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Significance: Precedents in history and tradition

World Problems Project


It might easily be assumed that social problems exist since the dawn of history. However this does not appear to be the case, especially if it is assumed that for human suffering to qualify as a problem there should be a recognition that something should be done about it. It has been argued by Arnold Green (Social Problems: Arena of Conflict, 1975) that a consciousness of social problems did not arise until the latter part of the eighteenth century with the emergence of the notions of equality, humanitarianism, the goodness of human nature, and the modifiability of social conditions. It may also be argued that the religions of the world have responded to the condition of personal and collective suffering since their origin (John Bowker. Problems of Suffering in the Religions of the World, 1970).

Depending on what is meant by a social problem, the following may be explored as early examples of recognition of problematic social conditions.

1. Arthasastra

Seemingly, the first deliberate attempt to document problems appears in the Kautilya's Arthasastra. This classical Indian text on statecraft was written sometime in the period 321-300 BC. Many of the chapters deal explicitly with the nature of particular problems, including various forms of corruption and subversion, robbery, assault, defamation, juvenile delinquency, sexual intercourse with immature girls, the "calamities" of sovereignty, the "troubles" of men, etc. The commentary on "national calamities" covers fire, floods, pestilences, famines, rats, snakes, tigers and demons.

2. Japanese "tsumi"

Traditionally Japanese statecraft and government regulations enumerated what were termed "tsumi". In modern Japanese this is equivalent to notions of sin, offence and crime. In much earlier times it was a broad term applied to actions or conditions causing the degeneration of, or hindering, the proper growth and development of the life-force. As such it was related to the notion of ritual impurity. The oldest enumeration, dating from the 10th century is that of the Oharae no Kotoba in the Engi Shiki. This divided the tsumi into the heavenly tsumi and the earthly tsumi.

Heavenly tsumi included: destroying ridges between fields, burying irrigation ditches, destroying aqueducts, double planting of seeds, driving stakes in mud to cause harm, skinning animals alive, skinning animals backwards, polluting a pure place with excrement.

Earthly tsumi included: injuring the skin and causing blood to run, desecrating a corpse, irregularities in skin pigmentation, skin eruptions such as warts or tumours, incest, bestiality, calamities due to noxious pests, celestial calamities such as lightning and eclipses, calamities caused by birds, harming draught animals with curses, and placing curses on people.

3. Himsa in the Jain tradition

Within the Jain tradition in India, the concept of "ahimsa" was articulated in the period 599 to 527 BC and through subsequent development. The term is subject to a variety of interpretations but includes notions of non-violence, non-resistance to evil and passive resistance. The converse notion of "himsa" denotes a wide range of forms of violence of which some 432 have been distinguished and documented by scholars of that tradition.

4. Afflictions and hindrances (Buddhism)

In various Buddhist traditions considerable importance is attached to fundamental afflictions as the cause of suffering (and as responsible for maintaining the cycle of rebirth). All other problems are seen as engendered by them. In the Visuddhimagga by Bhadantacariya Buddhagosa, prepared in the 5th century AD, the following detailed checklist is given (followed there by indications of which forms of knowledge ensure release from them in each case). The seeming duplication is due to the emphasis on the different ways a limited set of "problems" act, as indicated by the often metaphoric categories:

5. Sins and vices (Christianity)

In the Chrisitian approach to sins, some of the earliest listings dating back to the 4th century, gave eight sins. Eventually the church settled on seven sins classified in the order: pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust. Occasionally an eighth sin, melancholy, was added. They have been both personal faults and great social evils, being at the origin of the multiplicity of other problems, notably the ordinary vices, such as cruelty, hypocrisy, snobbery, betrayal, and misanthropy..

6. Crises and opportunities (Taoism)

The Chinese Book of Changes (I Ching) is a sophisticated effort to map out the pattern of changes that occur in any psycho-social system. Implicit in this complex pattern is a recognition that change occurs once some condition of imbalance or excess has been reached. In these terms a problem may be seen as a phase in the transition from one condition to another. A problem is thus the accumulation of imbalance that necessarily triggers the transition to a new phase within the pattern of possible changes. The I Ching marries a rigidly ordered binary system with an extremely metaphoric interpretation of its significance. The ordering could supposedly lead to categories of problems of different degrees of articulation, from a set of 2 fundamental categories, through 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64. Amongst the 64 categories there are 384 transformational pathways. Each of these could be interpreted as a particular kind of crisis or opportunity and could thus be used as a way of ordering problems.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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