Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Dao and Man

In Chinese thought, human beings are known as the “spirit of creation” (萬物之靈).

People hold a unique place in the makeup of the world, as we are the only being able to reflect on the meaning of our existence. Mankind’s ability to remember, speculate and deduce places us in a unique as well as precarious situation. Gods (or the Dao) dwell in the realm of the eternal; most animals live in the world of the constant present. That is to say they do not reflect on the past nor speculate on the future. Neither the gods nor most animals then have much use for the concept of time. Time is thus a human concern; as an animal caught between the temporal and the eternal, there is a need to embrace both realms. In the Dao De Jing, we see the place mankind has in the makeup of the cosmos.

The Status of Man

In chapter 25, Lao Zi makes states:

“Therefore the Dao is great, heaven is great, the earth is great and man is great. There are four great things in the universe and man is one of them..”

It goes without saying that the Dao holds the highest place in Lao Zi’s philosophy, thus can be considered great. Heaven and earth are great because they offer the backdrop that brings together the whole of creation. That leaves us with mankind. Man’s greatness lies in his ability to reflect on the relationship with the Dao. Although these notions are all listed as containing greatness, there is a hierarchy involved. Later on in chapter 25, Lao Zi continues to expound on this relationship:

“Man models himself after the earth, the earth models itself after heaven, heaven models itself after the Dao and the Dao is the self-so.”

We have already seen that the Dao bestows the eternal on the created thing; consequently the bestower would naturally hold a higher place than the bestowee. This does not mean that there is any relationship of ‘control’ between the created thing, but we can see the necessity of giving the Dao the upper hand. As the earth is thus the place that sustains us, we thus follow that as our model. Similarly, the earth is sustained by heaven and thus models itself accordingly. The heavens are molded upon the eternal Dao, which is the self-so.

In some renditions of the Dao De Jing, the word king is used instead of man as one of the ‘four greats.’ Chapter 25 in the Mawangdui texts excavated in Hunan province in the early 1970’s reads as follows:

“…heaven is great, earth is great, the king is also great. There are four greats within the nation and king is among them.”

Other texts also use the word ‘king’ instead of ‘man’ including the Wang Bi and He Shang Gong versions. In ancient China, there probably wasn’t much concern for overall human rights that we so value today. The king was the representative of man. It was natural for the people to want a ruler that could keep order, a wise man that could maintain the nation. In ancient China, the king was thus the representative and extension of man. Of course there were good rulers (kings) and bad rulers, just as there are good people and bad people. In the chaos that defined the Warring States period, each school of thought was looking for the criteria that would produce a ‘good king.’ The ruler would thus be able to bring order to society again. Lao Zi’s notion of the ruler was one that was in accord with the principles of the eternal Dao. For Lao Zi, this was manifest in his ‘sheng ren’ or sage.

The Rule of the Sage

The sage is uniquely equipped to rule due to his intuition of the Dao. As mentioned previously, the Dao is the creative force of the universe, but does so without purpose. There is no struggle in the process nor is there any control exerted over the things of creation. Lao Zi’s sage ruler follows this principle and exerts no control over those he governs. Chapter 2 of the Dao De Jing describes it as thus:

“Therefore, the Sage administers without action and instructs without words. He lets all things rise without dominating them, proceeds without attempting to possess, and acts without asserting, achieves credit without taking credit. And because he does not take credit, it will never leave him.”

(Translation by Paul Lin)

In the history of Chinese philosophy, Lao Zi was alone in advocating a sage who does not act yet gains so much in the process. This could be an attempt to advocate quality over quantity. The goal of thinkers in the development of early Chinese thought may have been similar, however the ways they went about it were quite different. Feng You-lan gives more insight into the difference between the Confucian and Daoist sage:

“The Daoists agree with the Confucianists that the ideal state is one which has a sage at its head. It is only the sage who can and should rule. The difference between the two schools, however, is that according to the Confucianists, when a sage becomes a ruler, he should do many things for the people, whereas according to the Daoists, the duty of the sage is not to do things, but rather to undo or not to do at all. The reason for this, according to Lao Zi, is hat the troubles of the world come, not because there are many things not yet done, but because too many things are done. In the Lao Zi we read, ‘The more restrictions and prohibitions there are in the world, the poorer people will be. The more sharp weapons the people have, the more troubled will be the country. The more cunning craftsmen there are, the more pernicious contrivances will appear. The more laws are promulgated, the more thieves and bandits there will be.’ (chapter 27)” (A Short History of Chinese Philosophy page 102)

Analyzing the above commentary, Feng You-lan makes a key point. Even when we have the best of intentions, too much effort may bring about adverse results. To reiterate a point, the reason so many schools of thought emerged during the chaotic times of the Warring States period was that they were all trying to find a way (or Dao) to bring order back to society. Of course, some of those schools pursued the matter according to their own interests instead of what may have been good for the whole. This created even more conflict and strife instead of making things any better, with the end result being more suffering for the people. The Legalist school was one such faction. The ultimate unification of the various states at that time into one China saw the ascendancy of the Legalist philosophy, but its draconian nature was the reason the Qin Dynasty did not last very long. For Lao Zi, the actions of self-interested rulers could not result in the improvement of the situation. The ruler had to be one with the Dao, as when it is embraced by men, the harmony of the eternal holds sway in the realm of human affairs. As we have seen in chapter 18, the Dao can be in decline, but only in the world of human affairs, so the sage ruler knows how to govern without action. Of the many passages in the Dao De Jing depicting this philosophy, one metaphor in chapter 60 is especially poignant:

“Governing a huge nation is akin to cooking a small fish. If the Dao is followed in ruling all under heaven, then ghosts will not have supernatural powers. These powers will no longer harm the people. Not only will these powers be unable to harm the people, the sage will not harm the people. When both can do no harm, the De will be manifest for the benefit of all.”

In this passage, the idea of governing a huge nation is compared to cooking a small fish. Excessive handling of the fish will make it inedible. Too many laws and edicts will confuse the people and take away their original simplicity. In English, the similar proverb ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ may convey a similar sentiment; overdoing anything can lead to disaster.

The other important notion here is that when the Dao does permeate the human world, the sage will not harm people. Lao Zi’s idea here according to Wing-tsit Chan’s interpretation of the chapter is that the sage will not harm people by interfering with their lives. This picture of what amounts to a laissez faire state of affairs has its core in the important notion of ‘wu wei’ or non-action.


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