The Travel Diary of a Philosopher

by Count Hermann Keyserling. Translated by J. Holroyrl Reece. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. 1925. Large 8vo. 2 vols. vi+338+ 400 pp. $10.00.
THERE are plundering soldiers in the streets of Peking; it is prudent for travelers to remain indoors; how to pass the time? ‘I will devote the dusky twilight hours of the day,’ says the author of this diary, ‘to the penetration of this problem: why so extraordinary a number of the gentlemen of China stand on a human level such as I have only met with exceptionally in other latitudes.’ What an occupation! What other traveler, even supposing he had made this confident observation about the gentlemen of China, would have felt equally confident of solving the problem in the twilight hours of an autumn afternoon?
When the metaphysician travels, it is the souls of men and the spirits of civilizations that are being perceived and assessed. Nature does not go unnoticed: there are few finer bits of description than this of the Himalayas as a displaced rim of the moon, or of the Grand Canyon as an inverted chain of mountains built in air; there are vivid glimpses of the jungle and the sea, of the life of animals and of plants. But these are all woven into the inner life of the human spirit; and what our philosopher seeks is an account of the world’s invisible riches, of the obscure strivings and faiths which have fashioned the manifold forms of human culture.
To understand and summarize the life of a planet in this intimate way would be the work of a Weltgeist rather than of a man. If the usual traveler by good chance finds India sympathetic, the clue will probably be lost in China or in Japan or in the United States. But it is clear that our author enters upon his journey without a crippling sense of human limitation. He feels himself at home in the role of Proteus; for, as he puts it, only men of a Protean nature are called to the priesthood of metaphysics. And in the end this high effort is carried to a remarkable accomplishment: one travels with Keyserling with a continuous sense of initiation, as if for the first time one were seeing mankind, as if one were understanding India and the rest better than they have understood themselves. If one cannot accept as final all this wealth of penetrating comment, one is at least assured that this way lies understanding: this is what the eyes of travel should be; and this interpretation of mankind to mankind is the true work of philosophy.
No doubt to see the world with Keyserling is a tremendous exercise in moral and æsthetic relativity; for to understand so much means to justify much patent vileness as good after its own kind — even the smells of the Orient are to be appreciated according to their inner sense! The dreamy excesses of the pursuer of occult wisdom, the brutal imaginations of the wild hearts of Afghan cattle-thieves, the cruelties of Chinese executioners, the beclouded motives of the coolie gambler, the official devotee of ‘squeeze,’ the conquistador, the Mormon prophet, the American crank — none of these is wholly alien. In Adyar the Messiah is expected: ‘I have accepted this belief for a few days,’we read. To one who so readily becomes the worshiper at every shrine, though robust criticism is not lacking, no form can have an absolute advantage; a relative perfection and finality appear everywhere.
Perhaps it would be impossible to achieve so great a breadth of discernment without an excess of flexibility. Yet it would not be true to say that the author lacks idiosyncrasy, or that he attains complete transparency of percepiion. He carries himself with him — an aristocratic self, deprecating liberal politics, insisting on human differences and the need for distance in stable social structures, and suggesting at times that the superior man cannot be bad and may disdain the ordinary discipline of the race. This touch of hauteur in outlook affects certain of his fundamental judgments. Thus Christianity appears at a disadvantage as compared with Buddhism; Buddha had the serenity and poise of a princely nature, whereas Jesus and his followers display the anxious restlessness of plebeian minds. Christianity exhibits a fearsomeness toward the cosmos, a depressing sense of sin, an intrusive altruism, an indiscriminate prizing of love, which leaves the Christian the least free of all followers of higher religions. The teaching of Jesus was profounder than that of Gautama; but he was not so exalted a man. Keyserling is not without prejudice; but his prejudices are such as we need to counteract our own. He is not infallible; but he lives in the air of clear, decisive, profound, challenging judgment, and compels his reader to live at an equivalent level of thought.
This is the level upon which the modern world is bound to live if the spirit of a united humanity, which breathes in this vast picture, is to be realized from its sundered fragments. ‘The extraordinary breadth of the modern soul must not be hemmed in: we must animate the whole of this rich body from the same depth as that in which the Hindu lives.’ It is a mode of consciousness like Key’serling’s which will be exemplary for the next stage of the historical movement.
The translator, it must be said, has achieved a miracle in view of the instructions which bound him to the very commas of the original text. Intricate as the thought frequently’ is, it is followed with unfailing grace and ease. There is but one peccadillo — the Chinese do not like to be called Chinamen.