Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Dao and Creation

The Dao is a metaphysical notion in that it is eternal and limitless. However, it is from the world of the temporal and limited that we are able to extract this notion, making the relationship between the two realms a vital one for deeper philosophical understanding. If the transcendent and world of temporal beings had no connection, speaking of metaphysical concepts would be rendered absurd, making these concepts truly empty and vacuous. There thus needs to be a bridge between the two worlds of the eternal and temporal that brings the two together, without which existence would become meaningless.

For Lao Zi there is the eternal Dao and the bridge that brings us to the world can be found in the De. According to the Han Yu Dictionary (pages 353-354), the term De had the following meanings in ancient China: a. to ascend, b. moral character and c. to obtain.

I believe these three meanings of De all come into play in Lao Zi’s description of the relationship between the Dao and the De. While the word De in the Chinese language today means simply morality, in the ancient usage these three meanings may have held some significance to this profound relationship. Before delving into this further, lets first take a look at Lao Zi’s description of the relationship in chapter 51:

“The Dao creates, the De cultivates.

Matter gives form (to things) while the situation completes them.

This is why there is nothing that does not esteem the Dao and honor De.

There is no order to esteem Dao and honor De, as the come spontaneously.

So the Dao creates, the De cultivates. The two rear and develop creation, give things

security and peace, nurture and protect. Dao produces things, but does not possess them, acts without assertion and develops without control. This is called the profound De.”

In this chapter, Lao Zi clearly states the relationship between the Dao and De. The Dao creates while the De cultivate. In this relationship, the De acts as the bridge between the eternal Dao and the temporal world of things. The creative power of the Dao is manifest in the De, which is why Wang Bi writes:

“Dao is where all things come through. De is what all things obtain, Through Dao, one can obtain De; therefore one cannot help but respect Dao. Losing De, one will get hurt; therefore one cannot help but value De.”

(Translation by Paul Lin with slight variation)

The interpretation of De as “obtain” originated with Wang Bi. In chapter 38, we see another possibility of the loss of De:

“He with the highest De, does not display it and so maintains it.

He with the lowest De, does not let it go and so loses it.

He with the highest De does not act and yet nothing is left undone.

He with the lowest De acts and shows his intent to act…”

(Translation by Paul Lin with slight variation)

Here Wang Bi comments that:

“De means to obtain…how is De obtained? Through the Dao…”

The De thus represents the Dao in the world of things; the De is what is eternal in the temporal while the Dao is eternity itself. But if the De is what is obtained through the Dao, what could a lower De be? The idea here is that any deliberate action taken leads to disaster. If a person is not in accord with the source that is the Dao, then he or she acts with intent or ulterior motive. This results in the loss of the original De. There then arrives a need for the artificial rules and laws that tend to govern society. Some passages in the Dao De Jing that address this situation are:

“The more taboos and prohibitions there are in the world, the poorer people will be. The more sharp weapons people have, the more troubled the state will be.

The more cunning and skill man possesses, the more vicious things will appear.

The more laws and orders are made prominent, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”

(Chapter 57, Translation by Wing-tsit Chan)

“When the Dao is in decline, the notions of humanity and righteousness come to the forefront.

When knowledge and wisdom appear, hypocrisy follows.

When the six familial relations are disordered, there is a need for filial piety and affection.

When a nation is in chaos, there will appear loyal ministers.”

(Chapter 18)

These two chapters are interesting in they describe a world that has always been in place. Since the beginning of civilization, there has been a need for rules, laws and moral dictates. Some would contend that this is the glue that keeps society together. However, Lao Zi is painting a different picture. The more laws there are, the more crime you will have. When the Dao is in decline, then morals come to the forefront. Humanity and righteousness were two of the cardinal virtues advocated by Confucian thinkers. As De itself also has the connotation of virtue, we see Lao Zi treading a different path than the Confucians. In chapter 18, he states that these virtues appear when the Dao is in decline. But as an eternal principle devoid of name, shape or any other defining characteristics, how can the Dao ever be in ‘decline’? It might serve us well here to make a comparison of sorts with the myth of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis. The fall from grace of Adam and Eve describes a situation where mankind was in paradise before being tempted by evil, thus being cast out of the garden. In this story, perhaps we can say that as a being caught between the temporal and the eternal, man needs a story that explains the imperfection. While the Dao itself can never be in decline, man can fall from it through purposeful action. The interesting comparison here regarding the myths of the decline of Dao and the fall from grace in the Old Testament is that for the Daoists, the decline of the Dao was the beginning of morality, while in the Old Testament, the fall from grace was the beginning of sin.

The Dao’s relationship to the things of the universe is one of bestowal, while the things relationship with the Dao is one of obtainment. In this obtainment, virtue is one of the manifestations, but perhaps another comparison with a western philosophical term will help us shed some light on the special nature of De as virtue in the Dao De Jing. The epitome of the philosopher in the western world was the image of Socrates. Socrates may have fit in well with the world of Chinese thought, as he was a man concerned with what it took to lead the good life, the moral life. In the Platonic dialogue Meno, Socrates goes about finding the meaning of virtue, which in the Greek world was represented by the word ‘arete.’ Arete meant the goodness of a thing or that which a thing excels (Dictionary of Philosophy, Peter Angeles) For Socrates, the arête of man was the knowledge of the good.

“This arête was not knowledge of an abstract proposition, but rather a turning of the eye to the soul, to a direct and therefore compelling vision of the good. A man does not really know it unless he knows it as a whole, unless he has a permanent single realized vision of human goodness as such which will serve to guide him in all circumstances.” (A.H. Armstrong, Ancient Philosophy, pages 30-31)

Thus we see here a bit of a similarity between the De and arête in that they were not concerned with an outward manifestation of morals as such, but more with the inherent excellence of a thing. For Socrates, this arête was seen through man’s ability to reason and associate with the highest good. For Lao Zi, it was the intuition of the Dao. Both Lao Zi and Socrates cultivated the inherent excellence of the De and arête through looking inward to their connection with the eternal and not outward toward the artificial mores of society. Socrates opposed the Sophist notion that arête was something that could be taught instead of searched for from within. Lao Zi was the same in that the De was an inward expression of the eternal Dao. Perhaps it could be stated that Socrates and Lao Zi had no qualms with morality; it was the individual morals that were the problem. Morality itself would be a tacit expression of a well-ordered society, while morals would be the unhappy byproduct of a chaotic one.


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