Master Li, the Beauty of Life, and the Ethics of Becoming Human
Early in the morning of November third, I received a shocking message from my friend and colleague Li Chenyang. He wrote to me in an email that Professor Li Zehou, who was one of the most important people in my life, had passed away that night. Although we did not have a very close personal relationship, having met only a few times in his later years, I was closely connected to him through my professional work, especially in 2018-2020, a time when I wrote my two books on his philosophy and ethics. During those years, I was intensely connected to his ideas and his deep reflections of vivid, unceasing life. Every day I lived with his spirit practically from morning till night, and his ideas of becoming human, sedimentation, subjectality, emotion-based substance, relationalism, and many others accompanied me in my dreams until slowly and gradually, step by step, they became a permanent part of my own soul.
When I learned of his passing, therefore, I was devastated. I had hoped to see him once more to give him my best wishes for a long life and good health, but death was quicker. And of course, this great loss is not my own. Not only me, the whole world has lost a great thinker, a lucid theorist and an innovative philosopher. Just like his philosophy, he was always completely open and vividly curious as a person. At the same time, he was firm and uncompromising about his convictions and believes. Therefore, he always followed his very own path, a way that was unique and therefore often a little lonely.
Now, looking back at Li Zehou's own long and winding path, we quickly realize that creating and walking such a path is anything but easy. It requires not only strength and courage, intellect and creativity, but also a subtle but powerful sensibility informed by an eternal longing for beauty that is never quite fulfilled. Li's philosophy, among others, has shown us that beauty is not just the ultimate realm of our human values, nor is it limited to the ultimate realm of our humanness and our humanity. It also offers us autonomy and liberation from estrangement. Li offers us the certainty that we ourselves possess our freedom, not only in terms of free choices, but also in a broader and much more complex sense of such individual free will, which can only be fully realized through the full recognition and implementation of our social responsibility.
This freedom, which in reality is based on constraints and on enriching obligations, further reinforces the sense of belonging in a multitude of differences. Viewed from a broader intercultural perspective, Li's way of thinking points to a common human path, regardless of differences in our individual preferences, cultures, languages, and traditions. His philosophical thought, which is thoroughly reflected in his particular intellectual path, reminds us of our belonging to humanity. With his insightful explanations and sharp theoretical syntheses, Li makes us appreciate the complex, rich, and diverse intellectual heritage that his ancient homeland, Chinese culture, can offer our globalized world.
His contributions to the new global ethics are of paramount importance, especially in today's world, which is in dire need of new intercultural dialogues and transcultural solidarity. There are strong foundations for such transcultural solidarity and intercultural exchange in Li Zehou's theory, for he has created it not only for himself, and not only for Chinese or Americans, but for all humanity. The powerful beauty of his ideas is irresistible, and they will continue to influence people in their search for our common humanness. Their inner strength is based on Li Zehou's intimate experience with impermanence on the one hand, and on his sincere belief in the enduring eternity and immortality of beauty on the other. For everyone who has met him, everyone who has had the opportunity to plunge into the deep pools of his spiritual vastness, has learned that the beauty of the human spirit can always overcome death. Professor Li understood this from an early age.
Li Zehou was twelve years old when his father died. That year, as he wandered in the highlands, he was met by the astonishing sight of a meadow covered with splendidly blooming yellow mountain flowers. Overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment, he suddenly became aware of his own mortality. He wondered what meaning this beauty had, for it seemed meaningless, fleeting, and empty. Afterwards, young Li experienced a kind of existential crisis that led him to skip school for three days.
After this decisive moment, his interests, which were already very broad, gradually focused on philosophical questions and later increasingly on aesthetics. Through the study of aesthetics he hoped to find answers to the eternal questions of how we perceive and evaluate beauty and what it means to humanity. Ultimately, it was philosophy, and aesthetics in particular, that helped him understand that as an individual he would always be deeply affected by the laws of social development; even though individual life is tragic, it was easier to understand that it is the laws of the common development of human communities that elevate human purpose to the level of the sublime. It was probably also due to this brief but decisive experience that his later philosophy never left the realm of human life, and that his theory proceeded from the fundamental fact that "human being is alive."
Li Zehou will always remain alive. He will live on through his works. I have always tried to make his works known in my home country, Slovenia. To celebrate our friendship, I would therefore like to conclude with my Chinese translation of a poem written by a young Slovenian poet named Srečko Kosovel. Although Kosovel died in 1926 at the early age of 22, he will live on through his work. So will my beloved and respected master Li Zehou. For them, there is no death.
Jana S. Rošker