Friday, June 10, 2011

Lin Yutang: Human Dignity and the Scamp

The following quotation gives us some idea of Lin Yutang's thinking about two seemingly different concepts: dignity and the scamp. They seem opposed, but as usual with Yutang, he doesn't see things the way most do.

To me, spiritually a child of the East and the West, man's dignity consists in the following facts which distinguish man from the animals. First, that he has a playful curiosity and a natural genius for exploring knowledge; second that he has dreams and a lofty idealism (often vague, or confused, or cocky, it is true, but nevertheless worthwhile); third, and still more important, that he is able to correct his dreams by a sense of humor, and thus restrain his idealism by a more robust and healthy realism; and finally, that he does not react to surroundings mechanically and uniformly as animals do, but possesses the ability and the freedom to determine his own reactions and to change surroundings at his will. This last is the same as saying that human personality is the last thing to be reduced to mechanical laws; somehow the human mind is forever elusive, uncatchable and unpredictable, and manages to wriggle out of mechanistic laws or a materialistic dialectic that crazy psychologists and unmarried economists are trying to impose upon him. Man, therefore, is a curious, dreamy, humorous and wayward creature.

In short, my faith in human dignity consists in the belief that man is the greatest scamp on earth. Human dignity must be associated with the idea of a scamp and not with that of an obedient, disciplined and regimented soldier. The scamp is probably the most glorious type of human being, as the soldier is the lowest type, according to this conception. In in my last book,
My Country and My People, the net impression of readers was that I was trying to glorify the "old rogue." It is my hope that the net impression of the present one will be that I am doing my best to glorify the scamp or vagabond. I hope I shall succeed. For things are not so simple as they sometimes seem. In this present age of threats to democracy and individual liberty, probably only the scamp and the spirit of the scamp alone will save us from becoming lost as serially numbered units in the masses of disciplined, obedient, regimented and uniformed coolies. The scamp will be the last and most formidable enemy of dictatorships. He will be the champion of human dignity and individual freedom, and will be the last to be conquered. All modern civilization depends entirely upon him.

. . . . .

Speaking as a Chinese, I do not think that any civilization can be called complete until it has progressed from sophistication to unsophistication, and made a conscious return to simplicity of thinking and living, and I call no man wise until he has made the progress from the wisdom of knowledge to the wisdom of foolishness, and become a laughing philosopher, feeling first life's tragedy and then life's comedy. For we must weep before we can laugh. Out of sadness comes the awakening and out of the awakening comes the laughter of the philosopher, with kindliness and tolerance to boot.

One of the most common characters found in myths and legends and folklore is the Trickster. The following quotations come from the Wikipedia entry on the Trickster, and the Trickster sounds a lot like Yutang's scamp.

"In mythology, and in the study of folklore and religion, a trickster is a god, goddess, spirit, man, woman, or anthropomorphic animal who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior."

"In later folklore, the trickster/clown is incarnated as a clever, mischievous man or creature, who tries to survive the dangers and challenges of the world using trickery and deceit as a defense."

"Modern African American literary criticism has turned the trickster figure into one example of how it is possible to overcome a system of oppression from within."

The quotations come from Lin Yutang's The Importance of Living which was first published in 1937. It's almost 75 years later, and his warning still seems relevant today, even though the threats are internal rather than external. For a short story which best exemplifies Yutang's theme, I would recommend Harlan Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman."

Who or what is our best defense against the threats to freedom and civil liberty--the Soldier or the Scamp/Trickster?


  1. Richard Benson,

    "Bugs Bunny"


    He always was my favorite cartoon character. Poor Elmer Fudd--he just never got it.

  2. Yutang said:

    "Out of sadness comes the awakening and out of the awakening comes the laughter of the philosopher, with kindliness and tolerance to boot."

    I was thinking along these lines the other day. I had read someone's tagline or quote after their signature on a blog. It quoted the old Elvis Costello song Red Shoes : " I used to be disgusted. Now I try to be amused." I thought, that's an attitude I'd like to cultivate. It's a much more positive outlook on life.

  3. Cheryl,

    Yes, I agree. Good and bad things are going to happen, many of which we can't control. But, we can control our response to them. I like the
    Taoist attitude: it happens, deal with it, and move on.