One of the essential differences between East and West is the issue of principle or foundation.

The West argues in terms of law. Right (as in good and evil, right and wrong) is the fundamental principle, and its scriptural religions have been established on this paradigm. The proliferation of laws, whether they be called commandments or precepts or admonitions. are juxtaposed to sin, evil, immorality, and by extension into the secular realm where they become crimes. The definitions and descriptions are necessarily specific and inexorable, with mitigating circumstances or other logical argument the only recourse.

The expression of law in the West is an expression of societal character. If the psychology of a given culture reaches a pitch of determinism in terms of war, acquisitions, belligerence, and expansion, then its laws will be evolve to accommodate these characteristics. Laws are a product of society, and by their nature reveal the values and strengths and weaknesses of the given society. Laws merely cap what already exists.

The necessity for law emerges with the evolution of institutions. No state, king, army, or government can do without written codes that provide parameters to subjects or, politely, “citizens.” Laws are not intended to curb power except in those who would challenge conquerors, rulers, or power-holders. In antiquity, laws would provide cohesion to the tribal and social ambitions of given peoples, and evolve to channel the excess energies of society. Successful enforcement of laws always requires tolerating, even fostering, a range of space for innocuous self-expression on the part of society. Too rigid, and laws provoke resentment; too loose and laws provoke excessive curiosity into the legitimacy of power.

The historical East proceeded differently. In Chinese culture, for example, from Confucius to Taoism and beyond, the foundation of social order is jen, variously (and imperfectly) translated as moral virtue, sentiment, dignity, or even compassion. Society becomes an expression of values that promote a mutual social ordering based on harmony and compassion, insofar as rulers and the governing permit. The occasional despotic decrees of emperors was clearly distinguishable from the social and psychological character of the society. The initial premise was the necessity to promote the well-being of the family, the village, the community, not artificially but organically, through work with nature and the natural patterns of life to which society conformed.

Social evolution in Chinese thought was, thus, based on an ideal state and the notion that society devolved over time. What was natural and unspoken came to be named and described, and when these values were named they became artificial, arbitrary, and subject to abuse. Thus, Lao-tzu:

When the great Tao was lost,
there followed ideas of humanity and justice.
When knowledge and cleverness followed,
there came great deceptions.
When family relations fell out of harmony,
there followed ideas of good parents and loyal children.
When the nation fell into disorder and misrule,
there followed ideas of loyalty and patriotism.

Western society does not, nor ever did historically, attempt to conform to natural patterns of life and expression from its abstract or real origins. It did not perceive the hardening and artificiality of its evolved institutions as impoverishment and decline but as growth and order. It did not see the social results of its top-heavy governance, the results a necessary expedient for the triumph of law and necessity.

Further, nature was, to the Western mind, disorder, chaos, and obstacle, a view that underlies the Old Testament and its juridical conception of God. The aftermath of the New Testament reasserted this Judaic principle as well, wherein “right” was extended from membership in a tribe to membership in an institution — the latter an artificial construct rather than a natural evolution, being based on the predecessor religion’s structure. Law circumscribed to a tribe was extrapolated to become law governing the sectarian members of an institution. Law from Old to New and beyond became not so much moral law as societal psychology. The breakthrough of some Christians as saints, hermits, mystics, or critics of the inexorable law always perceived the problem: the foundation in right rather than the foundation in nature or compassion.

(The project of Jesus was absorbed by the system that imitated the Judaic structure of priesthood and tribalism, and while a different ethic appears here and there in the New Testament, this alternative is effectively displaced by a new system of institutionalism based on law.)

Understanding the dichotomy of East and West (at least the East prior to Western encounter) reveals a new foundational principle for society. The ancient Huainan-tzi, a grand Taoist tract on government and sage-rulers, notes that in an ideal society there are no hermits. But there were certainly hermits in ancient China and throughout the East — because society was not perfect. There were even more varieties of hermits in the West over the centuries, and for the same reasons: that society and the world were chaotic and failing to find foundations, first principles. Going to the heart of eremitism reveals the heart of virtue capable in anyone who recognizes the failings of society and the need for recreating the self in the modern world.