A Yinshih? What's that?

The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.
— Marcus Aurelius

I encountered the concept of the yinshih in the writings of an essayist, educator, editor, reviewer, poet, cook, sometime radio personality, and all-around gentleman named Alphonse Vinh. And when I did, it was one of those moments like when someone helps you find a word you've been struggling to remember: "Yes! That's what I meant!"

The idea of the yinshih, a "scholar-recluse," is one I find beautiful, challenging, ... and very much in keeping with my character and natural inclinations. It does not mean someone who shuns all society, or who takes a vow of silence (my bride once asked me, "If you're a yinshih do I have to stop talking to you?"). Quite the contrary.

Here's how Alphonse once described it (I appreciate his granting me permission to post his words here; I added the hyperlinks myself):

You asked me what a yinshih was. Well, a yinshih means in Classical Chinese, a scholar-recluse, which is my vocation in life. Yinshihs have existed in every place and time (Walker Percy was a Southern yinshih and Joseph Joubert was a French one); but in East Asian culture, they had an honoured place at one time. Many were poets and writers. Some were mystics. Others were retired scholars who sought a quiet life of spirituality and solitude. But what they all had in common was that they had renounced the 'red dust of the world' and were dead to worldly ambition and desire for career success. Yinshihs renounce all this. The fortunate ones lived in the days of the Empire like many of my ancestors who could write their farewell poems to the world at age 40, "hang up their scholar’s cap", and leave the Imperial Civil Service to take refuge on their estates or their little cottages or huts to devote themselves to contemplation, prayer, study, solitude, literature, and friendship. Very few yinshihs rejected the pleasures of poetry and wine. They did not hate the world—only its unworthy and spiritually uninteresting temptations.

In times of great societal corruption, yinshihs withdrew from society and public service in order to preserve their integrity, no matter the cost to them. Yinshihs have always been gentlemen and lovers of the life of the mind. But they care not for conventions nor do they care much for being in the right society or climbing up the slimy pole of success. They don’t care about such things because they think it's more beautiful to sip wine whilst sitting in their hermitage as the sun sets in the fields before them. They cherish not the group so much as the individual. They are not meant for the big stage but prefer the quiet life in the shadows where it is possible to observe the stream flowing quietly beneath the waves.

Yinshihs suffer all the afflictions of humanity and sin greatly too. But it is their way to strive not to contribute to the general suffering of humanity by their own failings. Their ministry through writing and personal friendship is with the individual person whom God may send their way.

Yinshihs are happy about things that may not occur to more society-oriented people and there’s a chasm of understanding or appreciation between both sides. They do not see their way as better but simply as a reasonable, individual alternative to a group-oriented, power-driven, society-focused way of existence. Yinshihs are the first to admire that famous phrase, "A Southern Gentleman's vocation is being and thinking." If yinshihs have to scratch a living in the world, they will strive to do so with integrity and good will, but they will always see their livelihood as a means to live fully a yinshih life—away from the world. Yinshihs don’t know the meaning of careers. It’s meaningless to them. They care about their place within this beautiful and mysterious universe that God created, they care about worthwhile friendships and good poetry, and if they have to earn their living in the world, they feel they will have gained their right to dream in their real life after the working day is over. Yinshihs value, above all, the inner universe of the individual and the private life which they regard as most holy.
— Alphonse Vinh, 1998

So, that's a yinshih. I'm not saying I've achieved this yet — not by a long stretch. But I'm working on it.

Anyway, there you are.

UPDATE I: Alphonse has written several columns that are collected on the web site of his employer, National Public Radio. His biography is also there.

UPDATE II: While reading Murray Rothbard's article on H.L. Mencken, I came across this paragraph:

"Any man who is an individualist and a libertarian in this day and age has a difficult row to hoe. He finds himself in a world marked, if not dominated, by folly, fraud, and tyranny. He has, if he is a reflecting man, three possible courses of action open to him: (1) he may retire from the social and political world into his private occupation: in the case of Mencken's early partner, George Jean Nathan, he can retire into a world of purely esthetic contemplation; (2) he can set about to try to change the world for the better, or at least to formulate and propagate his views with such an ultimate hope in mind; or, (3) he can stay in the world, enjoying himself immensely at this spectacle of folly. To take this third route requires a special type of personality with a special type of judgment about the world."

Rothbard then goes on to explain how Mencken chose Number 3. Number 1, however, struck me as a pretty fair definition of the yinshih.