Friday, January 17, 2014

A little light culture: spiritual versus material

Do you remember Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda? I do. Just barely. He was a Japanese soldier who kept fighting the second world war until 1974. A superior officer told him to hold his position and fight until they came back for him. He said it might take years.

Onoda held out for 29 years.

When people tried to tell him the war was over, he assumed they were trying to trick him. The whole story is fascinating. But there is also something rather intriguing about the way the New York Times has chosen to cover the story today. As Ann Althouse notes, the obituary seems to be trying to tell us something else.

Onoda seems to have become something of a hero in Japan and the obituary quotes admirers framing their praise of him in terms of lessons about the "evils of materialism".
In an editorial, The Mainichi Shimbun, a leading Tokyo newspaper, said: “To this soldier, duty took precedence over personal sentiments. Onoda has shown us that there is much more in life than just material affluence and selfish pursuits. There is the spiritual aspect, something we may have forgotten.”
And notice how quickly it was forgotten that Onoda killed innocent villagers he took to be guerrillas whenever they got too close to the places where he was hiding. That's not much of an advertisement for "the spiritual aspect". Also forgotten is the fact that Japan launched itself into war for reasons of greed and conquest, that its soldiers often conducted themselves abominably and that millions at home and abroad suffered needlessly. That was what Onoda was fighting for those 29 years in the jungle. That was his "duty".

Althouse speculates that the NYT is deliberately trying to send us some message in this obituary. I think something else is at work. I think the entire intellectual class has lost the ability to think intelligently about the material and the spiritual. "Materialism" has become a catch-all tag for everything we don't like and is applied without thought. (Think of how people who say they are fighting poverty, a 100 percent material concern, claim to be opposed to "materialism".) The "spiritual" meanwhile has lost all connection with the belief that there is another level of existence beyond the material. Spiritual has come to me, having to do with the life of the mind.

Worse, we have forgotten that there is good and evil on both sides of the dividing line between material and spiritual. There are many, many material pursuits that are good (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless for example) and there are many things that are spiritual that are evil. Developing a level of fanaticism such that you might spend 29 years hiding out in a cave in devotion to a corrupt and racist regime should stand out as an obvious example of the evil side of the spiritual life. That it does not is a rather sad marker of how depraved our moral culture has become.

Final thought: Why does it never seem to have occurred to Onoda that he was doing something wrong during those 29 years?

1 comment:

  1. That's right, where was his mind? This is more a lesson in blind obedience than in the material vs the spiritual. It seems to me that at some point---after a year maybe or even 6 mos or 3 mos--any rational person would have said I'm outta here. I think the NY TIMES got the lesson wrong.