“Well Fred, are you ready to discuss Guo Xiang (252-312)? We are now dealing with thinkers in the Wei-Jin period (220-420 AD) are we not?”
“We are. This period is named after dynasties that succeeded the Han Dynasty We have moved on a long way from the kind of thinking represented by Dong Zhongshu (179-104 BC). A move that has led us closer and closer to naturalistic ways of thinking.”
“Then I guess Xunzi (c.310-c.235 BC) should be popular again.”
“That may be, but we are going to discuss philosophers who, while paying lip service to Confucius (551-479 BC), wrote commentaries on the Laozi and the Zhuangzi as a way of expressing themselves. We call them ‘Neo-Daoists.’”
“Yes, but that’s not what they called themselves as I remember. I think Fung says they were known as Xuanxue or ‘Dark’ (Xuan) or ‘Mysterious Learning.’” [History of Chinese Philosophy vol. 2]
“That’s right Karl. Besides, the Neo-Daoists there was another group of thinkers at this time called the ‘Light’ or ‘Pure Conversation School.’ They seem to have been of minor importance-- at least from the strictly philosophical point of view.”
“And who were they?”
“Just groups of men who liked to get together and discuss contemporary issues, ethics, philosophy, etc. They hung out in bamboo groves drinking and arguing and rejecting social conventions and propriety.”
“Sounds like a wild bunch! They would fit in today, no doubt.”
“They seem to have been harmless. The most famous group was called the ‘Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove.’ We are not going to deal with them as such.”
“OK. On to the ‘Dark Learning’ of the Neo-Daoists. The most important was Guo Xiang, was he not.”
“ Yes, but first, as an introduction, we have to go over two predecessors who were instrumental in the development of Neo-Daoism. First is a gentleman called Wang Bi.”
“Yes, I remember studying about him. He died when he was only 23 or 24 years old-- living from 225 to 249 in Wei. That is unusually young to have left behind really important philosophical works.”
“At any rate, Chan [Source Book in Chinese Philosophy] has given us three excerpts from his writings. You ready?”
“This is from his Simple Exemplifications of the Principle of the Book of Changes. He is trying to explain hexagrams in the YI Jing. He develops the idea of ‘the one’ and the key to this passage is his statement, ‘Things never err; they always follow their principle.’ This is actually a scientific way of looking at things-- i.e., the laws of science don’t change [I mean the underlying ‘laws’ of the world which the ‘laws of science’ attempt to describe] so ‘things never err.’ The entire quote is: ‘Now, the many cannot be regulated by the many. They are regulated by the smallest in number (the one). Activity cannot be controlled by activity. They are controlled by that which is firmly rooted in the one. The reason why the many can exist is that their ruling principle returns always to the one and all activities can function because they have all come from the same source. Things never err; they always follow their principle. There is the chief to unite them, and there is the leader to group them together. Therefore, though complex, they are not chaotic, and though many, they are not confused. Hence the intermingling of the six lines in a hexagram can be understood by taking up one [of them, for one is always the ruling factor of the six] and the interaction of weakness (yin) and strength (yang) can be determined by having the basic controlling principle well established.... Therefore if we investigate things by approaching them as a united system, although they are many, we know we can handle them by adhering to the one, and if we view them from the point of view of the fundamental, although their concepts are broad, we know we can cover all of them under a single name.’”
“You know Fred, Fung Yu-lan remarks on this [HCP:2, p.180] that the key to this passage is to understand that for Wang all multiplicity stems from oneness-- just as everything in our universe goes back to or stems from the one singularity, if it really was a singularity, we call the ‘Big Bang’. This is an analogy, of course, Wang Bi didn’t know anything about the ‘Big Bang.’ He is really explaining why there is always a leading line in the hexagrams comprising the YI Jing. Here is what Fung says: ‘In this passage Wang Bi’s aim is to explain the general concept underlying the statements made by the First Appendix on the separate hexagrams.’ He also says, with respect to Wang’s mentioning a ruling hexagram, that ‘he means that among the six lines comprising any given hexagram, there is always one that acts as ruler over the others. That is why he begins his treatise with the general thesis that all multiplicity must be ruled by oneness, and all activity controlled by quiescence. This is the first of his metaphysical principles.’”
“OK. We next turn to Wang’s Commentary On The Book of Changes itself. Here again we see the ‘one’: ‘Only because there is ultimate principle in the world is it possible to employ strength and uprightness completely and to drive far away those who ingratiate by flattery.... If we understand the activities of things, we shall know all the principles which make them what they are’ [On hexagram one ‘Heaven’].
“Very empirical Fred, if you ask me. Study the activities of things to determine their principles. This is consistent with a materialist worldview.”
“And this next passage shows how his views apply to society and politics: ‘If one is agreeable but does not follow indiscriminately and is joyful without deviating from the Mean, one will be able to associate with superiors without flattery and with subordinates without disrespect. As he understands the causes of fortune and misfortune, he will not speak carelessly, and as he understands the necessary principles, he will not change good conduct.’ [On hexagram sixteen ‘Happiness’] "
“A science of society is possible based on his views.”
“And no simple minded one either Karl. Listen to this: ‘[A superior man sees] similarity in general principles but diversity in function and facts.’ [On hexagram thirty eight ‘To part’] "
“To see the one in the many and vice versa is almost the definition of philosophy. Remember the Prime Directive? "
“How could I forget it?” [Use science and logic NOT emotion and religious dogma-- see Dialogue #1: Confucius].
“And the Second Directive?”
“Don’t discuss things with people who reject the Prime Directive.”
“Well, I think we get another directive about philosophy here-- based on Wang Bi. Here is Schopenhauer’s version: ‘Knowledge of the identical in different phenomena, and of difference in similar phenomena is, as Plato so often remarks, a sine qua non of philosophy.’ [The World as Will and Idea: 2nd bk, 1st aspect, sec. 22] What Plato says is, ‘’those who are able to grasp what is always the same in all respects are philosophers, while those who are not able to do so and who wander among the many things that vary in every sort of way are not philosophers...’ [Republic 484b].
“You certainly get a lot out of one sentence from Wang! Chan’s comment is: ‘Note the contrast between principle and facts. Later, in Chinese Buddhism, the realm of principles and the realm of facts constitute the two realms of existence. They are, however, not to be sharply contrasted, for they involve each other and are ultimately identical. This one-is-all and all-is-one philosophy is a common heritage of all Chinese philosophical systems-- Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist.’”
“The more we discuss Chinese philosophy, the more parallels I see to certain Western trends Fred.”
“Here is his commentary on hexagram twenty four ‘To return’: ‘Whenever speech ceases, there is silence, but silence is not opposed to speech. Thus although Heaven and Earth are vast, possessing the myriad things in abundance, where thunder moves and winds circulate, and while there is an infinite variety of changes and transformations, yet its original [substance] is absolutely quiet and perfect non-being. Therefore only with the cessation of activities within Earth can the mind of Heaven and Earth be revealed.’”
“Let me read to you what Fung says about this passage. ‘When Wang speaks of the ‘myriad things’ of Heaven and Earth and the ‘myriad transformations’ resulting from their operations, what he means is all being and all transformations, that is all phenomenal activity. But the cause of all transformations or activity must itself be unchanging and quiescent.... It cannot itself be being, for if it were, it would simply be one among all the many other kinds, and as such it could not be the origin of ‘all’ being. ‘ [HCP:2, p.181] Thus Wang maintains that non-being (wu) is the basis of being. I don’t think we just equate non-being with ‘nothingness’ either. And, so we don’t anthropomorphize, let us remember that the ‘mind of Heaven and Earth’ is just the set of natural principles or operant laws of physics, etc. It would be like saying if you understand general relativity you understand the mind of Heaven.”
“We will trudge along to find out because Wang Bi’s views are going to be developed by succeeding generations. Here is Chan’s remark on this passage: ‘Wang Bi is characteristically Daoistic in saying that only in a state of tranquility can the mind of Heaven and Earth be seen.... [Neo-Confucianists] maintained that the Mind of Heaven and Earth is to be seen in a state of activity instead of tranquility"
“Fred, that passage from Wang on wu is also commented upon by Fung. He says, ‘Wu or “non-being” is, in Wang’s philosophy, equivalent to the “super-ultimate” or “Supreme Ultimate” (Taiji) of the Book of Changes, or to the Dao of the Laozi. Its functioning, however, can only be made manifest on the form of being (you).’” [HCP:2, p.183]
“Time for our last selection--Commentary on the Laozi.”
“Bring it on.”
“Chan lets us know that Wang Bi was really interested in metaphysics. He considers ultimate reality to be ‘original non-being’ or ben-wu. It’s not ‘nothing’ but rather the original substance, ben-ti, that is the basis of all existing things. He develops this idea in the Laozi commentary. Chan says, ‘Where Laozi had destiny (ming, fate), Wang Bi would substitute principle, thus anticipating the Neo-Confucianists, who preferred to speak of the Principle of Nature (Tien-Ming).’”
“Are you ready to read Wang’s text?”
“Yes I am. Wang says, ‘All being originated from non-being... After forms and names appear, Dao (the Way) develops them... becomes their Mother. This means that Dao produces and completes things with the formless and nameless. Thus they are produced and completed but do not know why. Indeed it is the mystery of mysteries.’ [ch 1].”
“He continues, ‘Man does not oppose Earth and therefore can comfort all things, for his standard is the Earth. Earth does not oppose Heaven and therefore can sustain all things, for its standard is Heaven. Heaven does not oppose Dao and therefore can cover all things, for its standard is Dao. Dao does not oppose Nature and therefore it attains its character of being.’ [ch. 25]. He tells us ‘By Nature is meant something that cannot be labeled and something ultimate’ [Ibid.].”
“This seems to give a materialist basis to his metaphysics. What would knowledge of ‘Nature’ lead to?”
“He says, ‘The sage understands Nature perfectly and knows clearly the conditions of all things. Therefore he goes along with them but takes no unnatural action. He is in harmony with them but does not impose anything on them. He removes their delusions and eliminates their doubts. Hence the people’s minds are not confused and things are contented with their own nature.’ [ch. 29] And also, ‘How is virtue to be attained? It is to be attained through Dao. How is virtue to be completely fulfilled. It is through non-being as its function. As non-being is its function, all things will be embraced. Therefore in regard to things, if they are understood as non-being all things will be in order, whereas if they are understood as being, it is impossible to avoid the fact that they are products (phenomena). Although Heaven and Earth are extensive, non-being is the mind, and although sages and kings are great, vacuity (xu) is their foundation. Therefore it is said that by returning and seeing [absolute quiet and perfect non-being], the mind of Heaven and Earth will be revealed.’ [ch. 38].”
“This reminds me of Buddhist notions.”
“Some Buddhist notions in China may actually come from Wang Bi! Remember, all the things that exist (‘the myriad things’) have their own unique being-- their own substance and function. Chan comments, ‘This is the first time in the history of Chinese thought that substance (ti) and function(yong) are mentioned together.... The concepts of substance and function definitely originated with Wang Bi. They were to become key concepts in Chinese Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism.’”
“I see that Chinese Buddhism and Daoism are mixed up together, but who is influencing whom?”
“It was probably a two way street Karl. Here is how Wang Bi relates existing things to his ultimate substance. ‘The ten thousand things have ten thousand different forms but in the final analysis they are one. How did they become one? Because of non-being.... Therefore in the production of the myriad things, I know its master.’ [ch. 47].”
“So much for Wang Bi. How about He Yan? He was also an important contributor to this school.”
“Yes. He, born 195 AD, also died in 249 AD, the same year as Wang Bi. Like Wang, although a Daoist, he considered Confucius to be the ‘Sage.’ That is to say, in things social and political-- in practice-- he followed Confucius, but he nevertheless turned to Laozi in things metaphysical, an area that Confucius was not particularly interested in. We can see Wang’s influence in the following quote from He’s Treatise on Dao: ‘Being, in coming into being, is produced by non-being. Affairs, as affairs, are brought into completion by non-being. When one talks about it and it has no predicates, when one names it and it has no name, when one looks at it and it has no form, and when one listens to it and it has no sound-- that is Dao in its completeness. Hence it is able to make sounds and echoes brilliant, to cause material force (qi) and material objects to stand out, to embrace all physical forms and spiritual activity, and to display light and shadow.’”
“Does Chan say anything about this?”
“He has the following comment: ‘It is characteristic of both the Light Conversation movement and the Metaphysical School to reject all words and forms as descriptions of the ultimate reality. These may be used, then forgotten, as the fish trap is forgotten once the fish is caught. The whole spirit is to get at the ultimate totality, which is not to be limited even by a name.’”
“That fish analogy is similar to one used by Wittgenstein (1889-1951), another ‘mystic.’ Just as our Daoist friends keep saying that ‘Dao’ is unnamable and we can’t really grasp it, Wittgenstein ends his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by saying, ‘My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them-- as steps-- to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)’”
“Very apt Karl.”
“And mystics are not the only ones to think this way.”
“What do you mean?”
“Listen to Sextus Empiricus (c.160-c.210 ) the Greek Skeptic, explaining how it’s possible to ‘know’ that you can't ‘know’--i.e., that you can use logic against logic! He says, ‘just as it is not impossible for someone, after climbing up a ladder to a higher place, to knock down the ladder with his foot after he gets up there, so too it is not unreasonable for the skeptic, after arriving at the establishment of his point by using the argument which demonstrates that there is no demonstration as a kind of step-stool, thereupon to destroy this argument itself.’”
“So Daoists are not the only ones with these problems of trying to explain what seems at first glance unexplainable. Now listen to this from He’s Treatise On The Nameless: ‘Now Dao never possesses anything. But since the beginning of the universe it has possessed all things and yet it is still called Dao because it can exercise its ability not to possess them. Therefore although it dwells in the realm of the namable, it shows no sign of the nameless.’”
“Hmmmm. I’m not ready to throw away the ladder.”
“Maybe this will help. He continues: ‘Essentially speaking, Dao has no name. This is why Laozi said that he was “forced to give it a name.” Confucius praised (sage emperor) Yao, saying, “The people could find no name for him,” but continued to say, “How majestic” was “his accomplishment!” It is clear that to give a name perforce is merely to give an appellation on the basis of only what people know. If one already has a name, how can it be said that people could find no name for him? It is only because he has no name that all possible names in the world can be used to call him. But are these really his names? If from this analogy one still does not understand, it would be like looking at the loftiness and eminence of Mount Tai and yet saying that the original material force [which makes the productions of things possible] is not overwhelming or extensive.’”
“Now I see, Fred. The names and descriptions we give to reality in order to try and understand it are ‘only what people know.’ Reality, the Dao, is much more extensive than what can be conceptualized by the human understanding. This is what Wittgenstein (1889-1951) meant. He says it even better, right after the passage I just quoted, when he writes ‘He must transcend the propositions [Wittgenstein’s philosophical claims] and then he will see the world aright.’ Somehow or other, I think Ho Yen and Wittgenstein are are on the same wavelength.”
“Be that as it may Karl, we must now turn to our title Neo-Daoist. His name was Guo Xiang [Kuo Hsiang] and he expressed his views in his Commentary on the Zhuangzi. To prepare you for what is to come, let me read what Chan says is the great difference between Guo and Wang; ‘Just as Wang Bi went beyond Laozi, so Guo Xiang went beyond Zhuangzi. The major concept is no longer Dao, as in Zhuangzi but Nature (Ziran). Things exist and transform themselves spontaneously and there is no other reality or agent to cause them. Heaven is not something behind this process of Nature but is merely its general name. Things exist and transform according to principle, but each and every thing has its own principle. Everything is therefore self-sufficient and there is no need of an over-all original reality to combine or govern them, as in the case of Wang Bi. In other words, while Wang Bi emphasizes non-being, Guo emphasizes being. To Wang Bi, principle transcends things, but to Kuo it is immanent in them.’ And Chan also notes, ‘In their philosophy of life, Guo Xiang differed greatly from Wang Bi in one respect. Guo was a fatalist while Wang was not. Since according to guo everything has its own nature and ultimate principle, everything is determined and correct. Therefore he taught contentment in whatever situation one may find himself. Neither free will nor choice has meaning in his system.’”
“Guo sounds like a radical pluralist. But I think modern science points towards an original unity with everything in Nature evolving from the Big Bang. At any rate, let’s go over Guo Xiang’s Commentary.”
“First, let’s note that this is not just Guo’s Commentary. One of the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove was a man named Xiang Xiu (c. 221-c. 300 AD) who wrote commentaries on the Zhuangzi . Guo’s commentary is either an edited version of Xiang’s or an expanded version. However, it is traditionally called Guo’s commentary!”
“There are thirty nine numbered paragraphs in Chan from this commentary , and I will begin with number three. ‘To be natural means not to take any unnatural action. This is the general idea of [what Zhuangzi means by] roaming leisurely or freedom. Everything has its own nature and each nature has its own ultimate.’”
“This clarifies a lot Fred, especially the Daoist confusion about doing ‘nothing’-- it means ‘nothing unnatural.’ Even more interesting is the definition of man via Aristotle (384-322 BC)— i.e., ‘rational animal’ and ‘political animal.’ One could argue that since that is the nature of humans, the Confucian approach is perfectly natural and there is no ultimate conflict with Daoism!”
“Let’s look at number four: ‘Being natural means to exist spontaneously without having to take any action. Therefore the fabulous peng bird can soar high and the quail can fly low, the cedrela [Chinese mahogany tree] can live for a long time and the mushroom for a short time.’”
“This confirms my view. Everything has its own nature and way of acting.”
“Listen to number five: ‘It is he who does no governing that can govern the empire. Therefore Yao governed by not governing. It was not because of his governing that his empire was governed. Now (the recluse) Xu You [who refused the empire] only realized that since the empire was well governed, he should not replace Yao. He thought it was Yao who did the actual governing. Consequently he said to Yao “You govern the empire.”’” Guo thinks Yao is a good example of governing by not governing.”
“This looks bad for my theory.”
“Just wait a minute. Xu You was a recluse, his example seems to have been sitting ‘in silence in the middle of some mountain forest’ and had the approval of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Kuo seems not to have approved of their ideas in this respect and thought one should remain ‘in the realm of action.’”
“My theory is back.”
“Pay attention now to the end of number five: ‘[R]esponsible officials insist on remaining in the realm of action without regret.... For egotistical people set themselves up against things, whereas he who is in accord with things is not opposed to them.... Therefore he profoundly and deeply responds to things without any deliberate mind of his own and follows whatever comes into contact with him. He is like an untied boat drifting, claiming neither the east not the west to be its own. He who is always with the people no matter what he does is the ruler of the world wherever he may be.’”
“Oh no, Fred, that’s no good either. A drifting untied boat is a poor representation of the Ship of State. A good ruler should guide the state by certain plans and principles and not just drift along. Also, ‘being with the people’ must be interpreted as being ‘for the people’ if it is to make any sense. The ‘people’ can be wrong headed sometimes and a good ruler has to know how to counter that. I know that Chan and Fung, among others, say the Neo-Daoists rated Confucius higher that Lao or Zhuang when it came to practical actions, but obviously they did not really understand Confucianism if they thought analogies such as the ‘drifting boat’ were compatible with it.”
“Well in number six he says, ‘When everything attains its reality, why should it take any action? Everything will be contented and at ease. Therefore, although Yao and Xu You and Heaven and Earth are different, their freedom is the same.’”
“Yes, I understand this determinist outlook. Nevertheless, the freedom of Yao and of Heaven and Earth differs in one essential respect which is that Yao is conscious of his freedom and also self-conscious.”
“In number eight Guo says, ‘The mind of the sage penetrates to the utmost the perfect union of yin and yang and understands most clearly the wonderful principles of the myriad things. Therefore he can identify himself with changes and harmonize with transformations, and finds everything all right wherever he may go. He embraces all things and thus nothing is not in its natural state. The world asks him [to rule] because of disorder. He has no deliberate mind of his own.’”
“I take this to mean that the sage doesn’t use his leadership position for personal emolument, but because he knows ‘the wonderful principles of the myriad things’ he rules according to the true requirements of every situation and always in the interests of the ruled. He is a philosopher king.”
“In number eleven he reinforces this objective outlook: ‘Everything is what it is by nature, not through taking any action. Therefore [Zhuangzi] speaks in terms of Nature.... Nature does not set its mind for or against anything. Who is the master to make things obey? Therefore all things exist by themselves and come from nature. This is the Way of Heaven.’”
“The subjective interests of the sage must not try to force themselves on to reality.”
“What you just said Karl about the sage and leadership is borne out by the following: ‘If people with the capacity of attendants are not contented with the responsibilities of attendants, it will be a mistake. Therefore we know that whether one is a ruler or a minister, a superior or an inferior, and whether it is the hand or the foot, the inside or the outside, it is naturally so according to the Principle of Nature.’ And also, by number 14: ‘”This” and “that” oppose each other but the sage is in accord with both of them. Therefore he who has no deliberate mind of his own is silently harmonized with things and is never opposed to the world.’”
“It's all very Stoic Fred.”
“I’ll say. How about this from number 15: ‘When their physical forms are compared, Mount Tai is larger than an autumn hair. But if everything is in accord with its nature and function, and is silently in harmony with its ultimate capacity, then a large physical form is not excessive and a small one is not inadequate.... As there is nothing small or large, and nothing enjoys longevity or suffers brevity of life [since all natures are equal], therefore the chrysalis does not admire the cedrela but is happy and contented with itself, and the quail does not value the Celestial Lake [destination of the peng bird] and its desire for glory is thus satisfied.’”
“Some might say this type of worldview leads to quietism, but I’m not so sure. I will say it’s more passive than a Confucian would be comfortable with.”
“Here is number 18, an example of the Sage vs. hoi polloi: ‘The ordinary people will consider it lack of simplicity to harmonize all the changes throughout ten thousand years. With a tired body and a frightened mind, they toil to avoid this and to take that. The sage alone has no prejudice. He therefore proceeds with utter simplicity and becomes one with transformation and always roams in the realm of unity. Therefore, although the irregularities and confusions over millions of years result in a great variety and infinite multiplicity, as “Dao operates and given results follow,” the results of the past and the present are one.’”
“And we should note that hoi polloi still exist, even as in Guo’s day, although in some societies universal educational opportunities have brought about qualitative differences in hoi polloi. The Confucian ‘Utopian’ ideal, as the Marxist, is that some day all humans will be sages.”
“And now for some metaphysics. Listen to this from number 19: ‘If we insist on the conditions under which things develop and search for the cause thereof, such search and insistence will never end, until we come to something that is unconditioned, and then the principles of self-transformation will become clear.... ‘”
“A monistic view, Fred. Modern science, at least speculative forms of it, has this view too. The search for the so-called unified field theory-- the one big equation that unifies quantum mechanics and general relativity would, hopefully, bring it about that the ‘principles of self-transformation will become clear.’”
“This same paragraph, Karl, also rules out the existence of a religious, in the Western sense, explanation for the universe. Guo says, “There are people who say that shade is conditioned by the shadow, the shadow by the body, and the body by the Creator. But let us ask whether there is a Creator or not. If not, how can he create things? If there is, he is incapable of materializing all the forms. Therefore before we can talk about creation, we must understand the fact that all forms materialize by themselves. If we go through the entire realm of existence, we shall see that there is nothing, not even the shade, that does not transform itself behind the phenomenal world. Hence everything creates itself without the direction of any Creator. Since things create themselves, they are unconditioned. This is the norm of the universe.’” And Chan remarks, ‘The denial of a Creator is complete. Whereas Zhuangzi raised the question whether there is a Creator or not, Guo Xiang unreservedly denied its existence. Given the theory that all things come into existence by themselves and that their transformation is also their own doing, this is the inevitable outcome. Thus Daoist naturalism is pushed to its ultimate conclusion.’”
“Yes, but we must not forget that, ‘Dao operates and given results follow.’ Fung is useful at this point as he says, concerning this passage [HCP:2, p. 210], ‘The statement: “Everything produces itself and does not depend on anything else,” means merely that we cannot designate any particular thing as the cause of any other particular thing. It does not at all mean that there are no relationships between one thing and another.’ In fact he maintains that this view is compatible with Marxism! He says [Ibid., p. 112], ‘This point of view is very similar to the materialistic concept of history. The Russian Revolution, for example, was, according to this concept, the inevitable result of the total objective environment of its time; it was not caused by Lenin or any other particular individual. The statement quoted earlier, that things, “though mutually opposed, at the same time are mutually indispensable,” may also be interpreted as an illustration of Hegelian dialectic....’ So we must not think that there is no underlying unity to reality. That there is no Creator is, I take it, put forth to ward off the type of superstitious religious explanations for things that Mozi tried to use to bolster his system.”
“In number 20 Guo says, ‘When a person loves fame and is fond of supremacy and is not satisfied even when he has broken his back in the attempt, it is due to the fact that human knowledge knows no limit. Therefore what is called knowledge is born of losing sight of what is proper and will be eliminated when one is in silent harmony with his ultimate capacity. Being silently in harmony with one’s ultimate capacity means allowing one’s lot to reach its highest degree, and [in the case of lifting weights] not adding so much as an ounce. Therefore though a person carries ten thousand pounds, if it is equal to his capacity he will suddenly forget the weight upon his body.’”
“This isn’t just Daoist either. I think almost any philosopher would hold a similar outlook. It amounts to ‘nothing in excess’ and would be applauded by Plato as support for his views in the Republic on education and finding the employment best suited for each citizen.”
“In number 21 he maintains, ‘ Where does gain or loss, life or death, come in? Therefore, if one lets what he has received from Nature take its own course, there will be no place for joy or sorrow.’”
“This is a little more than human! The sage qua sage may understand this, but it is difficult to believe that qua human it would be possible to be completely exempt from all feelings of joy and sorrow. After all, Zhuangzi , when his wife died, felt sorrow and his drum beating only meant that he did not give in to despair. And Confucius , the sage par excellence, mourned for Yan Hui.”
“I think the following, number 24, could be used to justify the extension of public education. Any Confucian would be able to subscribe to it. ‘When a thousand people gather together without a person as their leader, they will either be disorderly or disorganized. Therefore when there are many virtuous people, there should not be many rulers, but when there is no virtuous person, there should be a ruler.’”
“I agree Fred. Education leads to virtue, therefore the more educated people are the less a “leader” is needed-- i.e., a Hobbesian absolutist type leader.”
“In number 25 he says, ‘Things happen by necessity, and principle, of course, prevails at all times. Therefore if we leave things alone, they will accomplish their purpose.’”
“A scientific outlook if our goal is to understand the world. We get in trouble when we try to change it. The problem is it just cries out to be changed! At least humans think so. How can we leave things alone since it appears to be our principle to change things?”
“Perhaps we have to think of the problems that cry out for change doing so as a result of a previous disruption of principle. Reforms, even revolutions, are only attempts to reestablish principle at least in the social world.”
“A worthy thought, Fred.”
“Do you find any problem with the following? It is number 28. ‘The principles of things are from the very start correct. None can escape from them. Therefore a person is never born by mistake, and what he is born with is never an error. Although heaven and earth are vast and the myriad things are many, the fact that I happen to be here is not something that spiritual beings of heaven and earth, sages and worthies of the land, and people of extreme strength or perfect knowledge can violate.... Therefore if we realize that our nature and destiny are what they should be, we will have no anxiety and will be at ease with ourselves in the face of life or death, prominence or obscurity, or an infinite amount of changes and variations, and will be in accord with principle.’”
“Well, let’s think of a person born with a birth ‘defect’-- no arms, or only a brain stem, or something like that. Would Guo really want to say ‘what he is born with is never an error,’ that principles ‘are from the very start correct?’”
“I guess not Karl. Maybe Guo didn’t think this through?”
“And maybe he did!”
"What do you mean?”
“I mean, using modern examples, think of the laws of genetics and heredity. These are principles of the transmission of inherited characteristics and also of the effects of outside influences on the genetic composition of DNA-- say exposure to radiation or certain chemicals. It is not by a ‘mistake’ that deformed or ‘defective’ animals are born. They are ‘defective’ only in relation to our expectations and social constructions of ‘perfection.’ In reality, the li, the principles, are always correct. A certain combination of genes, or exposure to chemicals, etc., will result in, for example, only a brain stem. That is just as much a regular feature of development as the frequency of having blue eyes. This is why, with respect to the li, Kuo says, ‘None can escape from them.’ It is not an error that a birth defect occurs! If we don’t want them we had better understand the li involved and clean up the environment and/or the gene pool.”
“It seems like this requires too much action on the part of a Daoist. What happened to the drifting boat?”
“Well, what if while you are drifting along you see rapids and a water fall coming into view? Li will take you right over Niagara. I think even Guo would start to row his boat. That too ‘will be in accord with principle.’”
“And Chan’s comment is: ‘Determinism and fatalism are here explained in terms of principle and correctness. Fate is not something merely beyond human control or understanding; it is necessary truth. Nowhere else in Chinese thought is it asserted so strongly.’”
“Fate and determinism are always difficult concepts to reconcile with our ideas of choice and freedom. Life and death may be ‘determined,’ but you still don’t let your children play in traffic.”
“This is from number 29. ‘To cry as people cry is a manifestation of the mundane world. To identify life and death, forget joy and sorrow, and be able to sing in the presence of the corpse is the perfection of the transcendental world.... Therefore principle has its ultimate, and the transcendental and the mundane world are in silent harmony with each other. There has never been a person who has roamed over the transcendental world to the utmost and yet was not silently in harmony with the mundane world, nor has there been anyone who was silently in harmony with the mundane world and yet did not roam over the transcendental world. Therefore the sage always roams in the transcendental world in order to enlarge the mundane world.’”
“This only makes sense, Fred, if we think of the ‘transcendental world’ not in some mystic sense as ‘another world’ but rather as the world of li. Take Einstein as an example. The mundane world is the world we all share in common-- work, social relations, politics, etc. But the ‘transcendental world’ is the world revealed by physics and mathematics-- what is ‘really’ going on behind the scenes: E=mc2 and all that. So there is nothing supernatural about it.”
“Chan has a comment on this passage.”
“Let’s hear it”
“OK: ‘As pointed out before, neither Wang Bi nor Guo Xiang considered Laozi a sage. Instead, their sage was Confucius. This is amazing, but the reason is really not far to seek. For to Guo Xiang, especially, the ideal person is a sage who is “sagely within and kingly without” and who travels in both the transcendental and mundane worlds. According to the Neo-Daoists, Laozi and Zhuangzi traveled only in the transcendental world and were thereby one-sided, whereas Confucius was truly sagely within and kingly without.’”
“Interesting, but I don’t think it entirely true, at least with regard to Zhuangzi. I think he too traveled in the mundane world, he just didn’t focus on it-- it wasn’t his ultimate concern. As for Confucius, well he didn’t pay that much attention to the transcendental world ( the metaphysical aspects of li). He had little interest in metaphysical speculation (science) as his concerns were primarily practical. So I think for the Neo-Daoists, whatever their considerable virtues may have been, accurate historical understanding of their predecessors may not have been one of them.”
“Here is some political philosophy from number 34. ‘If the ruler does the work of his ministers, he will no longer be the ruler, and if the ministers control the ruler’s employment, they will no longer be ministers. Therefore when each attends to his own responsibility, both ruler and the ruled will be contented and the principle of taking no action is attained. We must not fail to discern the term “taking no action.” In ruling an empire, there is the activity of ruling. It is called “taking no action” because the activity is spontaneous and follows the nature of things. And those who serve the empire also do so spontaneously. In the case of ministers managing affairs, even Shun and Yu, as ministers, would still be regarded as taking action. Therefore when the superior and inferior are contrasted, the ruler is tranquil and the minister is active.... But in each case they allowed their nature to work and their destiny to unfold itself in its wonderful way. Thus neither the superior not the inferior, neither antiquity nor the later period takes any action. Who then will?’”
“We must always remember to keep in mind that ‘taking no action’ means ‘no unnatural action.’”
“And number 35. ‘The past is not in the present and every present event is soon changed. Therefore only when one abandons the pursuit of knowledge and lets Nature take its own course, and changes with the times, can one be perfect.’”
“Well, Fred, we just have to disagree here. The li are always operative and the effects of the past are in the present. Who could deny that the past of China-- its feudalism, its victimization by the West in the last couple of centuries, its invasion by Japan in World War II, is responsible for and still influences the Communist Revolution and the present day actions of the Chinese government? Kuo is just off base on this. The past is transmitted in a myriad of ways not just in writings, and the answer to the question ‘can the past exist in the present’ is yes. As for abandoning the pursuit of knowledge, Guo’s own model for the Sage, Confucius, is remembered for saying, ‘Is it not a pleasure to learn and to repeat or practice from time to time what has been learned.” It is the first sentence of the Analects!”
“Finally, number 39. ‘Not only is it impossible for non-being to be changed into being. It is also impossible for being to become non-being. Therefore, although being as a substance undergoes infinite changes and transformations, it cannot in any instance become non-being....’”
“This must refer to ordinary ‘non-being’-- i.e, ‘from nothing, nothing comes’-- but not to ‘original non-being’ as the major Thesis of Neo-Daoism is that everything comes from original non-being-- i.e., pen-wu ‘pure being’.”
“Well, that about wraps up Guo Xiang, what should we do next?”
“Well, Buddhism was coming to China just after the development of Neo-Daoism, and I think we should discuss one of the most important early Chinese Buddhists-- namely, Jizang (Chi-tsang).”
“So, Buddhism from a Marxist point of view as well, Chinese Buddhism, ok, Jizang next.”
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.
To read the Confucius Dialogue click here.
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To read the Xunzi Dialogue click here.
To read the Mozi Dialogue click here.
To read the Laozi Dialogue click here.
To read the Zhuangzi Dialogue click here.
To read the Gongsun Dialogue click here.
To read the Great Learning Dialogue click here.
To read the Doctrine of The Mean Dialogue click here.
To read the Book of Changes Dialogue click here.
To read the Dong Zhongshu Dialogue click here.
To read the Wang Chong Dialogue click here.
To read the Philosophy of Liezi Dialogue click here.