Sunday, 20 June 2010


"The Beekeepers"
Photograph by Rosa Yoskovsky

Hexagram 13 is TONG REN. Ren means human. Tong means the same, or similar, as in these compound terms:
Tong + to be = both
Tong + appear = coincidence
Tong + step = synchronous
Tong + nature = identity
Tong + emotion = to sympathise
Tong + heart = to be of one heart

How do we recognise the resonance that signals tong ren – fellowship?

The da xiang tells us:
The noble young one, according to kind and family,
Distinguishes the beings

Generally, the first thing we tend to distinguish is between “our kind” and “the others”. Every human society that has ever been have called themselves “human”. Some human cultures have not imagined themselves elevated above the rest of the natural world, but have sought to understand their place in it. Others ride roughshod over anything perceived as “other”.

LiSe points out that “among your own kind, you are what you are not”. Within those collectives of sameness, we have differences.

One way to consider similarity is in terms of holons. A holon is something that is simultaneously a whole and a part. The term was coined by Arthur Koestler, who observed that wholes and parts in an absolute sense do not exist; rather the terms rely upon the level at which we observe: every ‘thing’, from a sub-atomic particle to a human society, is simultaneously a self-contained whole in relation to its subordinate parts, and a part of a greater whole.

Holons exist in nested hierarchies: individual holons are autonomous, self-reliant units that possess a degree of independence; they are at the same time subject to control within the context of a larger whole. Those larger wholes have a degree of autonomy, but are subject to the organising influence of still larger wholes. And so on and so on.

Take bees as an example. If you look inside a beehive, there are workers, drones and queens, all doing a hundred complex tasks in exquisitely orchestrated coordination, like the systems of a living body, which is precisely what a beehive is. A beehive is a terrific example of a society in which everyone knows his place and function; individual needs are completely subsumed into the needs of the whole. The whole thing runs at maximum efficiency, even down to details like the most dangerous tasks being taken on by the oldest workers; if they perish in the line of duty, their loss will make the smallest impact on the hive as a whole. This makes sense, since individual bees depend utterly on the hive for their very existence.

Edward O. Wilson, referring to ants (another species that operates as a superorganism), once said that "Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species".

As we go up the holarchy, however, the holons become more complex, and hence less predictable. Down near the bottom of the scale, an atom of copper is a holon; it has certain properties that determine how it behaves in any set of circumstances, and it always behaves in that way. Bees have more choice about their actions, as long as those actions fall strictly within their job description, in service to the hive. Mammals stretch the envelope of conformity-to-the-needs-of-the-whole, with many more unpredictable behaviours. By the time we get to the human level, things start to get really interesting, which is to say, pretty damned random.

E. O. Wilson also said that humans enjoy their maximum level of Darwinian fitness only when they look after themselves and their families, while finding innovative ways to use the societies they live in for their own benefit.

But there’s a balance to be struck here. As human beings, we have the capacity to choose whether to behave in ways such that the viability of greater wholes – human society, for example, or the biosphere, on which we depend utterly for our very existence – is compromised rather than enhanced.

Like everything else in this universe, we do not have the power to be other than what we are. But this is what we are: we are holons with choice.

So, if we ask the question: “What is Tong Ren?”, i.e. “What is human similarity?”, we are asking a question about what it is to be human. And one of the many answers to that question is “We can choose”.

The choices that define us as individuals – from the sublime, through miles of the ridiculous, right down to the downright ugly – also define us as human.

And that begs and begets a further question: “How different can we be, and still recognise each other as tong ren, as “our own kind”?

Sometimes it's a stretch. Perhaps that’s why the gua ci reads:
Worthwhile to cross the great stream.
And worth the noble young one’s persistence.

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