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The Age of “Soft Power” and Inner-Motivated Philosophy: Toward a New US-Japan Relationship (Harvard University, USA, 1991)

(Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA, September 26, 1991)

It is a great honor to have this opportunity to deliver a speech here at Harvard University, which, with a history and tradition going back 355 years, is the oldest university in the United States. I would like to thank all our distinguished friends joining us today and express my particular gratitude to Professor John Montgomery, who was kind enough to introduce me just now, and to Professors Ashton Carter and Joseph Nye, who will be offering their comments following my presentation.

The recent political changes in the Soviet Union have shaken the world, bringing into clear focus the momentous and insuppressible flow of a historic trend that Professor Nye and others have in recent years characterized as the rise of soft power.

In other words, the decisive force propelling history was, in the past, “hard power”—in the form of military might, political authority, and wealth. What we have seen in recent years, however, is a decrease in the relative importance of this factor, and in its stead a remarkable increase in the importance of “soft power”—factors such as knowledge and information, culture, ideas, and systems.

I think this trend can be clearly seen in the recent conflict in the Gulf. What at first might appear to be a classic example of the application of the hard power of military might could never have come about if soft power—in the form of support by the United Nations and the world opinion it represents—had not first been secured. I believe that it is the historical duty of we who are alive at this time to strengthen and make irreversible this trend away from hard power and toward soft power.

In this connection, I would like to propose inner-motivation as the most important key for opening the way to an era of soft power. Over the ages, hard-power systems have succeeded by using the established tools of coercion or oppression to move people toward certain goals. What is characterized as soft power, however, is by contrast based on the inner-generated energy deriving from the internal urge that is created through consensus and satisfaction among human beings. The processes of soft power, the unleashing of the inner energies of the individual, have since ancient times been considered the proper province of philosophy in the broadest sense, rooted in the spiritual and religious nature of humans.

Unless it is supported by this kind of philosophical basis—that is, unless there is a corresponding strengthening of the inner resources and processes of the individual—an age of soft power could in the worst case become an age of “fascism with a smile.” In such a society, information and knowledge, while plentiful, would be subject to skillful manipulation by those in power, and a citizenry lacking wisdom would fall easy prey to such manipulation. It is therefore not an exaggeration to say that the burden of sustaining and accelerating the trend toward soft power lies with philosophy.

I would like here to offer an example that I hope will sharply and symbolically illustrate what I mean by an inner motivation. In his celebrated Les provinciales (Provincial Letters), Blaise Pascal attacks the elaborate system of “precedents for the conscience,” which were established by the Jesuits to facilitate missionary work. The nature of his attack sheds, I think, a great deal of light on the fundamental difference between inner-generated motivation and that which is imposed from without. As you know, the Jesuits had developed a highly elaborate system of faith and propagation. As a Jansenist emphasizing the importance of the inner working of the conscience, Pascal denounced as a distortion the use of Church authority to establish and impose predetermined standards and precepts for the conscience.

Pascal describes the practice thus: “This plan they followed in the Indies and in China, where they permitted Christians to practice idolatry itself, with the aid of the following ingenious contrivance: they made their converts conceal under their clothes an image of Jesus Christ, to which they taught themselves to transfer mentally those adorations which they rendered ostensibly to the idol [of Shakyamuni or Confucius].” [1]

Pascal does not necessarily condemn the practice itself; he acknowledges that there might be times when it is necessary. The decision to dissimulate, however, can only be reached through a process of contemplation, self-questioning, and soul-searching. This process is, in itself, nothing other than the inner-directed, inner-motivated workings of the conscience. If a preestablished standard or precedent for such a decision is provided from without, this painful process is avoided. The conscience, instead of developing, atrophies and declines. What the Jesuits called precedents for the conscience were for Pascal nothing more than a servile surrender to the desire of the many for easy answers. For him they were the suicide of the conscience. Pascal’s criticism goes beyond the particular historical context of his day and provides rich insight into the universal question of the nature of human conscience.

While perhaps not approaching the kind of purity that would have been required to satisfy Pascal, nineteenth-century America, seen through the lens of the unparalleled analytical acuity of Alexis de Tocqueville, provides, I believe, one of history’s rare cases when an emphasis on the inner workings of the soul set the tenor for an entire society.

Visiting the United States a half-century after its founding, Tocqueville was above all impressed by the simplicity of American religious practice and at the same time by its sincerity and strength of feeling. He describes this in the following passage from Democracy in America. “It became my object . . . to inquire how it happened that the real authority of religion was increased by the state of things which diminished its apparent force . . .” [2]

The Catholic Church in France with which Tocqueville was familiar was characterized by complex and elaborate formality and ritual, the effect of which was often to fetter and restrain the spirit. Tocqueville had therefore assumed that any reduction in the church’s “apparent force”—its rituals and formalities—would free people from its external imposition, and consequently cause a loss or weakening in their spirit of faith. The conditions he found in America, however, were completely opposite. To quote him again: “I have seen no country in which Christianity is clothed in fewer forms, figures, and observances than in the United States; or where it presents more distinct, more simple, or more commonly acceptable notions to the mind.” [3]

It may appear that Tocqueville is simply comparing the formalism of Catholicism in France with the flourishing spirit of Puritanism in America. From a larger perspective, however, I think that we can say that he is in fact praising an inner-directed and internally-generated religiosity that, refined into its purest form, had come to be this country’s defining spiritual tone.

Needless to say, all religions that leave a lasting mark on human beings and society must operate on both the personal and the institutional level. All great religions, based on an absolute entity or truth and transcending differences of race, class, or social standing, teach respect or reverence for the individual. As religious conviction evolves into religious movements, however, demands for organization emerge. The institutional aspects of religion must constantly adapt to the changing conditions of society and should, in my view, support the personal, individual aspects of belief, which should be given primacy.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that few religious movements have been able to avoid the pitfall of organizational ossification. The development of the institutional aspects ends up shackling and restraining the human beings whose interests the religion was originally intended to serve. The external coercive powers of religious institutions and associated ritual stifle the internal and spontaneous powers of faith, and as a result, the original purity of faith is lost. Because this is so common, we tend to forget what a complete reversal of the true function of religion it in fact represents.

Tocqueville considered it worthy of special note that these kinds of abuses had been largely avoided by the religious community in America, and that an essential purity of faith had been maintained among the American people. This purity, and the degree to which religion was regarded as a matter of the inner life, is succinctly expressed in remarks delivered by Ralph Waldo Emerson at Divinity College, Cambridge, in 1838. “That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen.” [4]

There are those who suggest that the broad-minded, optimistic view of religion taken by Emerson and his contemporaries was only a happy and momentary respite in the spiritual affairs of modern times. What preceded was an age of collusion between established religion and political authority. What followed has been an age of secularization, in which spiritual matters have been reduced to the level of mere private concern, stripped of the possibility of having any larger implications. Nonetheless, I do not think that we are right to relegate this special period and its fruit entirely to the past. These traditions—of an inner-directed spirituality—live on in the depths of the American historical experience and awareness.

If we turn our eyes to modern-era Japan, we will have a very difficult time indeed finding any meaningful examples of what might be termed an inner-directed spirituality. As is well known, after opening herself to the rest of the world in the mid-nineteenth century, Japan plunged headlong into the pursuit of policies the sole purpose of which was to catch up with and overtake the industrial nations of the West. The great Japanese author Soseki Natsume got to the heart of the matter when he characterized this as an externally-imposed process of civilization. And indeed, all of the goals and models for modernization came from without. In their rush to catch up, the Japanese of the day did not feel that they had the time to laboriously work out the ideas of modernity from within.

Here I would like to introduce an episode from the life of the Meiji-period educator and pioneer of Japanese-American friendship, Inazo Nitobe. In discussing religion with a Belgian acquaintance, Nitobe was asked whether the Japanese system provided for religious education. After careful consideration, Nitobe came to the conclusion that it was bushido, or the way of the samurai, and not religion per se, that had been the fundamental force forming and shaping the spiritual development of the Japanese people from the early seventeenth through the nineteenth century. Later, Nitobe wrote, in English, a book titled Bushido: The Soul of Japan. The book was subtitled An Exposition of Japanese Thought.

I will not go into the contents of this book here. Let it suffice to say, however, that there are a number of points in common between the spirituality of bushido and the philosophy of Protestantism and Puritanism, and that this in part accounts for the enthusiasm with which the writings of Benjamin Franklin were received in Meiji Japan.

More important, however, for the purpose of present discussion, is the fact that the spiritual formation of the Japanese people which bushido inspired was to a large extent inner-directed, coming from the inner lives of individuals. Inner-motivated implies self-control, to act in a correct and responsible manner not because we are forced to, but spontaneously and of our own volition. The fact that during the Edo period the incidence of all forms of crime and corruption was incomparably lower than today strikes me as evidence that an inner-directed spirituality had a concrete influence on the workings of Japanese society. In this connection I am reminded of Tocqueville’s observation, “In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States.” [5]

Because the Japanese people of that period were spiritually motivated from within, they were able to attain an admirable degree of self-control and self-mastery, qualities which offer essential proof of humanity. These spiritual qualities helped create smoother and less anxious relations between people in society, giving birth to a unique culture of distinctive beauty.

Edward S. Morse, a graduate of Harvard and the discoverer of an important archaeological site in Japan, found a surprising loveliness in the life and ways of ordinary Japanese. Walt Whitman was likewise struck by the air of dignity he sensed in the Japanese emissaries he saw riding down the avenues of Manhattan. The qualities noted by these sensitive observers have their origin in a culture of self-control and inner motivation.

Skipping ahead more than a century, with the growth of the relative economic strength of Japan, contemporary US-Japan relations, while still essentially friendly, have been overlain in recent years by increasing disharmony. The deeper levels of the strains between the two countries were revealed in last year’s Structural Impediments Initiative talks, which tended to bring to light frictions more cultural than economic in nature. Obviously, cultures do not always react amicably toward one another. Intercultural contacts on levels that probe and bring into question unique cultural practices deeply rooted in people’s daily lives can easily evoke reactions of aversion or even hostility. Never is a deep, inner-generated spirit of restraint and self-control so required of people as when they are confronted with the confusion and tensions brought about by a collision of cultures. True partnership cannot be attained unless the effort to create it is based on mutual self-control at this inner, spiritual level.

This kind of inner-generated self-control has been conspicuously lacking in modern Japan. As a result, Japan has tended to vacillate between the extremes of overconfidence and a lack of self-confidence. We have seen Japan become unnecessarily obsequious in its relations with foreign countries, in particular with the West; and now we see an oddly resurgent arrogance with no other basis than the most recent Gross National Product statistics. As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, I am painfully reminded of the enormous horror and destruction that the absence of a philosophical basis for self-control can cause.

Incidentally, Nitobe’s Bushido played a gratifying role in the Portsmouth Conference which negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War. Soon after hostilities began, the Japanese Government dispatched Kentaro Kaneko, a member of the House of Peers, to the United States to enlist the good offices of President Theodore Roosevelt in negotiating a settlement. Kaneko had been one of Roosevelt’s classmates at Harvard, and the two had maintained and strengthened their association in the intervening years. When the president requested a book that would explain the driving force behind the Japanese character and spiritual education in Japan, Kaneko gave him a copy of Bushido. At another meeting a few months later, President Roosevelt told Kaneko that reading the book had given him a clear understanding of Japanese national character and values. Armed with this knowledge, he happily undertook the task of mediating the peace negotiations. In the far from peaceful history of modern Japanese-American relations, this episode shines with the refreshing light of mutual understanding.

Nitobe was, as mentioned, a pioneering educator. And in this connection, I would like to express my hopes that the efforts of the Pacific Basin Research Center at Soka University’s Los Angeles campus will contribute, under the able direction of Professor Montgomery, toward building a new era in US-Japan relations.

The task that confronts us now is that of reviving the innate sources of human energy, and to do so in a fin-de-siècle world marked by a deepening sense of spiritual desiccation. This task will not be an easy one—neither for Japan nor for the United States. In this regard, I feel that the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination (Jpn. engi), in that it shows how profoundly and inextricably our fates are interwoven, can make an important contribution.

One of the most important Buddhist concepts, dependent origination holds that all beings and phenomena exist or occur in relation to other beings or phenomena. Everything is linked in an intricate web of causation and connection, and nothing—whether in the realm of human affairs or of natural phenomena—can exist or occur solely on its own. In this view, a greater emphasis is placed on the interdependent relationships between individuals than on the individual in isolation.

As such astute Western observers as Henri Bergson and Alfred Whitehead, who taught at this distinguished university, have noted, however, too great an emphasis on interdependence can lead to the submersion of the individual and a diminished capacity for positive engagement in the world around them. Indeed, the kind of passivity which they note has in fact been a pronounced historical tendency in Buddhist-influenced cultures. The deeper essence of Buddhism, however, goes beyond this to offer a view of interrelatedness that is uniquely dynamic, holistic, and inner-generated.

As I mentioned in discussing encounters between different cultures, not all relationships are amicable. The reality of opposing interests and even hostility must be acknowledged. What can be done to encourage and promote harmonious relations? An episode from the life of Shakyamuni Buddha offers some useful suggestions in this regard.

Shakyamuni was once asked the following question by a Brahmin who, motivated by a hidden rage, sought to challenge Shakyamuni and his teaching of non-killing: “No one can live except by killing and eating other living beings. So which living beings may we kill and which living beings must we not kill?” This is a simple question, a dilemma into which anyone can fall. Shakyamuni replied, “It is enough to kill the anger [that is the cause of killing].”

Shakyamuni’s response is neither evasion nor deception. It is based on the concept of dependent origination introduced earlier. He is telling us that, in seeking the kind of harmonious relationship expressed in the idea of respect for the sanctity of life, we must not limit ourselves to the phenomenal level where conflict and hostility undeniably exist—the conflict, in this case, of which living beings it is acceptable to kill and which not. We must seek it on a deeper level—a level where it is truly possible to kill the anger in one’s heart.

This goes beyond mere objective awareness; it refers to a state of compassion transcending distinctions between self and other, to a compassionate energy that beats within the depths of all people’s subjective lives. This is not the kind of simplistic denial or abnegation of the individual self that Bergson and Whitehead criticize. It is the unity—at the deepest level—of self and other. At the same time, it is an expansion of the limited, ego-shackled self toward a greater self whose scale is as limitless and unbounded as the universe itself.

The teachings of the Buddhism we uphold include the passage: “Without life, environment cannot exist.” [6] In other words, Buddhism regards life and its environment as two integral aspects of the same entity. The subjective world of the self and the objective world of its environment are not seen in opposition, or as a duality. Their relationship is one of inseparability and indivisibility. Nor is this unity of self and its environment a static one in which these two realms merge as they become objectified. The environment, which embraces all universal phenomena, cannot exist except in a dynamic relationship with the internally-generated activity of life itself. In practical terms, the most important question is how to activate the inner sources of energy and wisdom existing within our lives.

To give a familiar example in keeping with the “precedents for the conscience” discussed earlier, I am sometimes asked to advise couples who are considering divorce. Divorce is of course a private matter on which only the parties involved can decide. I do, however, encourage such couples to remember that, from the Buddhist perspective, it is impossible to build personal happiness on the sufferings of others, and ask that they bear this in mind as they make their decision.

It is through the sometimes painful reflection and forbearance that is required to face head-on a difficult situation of this type that the internal workings of the conscience, which Pascal so highly valued, can be strengthened and disciplined, enabling those concerned to minimize the sundering and destruction of human relationships that might otherwise result.

In contemporary society, there is no more pressing necessity than for self-control and restraint based on this kind of inner-directed spirituality. Such would not only encourage a deepened respect for the dignity of life, but, in a world where human relations are growing increasingly tenuous, would also contribute to a restoration and rejuvenation of endangered qualities such as friendship, trust, and love—qualities essential to meaningful and rewarding bonds between people.

It is my hope and conviction that we will see a revival of philosophy—philosophy in the broadest, Socratic sense of the term. Based on this kind of philosophy, an age of soft power will bear its true and richest fruit. In a “borderless” age, such an internalized philosophy will serve as the mark and badge of world citizens. Those great standard-bearers of the American Renaissance Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman—for whose ideals I have an enduring respect—were, I am convinced, world citizens of this caliber.

In closing, I would like to share with you this passage from Emerson’s poem “Friendship,” which was a particular favorite of my youth.

O friend, my bosom said,
Through thee alone the sky is arched,
Through thee the rose is red,
All things through thee take nobler form
And look beyond the earth,
The mill-round of our fate appears
A sun-path in thy worth.
Me too thy nobleness has taught
To master my despair;
The fountains of my hidden life
Are through thy friendship fair. [7]

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