When I studied at the State University of New York at Buffalo 40 years ago, my dissertation director, Leslie Fielder, taught me to always stay in the middle, avoiding both extremes. He used to tell me, “In a polarized society, it is not easy to stay in the middle because you will be criticized by both extremes. But that is what an intellectual should do.”
When I studied at Columbia later, my academic adviser, Edward Said, also enlightened me, saying, “Although I am a Left intellectual, I am neither a Marxist nor a conservative. An intellectual should transcend boundaries. I am an Arab, but I am a Christian. Even my name Edward is English and Said is Arabic. I have been criticized and threatened both by Israeli Zionists and American conservatives, and even by radical Muslims.”
From my two great mentors, I learned that even though it is difficult, I should stay in the middle of both extremes. In fact, it is easy to take sides in a polarized society and to belong to one of the two factions. Then you could have factional support and political power. However, that is not what an intellectual should do. A true intellectual should be free from factional skirmishes and should not hesitate to be alone. In addition, when everybody else chants “Yes!” he should roar, “No! in thunder” as Herman Melville said.
Contrary to popular misunderstanding, staying in the middle and “caving in” are, in fact, entirely different. In “The Divine Comedy,” Dante wrote, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” Here, Dante criticizes those who are silent and do nothing in the face of evil, not those who courageously criticize both extremes and call for moderation. Both Fiedler and Said stood up against both extremes and were harshly criticized by them as a result.
I also learned from my two mentors that an intellectual should try to reconcile the two extremes by playing the role of a bridge and interpreter. I learned that a true intellectual is someone who is on the border or without borders, someone who can be alone without feeling lonely. I learned from my two guiding constellations that an intellectual should be free from political factions or ideologies.
Recently, I read Tetsuji Morohashi’s book “Confucius, Lao Tzu and Buddha,” which the celebrated Japanese scholar published when he was 100 years old. In Morohashi’s book, Confucius says, “A great man seeks harmony with others, but does not blindly follow them. A great man seeks universality and does not lean to one side and be biased. But a small mind does the opposite.”
Morohashi adds that if you lean to one side and are biased, you will create a faction and eventually become engaged in factional brawls. Confucius also says, “A great man recognizes and encourages a person’s merits and tries to defend his flaws. On the contrary, a small mind is pleased at other’s failures or ill-fortune and becomes unpleasant at another’s happiness.” Confucius also taught us, saying, “A great man assumes responsibility, but a small mind almost always blames others even for his own faults and mistakes.” Then, Confucius emphasizes the importance of being moderate, saying, “A great man stays in the middle, avoiding both extremes.”
In Morohashi’s book, Buddha also preaches “moderation.” Buddha said, “Moderation or staying in the middle does not mean compromising or taking a lukewarm position. It is by no means easy to transcend boundaries and stay in the middle. Avoiding both extremes is only possible when you are elevated to a higher level of realization through meditation and seeking the way. It is only possible when you see things in a dual perspective, not in a black and white viewpoint.” Then Lao Tzu intervenes, saying, “Boundaries should be crossed and the binary system should be abolished. We should transcend the boundary between Yin and Yang, reality and fantasy, the emptiness and the fullness.”
In that same context, Confucius names nine virtues of embracing opposites including, “Be generous, but maintain dignity,” “Be flexible, but firm,” “Be sincere, but polite,” “Straighten out the wrong, and yet be respectful,” “Gentle, and yet strong,” “Strong, but mild,” “Open-minded, and yet discreet.”
Confucius also enlightened us that a nation should be governed not by resentment and punishment, but by generosity and courtesy. He says, “If politicians try to govern the nation with law and impose order through punishment, the people would become resentful. But if they govern the nation with generosity and maintain order with courtesy, the people will follow them.”
In a bipolarized society, intellectuals should stay in the middle, criticizing and embracing both extremes. If intellectuals belong only to a faction and relish political power, the future of the nation will be grim. And if the two extremes stubbornly refuse moderation and flexibility, the future of the country would be just as bleak. The importance of being moderate cannot be stressed too much. Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of Malaga in Spain. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.