Complexity and Interconnection: The Dao, Sade, and Time/Quantum Biology, Part 3
Daoism & Anarchism 2 –
It has been argued that Daoism does not reject the State as an artificial structure, but rather sees it as a natural institution, analogous perhaps to the family. While the Daodejing undoubtedly rejects authoritarian rule, it does read at times as if it is giving advice to rulers to become better at ruling:
‘If the sage would guide the people, he must serve with humility.
If he would lead them, he must follow behind.
In this way when the sage rules, the people will not feel oppressed’
For some, Daoism was used by an elite to foster passivity amongst the peasantry by denying them choice and hope.
Certainly Laozi addresses the problem of leadership and calls for the true sage to act with the people and not above them. The best ruler leaves his people alone to follow their peaceful and productive activities. He must trust their good faith for ‘He who does not trust enough will not be trusted.’ If a ruler interferes with his people rather than letting them follow their own devices, then disorder will follow: ‘When the country is confused and in chaos, Loyal ministers appear.’ In a well-ordered society,
‘Man follows the earth.
Earth follows heaven.
Heaven follows the Dao.
Dao follows what is natural.’
However a closer reading shows that the Daodejing is not concerned with offering Machiavellian advice to rulers or even with the ‘art of governing’. The person who genuinely understands the Dao and applies it to government reaches the inevitable conclusion that the best government does not govern at all. Laozi sees nothing but evil coming from government. Indeed, he offers what might be described as the first anarchist manifesto:
‘The more laws and restrictions there are,
The poorer people become.
The sharper men’s weapons,
The more trouble in the land.
The more ingenious and clever men are,
The more strange things happen.
The more rules and regulations,
The more thieves and robbers.
Therefore the sage says:
I take no action and people are reformed.
I enjoy peace and people become honest.
I do nothing and the people become rich.
I have no desires and people return to the good and
Contained within the marvellous poetry of the Daodejing, there is some very real social criticism. It is sharply critical of the bureaucratic, warlike and commercial nature of the feudal order. Laozi specifically sees property as a form of robbery (think Proudhon!): ‘When the court is arrayed in splendour, The fields are full of weeds, And the granaries are bare.’ He traces the causes of war to unequal distribution: ‘Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow ‘. Having attacked feudalism with its classes and private property, he offers the social ideal of a classless society without government and patriarchy in which people live simple and sincere lives in harmony with nature. It would be a decentralized society in which goods are produced and shared in common with the help of appropriate technology. The people would be strong but with no need to show their strength; wise, but with no presence of learning; productive, but engaged in no unnecessary toil. They would even prefer to reckon by knotting rope rather than by writing ledgers:
‘A small country has fewer people.
Though there are machines that can work ten to a hundred
times faster than man, they are not needed.
The people take death seriously and do not travel far.
Though they have boats and carriages, no one uses them.
Though they have armour and weapons, no one displays them.
Men return to the knotting of rope in place of writing.
Their food is plain and good, their clothes fine but simple, their homes secure;
They are happy in their ways.
Though they live within sight of their neighbours,
And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,
Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.’
The anarchistic tendency of the Daoists comes through even stronger in the writings of the philosopher Chuang Tzu, who lived about 369-286 BCE. His work consists of arguments interspersed with anecdotes and parables which explore the nature of the Dao, the great organic process of which man is a part. It is not addressed to any particular ruler. Like the Daodejing, it rejects all forms of government and celebrates the free existence of the self-determining individual. The overriding tone of the work is to be found in a little parable about horses:
‘Horses live on dry land, eat grass and drink water. When pleased, they rub their necks together. When angry, they turn round and kick up their heels at each other. Thus far only do their natural dispositions carry them. But bridled and bitted, with a plate of metal on their foreheads, they learn to cast vicious looks, to turn the head to bite, to resist, to get the bit out of the mouth or the bridle into it. And thus their natures become depraved.’
As with horses, so it is with human beings. Left to themselves they live in natural harmony and spontaneous order. But when they are coerced and ruled, their natures become vicious. It follows that princes and rulers should not coerce their people into obeying artificial laws, but should leave them to follow their natural dispositions. To attempt to govern people with manmade laws and regulations is absurd and impossible: ‘as well try to wade through the sea, to hew a passage through a river, or make a mosquito fly away with a mountain!’. In reality, the natural conditions of our existence require no artificial aids. People left to themselves will follow peaceful and productive activities and live in harmony with each other and nature.
In an essay ‘On Letting Alone’, Chuang Tzu asserted three hundred years before christianism the fundamental proposition of anarchist thought which has reverberated through history ever since:
‘There has been such a thing as letting mankind alone; there has never been such a thing as governing mankind. Letting alone springs from fear lest men’s natural dispositions be perverted and their virtue left aside. But if their natural dispositions be not perverted nor their virtue laid aside, what room is there left for government?’
The Daoists therefore advocated a free society. without government in which individuals would be left to themselves. But while pursuing their own interests, they would not forget the interests of others. It is not a sullen selfishness which is recommended. The pursuit of personal good involves a concern for the general well-being: the more a person does for others, the more he has; the more he gives to others, the greater his abundance. As the Daoist text Huai Nan Tzu put its, ‘Possessing the empire’ means ‘self-realization. If I realize myself then the empire also realizes me. If the empire and I realize each other, then we will always possess each other.’
Human beings are ultimately individuals but they are also social beings, part of the whole. Anticipating the findings of modern ecology, the Daoists believed that the more individuality and diversity there is, the greater the overall harmony. The spontaneous order of society does not exclude conflict hut involves a dynamic interplay of opposite forces. Thus society is described by Chuang Tzu as an agreement of a certain number of families and individuals to abide by certain customs. ‘Discordant elements unite to form a harmonious whole. Take away this unity and each has a separate individuality . . . A mountain is high because of its individual particles. A river is large because of its individual drops. And he is a just man who regards all parts from the point of view of the whole.’
Daoism thus offered the first and one of the most persuasive expressions of anarchist thinking. Its moral and political ideas were firmly grounded in a scientific view of the world. Although Daoist philosophy (Dao chia) contains spiritual and mystical elements, the early Daoists’ receptive approach to nature encouraged a scientific attitude and democratic feelings. They recognized the unity in the diversity in nature and the universality of transformation. In their ethics, they encouraged spontaneous behaviour and self-development in the larger context of nature: production with possession, action without self-assertion and development without domination. In their politics, they not only urged rulers to leave their subjects alone and opposed the bureaucratic and legalistic teaching of the Confucians, but advocated as an ideal a free and co-operative society without government in harmony with nature.
Daoism was not aimed by an elite at peasants to make them more docile and obedient. The Daoists social background tended to be from the small middle class, between the feudal lords and the mass of peasant farmers. Nor were they merely offering advice on how to survive in troubled times by yielding to the strong, keeping a low profile, and by minding their own business. On the contrary, Daoism was the philosophy of those who had understood the real nature of temporal power, wealth and status, sufficiently well to find them radically wanting. Far from being a philosophy of failure or quietude, Daoism offers profound and practical wisdom for those who wish to develop the full harmony of their being.
Mark Gillespie summed it up in Taoism and Anarchy:
Anarchy and Daoism share a central premise. This premise is that only natural, uncoerced and voluntary action is acceptable. Both Anarchy and Daoism realize that any restriction to this process creates the seeds for disorder and chaos. Anarchists struggle every day against the idea that “Might makes Right.” Whenever force is involved, that force carries with it the seeds of its own destruction.
The Dao says about this subject:
“Weapons are meant for destruction, and thus are avoided by the wise. Only as a last resort will a wise person use a deadly weapon. If peace is the true objective how can one rejoice in the victory of war? Those who rejoice in victory take pleasure in murder. Those who resort to violence will never bring peace to the world”.
The second premise is that everyone has a right to defend their ability to live. Daoism equates natural and voluntary action with the best life. One has life, only to the degree that they may freely act. Putting liberty and life together has been a cornerstone of “liberationists” of every stripe. One is only alive when one is free.
The Dao says: “The more prohibitions there are, the poorer everyone will be. The more weapons are used, the greater the chaos will be in society. The more that people seek “knowledge” for its own sake, the stranger the world will become. The more laws that are made, the greater the number of criminals.”
It also gives us the cure for all of these ailments in the next verse: “Therefore the wise person says: I do nothing, and people become good by themselves. I seek peace, and people take care of their own problems. I do not meddle in their personal lives, and the people become prosperous. I let go of all my desire to control them, and the people return to their natural ways.”
The Daodejing is very much based in observable reality, and Laozi observed his society and noticed different things that caused troubles. He mentioned that:
“The highest good is not to seek to do good, but to allow yourself to become good. The ordinary person seeks to do good things, and finds that they cannot do them continually. and thus is able to accomplish their task. The ordinary person who uses force, will find that they accomplish nothing. The kind person acts from the heart, and accomplishes a multitude of things. The righteous person acts out of pity, yet leaves many things undone. The moral person will act out of duty, and when no one will respond will roll up his sleeves and uses force. When people cease acting in a natural way, they create “righteousness.” When righteousness is forgotten, they create morality. When morality is forgotten, they create laws. The law is the husk of faith, and trust is the beginning of chaos. Our basic understandings are not from the Natural Way of Life because they come from the depths of our misunderstanding that way. The wise person abides in the fruit and not in the husk. They live in a natural way, and not behind the things that hide it. This is how one becomes wiser.”
This is the third premise that Daoism and Anarchism share. The premise that all of the states’ constructs are shoddy replacements for what would occur if we were free to act. We cannot be charitable when the state takes our “surplus.” We cannot share when the state steals from us to give to someone else. We cannot be peaceable when the state prevents us from protecting our own lives. We cannot learn how to interact with each other when the “law” gets in the way. In short, the state and any other force wielding organization cannot deliver what they promise. This much should be obvious to all. We can be more generous, sharing, and caring by being allowed to do so. Until everyone realizes that, we will never have the prosperity, peace and freedom that we could have.
However we cannot and should not reduce Daoism to a simple precursor of Anarchy. The Daodejing is much, much more. It is radically nondualist, since it insists on the unique particularity or difference and the interdependence of things. This dynamic nondualism is a wider feature of Chinese thinking, as one can see with the word xin 心. Xin is usually translated as heart and/or mind, but should be as thinking and/or feeling. This text also realizes the aesthetic harmony, balance, and need to keep the center precisely in embracing the transformation and change, the fluidity and flow, of this world. One is thus centered in being decentered and spontaneous in being receptive and yielding.
Daoism embraces the mutuality of opposites. It speaks through saying and unsaying, affirming and denying, in order to evoke the nameless (wuming 無名), the namelessness that is the “fetal beginning”.
Laozi’s Daoism is a provocative philosophical way of thinking, since it presents us with a form of nonreductive naturalism. It is nonreductive, since it embraces both the wholeness and singularity of nature. It is naturalistic, since (1) it does not devalue immanence and (2) it avoids and critiques the humanism (in its Confucian guise) which reduces the significance of things to human purposes and values. The Daodejing is antihumanistic without being anti-human, since humans find their significance in relation to being underway themselves. The text also develops a critique of morality that is still in some sense ethical. Although intervention in the name of helping all things is rejected when it undermines the sage’s own course (ziran 自然), compassion is seen as the fruit of noncoercive activity.
Thus the Dao reflects and illustrates the complexity of human nature, as well as human society; we are social animals. We depend on others.
To be continued.
Georges M. Halpern, MD, PhD