“Clothes, food, shelter: Satisfy these first, then teach people to be human.”

Some years ago, my second wife and I enjoyed reading Chinese literature together.  Actually, she did all the reading because she was the only one of us who could translate Classical Chinese.  My job was merely to listen to her.

Tomoko had a fine library of classical Chinese literature that she had acquired while growing up in Japan.  Some of “her” authors were famous in the West.  Others were unknowns who had not been translated into English.

Our hobby was to take a book or two with us whenever we went out to eat at a restaurant in the evening.  With no food to prepare and no dishes to clean, we could afford to round our meal with her translations.

“Clothes, food, shelter: Satisfy these first, then teach people to be human.”  This morning, I found a slip of paper from back in those days when I would sometimes copy down a passage of a book that Tomoko was reading to me.  The author of that line lived circa 575 B.C.E., and I think he was one of the authors who has not yet been translated into English, but I might be wrong about that.

His advice is both obvious and timeless.

It can be argued that polite manners, arts, music, stimulating conversations, and many similar things go a long ways towards making us fully human. Yet, when people are struggling for clothing, food, and shelter, they are seldom inclined to devote much energy to such things.  I suppose those look ridiculous to a man desperate with hunger.

Despite that the author’s advice to politicians is obvious, the world has certainly seen a great many lords and ladies who failed to spend as much time thinking of their subject’s basic needs as they spent thinking of their own horses and hunting hounds.  It’s sad the author’s advice has been just as needed — and ignored — as it is obvious.

Back when I copied down that line on a slip of scrap paper, I ran a business employing 13 people.  I probably copied it down because it agreed in some way with how I ran my business.  Maybe I found it encouraging.

I wasn’t a good capitalist.  I had somehow gotten it into my head — without really thinking much about it — that the main purpose of a business was to provide a living — not necessarily to the shareholders — but certainly to the workers.   I suppose a good capitalist would have done it the other way around.

I wonder now which way the author of that ancient Chinese text would have done it?

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14 thoughts on ““Clothes, food, shelter: Satisfy these first, then teach people to be human.”

  1. Someone wrote “people with a full belly do not make a revolution”. When your basic needs are not fulfilled you fight for survival, all other things are, indeed, frivolous. The Chinese have long had the right attitude towards that. Just their saying “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; show him how to fish, you feed him for life”, says a lot.

  2. thanks for focusing on chinese literature and being into it.chinese literature includes many wisedom suah as”clothes, food,shelter:satiafy these first,then teach people to be human”.which we chinese said”仓廪实而知礼节,衣食足而知荣辱“。

  3. A lot of wisdom has been passed down through the ages and *gasp* a lot of it didn’t even originate in the West. Thanks for sharing this tidbit.

  4. That quote makes me think of the mistakes going on in the middle east… India, Afghanistan, and the like. India, for instance, is trying to become a world player economically… and are succeeding in that, but they’ve had a history of neglecting the basic needs of the poorest citizens, leaving them behind while pursuing technology and industry, because providing the means for basic survival for 1 billion Indians first would take so long that India could never catch up to other affluent, world powers (or that seems to be the attitude).
    With Afghanistan, there are so many people living in absolute poverty, but developed countries are trying to force their idea of democracy on them without hardly considering their needs (I read an account that, after chasing the Taliban out of Afghanistan, the US diverted all its funds to Iraq warfare instead of aiding, as they promised, the cities they demolished in the skirmishes). And then here in the US, the people I’ve talked to, the failure of “good” democracy in those countries is chocked up to a “corrupt” people. Although thankfully that view is finally changing.

    It doesn’t matter where you are from, I don’t think… Chinese, English, American, Indian, or even those remote places no one has ever heard of… wisdom can come from anywhere because we are all human.

    Awesome posts!

  5. Pingback: Unblogged Bits for Sunday, 10 January 2010 | ***Dave Does the Blog

  6. I spent 2009 deeply immersed in translations from Chinese philosophy, history, drama and literature. I especially enjoyed Mo Tzu, Chaung Tzu, and Ssu Ma Chien. Some of the Yuan era plays reminded me of some of England’s blood tragedies. I’ve a few more works translated from Chinese sitting on my reading pile for this year.

  7. I am here after hopping blogs and comments. I am happy I did :).

    One of the reformers of 14century India said ” To blindly follow and gloat over old rhetoric is as irrational as branding new ideas, frivolous”.
    This appeals to me.
    I want to think being human and satisfying clothing,food, shelter are not exclusive.

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