Tag Archives: Philosophy

Review: Bushido, the Soul of Japan

Bushido, the Soul of Japan
Bushido, the Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is short, and accessibly written (provided you view ordinary late nineteenth-century writing as accessible).

When reading this book, it is important to remember two things:

1. It was written in 1900. The approach and the ethics therefore reflect the attitudes and society of the nineteenth century, not the twenty-first.
2. It was written by a Japanese man who had seen the fall of the feudal system, to explain Japanese and, particularly, samurai culture to Westerners. In fact, it was originally written in English and only later translated into Japanese.

Some people have criticised this book for its ethics in general – but I think this is unjust, as it’s a book of its time. Although there are parts which do more than merely raise eyebrows, it is only fair to the book, and to the author, to acknowledge that our ethics are a century away from Nitobe’s. It is unfair to expect a nineteenth-century Japanese man to have exactly the same moral values as twenty-first century Westerners.

Others have criticised the book for its very intent: to explain Japanese culture in terms that Westerners could understand. Again, it’s very easy to criticise from our twenty-first century internet-enabled Western point of view. If we want to know about Japan, or any other country, we can look it up on the internet in a few moments. In fact, nowadays, it’s very hard not to know at least a little about other cultures unless you deliberately shut yourself off.

It was different at the end of the nineteenth century: Japan had only just emerged from its isolation, and not only was its culture strange to the Western world, but most societies were much less multicultural than they are now, so people were less likely to have encountered a culture other than their own.

Thus, Nitobe discusses Bushido with lots of Western and Christian comparisons and examples, because these are what will make sense to his chosen audience.

The result is a very interesting book.

Nitobe himself was born in 1862, so he was eight years old when feudalism was abolished, and ten when the carrying of swords was forbidden. This not only gives Nitobe a unique perspective, but also means that when the book was written, many Japanese people would have remembered the feudal system. To them, it was not some foreign (or even barbaric) practice – it was their own culture. It was normal.

So with this book, there is a strange mix of explanation and defence. Nowadays, it’s shocking to read the story of an eight-year-old samurai boy being order to commit seppuku (ceremonial suicide by disembowelment) and actually doing it. But under bushido – and to Nitobe, who seems to have been of the samurai class himself, or close to it – the story emphasises the strength of devotion to duty, and courage, of even samurai children.

The attitude to women, too, is shocking nowadays. However, it’s important to remember that since this was written in 1900, the attitude to women in the West wasn’t much different. Admittedly, young girls in the West weren’t given daggers in case they needed to commit suicide to protect their honour – but then, neither were boys. If you read much about the life of women in the West during the late 19th century, you do wonder who had the better deal: the samurai girl in feudal Japan, or the middle-class young woman in London.

All in all, this is a very interesting and thought-provoking book – and not the least because it’s not written as a scholarly study by an outsider, but by a man trying to explain (and, in some senses, justify) his own culture. It therefore has the result of telling the reader perhaps more about feudal Japanese society and culture than even the author intended.

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Clockwork Angels


Clockwork Angels

Clockwork Angels book cover. Authors: Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart.

Clockwork Angels is the companion book to the new Rush album of the same name. It’s a steampunk fantasy describing a young man’s dissatisfaction with his safe, ordered life in the Watchmaker’s precisely ordered realm (even the rain arrives on time) and his embarkation on an impulsive adventure that rapidly spirals out of control. Through the book, the hero – Owen Hardy – changes from a naive boy to a young man.

However, if you are expecting complex plotting and multi-layered characters, you will not find them. Clockwork Angels is an allegory; Owen’s physical journey represents his (and everyone’s) journey to maturity, with the inevitable disillusionments and discoveries along the way. As you travel with him, you get to think about the virtue of balance, and the fact that extremes of either order or chaos can be equally undesirable; the nature of life and death; the purpose of imagination; and freedom – the freedom to choose, and the freedom to fail; and more. Some of these concepts occur as themes throughout the book (such as freedom) and others as vignettes covered only in one scene or part of a scene.

Anyone with an interest in philosophy or French literature will recognise a strong resemblance to Voltaire’s Candide; in some ways, Clockwork Angels might be regarded as a retelling of Candide for a modern audience; the authors – for I include Neil Peart, Rush’s drummer – say in an afterword that Candide ‘was an early model for the story arc’. For Rush fans, there are also plenty of references to Rush’s previous work.

So in conclusion, you can read this just as a steampunk fantasy and enjoy it, but by doing so I think you would miss out on the best bits. Read it slowly, and allocate it the brain space and time for some good thinking. You’ll be glad you did.

The Problem of Evil (Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad)

Listen to this while reading!

Ever since someone decided that the Christian God was omniscient, omnipresent and omnibenevolent, other people have been trying to explain how – in the face of apparently overwhelming evidence to the contrary – that this could possibly be so.

Personally, I always thought that it was over-egging the pudding somewhat, kind of like “And also does windows”. I mean, isn’t omnipresent and omniscient enough?

But hey, nobody asked me.

Even so, I do wonder how they had the sheer brass to claim omnibenevolence for a God who was quite willing to destroy whole cities, including, presumably, newborn children, or who decided to drown the world and start again.

Even if you argue that these direct interventions of God were justified by the lack of respect he was being shown by the people concerned, one can hardly say the same about the inhabitants of Lisbon in 1755, when it was destroyed by an earthquake.

For centuries, the omnipotence-omniscience-omnibenevolence triad has posed a problem for philosophers and theologians. It’s easy enough to reconcile two out of three – it’s the addition of the third that makes it hard. This brings us to the Problem of Evil.

If God knows all and can do anything, then why does he allow evil to exist?

Some have argued that omnibenevolence is not the same as being sugary-nice all the time; that humanity needs adversity in order to grow and develop. Also, when it comes to human evil, this is allowed by free will – free will is not free if God prevents you choosing to be evil. Or that a certain amount of adversity/evil is necessary in order for us to know what ‘good’ is.

You can go along with this, but what about the disasters that seem to happen with no rhyme or reason, and which do not appear to produce any good consequences? A modern example being Hurricane Katrina: although you could say that it provided an opportunity for people to be charitable and help others, this probably does not satisfy the residents (alive and dead) of New Orleans.

John Polkinghorne (physicist and Anglican priest – way to go!) had a good think about this, and came up with an explanation that I find interesting.

Polkinghorne makes use of the ‘free will’ argument with reference to natural disasters; he doesn’t imply that earthquakes have free will and can decide where and when to strike, but he does say that God has to allow the natural world to act according to its nature. So if you are going to have a planet filled with liquid rock, you have to have a crust made out of plates, and that means that earthquakes are part of the deal. The fact that the exigencies of plate tectonics meant that in 1755 Lisbon was flattened by an earthquake was not evil – it was a natural consequence of the necessary working of the world. So Lisbon’s inhabitants were quite simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Or I suppose you could say that on average the workings of the world are pretty benevolent, and earthquakes are just the price you have to pay for what is mostly a pretty nice planet.

Against this view, you could say that this is all logic-chopping, and the inhabitants of Lisbon (and New Orleans) are still dead. Surely a really, really omnipotent god could arrange a planet that didn’t have earthquakes if he wanted to? (Just because our limited minds can’t conceive how this might be done doesn’t mean that an omnipotent being couldn’t do it.)

I have to say, though, my personal opinion is that – like Meatloaf – Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad. Omnibenevolence is not necessarily a quality essential in a god; in a parent, possibly, but I’m an adult now. Do I still need to believe in a being that is always good, or am I now capable of coping with the concept that my parents (and God) are mostly benevolent, and thus rather more complex than I would have liked to believe when I was a child?