Notes on Saving Icarus: Lin Yutang’s Pseudo-Scientific Formula for Wisdom

Self-Realization vs Self-Help

Our century is filled with formulas for living, statistical  empirical studies, tests and proofs of what brings happiness, what constitutes the good life that, you may notice, provided you don’t get caught in the hype, only corroborate age old wisdom for happy happening, found in every cultures and especially religious traditions/institutions, like marriage, going to church/synagogue and other rituals, respect of the elders etc…   The promise of Seligman’s learned optimism against learned helplessness, started with humanistic psychology, has degenerated into the overly statistical science of happiness, known as positive psychology.

  • Existential Nausea

I can’t help but cringe, and even experience a feeling of existential nausea at these emotionless tests, especially on bad days, when I score low and find only one way to thwart my guilty feelings of inadequacy: going back to the roots. Probably, one unforeseen advantage, for me, of positive psychology . Who would have thought: a secular religion of happiness can make you become ‘religious’ again [ the Jewish concept of teshuva] in this blatantly Western secular age! Am I the only one in this case? Was it the goal of the empiricist research studies of positive psychology? Is positive psychology, the foremost trend in psychology, reactionary? One must not forget the roots of positive psychology in religion and moral teachings. A return to morality?  What is sure is that the positive psychology self-help glib heuristics derived from these studies lack cruelly the up-lifting poetry in religion which, paradoxically, is far more capable of leaving enough gaps for errance, wandering and wonderment: free will.  Call me reactionary, I don’t care. It’s all heuristics anyway! We’re coming full or fool circle. What’s next? I concede, here, with the Chinese Taoist proverb that:

Things will develop in the opposite direction when they become extreme (Chinese proverb).


  • A Return to the Will

What should have been geared to distract us from the heaviness of the woulda, coulda, shoulda lot of everyday human complaining towards com’n playing, paradoxically reinforces the defeat of the will. This new psychology might increase the ‘happiness set point’ in the statistics, whatever the artificial heuristics, but at what cost?: too left-brainy for me (a metaphor) and deterministic. So, another unexpected (heuristic, yes) advantage of positive psy. and the like, as I see it, if we are constantly turned outside to get our vision of the good life, is failing with this vision. Ah! the proverbial art of detours! Indeed we should welcome as a blessing the imitation vision ‘actually’ not ‘actualizing’ and learn to go inward to see a vision that is truly ours and then experience turning it into a reality with the least resistance. To realize that riches are, readily, within us: this is ‘awakening’. In a time of mercantile brainwashing where reliance on all things external (others, psys, gurus, other’s products, technology etc…) is the motto, the realization that self-realization is at the core of our lives is salutary.

Too Heavy: Need a little Comic Relief 

Dave Gorman in the Astrology Experiment uses all the tricks of statistical engineering to prove that actually there is some basis to Astrology. Enjoy.

Love+Health+Wealth = happiness

Lin Yutang Wisdom Heuristics

  • Pseudo-scientific formulations and Humour

Lin YutangLin Yutang a pre- humanistic/positive psychology thinker, master of dudeness, who wrote his The Importance of Living in the sulfurous pre-second world war, voiced, in a tongue-in-cheek essay ‘Awakening’, his objection on “the limited utility of intelligence tests [today happiness tests]” because of “their claim to mathematical accuracy [deterministic] or constant dependability as measures of human personality”(TIOL p.5,note1). What he further develops about pseudo-scientific formulations could constitute a pseudo-theory or manifesto, in the make, on heuristics, with some of their utilities and limits:

 As pure ventures in pseudo-scientific formulations, we may proceed to analyse national characters in the following manner. I say “pseudo-scientific” because I distrust all dead and mechanical formulas for expressing anything connected with human affairs or human personalities. Putting human affairs in exact formulas shows in itself a lack of wisdom. I do not mean that these things are not being done: they are. That is why we get so much pseudo-science to-day. When a psychologist can measure a man’s I.Q. or P.Q., it is a pretty poor world, and specialists have risen to usurp humanized scholarship. But if we recognize that these formulas are no more than handy, graphic ways of expressing certain opinions [METAPHORS!!!!!] and so long as we don’t drag in the sacred name of science to help advertise our goods, no harm is done. [ Ethical safeguard against moral relativism] The following are my formulas for the characters of certain nations, entirely personal and completely incapable of proof or verification [subjectivity/Humour]. Anyone is free to dispute them and change them or add his own, if he does not claim that he can prove his private opinions by a mass of statistical facts and figures [humour!][…]Probably these formulas are more provocative than authoritative. I promise to modify them gradually for my own use as new facts are brought to my knowledge, or new impressions are formed. that is all they are worth to-day– a record of the progress of my knowledge and gaps of my ignorance. [belief in man’s perfectibility (becoming the best you can be): safeguard against moral relativism]

Find Lin Yutang  pseudo-scientific formula according to communities characteristics at

Step 1

General formulae

“Let ‘R’ stand for a sense of reality (or realism), ‘D’ for dreams (or idealism), ‘H’ for a sense of humor, and – adding one important ingredient – ‘S’ for sensitivity [as “sensibilite”]”

Reality Dreams = Animal Being
Reality + Dreams = A heart-ache (usually called Idealism)
Reality + Humour = Realism (also called Conservatism)
Dreams humour =  Fanaticism
Dreams + Humour = Fantasy
Reality + Dreams + Humour = Wisdom

His indictment of psy’s lack of wisdom with their dehumanizing formulas, already in his time, lead him to create the following Pseudo-scientific formulation of wisdom:

Reality+ Dream+Humour= wisdom

“ so then, wisdom, or the highest type of thinking, consists in toning down our dreams or idealism with a good sense of humour, supported by reality itself.”

[So, he proceeds to analyze national characteristics/temperaments with his pseudo-scientific formulations that may seem unsavory or ‘provocative’, even today, to whoever forgets the pre-war context of his analysis or, simply, lacks a sense of humour, a prerequisite for wisdom, according to his accurate inaccurate formulas (he readily admits as ‘shaky’). I find another reason for this formulation with national characteristics/temperaments: a physical-emotional worldview . Typically Chinese? (human dynamics heuristics: physical-emotional type), “personal and collective histories are linked in a boundary–free continuum that includes the past, the present, and future.” What do you think?]

Step 2:

Specific Rating of R,D,H,S

” And further let “4” stand for “abnormally high”, “3” stand for “high”,” 2″ for “fair”, and 1 for “low”.

My ‘pseudo-chemical’ formula for the Israeli temperament is:


Oh! My…

And Lin, for the English in the late 30s: R3D2H2S1

Feel free, [only if you have any sense of humour, or are physical/emotional],to analyze, with this heuristics, your particular national characteristics in the comment section of this post. Any insight? Would you add any variable like “ ‘L’ standing for logic or rational faculty, as an important element in shaping human progress. This ‘L’ will then often function of weigh against sensitivity, a direct perception of things. [more about this in another post] Such a formula might be attempted. For[Lin (physical/emotional)?], the role of the rational faculty in human affairs is rather low.” (see TIOL; note 2 p.6)

Lin Yutang’s Heuristics applied to Icaruses

The value of this analysis for today’s reader (not only the historian), besides displaying Lin Yutang sense of humour (wisdom?), rests, presently, for Icarus Lessons, in his discussion on the idealist and the realist temperaments and, more specifically, the application of his pseudo-scientific formula to the Icarus temperament. In a (Taoist) metaphor of what humans are made of (‘the clay of humanity’) he develops an ethos of moderation that flies in the face of Icaruses’ predicament.

  • Wisdom: Harmonizing the Idealist and the Realist

Wuxing_en.svgMankind seems to be divided into idealists and realists, and idealism and realism are two great forces moulding human progress. The clay of humanity is made soft and pliable by the water of idealism, but the stuff that holds it together is after all the clay itself, or we might all evaporate into Ariels. The forces of idealism and realism tug at each other in all human activities, personal, social and national, and real progress is made possible by the proper mixture of these two ingredients, so that the clay is kept in the ideal pliable, plastic condition, half moist and half dry, not hardened and unmanageable, nor dissolving into mud[…]

  • Tempering Icaruses’ Idealism with Humour and Realism

 a vague, uncritical idealism always lends itself to ridicule and too much of it might be a danger to mankind, leading it round in a futile wild-goose chase  for imaginary ideals. If there were too many of these visionary idealists in any society of people, revolutions would be the order of the day. Human society would be like an idealistic couple for ever getting tired of one place and changing their residence regularly once every three months, for the simple reason that no one place is ideal and the place where one is not seems always better because one is not there.

  • Humour and levity: Lin Yutang’s Joker

What tragically is laking in Icaruses [R2D4H1S0-4] is a sense of humour (H1) and realism( R2). If only Icaruses could become a little bit more Chinese!

 Very fortunately , man is also gifted with a sense of humour, whose function, as I conceive it, is to exercise criticism of man’s dreams, and bring them in touch with the world of reality. It is important that he can laugh at his own dreams. That is a great gift, and the Chinese have plenty of it.

  • Hope: the fool archetype

If the joker [the fool archetype] is often cruel in disillusioning the idealist, he nevertheless performs a very important  function right there by not letting the idealist [a general type of Icarus] bump his head against  the stone wall of reality and receive a ruder shock. He also gently eases the tension of the hot-headed enthusiast [a particular type of Icarus] and make him live longer. By preparing him for disillusion, there is probably less pain in the final impact, for a humorist is always like a man charged with the duty of breaking sad news gently to a dying patient. Sometimes the gentle warning from a humorist saves the dying patient’s life.

Lin reveals a tinge of pessimism (pre-war influence?), in accordance with the fool’s archetype?, at the end of his hopeful argument with a poignant distinction:

If idealism and disillusion must necessarily go together in this world, we must say that life is cruel, rather than the joker who reminds us of life’s cruelty.

See The fool’s Archetype

The Wisdom of Foolishness and The Laughing Philosopher

Speaking as a Chinese, I do not think that any civilization can be called complete until it has progressed from sophistication to unsophistication, and made a conscious return to simplicity of thinking and living, and I call no man wise until he has made the progress from the wisdom of knowledge to the wisdom of foolishness, and become a laughing philosopher, feeling first life’s tragedy and then life’s comedy. For we must weep before we can laugh. Out of sadness comes the awakening and out of the awakening comes the laughter of the philosopher, with kindliness and tolerance to boot.

Today’s Fool’s Messages:

“So long as man is man, variety will still be the flavor of life.”

“In contrast to logic, there is common sense, or still better, the Spirit of Reasonableness.”

“The outstanding characteristic of Western scholarship is its specialization and cutting up of knowledge into different departments. The over-development of logical thinking and specialization, with its technical phraseology, has brought about the curious fact of modern civilization, that philosophy has been so far relegated to the background, far behind politics and economics, that the average man can pass it by without a twinge of conscience. The feeling of the average man, even of the educated person, is that philosophy is a “subject” which he can beset afford to go without. This is certainly a strange anomaly of modern culture, for philosophy, which should lie closest to men’s bosom and business, has become most remote from life. It was not so in the classical civilization of the Greeks and Romans, and it was not so in China, where the study of wisdom of life formed the scholars’ chief occupation. Either the modern man is not interested in the problems of living, which are the proper subject of philosophy, or we have gone a long way from the original conception of philosophy.” 
“Sometimes it is more important to discover what one cannot do, than what one can do.”
“The moment a student gives up his right of personal judgment, he is in for accepting all the humbugs of life” 
“There are no books in this world that everybody must read, but only books that a person must read at a certain time in a given place under given circumstances and at a given period of his life.”
All quotes from Lin Yutang The Importance of Living

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