Heinrich Zimmer’s classic “Philosophies of India” (edited by J. Campbell) makes an interesting and occassionally remarked on point about the reasons for the focus on transcendence in Indian philosophy, while this is seemingly absent in Chinese philosophy (misreadings of Daoism aside, of course…). Zimmer says:
“One cannot but feel that such a sublime flight as India’s into the transcendental realm would never have been attempted had the conditions of life been the least bit less hopeless. Release (moksa) can become the main preoccupation of thought only when what binds human beings to their secular normal existences affords absolutely no hope–represents only duties, burdens, and obligations, proposing no promising tasks or aims that stimulate and justify mature ambitions on the plane of earth. India’s propensity for transcendental pursuit and the misery of India’s history are, most certainly, intimately related to each other; they must not be regarded separately.” (p. 82-83)
Of course, Zimmer was clearly being careful to maintain that hopelessness is a necessary, not a sufficient condition for a culture’s concern with transcendence. Still, is this right? The obvious difficulty of course is the case of ancient China. Prospects for people in many periods in Chinese history (including the formative Warring States period) were every bit as bleak as those in low periods in Indian history. If there is such a close connection between misery and concern with transcendence, as Zimmer claims, why should misery not be a sufficient condition? And if it isn’t a sufficient condition, what else is required to bring about the concern with transcendence? I suspect that Zimmer’s claim is false. In the Chinese case, we see two very different responses to a collapsing society and human misery–the advent of the social crusader who strives to bring back order (Confucians, Mohists), and the attempt to salvage one’s own “vital essence” (qi) (Yangists, Daoists). It’s certainly not obvious that either of these are connected with “transcendental pursuit”. And, even though Zimmer’s claim is only that misery is a necessary condition, we still might ask the question of him: what was so different about China that made its misery cause philosophers to look to the order of the world, rather than, like ancient India and Greece (Plato, at least), to the transcendent? For that matter–what was the necessary (according to Zimmer) strife that led Plato to his own transcendental pursuits? His disastrous lack of success in politics?