A Marxist Discussion
“Karl, are you ready to begin going over the Yi jing?”
“That I am Fred. Why don’t you start.”
“Delighted. I can tell you from Chan’s intro [Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy] that he says this book has had more influence in Chinese philosophy than any other classic. He also points out that it had its origin in divination. That is to say, something like tea leaf reading. Only instead of reading dregs in a cup of tea, the ancient Chinese tried to tell the future by tossing tortoise shells into the fire and then, after the fire had cracked them, pulling them out and ‘interpreting’ the meaning supposedly contained in the pattern of cracks. By the time we find it, as a classic, it has considerably evolved from these primitive beginnings. Did you find out anything about it Karl, or should I go on?”
“Just finish up Chan’s intro.”
“Well, the book is based on Eight Trigrams. Each Trigram is made up of a combination whole lines (-----) or broken lines (--- ---). These lines are symbols for such things as ‘Heaven’ or qian which would be three whole lines one on top of the other or ‘Earth’ or kun which would be three broken lines on top of each other. These Trigrams are put together two Trigrams at a time to make a total of sixty-four Hexagrams. Chan says, ‘When the Eight Trigrams, each containing three lines, multiply themselves to become sixty-four hexagrams, they are taken to represent all possible forms of change, situations, possibilities, and institutions. Thus a complex civilization is conceived of as a process of systematic and progressive development which can be traced to its simplest beginning.’”
“Fred, now I will point out that whatever the original use of this book, divination or whatever, by the time of the Han Dynasty all sorts of commentaries and ‘appended remarks’, etc., had been added which were of a philosophical nature. The book then became used as a philosophical text NOT as a tool for fortune telling. The philosophical comments were attributed to Confucius but were actually put into the book long after his time by his so-called followers. Let me read you some comments from Key Concepts in Eastern Philosophy by Oliver Leamen. He says the Yi jing ‘can also easily be extended to provide a philosophy of history, which comes out as a kind of political humanism and organic naturalism. It is interesting how a book that deals with the occult structure of the world can have such important use in Chinese metaphysics and ethics.’ He adds, ‘...the Book of Changes has even been detected in the thought of Mao Zedong, especially in his reflections that change is the only constant phenomenon in the universe.’ All this change is brought by the interaction of the two basic energy forces of the universe--the negative Yin and the positive Yang. These two forces are how the Dao manifests itself. Leamen says, ‘the notion of dao is very different from that current among the Daoist philosophers. The version in the Book is of the multiple causes of change in the universe, and are the principles behind the various kinds of productions and creation in the universe. What makes one thing distinct from something else is its dao, which accords with a particular name.’ Please notice that this last implies the importance of the rectification of names which we have discussed before. Finally, he says, "Change is the basic feature of the universe, and the idea that the Yi jing values is that of balance and lack of excess [i.e., The Mean!].”
“Now let’s turn to the text itself and see what we can make of it.”
OK, Fred. Let's go!”
“Chan’s selections are in four parts. This is from the ‘Commentaries’: Hexagram No. 1, Qian (Heaven). ‘Great is qian, the originator! All things obtain their beginning from it. It unites and commands all things under heaven. The clouds move and the rain is distributed, and the various things are evolved in their respective forms. Thus the beginning and the end are profoundly understood, and the six positions of the hexagram [...the hexagram consists of two trigrams, it therefore consists of six lines in their six positions-Chan n.5] are achieved in the proper time.’ Hexagram No. 2, Kun (Earth) . ‘Being straight means correctness, and being square means righteousness.’ Chan’s comment is “The two complementary ethical formulae, seriousness to straighten the internal life and righteousness to square the external life, eventually became the keystone in the method of moral cultivation for many Neo-Confucianists, especially Cheng I (Cheng I-chuan, 1033-1107 A.D.).’ We will get to him later.”
“Well, I can see how the trigrams or hexagrams are being used as jumping off points for general philosophical points without any suggestion of their original use in divination. It’s a cultural accident that the Yi jing is used to stimulate speculation rather than just having a treatise written on these subjects. We must be careful to reflect on the philosophical substance we find in the work and not be distracted by the historical circumstances of the form.”
“I can see that. Here are some views from ‘The “Appended Remarks,” PT. 1.’ ‘Ch.1. Heaven is high, the earth is low, and thus qian (Heaven) and kun (Earth) are fixed. As high and low are thus made clear, the honorable and the humble have their places accordingly. As activity and tranquillity have their constancy, the strong and the weak are thus differentiated. Ways come together according to their kind, and things are divided according to their classes. Hence good fortune and evil fortune emerge. In the heavens, forms (heavenly bodies) appear and on earth shapes (creatures) occur. In them change and transformation can be seen. Therefore the strong and the weak interact and the Eight Trigrams activate each other.’”
“Naturalism at work. Heaven’s laws determine the course of events here below. But this is just a way of saying that universal laws or interactions (yin and yang) are responsible for the development of the world. Heaven = yang and Earth = yin.”
“Chapter 4. ‘The system of Change is tantamount to Heaven and Earth, and therefore can always handle and adjust the way of Heaven and Earth. Looking up, we observe the pattern of the heavens; looking down, we examine the order of the earth. Thus we know the causes of what is hidden and what is manifest.’”
“This looks like the basis of the doctrine of the ‘investigation of things’ which we will see plays a big role in Neo-Confucianism.”
“The chapter continues, ‘The refined material force (qi) [integrates] to become things. [As it disintegrates,] the wandering away of its spirit (force) becomes change. From this we know that the characteristics and conditions of spiritual beings are similar to those of Heaven and Earth and therefore there is no disagreement between them. The knowledge [of spirit] embraces all things and its way helps all under heaven, and therefore there is no mistake. It operates freely and does not go off course. It rejoices in Nature (T’ian, Heaven) and understands destiny. Therefore there is no worry. As [things] are contented in their stations and earnest in practicing kindness, there can be love.... it penetrates to a knowledge of the course of day and night. Therefore spirit has no spatial restrictions and Change has no physical form.’”
“This is beginning to sound mystical. We know from the Analects that Confucius doesn’t philosophize about ‘spirits’ so this is faux Confucianism at work here Fred.”
“Chan says, ‘Exactly what is meant by “spirit” is not clear, but it is surely not the spirit of a deceased person that influences human affairs.... [H]ere it [means] the unfathomable force behind all transformations. Later in Neo-Confucianism it is to be understood purely as the spontaneous activity of yin and yang.’”
“That makes more sense. We should think ‘force’ instead of ‘spirit’.”
“The next quote, from chapter five, backs up what Chan says. ‘Change means production and reproduction. Qian means the completion of forms, and kun means to model after them. Divination means to go to the utmost of the natural course of events in order to know the future. Affairs mean to adapt and accommodate accordingly. And that which is unfathomable in the operation of yin and yang is called spirit.’”
“Please NOTE that by saying divination goes to the utmost in the NATURAL course of events that there is no supernatural claim being made. This is just what is done in science. We try to predict future events, the weather for example, by prognosticating based on previously studied Natural events. Xunzi could go along with this.”
“And Chan makes a small comment to alert us as to what is coming later. ‘The concept of production is new and will form an important part of Neo-Confucianism.’ But now we come to a passage in Chapter 11 which does seem to have an air of ‘fortune telling.’ Listen to this Karl, ‘Therefore kun means closing and qian means opening. The succession of closing and opening constitutes transformation.... Therefore in the system of Change there is the Great Ultimate. It generates the Two Modes (yin and yang). The Two Modes generate the Four Forms (major and minor yin and yang). The Four Forms generate the Eight Trigrams. The Eight Trigrams determine good and evil fortunes. And good and evil fortunes produce the great business [of life]....’”
“Granted that reading about the determination of fortune by the trigrams certainly implies using the Yi jing like a tea cup, still we must remember this is really Han Dynasty superstition masquerading as Confucianism. Nothing in the Analects would lead you to believe Confucius would have written anything like that. Let me just quote one short passage from Fung’s A History of Chinese Philosophy, Vol I. ‘The underlying idea in [this] quotation is that all things in the universe follow a definite order according to which they move everlastingly.’ So no ‘fortune telling’ motive need be postulated.”
“OK, on to Chapter 12. Here we have, ‘what exists before physical form [and is therefore without it] is called the Way. What exists after physical form [and is therefore with it] is called a concrete thing.’”
“This reminds me of Hegel’s Science of Logic. Hegel says, ‘This realm [Logic] is truth as it is without veil and in its own absolute nature. It can therefore be said that this content is the exposition of God [the Way] as he is in his eternal essence before the creation of nature [physical forms] and a finite mind.’ So this book shows the Chinese to have had a metaphysical bent they are not often given credit for!”
“And this brings us to ‘Selections from the “Appended Remarks,” PT. 2.’ I am only going to read some passages from Chapter 5 in this section. ‘It is said in the Change, “Full of anxious thought you come and go. [Only] friends will follow you and think of you.” The Master [Confucius?] said, “What is there in the world to think about or to deliberate about? In the world there are many different roads but the destination is the same. There are a hundred deliberations but the result is one. What is there in the world to think about or to deliberate about?” And Chan makes the following comment about this passage. ‘The idea of a hundred roads to the same destination is a direct expression of the spirit of synthesis which is extremely strong in Chinese philosophy. It is the Confucian version of Zhuangzi’s doctrine of following two courses at the same time.”’
‘Yes, I remember that from our discussion on Zhuang.”
“Let me read this last bit from Chapter 5. ‘The sun and the moon push each other in their course and thus light appears... The winter and summer push each other and thus the year is completed... Contraction and expansion act on each other and thus advantages are produced.’”
“Yes. The point being that we must understand transformation and change. Where do we go from here Fred?”
“This last little section in Chan. ‘Selections from “Remarks On Certain Trigrams.”’
“Well, let’s hear it!”
“The first chapter in this section is full of nonsense about a ‘hidden spiritual intelligence’ that helps the sages in the efforts at divination, all of which we may put down to the credulity of the age. Into this mish-mash are woven the ideas of principle (li), nature and destiny. These concepts, although in this time period tainted with superstition and the ignorant notions associated with the trigrams as predictors of the future, will become the main focus of the later philosophers of the Song Dynasty who create what we call Neo-Confucianism.”
“Maybe Fred, considering the great number of people who believe in astrology, numerology, Bible prophecy, etc., in our own time, we should not be too harsh in condemning the superstitions of the Han Dynasty.”
“Except that in our time it is hoy polloi who believe such nonsense not our educated class.”
“I stand corrected!”
“Anyway, here is Chan’s comment on all this: ‘The three subjects of principle, nature, and destiny cover practically the whole philosophy of the Neo-Confucian movement. In fact, the movement is called the Philosophy of Nature and Principle. In essence, the teaching is no different from Mencius’ teaching of fully developing one’s mind, knowing Heaven, and fulfilling one’s destiny. But Mencius did not provide the metaphysical basis for Neo-Confucianism as did the Book of Changes. It is also to be noted that unlike the Daoists who require vacuity (xu) of mind for one to become identified with Nature, here Confucianists advocate the fulfillment of one’s own nature to achieve the same objective.’”
“Its too bad they didn’t turn to Xunzi instead of Mencius. The history of Confucianism might have been more progressive. On the other the hand, this is just an after the fact speculation. Historical circumstances no doubt dictated the turn to Mencius.”
“I will end with this--the complete Chapter 2 of Section 4: ‘In ancient times, the sages instituted the system of Change in order to follow the principle of the nature and destiny. Therefore yin and yang were established as the way of Heaven, the weak and the strong as the way of Earth, and humanity and righteousness as the way of man. [Each hexagram] embraced those three powers (Heaven, Earth, and man) and doubled them. Therefore in the system of Change a hexagram is completed in six lines. They are distinguished as yin and yang and the weak and the strong are employed in succession. Thus in the system of Change there are six positions and the pattern is complete.’”
“I see we are well past ‘Ancient Times’ by now. We have left the great classical and formative period of Chinese philosophy and will be dealing with those thinkers who developed philosophy up to the founding of the Neo-Confucian synthesis in the Song Dynasty.”
“That’s right Karl. But I think this period may be interesting in its own light. We will have to plunge in and see!”
“With whom do we start?”
“With a philosopher called Dong Zhongshu, and a movement Chan calls ‘Yin Yang Confucianism.’”
"O.K., Dong Zhongshu 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.
To read the Mencius Dialogue click here.
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.