Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Lin Yutang: Spirit and Flesh, Pt. 1

III.   Spirit and Flesh

"The most obvious fact which philosophers refuse to see is that we have a body.  Tired of seeing our mortal imperfections and our savage instincts and impulses, sometimes our preachers wish that we were made like angels, and yet we are at a total loss to imagine what the angels' life would be like.  We either give the angels a body and a shape like our own--except for a pair of wings--or we don't.  It is interesting that the general conception of an angel is still that of a human body with a pair of wings.  I sometimes thank that it is an advantage even for angels to have a body with the five senses.  If I were to be an angel, I should like to have a school-girl complexion, but how am I going to have a school-girl complexion without a skin?  I still should like to drink a glass of tomato juice or iced orange juice, but how am I going to appreciate iced orange juice without having thirst?  And how am I going to enjoy food, when I am incapable of hunger?  How would an angel paint without pigment, sing without the hearing of sounds, smell the fine morning air without a nose?  How would he enjoy the immense satisfaction of scratching an itch, if his skin doesn't itch?  And what a terrible loss in the capacity for happiness that would be!  Either we have to have bodies and have all our bodily wants satisfied, or else we are pure spirits and have not satisfactions at all.  All satisfactions imply want.

I sometimes think what a terrible punishment it would be for a ghost or an angel to have no body, to look at a stream of cool water and have no feet to plunge into it and get a delightful cooling sensation from it, to see a dish of Peking or Long Island duck and have no tongue to taste it, to see crumpets and have no teeth to chew them, to see the beloved faces of our dear ones and have no emotions to feel toward them.  Terribly sad it would be if we should one day return to this earth as ghosts and move silently into our children's bedroom, to see a child lying there in bed and have no hands to fondle him and no arms to clasp him, no chest for his warmth to penetrate to, no round hollow between cheek and shoulder for him to nestle against, and no ears to hear his voice."

-- Lin Yutang --
from The Importance of Living

(to be continued)


  1. Not only philosophers, but the early Christians sometimes had a problem seeing the importance of the physical body. There was a heresy called gnosticism that appeared at that time.

    "Similar to Marcion, basic Gnosticism consisted of an extreme dualism, drawing a distinction between the body and the spirit realm. The "demiurge" was the evil creator of the physical universe, humans were bound in their "evil" physical body, and could only be released from the confines of that body through the gaining of gnosis, or divine knowledge."

    Here are 2 links explaining it :

    In the New Testament of the Bible, the Letter to the Colosians contains many statements about the physical body of Christ, in order to combat that gnostic thinking. One such verse states "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (Col.2:9). So you see, it's not a true Christian belief to consider the physical body as being evil.

  2. Cheryl,

    Gnosticism is a fascinating subject. I was so intrigued by the idea that I got copies of Elaine Pagels' _The Gnostic Gospels_ and Hans Jonas' _The Gnostic Religion_. Pagels' book concentrates on the relationship between Gnosticism and Christianity during the early centuries of the Christian era while Jonas' work focuses more on the history of Gnosticism itself.

    If you are interested in doing some reading up on the subject, I strongly recommend these two works. Be sure to get the second edition of Jonas' book because the first edition came out before the discovery of Gnostic Christian texts at Nag Hammadi in 1945. The second edition was expanded to include that discovery.

    And Christianity isn't the only religious tradition that has problems with the importance of the physical body. One of the reasons that I don't find Buddhism very convincing is its absolute denial of the importance of the physical body. The real "person" is the spirit inside the body. The real "I" has nothing to do with the body. The body is denied any significance whatsoever, aside from being a temporary residence for the spirit, and the goal is to separate oneself from the physical body as soon as possible.

    In contrast, many, if not most, Christian traditions, regardless of their attitude toward the body, teach that the resurrection on the last day will include both soul and body.

  3. Fred,

    Thanks for naming those 2 books about gnosticism. They sound interesting!

  4. Cheryl,

    I found both to be very informative and well-written.