Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Wu Wei

The sage is best fit to govern based on his identification with the Dao:

“The Dao always takes no action and yet nothing is left undone. If rulers abide by it, the myriad of things transform themselves. If after the transformation, intention arises, then they should be restrained with nameless simplicity. This nameless simplicity is free from desires. Freedom from desires brings with it tranquility that will set the course for the world.” (Chapter37)

This passage is key to Lao Zi’s overall philosophy as it ties together the eternal Dao with the world of creation and the role of man. The eternal Dao is the basis and creates without purpose or through non-action. The sage intuits this and maintains order not through rules and edicts, but from following the natural rule of the Dao that flows through all.

The notion of the non-action of the Dao is also key. The word for non-action in Chinese here is the wu, or nothingness, as we have seen described before as an ‘attribute’ of the Dao. This nothingness is meant to show the Dao as unlimited, not as something vacuous or devoid of substance. If the Dao is not limited by any appellation, then its creative force must be granted the same courtesy. The Dao is not limited in its actions as well, as it is eternal non-action. But least we get bogged down into thinking this non-action is akin to inertia, we see Lao Zi explain further that it is through the non-action that nothing is left undone. The main gist here is that when ulterior motives take precedent, opposing forces cancel each other out. In the affairs of the state, this leaves us with eternal that leads to the ‘tranquility that will set the course of the world.’ The sage adheres to the principles of the eternal Dao instead of cunning or manipulative statecraft. In doing so, things are free from desire and follow the simplicity of their proper course.

Some may say that Lao Zi is offering us an idyllic state, one perhaps too good to be true. Perhaps that is right, as we would be hard pressed to cite historical examples where leaders followed the simplicity inherent in the Dao and the people lived happily without conflict. In fact, the case can be made that there has never been a time when these principles held sway in the realm of human affairs. Let’s look back at chapter 18 again:

“When the great Dao is in decline, there appear the virtues of Ren and Yi. When wisdom appears, there appears the great artifice. When the six relations are out of harmony, there appear filial piety and love. When the nation is in disorder, there will be a need for loyal ministers.”

To reiterate a point made earlier, the great Dao can never be in decline. The guiding principle of Lao Zi’s philosophy is the eternal Dao, and it would be illogical for anything that was eternal to be in decline. The decline of the Dao here could be likened to a ‘fall from grace’ We as human beings have within ourselves the seed of the eternal, but our temporal nature leads us away from eternal principles. For Lao Zi, the decline of the Dao in the world of human affairs is the beginning of the need for named morals. The simplicity of the Dao does not require this need, as it is one, undifferentiated and nameless. The sage rules along these lines. This sort of government takes a special kind of knowledge, or perhaps more accurately an intuition of the Dao. We would probably be wrong to look for an epistemology in the Dao De Jing, at least in the sense of searching for scientific valid explanations. What we see in the philosophy of Lao Zi is more like an intuition or illumination that requires an entirely different approach to thinking.


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