nose and devour the brain.”

The first quote touches on the grand, the second an amusing anecdote about what people at the time believed. From the point of view of top-down abstract philosophy, such a pair of statements are not likely to be found in a single work. However, Kenko was not trying to build such systems. He was making sense of, and reminiscing about, the world around him. The end goal for Kenko was understanding whereas the end goal for most top-down thinkers is sophistry. Constructing large intellectual systems is not the mark of a lover of wisdom — what the word ‘philosophy’ actually means. Instead, it is the mark of a sophist — one takes pride in rhetoric and being a purveyor of knowledge. Wisdom must include awareness of one’s own ignorance and embracing the reality that some stupid, complex intellectual edifice is puerile when divorced from contact with the ground.

Yoshida Kenko comes off as somewhat of a grouchy old man at times — reflecting on and lamenting the fading glory of old rituals as well as how vulgar modern fashions are — something one can hear generation after generation.

Modern intellectuals, and people in general, can learn a great deal from Kenko. He wrote of his own experiences in passages of relatively short but varying size, in a relatively conversational tone, and in a straightforward manner. Readers of Essays in Idleness today might take issue with that last part because many of the rituals Kenko wrote about are archaic but the tone and manner of approach are far more down-to-earth than the postmodern Franco-babble uttered by intellectual-yet-idiots in the ivory tower.