Complexity and Interconnection: The Dao, Sade, and Time/Quantum Biology, Part 2
Most powers, by definition, are oppressive. They are imposed. Most human structured societies depend on law and order, submission, obedience, servitude. Creation must serve and be scrutinized; moral oder is the rule; heretics are banned, imprisoned, burned as witches, slaughtered. Protesting is feared to open the gates to anarchy. Despots, tyrants, the “haves” hate anarchists and anarchism.
Anarchism is usually considered a recent, Western phenomenon, but its roots reach deep in the ancient civilizations of the East. The first clear expression of an anarchist sensibility may be traced back to the Daoists in ancient China from about the sixth century BCE. Indeed, the principal Daoist work, Daodejing, may be considered one of the greatest anarchist classics.
The Daoists at the time were living in a feudal society in which law was becoming codified and government increasingly centralized and bureaucratic. Confucius believed in the old order with ritual and that man is inherently good, so that cultivation of self in law and order in the family will result in order of society according to the rituals. The Daoists for their part rejected government and believed that all could live in natural and spontaneous harmony. The conflict between those who wish to interfere and those who believe that things flourish best when left alone has continued ever since.
The Daoists and the Confucians were both embedded in ancient Chinese culture. They shared a similar view of nature, but differed strongly in their moral and political views. They both had an attitude of respectful trust to human nature; the Christian notion of original sin is entirely absent from their thought. Both believed that human beings have an innate predisposition to goodness which is revealed in the instinctive reaction of anyone who sees a child falling into a well. Both claimed to defend the Dao or the way of the ancients and sought to establish voluntary order.
But whereas the Daoists were principally interested in nature and identified with it, the Confucians were more worldly- minded and concerned with reforming society. The Confucians celebrated traditionally ‘male’ (yang) virtues like duty, discipline and obedience, while the Daoists promoted the ‘female’ (yin) values of receptivity and passivity.
Although it has helped shape Chinese culture as much as Buddhism and Confucianism, Daoism by its very nature never became an official cult. It has remained a permanent strain in Chinese thought. Its roots lay in the popular culture at the dawn of Chinese civilization but it emerged in the sixth century BCE as a remarkable combination of philosophy, religion, proto-science and magic.
The principal exponent of Daoism is taken to be Laozi, meaning ‘old Philosopher’. He was born around 604 BCE of a noble family in Honan province. He rejected his hereditary position as a noble and became a curator of the royal library at Loh. All his life he followed the path of silence: ‘The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao’, he taught. According to legend, when he was riding off into the desert to die, he was persuaded by a gatekeeper in north-western China to write down his teaching for posterity.
It seems likely however that the Daodejing which is attributed to Laozi, was not written until the third century BCE. It has been called by the Chinese scholar Joseph Needham ‘without exception the most profound and beautiful work in the Chinese language’. The text consists of eighty-one short chapters in poetic form. Although often very obscure and paradoxical, it offers not only the earliest but also the most eloquent exposition of anarchist principles.
It is impossible to appreciate the ethics and politics of Daoism without an understanding of its philosophy of nature. The Daodejing celebrates the Dao, or way, of nature and describes how the wise person should follow it. The Daoist conception of nature is based on the ancient Chinese principles of yin and yang, two opposite but complementary forces in the cosmos which constitute Qi (matter-energy) of which all beings and phenomena are formed. Yin is the supreme feminine power, characterized by darkness, cold, and receptivity and associated with the moon; yang is the masculine counterpart of brightness, warmth, and activity, and is identified with the sun. Both forces are at work within men and women as well as in all things.
The Dao itself however cannot be defined. It is nameless and formless. Laozi, trying vainly to describe what is ineffable, likens it to an empty vessel, a river flowing home to the sea, and an uncarved block. ‘The Dao, he asserts, follows what is natural. It is the way in which the universe works, the order of nature which gives all things their being and sustains them. The great Dao flows everywhere, both to the left and the right. The ten thousand things depend on it; it holds nothing back. It fulfils its purpose silently and makes no claim.’
Needham describes it not so much as a force, but – already! – as a ‘kind of natural curvature in time and space’.
Like most later anarchists, the Daoists see the universe as being in a continuous state of flux. Reality is in a state of process; everything changes, nothing is constant. They also have a dialectical concept of change as a dynamic interplay as opposing forces. Energy flows continually between the poles of yin and yang. At the same time, they stress the unity and harmony of nature. Nature is self-sufficient and uncreated; there is no need to postulate a conscious creator. It is a view which not only recalls that of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus but coincides with the description of the universe presented by modern physics e.g. quantum physics. Modern social ecology, which stresses unity in diversity, organic growth and natural order, further reflects the Daoist world-view.
The approach to nature recommended by Laozi and the Daoists is one of receptivity. Where the Confucian wants to conquer and exploit nature, the Daoist tries to contemplate and understand it. The Daoists’ traditionally ‘feminine’ approach to nature suggests that their way of thinking may well have first evolved in a matriarchal society. While at first sight it might seem a religious attitude, in fact it encouraged a scientific and democratic outlook amongst Daoists. By not imposing their own preconceptions, they were able to observe and understand nature and therefore learn to channel its energy beneficially.
The Daoists were primarily interested in nature but their conception of the universe had important corollaries for society. A definite system of ethics and politics emerges. There are no absolute Daoist values; for good and bad, like yin and yang, are related. Their interplay is necessary for growth, and in order to achieve something it is often best to start with its opposite. Nevertheless, an ideal of the wise person emerges in Daoist teaching who is unpretentious, sincere, spontaneous, generous and detached. For the Daoists, the art of living is to be found in simplicity, non-assertion and creative play.
Central to Taoist teaching is the concept of wu-wei (無爲). It is often translated as merely non-action. In fact there are striking philological similarities between ‘anarchism’ and ‘wu-wei’. Just as ‘an-archos’ in Greek means absence of a ruler, wu-wei means lack of wei, where wei refers to ‘artificial, contrived activity that interferes with natural and spontaneous development’. From a political point of view, wei refers to the imposition of authority. To do something in accordance with wu-wei is therefore considered natural; it leads to natural and spontaneous order. It has nothing to do with all forms of imposed authority.
The Daodejing is quite clear about the nature of force. If we use force, whether physical or moral, to improve ourselves or the world, we simply waste energy and weaken ourselves: ‘force is followed by loss of strength’. It follows that those who wage war will suffer as a result: ‘a violent man will die a violent death’. By contrast, giving way is often the best way to overcome: ‘Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water. Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better; it has no equal. The weak can overcome the strong; the supple can overcome the stiff.’ The gentle peacefulness recommended by the Daoists is not a form of defeatist submission but a call for the creative and effective use of energy.
‘Practise non-action. Work without doing’, Laozi recommends. In their concept of wu-wei, the Daoists are not urging non-action in the sense of inertia, but rather condemning activity contrary to nature. It is not idleness that they praise, but work without effort, anxiety and complication, work which goes with and not against the grain of things. If people practised wu-wei in the right spirit, work would lose its coercive aspect. It would be undertaken not for its useful results but for its intrinsic value. Instead of being avoided like the plague, work would be transformed into spontaneous and meaningful play: ‘When actions are performed without unnecessary speech, People say, “We did it!”‘.
If people followed their advice, the Daoists suggest, they would live a long life and achieve physical and mental health. One of their fundamental beliefs was that ‘whatever is contrary to Dao will not last long’, while he who is filled with virtue is like a new-born child. In order to prolong their lives the Daoists resorted to yoga-like techniques and even alchemy.
The most important principle at the centre of their teaching however was a belief that ‘The world is ruled by letting things take their course. It cannot be ruled by interfering.’ The deepest roots of the Daoist view of wu-wei probably lies in early matriarchal society in ancient China. The Daoist ideal was a form of agrarian collectivism which sought to recapture the instinctive unity with nature which human beings had lost in developing an artificial and hierarchical culture. Peasants are naturally wise in many ways. By hard experience, they refrain from activity contrary to nature and realize that in order to grow plants they must understand and co-operate with the natural processes. And just as plants grow best when allowed to follow their natures, so human beings thrive when least interfered with. It was this insight which led the Daoists to reject all forms of imposed authority, government and the State. It also made them into precursors of modern anarchism and social ecology. – To be continued.
Georges M. Halpern, MD, PhD