Human beings are thinkers by nature. We think, therefore we are not mere beasts. Unusually intense thinkers among us are known as philosophers. A very few among them outlive themselves, shaping minds and institutions beyond, sometimes far beyond, their own time.
Most do not, and are soon forgotten. Who today remembers the name Ando Shoeki?
Historian Hiroshi Watanabe does, which is fortunate for us, because, relevant or not, influential or not, a mind like Ando’s — bold, mischievous, unconventional, borderline crackpot, one might almost say — is worth probing, if only for those qualities, let alone for his ideas, which leave the mainstream so far behind that the word “evil” has been attached to him. “There was a doctor named Shoeki hanging about this village in recent years,” commented a government official shortly after his death, “assiduously practicing evil teachings and deluding the villagers.”
He must have been a forceful personality. A Shinto priest said of him, “Shoeki came to this place some years back, and within five years’ time had every household disbelieving in and ceasing to practice all their daily and monthly prayers.”
This is the man Watanabe resurrects for us in an essay titled “Anti-urban Utopianism,” included in his book “A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600-1901” (English edition, 2012).
Shoeki was born in 1703 in Niida village in what is now Akita Prefecture, the son of the hereditary village headman. Little is known of his childhood. He became a doctor and moved to the nearby castle town Hachinohe, in today’s Aomori Prefecture.
Famines were dreadful in that part of the country. Chill winds blew in from the Pacific, devastating the rice crop. It happened year after year. Peasant life at best was a tooth-and-claw struggle with death. Watanabe quotes the shocked description of an urban visitor, not to Hachinohe but to rural Shinano, today’s Nagano Prefecture: “In those parts everyone, men and women, look like monkeys. … All they ever eat is stuff like cattle feed. … As for the toilet, it’s no more than a hole in the ground.” This is normality, not catastrophe — luxury, compared to famine. Shoeki, grappling with famine as a physician, emerged from the struggle a philosopher. What, he asked, was wrong with the world? Everything, he decided.
Who was to blame? The ancient sages: Confucius, the Buddha. They misunderstood the nature of the world. They sowed disaster by dividing the world, destroying its fundamental oneness. Heaven and earth, ruler and ruled, rich and poor, high and low — these are the fatal cracks in the wholeness of the world which, restored to its original state and “rightly cultivated,” would yield in its natural abundance the “five grains” on which all humankind could live. Out with debilitating luxury, out with starvation.
Why should rulers rule? Are they any more human than the rest of us? “What are called lords,” Watanabe quotes Shoeki as writing, “came into being only after the sages appeared to steal heaven-and-earth, invent self-serving laws, and set themselves above everyone else. It is merely another word for bandit.”
“Under heaven, all people are one,” he asserted. “As they are a single being, who can say this one should be the lord above, these the vassals below? Or who can decide that this one is a sage, this one a fool?”
Heaven and earth are one, and form a “self-acting world”: “In summer, heaven-and-earth cause the myriad things to grow and ripen; accordingly weeding is done so that the produce may grow to its greatest capacity. In autumn, the myriad things are at their most robust; it is at this time that the grains and vegetables bear fruit and can be harvested.”
Simple — astonishingly simple; how can mankind have gone astray? We never would have, had the sages not come along to trample our primeval innocence with their “clever language.” “Right cultivation,” Shoeki’s core concept, is natural to us; it needs no philosopher to teach it; in our oneness with heaven and earth we know, or are taught as children, everything we need to know for life and happiness.
Shoeki sees himself as the last philosopher, his message a kind of anti-philosophy, an undoing of the corrupt philosophy that has ensnared man in civilization, with its rules, its hierarchies, its high culture enjoyed by the idle rich robbers of the toiling poor. Let all men be farmers. Let all men cultivate the “five grains” — meaning cereals generally — and feed themselves as abundantly as life and health require, no more. Grains only. Animal food is for animals, not humans. Tobacco and alcohol are fruits of “civilization.” Out with them.
“With no ruler above there is no one who desires to intimidate and rob those below. With no subjects below there is no one to flatter or challenge those above. Accordingly there is neither resentment nor dispute, and thus no reason for fielding armies. … Men till and women weave, secure in food and clothing, harmonious as husband and wife, loving as parents and children.”
Merchants? Out with them too: “They have a lust for gain, and while they flatter those above them, they cheat the masses who make their living through Right Cultivation. … They do not know the Way of the Living Truth.”
“Most splendid of all,” comments Watanabe, “was that, according to Shoeki, in all the ‘self-acting world’ there would be no such thing as famine. … How his words must have stirred the hearts of the simple, hardworking peasants resentfully gazing from afar at the glittering, bustling prosperity of the cities!”
Yes, they would have — and when he died in 1762, having returned to Niida four years earlier, the villagers erected a stone monument in his honor. Soon afterwards it was destroyed under pressure from the local Shinto and Buddhist establishment. Recipes for universal happiness are all very well, but dangerous thinking angers the gods, and gods, when angered, wreak terrible revenge. Trembling, the peasants uprooted their memorial and dumbly resumed their toil.
Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”