Tao Te Ching
The Way in the Chinese Classic Age
Many authors and teachers have dedicated their lives to formulating wisdom that will help others achieve The Way. According to them, The Way is how a person should live his or her life to achieve inner peace, self-actualization, and harmony. Among the great teachers in the Chinese culture are Laozi, Confucius, and Tao Qian. For hundreds of years, experts have tried to analyze the teachings of these great philosophers to ascertain their meaning. The Daodejing (or Tao Te Ching), Analects, and the poems of T’ao Qian all address The Way differently. While the ideas may even be contradicting at times, they all express truth about the human condition and The Way. There is an interesting and valuable lesson to be learned from each one of these great authors, teachers, and philosophers. Although these texts can be categorized as religious texts, I believe that they apply more to the individual than the divine. Especially during the Chinese Classic Age in which these texts were written, the focus was on the individual, the common, and the everyday – not the divine. A reoccurring theme throughout all of these works is The Way and how to achieve it, but all the teachers question if one can even be taught The Way or if it is something that must be realized individually on a personal level through self-actualization, not through a teaching. Searching for The Way is a lifelong journey and is often different for every individual.
The Daodejing can be translated to mean “The Way of Virtue”. In reference to this text, The Way is referred to as a ordinary, virtuous way of living that encompasses everything in the universe. Although the Dao never specifically mentions Confucius or his teachings, it is suspected that the author, Laozi, created the Daodejing as a foil to the Confucianism values and teachings. Where Confucius teaches affirmative action and sophistication through education, Laozi teaches “nonaction” through promoting “weakness, softness, and passivity” (Puchner, vol. A, 1345). While these traits seem to be negative, Laozi advocates for “actionless action”, which means that if one lives their life in passivity and does not act, then positive actions will occur in the person’s life. Laozi often uses paradoxes to achieve his literary purpose. Evidence of this use of contradictions is apparent in the opening chapter where he states “The way that can be spoken of Is not the constant way” (Puchner, vol. A, 1347). Laozi is using a paradox to express that words cannot be used to accurately describe The Way. He asserts that language is not an accurate reflector of reality and everything is based on categories which are defined by language and shaped by one’s own perspective. Laozi claims that The Way is not the same for every person. Although Laozi maintains that no two paths are the same, he goes on to describe his own Way. In chapter 16, he gives the reader a first person view “I do my utmost to attain emptiness; I hold firmly to stillness… One’s actions will lead to impartiality, impartiality to kingliness, Kingliness to heaven, heaven to the way” (Puchner, vol. A, 1349). As long as an individual frees themselves of politics, authority and conventional ways of thinking then they can discover their Way. However, he does specify that to attain The Way, one must “unlearn” what they have been taught by their elders and teachers. The process of “unlearning” can best be described through the definitions of the terms “tuition” and “intuition”. As all college students and graduates know, tuition is paying money to obtain knowledge. Intuition is a natural state in which the individual already possess the necessary knowledge. Coinciding with Laozi’s claim to natural instincts and the individual over the public, he claims that The Way is something that a person must use their intuition and instincts to achieve.
Confucius, like Socrates and Jesus, is in the ranks of many great teachers who did not write his lessons on paper. Instead, he established a school and his students transcribed his teachings in the collection Analects. This assortment of teachings has given future generations an idea of Confucius’s character, as well as his views on people, situations, and actions. Although Confucius condemns the effectiveness of language when describing The Way, his disciples explain the process in which need and duty become one. In Book II of Analects, “At fifteen, I set my mind upon learning. At thirty, I took my stand. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the will of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was attuned. At seventy, I follow all the desires of my heart without breaking any rule” (Puchner, vol. A, 1335). On the contrary, in Book IV “The Master” is attributed with saying “In the morning hear the Way; in the evening die content” (Puchner, vol. A, 1336). Obviously, this means that if one realizes The Way during life, the individual with go on to live and die happily. The contradiction in this statement, however, is that Book II claimed that Confucius did not achieve The Way until he was seventy and near death and here it reads that he realized the Way “in the morning”, which is a common metaphor for the early years of life. Many great teachers use this method of contradictions to keep their students alert and inquisitive. Through these contradicting ideas, Confucius was also showing that The Way is different for each person, and that the path and time will differ.
Tao Qian is a prominent poet of medieval Chinese literature. He is known for his tendency to write poetry about himself, which was not very common during this time. Being a member of the civil service, he would have been extremely familiar with the texts of Laozi and Confucius. Evidence of this is apparent in Qian’s poetry, which is deeply influenced by the teachings the Dao. His poetry expresses “go with the flow” characteristics that are frequently associated with Daoism. His poems often celebrate wine, nature, and acceptance. An interesting aspect of Qian’s poetry is that each poem presents a different way to interpret The Way. In “Biography of Master Five Willows”, Tao Qian exhibits all of the traits that he is best known for. Since the poem is an autobiography, it possesses the personal quality that is uniquely his. He also explicitly states that he has “no desire for glory or gain” (Puchner, vol. B, 1007), which shows that he is writing poems to satisfy his own inclinations, not to receive glory from others. This fact could explain why his poems tend to be about himself, because he was writing for himself. Qian is expressing that he does not live his life in search of glory, but his Way is one of personal fulfillment. “Finding Fault with My Sons” teaches another important lesson about The Way. After describing the “laziness” of his five sons that “has no match”, he goes on to say that “if this is the way it is fated to be, Just let me reach for the Thing in the Cup” (Puchner, vol. B, 2013). As with most of his poems, Qian’s solution to the issue is to drink wine. While this may seem like an irresponsible way to avoid the situation, it actually shows a profound aspect of wisdom. Qian does not attempt to change what the cosmos has presented him with; he simply accepts the circumstances and moves on with his life. “Substance, Shadow, and Spirit” is a poem through which Tao Qian presents his readers with three pieces of advice on their Way. Substance says to Shadow, “when wine is offered, do not refuse”; which reveals the first piece of advice – enjoy the little things. Shadow replies with “do good, and your love will outlive you”; which means, simply treat others well. Spirit proposes his solution and third piece of advice to his companions, “just surrender to the cycle of things” (Puchner, vol. B, 2012). Spirit is expressing that one cannot be following The Way until he has an acceptance of life and death and all that it encompasses.
After reading and interpreting the works of Laozi, Confucius, and Tao Qian. I have determined that The Way is manner of living in which an individual achieves harmony through self-actualization. Each one of these great philosophers has a specific way of reaching this ultimate goal. Even though the ideas sometimes contradict each other, a blending of all of the teachings and ideas is necessary for The Way. All of these works, Daodejing, Analects, and Tao Qian’s poetry, specifically mention The Way and their solution on how to achieve the supreme standard of spiritual living. Daoism and Confucianism can easily be considered the foundations of Chinese thought. This is an interesting concept taking into account that none of these founders actually wrote down their teachings, but they are still incredibly influential thousands of years after death. The reason for this is the invaluable, timeless wisdom that these philosophers impart on their students. These students, like Tao Qian, have gone on to write their own pieces of literature in which they share their own path for The Way.
Principles of Taoism in the Tao Te Ching and The Tao of Pooh
Lao-tse’s Tao te Ching is the defining text in the Chinese religious philosophy of Taoism. Written at an unknown time predating the 4th century BC, the Tao te Ching has been adapted and translated countless times, yet remains a guiding source of knowledge for Taoism today. Because of the many fundamental differences in Eastern and Western philosophy and the obvious language barrier, these ancient Taoist teachings can seem out of the reach of Western audiences. To remedy this, in 1982, American author Benjamin Hoff published the Tao of Pooh, in which he uses the characters from A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh allegorically to introduce traditional Taoist principles to Westerners. Though both texts are attempting to teach many of the same principles, they do so in very different ways and to different effects.
The Tao te Ching, in its 81 short chapters, is a veritable puzzle for many Western readers. It introduces many foreign concepts and routinely contradicts itself. Its purposeful ambiguity leaves the text wide open to different interpretation, and the huge array of translations only obscures meanings further- in fact, there are over 200 published translations of chapter one alone, a more traditionally accurate translation being “The Tao that is Tao’ed is not Tao” (adapt. John Chalmers Ch. 1). The use of contradiction is key to the effect of the Tao te Ching, as it causes readers to question what the text is saying and to evaluate which parts are true to theirselves. To be with the way of the Tao is to “act without (thinking of) acting; …to taste without discerning any flavour; to consider what is small as great, and a few as many” (Lao-tse Ch. 63). Contradiction like this is an important element to the text, but its use is also a factor that makes Taoist teachings more inaccessible to people reading the book in a translated language. Lao-tse’s “virtues” demonstrated in each of the chapters are neither commands nor suggestions, but seem almost passive. The most prominent of these virtues, such as the Tao, Wei Wu Wei, and P’u, are also addressed in Hoff’s book. Lao-tse tries to state the truths of Taoism without offending, allowing readers to examine each idea with an open mind. In chapter 44, Lao-tse explains Taoist ideas on wealth and fame, stating his views as questions to the reader, causing you to think about how his statements pertain to you rather than immediately accept or reject the statement.
“Or fame or life, do you hold more dear? Or life or wealth, To which would you adhere? Keep life and lose those other things; Keep them and lose your life:–which brings Sorrow and pain more near?”
Instead of commanding you to live life by certain rules, the Tao te Ching encourages interpreting the text for yourself. Very different from many Western philosophical or religious texts, such as the Bible or works of ancient Greek philosophers, the Tao te Ching does not delineate wrong from right- it does not tell how you must go about something, only what the truths are and what you may strive to achieve. Do you want wealth and fame, or do you want a meaningful life? Taoism does not tell you which you should try to attain, it only lays out the facts for you to examine and make the choice the best pertains to you. Because of this, the Tao te Ching is a text teaches effectively and without judgment.
The Tao of Pooh reflects a much more palatable, concrete depiction of Taoist philosophy to the Western audience. Written by a westerner for westerners, even the cultural reference on which the book is built has definitively western roots. Benjamin Hoff depicts many Taoist principles as concrete and definite in their existence, application, and interpretation, even when chapter one in the Tao te Ching directly states that “The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao” (Lao-tse Ch. 1). Many of his points seem to contradict those in the Tao te Ching just as this example.
Despite this, the book at a broader level does an excellent job of bringing out the Taoist principles within each of A.A. Milne’s characters, namely Pooh. Both books deal with many of the same Taoist virtues, though in different ways. In the Tao of Pooh, Hoff illuminates the principles of P’u, and Wei Wu Wei within Pooh’s character.
P’u, or the Uncarved Block, is the Taoist principle of things in their natural state of simplicity, much as we find Pooh in Milne’s books. Pooh is “the very Epitome of the Uncarved Block,” says Hoff, the essence of the principle being that “thing in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled or lost when simplicity is changed” (Hoff 11). Lao-tse addresses this same idea in the Tao te Ching, stating that a man of excellence in the way of the Tao derives this excellence from his “endless return to man’s first state,” and is is hailed for bringing out “the simple infant man” within himself, which completes his excellence (Lao-tse Ch. 28). This same passage is often translated as “return to the state of the uncarved block” and illustrates why the undisturbed, simple state of man or anything else is its greatest form. Lao-tse stresses that less is more: the simpler the being, the wiser and greater it becomes. Pooh’s simplicity is what allows him to overcome obstacles that could not be tackled by the wits or cleverness of Rabbit, Owl, or Eeyore. Much in the same way, the wisest insights are achieved by man returning to his simplest state.
Wu Wei is another virtue embodied by Pooh. To Hoff, Wu Wei means”without doing, causing, or making,” as is its traditionally defined. “But,” he says, “practically speaking, it means without meddlesome, combative, or egotistical effort.” Wei Wu Wei means action without action and is a key principle in Taoist philosophy. Hoff best explains this by comparing it to water: “The efficiency of Wu Wei is like that of water flowing over and around the rocks in its path— not the mechanical, straight-line approach that usually ends up short-circuiting natural laws, but one that evolves from an inner sensitivity to the natural rhythm of things.” Water finds the path of least resistance to navigate the obstacles it encounters. When it comes to a falls, it falls. When it comes to a pool, it rests. Water does not attempt to combat its natural surroundings, instead, it succeeds precisely because it behaves without intentions, it acts without acting. As Lao-tse explains, “the softest thing in the world…. overcomes the hardest,” allowing him to know “what advantage belongs to doing nothing” (Lao-tse Ch. 43). As translated by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English, “teaching without words and work without doing are understood by very few” (Lao-tse Ch. 43 tr. Gia-fu Feng and Jane English). Acting in a way that causes no resistance is the most efficient and natural way to act, but Lao-tse observes that very few people are able to achieve true action without action. Following the Way allows people to learn to act in harmony with nature rather than against it, with the ultimate goal being the ability to act without any doing, which is the way of nature itself. Rigidity will be overcome by natural flow and flexibility, much like Pooh’s “simple-mindedness” allows him to overcome challenges that rigid knowledge cannot.
In the Tao of Pooh, Milne’s other characters, such as Eeyore, Owl, and Rabbit become punching bags that Hoff uses to exemplify what the Tao is not. These characters all have “brain” which makes them look wiser on the surface, but, asserts Hoff, “Brain can be fooled,” while nature cannot (Hoff 57). Hoff criticizes these characters as appearing foolish, caught up in their own greatness, looking down on Pooh for his lack of brain when it is Knowledge, the source of their “greatness,” that causes them to become unwise. “While Rabbit’s little routine is that of Knowledge for the sake of Being Clever, Owl’s is that of Knowledge for the sake of Appearing Wise, [and] Eeyore’s is Knowledge for the sake of Complaining About Something,” (Hoff 15) “Pooh, the Uncarved Block, is able to accomplish what he does because he is simpleminded” (Hoff 12). Hoff shows that these busybody characters do nothing but complicate life for others, sitting on their pedestals of knowledge and shouting down meaningless orders from above, while it is Pooh who truly knows the Way and therefore is wise.
Despite its apparent shortcomings, the Tao of Pooh makes Taoist thinking much more accessible to Western readers than the cryptic translations of the Tao te Ching while still maintaining a fair degree of truthfulness to core Taoist teachings. It covers many of the same ideas as the ancient text, but addresses them in a different manner, sometimes to similar effect while to opposite effect at other times. The use of Milne’s characters helpd Hoff illustrate his points and make the book relatable, but even when the two authors make similar points, they can come across very differently because of the way in which the books are written.
One of the largest differences between these two texts is the style with which they are presented and delivered. As previously stated, the Tao te Ching does not offend, and explains why enlightenment through the Tao is accessible to anyone. On the other hand, Hoff dedicates much of his book to explaining the fault in the lives of others, and how their lives are not complete because they lack the Way. He describes Western culture as being full of “Bisy Backsons,” setting these people against what he portrays as the perfect, peaceful Eastern and Indigenous populations of the world. The Bisy Backson comes in many varieties, be it the “Miserable Puritan, Restless Pioneer, …the Lonely Cowboy,” Hoff’s list goes on regarding the people who are living life wrong (Hoff 103). The Backson is “always going somewhere, somewhere he hasn’t been. Anywhere but where he is” (Hoff 97). Hoff also lashes out against other Chinese religions, claiming that to Chinese Buddhists, life was “bitter” and “full of traps,” (Hoff 19) while Confucianists were merely “busy ants spoiling the picnic of life” (Hoff 40). Rather than tell the reader what is wrong, why they should not do this or can’t do that, the Tao te Ching attempts to educate the reader on how they, too, can live in harmony with the Tao, to “comprehend its mysteries, … so as to elude man’s knowledge” (Lao-tse Ch. 15) Both the Tao te Ching and the Tao of Pooh describe these virtues as things to strive towards- acquaintance with the Way and the evasion of traditional knowledge- but they do so in seemingly opposite manners.
Though the works of both Hoff and Lao-tse may seem to contradict each other at times while trying to convey the same teachings, both are effective in their own ways. The Tao of Pooh acts as a gateway to Taoism for many readers who would not otherwise be exposed to it, while the Tao te Ching truly lays the groundwork on which all other Taoist teachings are built. Because of the difference in the style of writing, both texts convey the same ideas to the reader, yet you come away with very different impressions and messages from perhaps the two most widely read works on Taoism in the West.
Governance in Lao Tzu and Machiavelli
Philosophers have waxed long and eloquent on the ideal government and therefore the ideal sovereign; this short essay will serve to compare two works on the subject, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and Machiavelli’s The Prince. This paper will analyze three main points of contention between these authors. First, it will consider the author’s view on the character of humanity and how the people should be expected to act. Second, it will assess what sort of government and sovereign is required to manage a nation populated by such a people. Last, it will compare the thoughts of each author on the defense of the nation and what that should require of both the sovereign and the people. While each philosopher gives very different answers to the same questions, both writings are ultimately honest attempts to improve the lives of those being ruled.
Any comparison of two philosophical works must begin with an introduction of the works in question. Within the pages of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu’s semi-poetic writings warn the reader of the dangers of ambition and materialism, while simultaneously exalting the character of man. Lao Tzu argues that people must only follow the Tao, the ‘way,’ to find not only contentment in individual life but also peace and prosperity on the national level. He likens the Tao to a river that winds through all of life, offering to man the correct path, whether he be farmer or prince. The Tao Te Ching, together with several works from other early Chinese philosophers, served to successfully inform governmental policy in China for many centuries. A continent and a half away and almost a millennium in the future, Niccolò Machiavelli had a very different approach to the quandary of government. Instead of expecting or advocating that people adhere to any sort of ethical code, Machiavelli laments the sad state of humanity and constructs a method of governance with that fact in mind. While he advocates for harsh and occasionally brutal policies, he maintains that these are necessary in order to manage an unruly and opportunistic people. Machiavelli focuses his writings on specific examples of the decisions to be made by a sovereign, and why these decisions are necessary in operating a stable and successful nation.
The primary reason for the vast differences in the conclusions drawn by each of these philosophers can be traced to their divergent views on the state of mankind. Lao Tzu saw in every man the ability to follow a path of contentment that is open to all, without the need or desire to do harm to others. He argues that a society that chooses to follow the Tao would rise above the petty nature of man because the Tao is of the world. Lao Tzu writes:
Throw away holiness and wisdom,
and people will be a hundred times happier.
Throw away morality and justice,
and people will do the right thing.
Throw away industry and profit,
and there won’t be any thieves. (207)
Lao Tzu explains that if man refuses to ascribe to the world a fundamental truth such as religion or ‘wisdom,’ the happiness of man will not be unduly limited by these constructions. In refusing to enforce a flawed sense of universal justice, man allows himself the ability to choose the correct path in fluid circumstances, as opposed to an unyielding and uncaring law. By refusing to overvalue the worth of material goods and wealth, man does not allow any lack of them bring him unhappiness, and so he would not wish to take them from others. According to Lao Tzu, if man would open himself to the Tao and follow the path, his choices would bring contentment to himself and others.
To Lao Tzu, the purpose of government and the sovereign (or the ‘Master,’ as Lao Tzu refers to them) is to serve simply as an example for the people. This example would be bereft of ambition, content and refusing to project its will onto others. By making the people content with what they have, leaders can make it so that a perfect society can be constructed, one where the people do not want for anything; therefore, there is no conflict or disruption. Lao Tzu’s teachings are those of stability of the nation through individual inaction, expressed in the statement that “When there is no desire, / all things are at peace.” (209). Without the desire for power, man would not struggle to rise to the top. Without the desire for personal wealth, man would not swindle others to gather it. Without the desire to change the world, he is content to stay as he is. Lao Tzu implies that the greatest good for humanity is not individual achievement through strife or conflict, as conflict leads to unhappiness for all, but contentment and peace gained through acceptance of things as they are. When the individuals of a nation are at peace, the nation is at peace.
Lao Tzu’s teachings pose that this peace would extend even to foreign powers. He argues that by refusing to make an enemy of another person or nation, nations can sidestep states of conflict. He states:
There is no greater illusion than fear,
no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself,
no greater misfortune than having an enemy.
Lao Tzu argues that when man allows himself to fear another, whether that other be person or nation, he clouds his own thinking, and sees an enemy where there is none. When he stockpiles weapons to defend himself from this imaginary foe, he will make them see a foe in himself; he will have created his own enemy. Lao Tzu’s teachings state that humility and the Tao preclude the existence of an enemy.
Meanwhile, Machiavelli drew very different conclusions to similar questions, beginning with his views of man as ambitious and opportunistic, always seeking to improve his lot in life, even at the expense of others. His statement on the character of man is such:
(They) are ungrateful, fickle, simulators and deceivers, avoiders of danger,
greedy for gain; and while you work for their good they are completely yours,
offering you their blood, their property, their lives, and their sons, as I said earlier,
when danger is far away; but when it comes nearer to you they turn away.
While he expresses some slight disdain for the people over their character, Machiavelli does not hold human nature against them; it is a fact that people are the way they are, and they must be governed as such. Machiavelli bases his method of governance on managing such a fickle and unworthy shade of humanity, with the understanding that, on the whole, they cannot and will not understand the actions of the sovereign. Unlike Lao Tzu, Machiavelli argues that trusting the people to do the right thing unaided is to lay the groundwork for failure as a nation.
With such a people to govern, Machiavelli’s ideal sovereign is a hard man, quick to punish and slow to reward, ready to break his word when necessary but never to be seen as untrustworthy. He must guide his people in every way that he can, with laws, appearances, and a strong measure of guile. On the qualities of the sovereign, this passage says the most: “[A] man who wishes to make a vocation of being good at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good” (224). Machiavelli states that the prince must be seen as good to avoid being hated, but to be good at all times will ruin the prince, as he cannot have the resources to be good to all in his kingdom. When the prince is ruined, the prince’s nation falls, and with the fall of the nation, the people fall. Therefore, to protect his people, the prince cannot only be good; he must practice cruelty at some times and miserliness at others. By rejecting the need for small injustices, the prince creates far greater injustice in the future. This idea differs greatly from Lao Tzu’s hands-off approach to governance, in which injustice on behalf of the Master would only serve as inspiration for further injustice among the people.
Furthermore, in an effort to preserve his nation and the people therein, Machiavelli argues that the prince must keep his mind always on the topic of war. He must see every other nation as an enemy to be fought, even if he does not treat rival nations in this way. Machiavelli states that a prince unprepared to fend off the advances of a hostile nation will have his nation taken and subjugated, to the detriment of his people. According to Machiavelli, “Francesco Sforza became Duke of Milan from being a private citizen because he was armed; his sons, since they avoided the inconveniences of arms, became private citizens after having been dukes” (222). Princes who forget that a prince most often rises to power through force of arms are well suited to lose their princedoms. If he is to protect himself, and therefore his people, he must be a master of war, and not turn against it because it is cruel. This stance is strongly at odds with Lao Tzu’s view on the gravity of war. Lao Tzu argues that all men should despise weapons, and should only take up arms when strictly necessary, whereas Machiavelli states that a prince’s thoughts should seldom stray from the subject.
The teachings of Lao Tzu and Machiavelli stand at odds, separated not only by time and distance but by disparity of culture as well. The Tao Te Ching embodies the Chinese philosophy of satisfaction with your lot in life, while The Prince draws every attention to the insatiable ambition of man characterized by European nobility. Neither work offers a perfect answer, but Machiavelli’s pragmatism is perhaps a more perfect solution to the modern quandary of government. Hopes and ideals cannot afford man a just and right rule, as much as we might wish, or as much as such idealism may be made possible by the technologies of the future. The general state of mankind in the present, being too coarse for self-governance, allows only for a strict hand and short leash.
The Tao: Redefining Heroism in the Twenty-First Century
In the twenty-first century it is almost impossible not to be caught up in the trap of technology and social media; thus, it really takes a great amount of bravery and heroism to be able to live in the moment. We become more and more connected to the material world while drifting further away from spiritual values which make us truly heroic. Society becomes more and more complicated, impatient and selfish each day, without realizing that to be able to experience life to the fullest a person has to live by three simple, yet vital tenets of Taoism: compassion, simplicity and patience.
Modern society puts more emphasis on the material world and self-centeredness, than on the spiritual values and compassion for others. Every day we become more alienated from nature and from one another, estranging ourselves from the Tao, believing that being more independent makes us brave and heroic. Instead of helping our environment, we become more hostile towards nature and people, which takes us away from the Tao, which teaches us that we have to “trust our natural responses” (Mitchell 23). The social scientist Dr. You- Sheng Li writes in his essay “Taoist Philosophy for the 21st Century”, that “wealth-building society is good at economy, science and technology, and it is also good at war. But it is not good at making its people happy. On the contrary, such society puts tremendous pressure on people to work hard for money but at the expense of happiness” (Li). People are social creatures. We need to be accepted by our community and we function best when we work in groups. If the modern form of society, which aims at disconnecting people from one another, was so successful and good for the people living in it, there would not be such high rates of happiness-deficiency related diseases such as cancer, heart attacks, and depression leading to suicide, according to Dr. You- Sheng Li. The Tao teaches that we should not “overvalue possessions” (Mitchell 3) but we do the opposite. We are over satisfied with material things, but we lack social contact. We believe that social media brings us closer together, but it actually forces us apart. People start to believe that this artificial screen-to-screen communication is a good enough substitute for real life contact. Maintaining this illusion leads people to focus more on material and financial success, and less on their success as humans. “Colors blind the eye. Sounds deafen the ear. Flavors numb the taste. Thoughts weaken the mind. Desires wither the heart” (Mitchell 12). All these items which we desire distract us from what is truly important in life. We are so obsessed with the thought of working to acquire material possessions for our own personal satisfaction that we become self-centered and unaware of the surroundings. We are taught that material possessions are a reflection of our success as people, while spiritual virtues are greatly overlooked. This is why the Tao says that “Success is as dangerous as failure” (Mitchell 13). We are blinded by financial success, and completely overlook our success as humans. What makes us heroic and truly successful humans is being able to live a life of “having without possessing” (Mitchell 10), which means having more compassion for those who are in need, and less material possessions to keep us distracted from our true purpose in life.
A brave person is one who is able to find joy in the simple moment, one who is not blinded by colors, deafened by sounds or distracted by the material world. “He allows things to come and go” (Mitchell 12). This is a person who is able to sit back and allow things to happen without his constant interference. Being able to resist the temptation to control the moment is what makes one heroic. As the Tao says, “[d]o your work, then step back” (Mitchell 9) to simply let nature do its work, because this is how life really works; there is no need for constant interference. Dr. You- Sheng Li points out that the “Taoist philosophy often stresses the value of naturalness and simplicity, a simple but joyful life which values human nature as a whole, and not just those parts of human nature which fit in with the highly competitive society” (Li). We have all these machines whose sole purpose is to make our lives easier, but they alienate us from nature and the Tao. Therefore, we constantly find ourselves being busier. We will not find true happiness unless we go back to nature and simplicity.
Taoism does not require great intellect in order to be understood; it requires the ability and courage to see through materialism, and break the chains of modern social norms, which give people the illusion that a successful life means constant struggle and stress. Dr. You- Sheng Li has a simple, yet accurate philosophy about life which states that “life is for us to enjoy, and joy resides in satisfaction with a simple life. Life should turn away from highly oriented goals which are institutionalized into modern society” (Li). We may believe that financial success is the key to long lasting happiness, and this is how we complicate our lives. We rarely stop to think that what will matter by the end of our lives is not how much money we have made and with how many gadgets we have played. The beauty of life is in the simple moment of presence. These moments come and go, but the memory of that experience is what stays with us until the very end. These beautiful moments, in which we become aware of our existence and of the fact that we are alive, are the moments in which we are in the presence of the Tao.
When you are a part of society that teaches its people to become control freaks, it takes a great amount of bravery to be patient enough to sit down and “have faith in the way things are” (Mitchell 13). We have interfered so much in the way life works that we have completely altered our reality and are unable to have trust in anything but ourselves. Having made so many “corrections” to reality, gives us the impression that we are omnipotent, thus making us very impatient. Instead of taking the role of the Master, we should learn to be patient enough to “just stay in the center of the circle and let all things take their course” (Mitchell 19) as the Tao teaches. Nowadays, we have easy access to everything from technology to success, which makes us very impatient. Thanks to the Internet which provides access to all sorts of information, we do not have the patience to search for knowledge on a deeper level. We trust Wikipedia because it saves us hours at the library being buried in dozens of books. We do not have the patience to learn. If we want knowledge, we want it now. While this may sound very appealing at first, the negative part comes in the fact that we lack one very important step towards acquiring true knowledge – the path towards it. The process of learning itself brings you closer to the Tao, and is much more important than the end result, because this is what forms you as a person. Having the patience to go through that process is what makes a person a hero, because that person ends up with much more than new information – he ends up an improved human. Social media on the other hand, alters our approach towards success. Nowadays, a person can become famous overnight because he has posted something at the right time. This person receives instant recognition which, of course, fades away as fast as it came, but it was enough to alter the person’s perception of patience. We think that collecting “likes” on social media make us instantly successful, but success is a much more simple thing. Success lies in the simple understanding that if you “[l]et go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself” (Mitchell 57). Once a person really accepts this philosophy, he will be able to let things work on their own and patiently wait for the result. Only then can a person truly experience life to the fullest and become aware of himself and the Tao.
Redefining heroism in the twenty-first century is as simple as addressing the three tenets of Taoism: compassion, simplicity and patience. A heroic person is one who is able to see beyond what is presented to his eyes, one who is able to hear beyond what is presented to his ears, and one who is able to experience life beyond the tangible. Living a simple life by avoiding blinding ourselves with materialism, experiencing compassion for others, and having the patience to allow things to happen on their own without our constant interference are the three vital steps towards a fulfilling and heroic life.
Mitchell, Stephen, translator. Tao Te Ching. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print.
Li, You-Sheng. “Taoist Philosophy for the 21st Century.” Essay. Taoism21ce. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 March 2017.
Chinese neo-Confucian vs Aquinas Ethics
Saint Thomas Aquinas was one of the greatest philosophers and theologians of the Middle Ages whose ethics concerning the idea of a virtuous person were comparable in many respects to Chinese neo-Confucian ethics about the superior man. In regards to governance, Aquinas believed that the ruler should be governing in the best interest of the people and look to improve society as a whole. The neo-Confucian stance on governance was essentially the same, as it advocated for a ruler that had humanity or humaneness and was a junzi, or gentleman. In terms of happiness, however, Aquinas believed that happiness in life was only fleeting, and true happiness lay in the afterlife, and thus the most religious in life were truly the happiest. On the other hand, neo-Confucianism believed that happiness was within oneself, and could be discovered through finding the way or the path. Furthermore, Aquinas believed that there were four types of law, which included eternal law, natural law, human law, and divine law, which man had to obey. Neo-Confucianism, however, had essential “laws” that covered filial piety and various relationships one had in life. Lastly, Aquinas had many beliefs on ethical issues that ranged from heresy to suicide, while neo-Confucian ethics were mainly concerned with establishing social harmony through rites and rituals.
For Saint Thomas Aquinas, a virtuous ruler was one that prioritized welfare, unity, and peace. He believed that the king should be the most rational human being, as he was God’s representative on earth and had to lead his people. For example, “If men were intended to live alone as do many animals, there would be no need for anyone to direct him towards his end, since every man would be his own king under God, the highest king, and the light of reason given to him from on high would enable him to act on his own.” (pg 14) The idea of furthering a society was an important factor in the tasks and duties a king had to uphold. The actions that he took should not only be reasonable but also follow God’s path for him to build a particular type of government. Thus, a king who governed over the people had to combine both religious and rational thoughts together in order to fully govern to the best possible extent. However, even if the king were to not follow the path that was meant to be taken and instead act in his own interest, thereby creating a tyranny, the people still had to endure, as it was their duty to follow the king. This idea aligned perfectly with neo-Confucian ideas about ren, human relationships, and humaneness. The idea of human relationships between one’s relations to oneself, one’s superiors, and to the common people encompass the ruler and the common people. Even if the ruler were to be at fault in any way, it was of utmost importance that the commoners still respect the ruler and know his place in the hierarchy. Likewise, the ruler was to be aware of the desires of the masses and do all that he could to appease them and improve their quality of life. “Only the humane person is able to like others and is able to hate others.” (III,1-3)Thus, the ruler must have the quality of humanity, and be able to attend to difficult matters before enjoying the rewards of his policies. To be able to eat bitter before sweet is an essential part of being a ruler, and one who is unable to tolerate hardships is unfit to be a ruler. Thus, Saint Thomas Aquinas’ ideas regarding governance are very similar in comparison to neo-Confucian ideals regarding their rulers. Both sides called for capable rulers who were able to provide for their societies to improve, but also called for respect towards those rulers despite their shortcomings.
Happiness is defined in very different ways through different times and societies. According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose ideas on happiness were borrowed from Aristotle and incorporated into Christian teachings, happiness in this life was fleeting, and true happiness lay in the afterlife. “Some partial happiness can be achieved in this life, but true perfect happiness cannot.” (pg42) Thus, the actions one took in this life were not meant to provide for their happiness, but to elevate them in the afterlife so that they could go to heaven and be happy. Instead of saying that philosophers are the happiest people like Aristotle, Aquinas chose to replace the First Cause with God and stated that the happiest people were the most religious, such as prophets or saints. This placed huge importance on the church, which had a massive influence on the people of the Middle Ages Europe, and this influence spreads to even today’s time, in which people dedicate their lives to religion in the hopes of living a happy afterlife. In fact, the concept of charity was also a theological virtue which was the transformation of one’s possessions in life into a symbol of faith. Since one’s happiness could not be achieved on earth, there was no point in having possessions, as they could not define true happiness, and these possessions only held one back from God. In neo-Confucianism, happiness was more aligned with one’s self-improvement and journey than with discarding material wealth. “The natural person desires without craving and acts without excess.” (passage 3). According to neo-Confucian ideals, by following the Dao, or the way, which was different for each person, one would be able to experience personal satisfaction and happiness. Furthermore, the superior man must stick to the path and follow a life of self-perfection and self-cultivation. Through constant self-improvement, one would be able to become a superior man and be happy. Thus, the neo-Confucian ethic placed more of an emphasis on the importance of actually living one’s life, instead of merely preparing for the afterlife, which Aquinas believed was essential.
Regarding the concept of laws, Saint Thomas Aquinas believed that there were four kinds of laws, those being eternal law, natural law, human law, and divine law. Eternal law is God’s rational governance of all things, while natural law is the participation of all rational creatures in the eternal law. Human law is self-explanatory and is the laws humans make on earth, while divine law is laws made by God. “Therefore law must concern itself in particular with the happiness of the community.” (pg 44) Furthermore, all four types of these laws were supposed to follow four conditions, those being laws being determined by reason, directed toward a common good, being made by a law-maker, and must be made public. These laws are all essentially made through the use of reason, and also meant to be followed rationally. Thus, the core concept of Aquinas’ belief in laws was the use of ratio, or reason. On the other hand, neo-Confucian “laws” focused more on the relationships between individual members of society. Although these laws are not explicitly stated, it was more of a general rule that filial piety is a huge part of Chinese life. For example, in The Analects, “The Master said: A young man should be filial within his home and respectful of elders when outside, should be careful and trustworthy, broadly caring of people at large, and should cleave to those who are ren. If he has energy left over, he may study the refinements of culture (wen).” (page 2). By actively pursuing a life of passion and filial piety at home and in public, one would be able to cultivate a sense of ethical righteousness and become a better person. This passion for respect would inflame a strong sense of loyalty to the state and their family, allowing for a better society and individual. This shows that neo-Confucian ethics regarding law was meant to better individuals instead of simply compelling them to follow laws according to reason. Furthermore, piety to the spirits and gods was also a very important part of neo-Confucian life, as it provided the basis for respect for ancestors and parents, which then eventually translated into society as a whole. In comparison, while Aquinas’ belief in the essence of laws was simply to allow for society to stay in order through reason, neo-Confucian laws were meant to allow for one to improve oneself.
Lastly, Saint Thomas Aquinas tackled many ethical problems that plagued the societies of the middle ages, including those of heresy, war, and homicide. He believed that these were the main sins that one could commit in life and placed great emphasis on avoiding these, for the consequences were extremely severe. “As for the heretics themselves they have committed a sin that deserves not only excommunication by the church but their removal from the world by death.” (pg 63) Due to the strong hold that religion held over Europe at the time, heresy was considered one of the main sins that would get one executed and even summoned to hell in the afterlife. Those who went against the doctrine of the church were considered heretics who had strayed from God and gone over to the devil’s side and were summarily executed for what was considered the greatest sin at the time. However, the church could also have mercy on the heretic if he were to admit to his crimes and promise to stick to religious piety, which gave him a chance to redeem himself. Thus, the virtuous believer was not only deeply religious but was also forgiving towards sinners, attempting to bring them back to God. Furthermore, the virtuous person also partakes only in wars that were waged for just causes and with the right intentions. In other words, it was considered a sin to have wars for evil intentions, although this is certainly the case in most circumstances today. Third of all, homicide, suicide, and even self-defense were all considered to be sinful and against the marks of a virtuous person. Homicide is obviously against virtuous ethics, as one would not only have to embrace evil to take the life of another man but would also be taking a life given by God. Suicide was generally the same concept, that by killing oneself, one was also violating God and natural law, as life was a gift from God. However, even self-defense was considered to be a sin and unethical, as intent to kill someone through self-defense was considered evil. In neo-Confucian standards, an ethical and superior man was expected to perform rites and rituals that would elevate him to become a better person in society. “Guide them with virtue, regulate them with ritual, and they will have a sense of shame and become upright.” (II-3) These rites and rituals were expected to form the foundation of his good behavior and to provide one with the virtues that were expected of a superior man. The respect one displayed towards his ancestors during these rituals and rites were a sort of practice meant to translate its way into everyday life. Thus, the neo-Confucian ethics were more concerned with internalized development that was meant to help a person self-develop into an ethical superior man, while Aquinas believed that the ethical man would refrain from committing sins. In this way, the neo-Confucian ethics go a step further and almost seem to mold a man into a shape that fits society and allows for him to function as a higher member, while Aquinas’ ethics merely prevent one from becoming an unethical member of society. In addition, these rites or rituals allowed the relations between each member of society to foster and created steady relationships between superiors and inferiors, family members, and even with ancestors. On the other hand, Aquinas’ ethics of the virtual person didn’t focus as much on the positive relationships between members of society and instead focused primarily on religion. Thus, neo-Confucian ethics were able to change human nature according to the idea of the superior man or gentleman, while Thomas Aquinas’ ethics were meant to keep one deeply religious and prevent one from committing sins that would go against God.
Saint Thomas Aquinas was a spectacular philosopher who had an extremely strong presence all over Europe through the form of his doctrines and ethics. He was able to spread his deeply pious ideas throughout Europe on how to be a virtuous person and how to be an ethical member of society. His teachings were able to lead many on the path to God and instruct them on how to reach heaven in the afterlife through one’s actions in this world. Chinese neo-Confucianism was similar on this level; Zhu Xi was a prominent Chinese philosopher who analyzed Confucius’ Analects and was able to develop the idea of the superior man and how to be a gentleman in Chinese society. His teachings paved the path for the members of Chinese society to act in a way that allowed them to reach their own full self-potential and become a higher functioning member of society. However, there are major differences in the ways that Aquinas and neo-Confucianism instruct one on how to be an ethical and virtuous person, primarily in that Aquinas focused almost solely on religion, while neo-Confucianism focused on the internal self. While their ideas regarding governance were similar in many respects, the ideas regarding happiness, law, and ethics as a whole were vastly different. All in all, Aquinas’ rational theology and neo-Confucianism were vital in instructing one how to be an ethical virtuous person in society.