Monday, May 21, 2018

Ancient Chinese Thought II: Taoism

I am strangely attracted to the concept of Taoism.  I say "strangely," because I normally have no interest in mystical thought.  I was nearly an adult when "The Tao of Pooh" became a bestseller, and I was not impressed at all.  Somewhere along the line, however, I found myself attracted to Taoist thought, in particular the concept of wu-wei.  When I recently read the Tao Te Ching, therefore, it was not the first time I had done so.  It is a challenging work, deliberately so, and one can read it repeatedly without fully comprehending it.  Fortunately, it is also very short and therefore easy to re-read.  The real question is whether there is something to understand at all, or whether it is a lot of nonsense.

I have no devoted myself to understanding Tao the way I have to Christianity, but I have been curious about it for a long time and so I was happy that recently I could read some excerpts from the work of Zhuangzi, a Taoist thinker who lived about two hundred years after Laozi.  (I am mixing Romanization between Pinyin and Wade-Giles.  I just can't think of "Tao" as "Dao," but increasingly everyone uses the Pinyin form, so I tend to use that for other words.)  When I started reading it, it seemed still more mystical and anti-rational than the Tao Te Ching, and so I didn't like it.  Upon re-reading it, however, it seems to fit in very much with some other strains of thought that I know and like.

One of the core ideas in Zhuangzi is man's limited knowledge: "What man knows is not to be compared with what he does not know."  That sentence, which makes sense to me, follows a lengthy metaphor of mythic animals that encompass enormous amounts of space and time such that they dwarf what men can understand.  I get the metaphor, but I prefer the more obvious and direct exposition. Zhuangzi repeats this idea in other places, e.g. "The ultimate end is God. He is manifested in the laws of nature. He is the hidden spring. At the beginning, he was. This, however, is inexplicable. It is unknowable." This is very similar to ideas expressed in the book of Job, in which God emphasizes how completely beyond man's understanding he is.


Here's another idea that sounds familiar:  "The span of his [man's] existence is not to be compared with the span of his non-existence." Marcus Aurelius wrote almost the same thing in his meditations about 400 years later. (I'm assuming that the idea, which was not original to Marcus Aurelius, was arrived at independently in the West.) There are many other places in Zhuangzi that echo Stoic principles; for example, "Those who trust to their senses become slaves to objective existences," which sounds much like the beginning to the Enchyridion.

Some parts of Zhuangzi make more sense to me than others, of course. It seems to cultivate an indifference to all events that I cannot agree with or even understand. The way he suggests not pursuing virtue seems illogical to me, although I think he may mean it more in the sense of pursuing moderation than not cultivating virtue in oneself.

Taoism and Confucianism represent conflicting forces in China, but it is remarkable to me how similar they seem in their government prescriptions. The Confucian premise is: do not worry about governing, worry about cultivating ren in yourself. The Taoist prescription is: do not worry about governing, worry about cultivating Tao in yourself. How they get to ren and tao are very different, of course, but the fact that they place the emphasis on the ruler and not on acts of the government is quite foreign to my Western perspective.

On the other hand, Taoism seems like manna from heaven against current progressive ideas. Let me give three examples. He gives a description of people in society living naturally, for "The people have certain natural instincts :—
to weave and clothe themselves, to till and feed themselves. These are common to all humanity, and all are agreed thereon. Such instincts are called Heaven-sent." But then, "when Sages appeared, tripping up people over charity and fettering them with duty to their neighbour, doubt found its way into the world. And then, with their gushing over music and fussing over ceremony, the empire became divided against itself."

Subsequently, another character asks about this passive approach to government: "Ts'ui Chii asked Lao Tzu, saying : 'If the empire is not to be governed, how are men's hearts to be kept in order ?'
' Be careful,' replied Lao Tzu, ' not to interfere with the natural goodness of the heart of man, Man's heart may be forced down or stirredup. In each case the issue is fatal.'"

Finally, I leave this simple bit of wisdom that I wish all self-righteous people would consider: "To share one's virtue with others is called true wisdom. To share one's wealth with others is reckoned meritorious. To exhibit superior merit is not the way to win men's hearts. To exhibit inferior merit is the way."