A Sign for Our Times

One of the things I’ve been doing with myself in retirement, is trying finally to get to grips with the I Ching, a book that has intrigued, fascinated, baffled me and constantly drawn me back again and again over more than a quarter of a century. I have no interest in it as a book of divination, which I simply don’t believe in. But as a book of wisdom, guidance for many different situations and circumstances of life, and a self-help manual for developing character, it speaks in ever alluring yet mystifying ways.

It fascinated Leibniz with the binary nature of its lines and hexagrams. Jung wrote a kind of nutty fan-foreword to the Richard Wilhelm translation. Hermann Hesse used it as a theme in The Glass Bead Game, another of my favourite books. Philip K. Dick consulted it when he was writing The Man in the High Tower. It’s full of the strangest poetic images and symbols, which seem to invite you to meditation or reflection along the lines of “It surely must mean something. If only I could fathom what?”

It is a very ancient book, supposedly having its origin millennia ago. The Chinese classic par excellence, the origin of all Chinese philosophy and literature. To a Westerner, it is profoundly strange. But perhaps that’s why we need it.

After all, we’re living in a time when Western thought and civilization have borne the fruit of a United Kingdom entangled in Brexit negotiations which will likely take us back to the Dark Ages without even any bombing. And in the USA, a Donald Trump presidency; the thing we were told was so outlandish and unimaginable it could not possibly happen. Nationalism and bigotry, prejudice and neo-Nazism are on the rise throughout the West. Our technology and reckless waste are damaging the Earth’s fragile ecology; may already have harmed it beyond repair. Each passing day brings new illustrations of that story of what Gandhi is reported to have answered, when he was asked what he thought of Western civilization. “Western civilization? It would be a very good idea.”

One of the things that I find helpful about I Ching is its underlying idea that the only permanent thing is change. Each thing, each event that happens, bears within itself the seed of its contrary, so that even as something reaches its fullest realisation, it is already beginning to change again. I’m not sure whether I really believe that the cycle of the year and the changing seasons is the model of the whole of human life and history; but it’s certainly a theory that has a lot of evidence to support it.

And today I came upon one of the hexagrams which really is a sign for our times.

Pi / Standstill or Stagnation


This hexagram is the opposite of the preceding one. Heaven is above, drawing farther and farther away, while the earth below sinks farther into the depths. The creative powers are not in relation. It is a time of standstill and decline. This hexagram is linked with the seventh month (August–September), when the year has passed its zenith and autumnal decay is setting in.


STANDSTILL. Evil people do not further
The perseverance of the superior man.
The great departs; the small approaches.

Heaven and earth are out of communion and all things are benumbed. What is above has no relation to what is below, and on earth confusion and disorder prevail. The dark power is within, the light power is without. Weakness is within, harshness without. Within are the inferior, and without are the superior. The way of inferior people is in ascent; the way of superior people is one the decline. But the superior people do not allow themselves to be turned from their principles. If the possibility of exerting influence is closed to them, they nevertheless remain faithful to their principles and withdraw into seclusion.


Heaven and earth do not unite:
The image of STANDSTILL.
Thus the superior man falls back upon his inner worth
In order to escape the difficulties.
He does not permit himself to be honored with revenue.

When, owing to the influence of inferior men, mutual mistrust prevails in public life, fruitful activity is rendered impossible, because the fundaments are wrong. Therefore the superior man knows what he must do under such circumstances; he does not allow himself to be tempted by dazzling offers to take part in public activities. This would only expose him to danger, since he cannot assent to the meanness of the others. He therefore hides his worth and withdraws into seclusion.

With people like Trump, Farage, Murdoch, Hunt, Rees-Mogg and the like in the ascendant, it’s not hard to recognise the description of what I Ching calls ‘inferior people’ (it uses the words in the sense of moral character and worth, rather in the way the Hebrew Bible uses ‘fool’ to mean a morally stupid or foolish person, rather than one with a low IQ).

What should the ‘superior person’, i.e. the upright, the sage, the wise person, do? I Ching seems to say, withdraw into retreat, keep out of it until the situation changes back to something remotely resembling sanity. But it also, often, talks about taking the right kind of action when the time is right. The trick is to discern when that kairos, that right time, is.

Though I’m very far from understanding more than the tiniest part of this, I think there’s a wisdom in this ancient Eastern book that we desperately need, here in the embattled and threatened West.

Posted in Tao

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