Atanu Dey On India's Development

No Man is an Island

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Those lines are John Donne’s From Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Written around the 1620’s, they are faintly reflective of Advaita Vedanta. Donne’s philosophy encompasses all humanity into a whole but places God outside and above, as you can tell from the full meditation (included below.) Advaita Vedanta negates the distinction between the “me” and the “not me.”

Meditation 17 (1623-1624)
by John Donne

Nunc lento sonitu dicunt, morieris.

Now this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die.

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me and see my state may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.

The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingrafted into the body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

As therefore the bell that rings a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. There was a contention as far as a suit (in which piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined that they should ring first that rose earliest.

If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Neither can we call this a begging of misery or a borrowing of misery, as though we are not miserable enough of ourselves but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.

If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels as gold in a mine and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction digs out and applies that gold to me, if by this consideration of another’s dangers I take mine own into contemplation and so secure myself by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

  • amar

    Dear Atanu,
    Thanks! Donne is awesome.

    No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
    This piece seems visistadvaitic to me: the qualified-non-duality school of thought, which subscribes to one idea that “Self is a part of Brahman”.

  • Parvati

    I could say that I like such posts more than the “economy” ones – but all is one, surely, and gives some illumination as to how to make life and living better.
    John Donne’s are full of wisdom.

  • Anandaswarup Gadde

    A mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. the most famous lines are the ones that you quoted first; the rest is filling up for the sermon. Why do highly educated people still go for this kind of vague metaphysical stuff. As Clinton said “It is the economy, stupid”. Paul Seabright’s “The Company of Strangers” gives some rational insights of how we are interconnected.

  • judith friend of sonal

    Was interested in the point of the article starting with the John Donne quote, about “obliterating the distinction between the me and the not-me”.

    This ecstatic state of mind is cultivated in many religions, probably from the earliest days (not just Indian ones), because the one thing (besides pain) most people want to escape is the one thing that seems to distinguish humans from all other animals — this chattering self-awareness. People escape it with various physical and mental “disciplines” and a wide variety of drugs. That is fine — as a diversion. But it is a pretty useless state to be in, as far as participating in the life of man goes, fulfilling responsibilities, helping the vast loose machinery of this overpopulous species to grind on. In short, it butters no bread and is, paradoxically, quite self-indulgent. It is so because however Mr. A’s self is obliterated TO HIM,and it seems to HIM he is one with everybody, it makes no never-mind to the billions of people around him. He may feel at one with me but I do not therefore feel at one with HIM, which pretty well demonstrates that this ecstatic state is a property of Mr. A and is not a universal reality.

    This “oceanic feeling” (and I have been lucky enough to enjoy it, long ago) is just that — a feeling. It happens in a particular spot in a particular brain for a particular time. We do not share it with anybody. If is reflects an external reality, that is as unverifiable as whether what I see and smell is the detection of an external reality. Indeed, it is even less so, since we can use other means to probe the external world and more or less triangulate what reality there might be, independent of our senses. If the reality detected by the oceanic feeling is, say, the quantum sea, or vibrating superstrings (something I once considered) then that is grand, but doesn’t make it holy. It does present a neat question: how come an ability to detect the quantum sea evolved in this primate animal called Homo Sapiens? You can understand how the ability to see, smell, touch, taste, etc. would be very useful to survival and reproduction; but– detecting the vibrations of the superstring continuum, or whatever is actually out there (and in here)? Certainly we have abilities which have no conceivable use in survival — for example, developing higher mathematics and perceiving beauty in the natural world. Apparently these abilities are “unintended consequences” of the structures that underlie and serve more useful abilities, although of course this is mere speculation.
    A minor example, of this overdevelopment of some basically useful behavior, which we share with lactating mammals, is the hyperextension of our natural nurturing desires to creatures which are not our progeny: we keep and coddle pets (well, some of us do) and adopt orphan children. Possibly mathematics, like poetry, is the hyperextension of our linguistic/thinking ability, or our very useful ability to detect patterns (which is hyperextended into fallacies of all kinds, including religions — oh, sorry: superstitions).
    Well, here were enough points to argue about for now, don’t you think so?