The Lees and Scum of Bygone Men



The following is a parable about the difference between theory and practice, which Michael Oakeshott frames as the difference between technical and practical knowledge, found as a footnote in Michael Oakeshott’s essay Rationalism In Politics.  I find that it has some bearing, which I will discuss in the near future, to certain Internet debates about pedagogy and software programming:

Duke Huan of Ch’i was reading a book at the upper end of the hall; the wheelwright was making a wheel at the lower end.  Putting aside his mallet and chisel, he called to the Duke and asked him what book he was reading.  ‘One that records the words of the Sages,’ answered the Duke.  ‘Are those Sages alive?’ asked the wheelwright.  ‘Oh, no,’ said the Duke, ‘they are dead.’  ‘In that case,’ said the wheelwright, ‘what you are reading can be nothing but the lees and scum of bygone men.’  ‘How dare you, a wheelwright, find fault with the book I am reading.  If you can explain your statement, I will let it pass.  If not, you shall die.’  ‘Speaking as a wheelwright,’ he replied, ‘I look at the matter in this way; when I am making a wheel, if my stroke is too slow, then it bites deep but is not steady; if my stroke is too fast, then it is steady, but it does not go deep.  The right pace, neither slow nor fast, cannot get into the hand unless it comes from the heart.  It is a thing that cannot be put into rules; there is an art in it that I cannot explain to my son.  That is why it is impossible for me to let him take over my work, and here I am at the age of seventy still making wheels.  In my opinion it must have been the same with the men of old.  All that was worth handing on, died with them; the rest, they put in their books.  That is why I said that what you were reading was the lees and scum of bygone men.'”

Chuang Tzu

4 thoughts on “The Lees and Scum of Bygone Men”

  1. I have run across other items and comments which are broadly in agreement with The Lees and Scum of Bygone Men but I have to recognize that this article has some extra data. Keep touching off sentiments in other people! I really appreciate the way you have scripted this.

  2. Just a quick example of how you might start to approach this. If your plan shows you are supposed to have three dairy servings a day you might look at the food list and notice that skim milk and low fat cheese are two foods that you like. You might decide to have one dairy serving, 1.5 oz, of low fat cheese, in an egg white omelet at lunch and then two dairy servings, 8 oz. each of skim milk, to drink with dinner.

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