The Philosophy of Liezi (Lieh Tzu)A Marxist Dialogue. By: Thomas RigginsRead Now
“Well, Fred, are you ready to discuss Liezi?”
“There isn’t much to discuss, Karl. Only four pages of text in Chan [Source Book in Chinese Philosophy] are devoted to him.”
“He has to be in there for something. What’s his claim to fame?”
“Why don’t you look in your Great Thinkers of the Eastern World book?”
“I will, then it’s back to Chan. James D. Sellman wrote this article on Liez. Listen to this: ‘Liezi is the third major classic of philosophical Daoism (Taoism). As with the other two classics--- the Laozi (Lao Tzu) and the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), the author and the date of composition of the Liezi are obscured by a lack of historical evidence...”
“At least we know we have the third Daoist classic-- all four pages of it in Chan!”
“And note this from The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion. ‘Liezi was fond of transmitting his ideas and thoughts by reinterpreting ancient folk tales and myths. A characteristic feature of his view of life were mechanical processes, not admitting of free will.’”
“We will see something of that aspect of his thought in the last section I’ll read Karl.”
“It sounds a lot like Wang Chong to me.”
“Let me tell you Karl, that I don’t think Liezi’s book is really third in rank. Chan says it’s unoriginal, except perhaps for his skepticism, and borrows heavily from Zhuangzi. We should also note that the book dates from around 300 AD and that Liezi lived around 400 BC! so how many of his own views are present is questionable. The book is a compilation by much later scholars. Also the section right after Wang Chong and before Liezi in Chan is on the Daoist Huainanzi He dies in 122 BC and Chan calls him ‘the most prominent Taoist philosopher between ancient Daoism of the fourth century B.C and Neo-Daoism of the third and fourth centuries A.D.’”
“So why did we skip him?”
“Chan says his ‘originality is negligible.’ He just reiterated Lao and Zhuang. And he was very politically active, not just taking the world as it comes. He had to commit suicide due to a failed plot of rebellion. He was also rationalistic like Wang Chong and the Liezi.”
“So Daoism is not so passive as we have been led to think! Let’s get back to ‘LIezi’ then.”
“The selection is divided into A and B sections. Section A is called ‘The Yang Zhu Chapter.’”
“ Yes, I remember Yang Zhu from our discussion on Mencius. Yang was the fellow who advocated egoism and wouldn’t sacrifice even one hair to help the world.”
“That’s right Karl. Here is the quote from Mencius: ‘7A:26. Mencius said, ‘Yang Zhu’s choice was “everyone for himself.” Though he might save the entire world by plucking out a single hair, he would not do it.’ The ‘Yang Zhu Chapter’ is included as one of the eight chapters (its actually number seven) of the Liezi, but it was probably a separate work, according to many scholars, and just ended up being part of the Liezi when it was eventually compiled in the Third Century AD.”
“Go ahead and read some of the chapter.”
“The following is Liezi's view of life. He starts by saying how ‘Pain and sickness, sorrow and suffering, death [of relatives] and worry and fear’ take up so much of one’s life.’ Then he asks, ‘This being the case, what is life for?’ “
“If he were Sartre he might say it’s not ‘for’ anything other than what you choose to make of it.”
“But he has a negative view anyway. He says, ‘Being alone ourselves, we pay great care to what our ears hear and what our eyes see, and are much concerned with what is right and wrong for our bodies and minds. Thus we lose the great happiness of the present and cannot give ourselves free rein for a single moment. What is the difference between this and many chains and double prisons?’”
“The Buddhist view to be sure! Life is suffering.”
“He goes on, sounding Daoist to me, ‘Men of great antiquity knew that life meant to be temporarily present and death meant to be temporarily away. Therefore they acted as they pleased and did not turn away from what they naturally desired. They would not give up what could amuse their own persons at the time. Therefore they were not exhorted by fame. They roamed as their nature directed and would not be at odds with anything.’”
“Chan calls this Daoism?”
“He calls it ‘negative Daoism’. He says this compilation of writings came about because, as many scholars suggest, ‘that at the time of political chaos in the third century, some writers, trying to escape from intolerable situations, utilized the names of Liezi and Yang Zhu and took refuge under the purely negative aspects of Daoism.’”
“That political chaos was occasioned by the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 AD and the contentions of three kingdoms fighting each other to build up an Empire again (the states of Shu, Wu and Wei.) Wei finally won out and set up the Jin Dynasty which lasted until 420 AD. Just thought you would like to know the history.”
“Thanks for the info Karl. I have one last quote from Yang here; ‘Yang Zhu said, “The myriad creatures are different in life but the same in death. In life they mat be worthy or stupid, honorable or humble. This is where they differ. In death they all stink, rot, disintegrate, and disappear. This is where they are the same. However, being worthy, stupid, honorable or humble is beyond their power, and to stink, rot, disintegrate, and disappear is also beyond their power. Thus life, death, worthiness, stupidity, honor, and humble station are not of their own making. All creatures are equal in these, [that is, they all return to nature]. The one who lives for ten years dies. The one who lives for a hundred years also dies. The man of virtue and the sage both die; the wicked and the stupid also die. In life they were (sage-emperors) Yao and Shun; in death they were rotten bones. Thus they all became rotten bones just the same. Who knows their difference? Let us hasten to enjoy our present life. Why bother about what comes after death?”...’.”
“Spoken like a true Daoist, or perhaps, a contemporary secular humanist. What do we have from the rest of the Liezi?”
“Chan has two sections so we can get a ‘feeling tone’ from Lie’s philosophy.”
“A ‘feeling tone’? An interesting term you lifted from Christopher Caudwell’s Illusion and Reality.”
“Actually I lifted it from you Karl. You use it a lot when we discuss art and I know you like Caudwell.”
“Its a good term Fred. In art or philosophy or a poem, when you experience these things, besides their rational content they should also provide a ‘feeling tone.’ Caudwell, a major Marxist thinker, maintained that all our experience is a fusion of objective and subjective reality. I would say the larger our intellectual and emotional consciousness, the larger our understanding of the world. We have a larger intellectual world and a world of feeling tones (i.e., of emotional responses) for having studied Chinese philosophy as well as Western philosophy.”
“That’s why I said ‘feeling tone’ Fred. The type of feeling tone in this case is not just ‘pure’ emotion but a feeling we get from rationally directed emotional understanding. Reason ruling emotions in a Platonic or Spinoza sense. Does what follows ‘feel’ like Daoism from what you know about it. If it does and we can rationally explain why then our emotions and reasons are harmonious.”
“We are getting too far afield here Fred. Read the passages.”
“This is from the one on ‘Skepticism.’ We have a discussion between King Tang of Yin [part of the Shang Dynasty] and his minister Xia Ji. The King wants to know about the existence of the past and asks ‘don’t things have before or after.’ Xia Ji tells him ‘There is no ultimate in the beginning or end of things. The beginning may be the end and the end may be the beginning. Who knows their order? As to what exists outside of things or before the beginning of events, I do not know.’ Next King Tang asks, ‘Is there any limit to the above, the below, or the eight directions?’ Xia Ji responds, ‘If there is nothing, then it is infinite. If there is something, then there must be a limit. How do I know?’”
“Looks to me like King Tang should get a new minister since Xia doesn't know anything.”
“Very funny Karl. But this is the nature of skepticism. I think Xia is trying to make the point that people, even kings, ask a lot meaningless questions that don’t have much to do with the important things in life. Here is a more practical question. The King wants to know what the world outside of China is like. Xia tells him the world outside China is just as the same as China. He knows from traveling around many places and talking to people from remote places. He then speculates, ‘ From this I know the regions within the four seas, the four wildernesses, and the four outermost regions are no different. Thus the lesser is always enclosed by the greater, and so on without end. Heaven and earth, which enclose the myriad things, never reach a limit. Likewise, the enclosing of heaven and earth never reaches an end. How do I know that there is not a greater universe outside our own? This is something I do not know?’”
“He has the same basic ignorance of the ultimate nature of reality as do our contemporary speculative cosmologists.”
“That he does. He ends by saying, ‘Those who maintain that heaven and earth are destructible are wrong and those who maintain that they are indestructible are also wrong. Whether they are destructible or indestructible, I do not know.’ He adds, however, that practically speaking this type of knowledge doesn’t affect our lives. ‘However, it is the same in one case and also the same in the other.’ In other words what difference does it make to us if, to use a modern example, the Sun explodes in four billion years or not!. Socrates also didn’t have much interest in cosmological speculations”.
“This is a bit like Confucius’ refusal to discuss abstract metaphysical problems divorced from the real world. In Lie it is called ‘skepticism.’ The feeling tone I am getting is that Daoists shouldn’t bother themselves with such questions.”
“What do you think of this last excerpt on ‘Fatalism’? ‘Effort said to Fate (Ming, Destiny), “How can your achievement be equal to mine?” “What effect do you have on things,” replied Fate, “that you wish to compare with me?” “Well,” said Effort, “longevity and brevity of life, obscurity and prominence, honorable and humble stations, and poverty and richness, are all within my power.”’ Effort is making quite a claim here. I guess we like to think these things may be in our control. But Fate produces examples along the line of ‘why do bad things happen to good people’ if it’s all due to Effort. Finally Fate says, ‘If what you mentioned were all within your power, how is it that one enjoyed longevity while the other suffered brevity of life [i.e., wicked King Zhou vs.Yan Hui, Confucius’ favorite student, who died young), that the sage was obscure while a violator of virtue was in a prominent position, that the worthy had a humble station while the stupid enjoyed honor, and that the good were poor but the wicked were rich?’ Then ‘Effort said. “If, as you say, I have no effect on things, then are things, being what they are, the result of your control?” “Since you already speak of it as fate,” replied Fate, “how can there be any control? As for me, if a thing is straight, I push it straighter, and if it is crooked, I let it remain so. Longevity, brevity of life, obscurity, prominence, humble and honorable stations, and richness and poverty all come of themselves.”’”
“Well, Fred, it looks like Effort gets kicked out of the picture entirely. Perhaps it would be better for us, as opposed to Lie, to agree that Fate pushes things along or leaves them alone, but that Effort joins in on the side of agents so that Effort is also present when the results ‘all come of themselves.’ “
“That makes more sense to me Karl, and I don’t want to get into a big discussion on ‘freedom vs. determinism’, but what you propose is NOT the negative Daoism of the Liezi.”
“C’est la vie.”
“Well it’s getting Late, Karl. How about we study another Neo-Daoist around this time tomorrow, namely Guo Xiang”.
OK, next up, Guo Xiang”.
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.
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.
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