A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government

Nakae Chomin wrote a wonderfully entertaining and insightful book in 1887  entitled, A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government.  Here is the opening.

Master Nankai loves drinking and discussing politics. When he drinks only one or two small bottles of sake, he is pleasantly intoxicated –his spirits are high and he feels as if he were flying through the universe. Everything he sees and hears delights him; it seems unthinkable that there should be suffering in the world.

When he has two or three more bottles, his spirits soar even higher, and ideas spring up, unrestrained. Although his body remains in his small room, his eyes scan the whole world. They instantly go back a thousand years, or else span the next thousand, charting the direction for the world’s course or giving instructions for public policy. At such times, he thinks to himself, “I am the compass for human society. It’s a great pity that the world’s nearsighted politicians haphazardly take control of the rudder and cause the ship to strike a rock or to be grounded in shallow water, thus bringing calamity upon themselves and others. (47)

. . .

After this opening, Master Nankai is greeted by two visitors. One is known as the Gentleman of Western Learning. He is a young Japanese man who has recently returned from studying in Western Europe, as many Japanese men did in the late 19th Century, including the author of this book who was a journalist and a member of Japan’s first parliament till resigning over reasons of conscience. The other visitor is an older conservative Japanese man. He provides balance to the idealistic notions of the Gentleman of Western Learning. Most of the quotes included here, which seem to me to be of relevance to our contemporary world –over a century after they were written,  are from the Gentleman of Western Learning.

If a small nation which is behind the others in its progress toward civilization were to stand up proudly on the edge of Asia, plunge into the realm of liberty and brotherhood, demolish fortresses, melt down canon, convert warships into merchant ships, turn soldiers into civilians, devote itself to mastering moral principles, study industrial techniques, and become a true student of philosophy; wouldn’t the European nations who take vain pride in their civilization feel ashamed? Suppose, however, these great nations are not only unashamed but also stubborn and villainous, and suppose they impudently invade our country, taking advantage of our disarmament. What could they do if we have not an inch of steel nor a single bullet about us, but greet them with civility? If you swing a sword to attack the air, nothing happens to the thin, free air no matter how sharp the sword may be. Why don’t we become like the air?

It’s like throwing an egg at a rock for a small and powerless nation dealing with a big and powerful one to exert a physical force that is less than one thousandth of its opponent’s. Since the opponent takes great pride in its civilization, it cannot be that he lacks the moral principles that are the essence of civilization. Why shouldn’t we, a small nation, use as our weapon the intangible moral principles our opponent aspires to but is unable to practice? If we adopt liberty as our army and navy, equality as our fortress, and fraternity as our sword and cannon, who in the world would dare attack us?

All who possess mind and body are equally human. What is the difference between the Europeans and the Asians, much less between the British, the French, the Germans, and the Russians, or between the Indians, Chinese, and Ryukuans? Today we invariably refer to Great Britain, Russia, or Germany, but these are merely the names of the sovereigns’ properties. If, however, sovereignty rests with the people and there is no other ruler, a country’s name simply designates a certain part of the surface of the earth. Therefore, to say that one is a citizen of a certain country ultimately means that one lives in that part of the earth. There are no border’s between oneself and others and there arises no hostility. Nations with a single master, however, are named after the master’s house. In such a nation, to say that one is of a certain nationality ultimately means that one lives in that part of the earth. There are no borders between oneself and others. This slicing up of the various parts of the earth, causing divisions among its inhabitants, is the course of monarchy. Democracy! Democracy! Country A or B is merely a division made for the sake of convenience in naming various parts of the earth. These names were not meant to build walls among its inhabitant. Democracy creates a single, large, complete, circle embracing the entire earth by bringing together the wisdom and love of the people of the world.  (75)

. . .

The Gentleman continued. “Democracy is necessary for abolishing war, promoting peace, and making all the nations on earth one family. The theory that all nations should give up war and promote peace was first advanced by the Frenchman Abbe de Saint-Pierre in the eighteenth century. At that time, very few people agreed with his idea, and many said that it could not be put into practice. Some went so far as to ridicule him as a high-minded ideologue. Even Voltaire, a man of uncommon intelligence who was deeply interested in the progress of society, tried to appear clever by making some derisive remarks concerning Saint-Pierre’s theory. Only Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wielding his mighty pen, completely agreed with the theory, and praised Saint-Pierre’s book as ‘indispensable’. Later, Kant built upon Saint-Pierre’s theory and wrote a book entitled Zun ewigen Frieden, which advocated the necessity of abolishing war and promoting friendly relations. According to Kant, ‘Even if we grant the contention that the desire for fame and love of victory cannot be removed from human beings and that the realization of peace is impossible in our actual world, as long as we value moral principles, we must make every effort to move forward toward that realm. This, and nothing else, is the responsibility of human beings.’ (82-83)

. . .

Today, in the nineteenth century, it is indeed an insane nation which takes pride in military power, makes aggression its national policy, and tries to own the earth, regardless of means, by usurping someone else’s land or by killing someone else’s people. (87)

. . .

Many of the strong nations on earth are cowherds. Fearing each other, they maintain troops and line up battleships and thus fall into danger. Why don’t the weak nations voluntarily and firmly dismiss their soldiers, dissolve their fleets, and choose peace?

Later in the discourse Master Nankai mildly rebukes Mr. Gentleman by saying that the time was not ripe for global democracy –at the end of the Nineteenth Century –but suggests that after another century the seeds that were sown then would be ready to bear fruit.

I tell you, Mr. Gentleman, ideas are seeds planted in the field of the mind. If you truly love democracy, talk about it, write about it, and sow its seeds in the minds of people. Then, in several hundred years, democracy might flourish all over the country. Today, the plants of the sovereign and the aristocrats are still rooted  in the public mind. Isn’t it wrong to try to gather a rich harvest of democracy immediately, simply because the seed of democracy has sprouted in your own brain?

“The public mind is a storehouse for the ideas of the past. All social undertakings are expressions of past ideas. Therefore, if we wish to build a new enterprise, we must first plant the necessary idea in the people’s minds, so it, too, can someday become an established idea –an idea of the past. Why? An action always bears fruit in the present, but an idea always has its roots in the past. Mr. Gentleman, please read your history. What has occurred in all nations is a result of the ideas of those nations. But ideas and actions do not align themselves in neat rows; they form a crooked line –and this the history of all nations.

. . .

An age is silk or paper, ideas are colors, and great projects are paintings. A society of a given period is a painting that has already been completed. Mr. Gentleman, is it not madness to paint a picture of the future on a piece of paper called the present with pigments which are not yet completely ground? If you make diligent efforts now to refine your ideas or grind your pigments, a hundred years later the colors will pour richly onto the palette of society. At that point, if someone paints a picture on the piece of silk or paper of his present, the radiant colors you have mixed in his past will dazzle the eyes of all spectators, who will admire and praise the painting as a masterpiece surpassing those of Rubens or Poussin.

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