Thursday, January 5, 2012

Fleeing the World I

Scott Bradley

There is a story in the Analects (XVII:6) in which Confucius, in his endless search for a ruler who will adopt him and his principles, sends a disciple to inquire of two farmers working in their field where the river ford might be found. The farmers are not helpful. One suggests that if Confucius were a sage, then surely he would know where the ford is. Perhaps he was implying that Confucius was on the wrong path altogether, that he should not be in need of any worldly ford. This, in any case, was what the other farmer suggested. Speaking to the disciple, he said, "The whole world is swept as by a torrential flood, and who can change it? As for you, instead of following one who flees from this man or that, you would do better to follow one who flees from the whole world."

Confucius did, in fact, sometimes have to flee from various men; politics can be a dangerous game. And it may be that he was doing just that when he sought a way across the river.

One can only praise the candor of the disciples who included this and other similar criticisms of Confucius in this document intended to exalt him. Perhaps the best known of these criticisms was the one enunciated by the madman Jieyu (Analects XVIII:15), which Zhuangzi took up in parody, yet to make the same point. (Zhuangzi 1:12, 4:20)

And that point is essentially that the way of the sage is better served in withdrawing from worldly affairs than in engaging in them. It was obviously very much an issue in Confucius' time, just as it was in Zhuangzi’s and our own. It has also long been a defining issue in the debate between Confucianism and Taoism. Zhuangzi is reported to have refused high office, preferring to sit and fish in freedom beside the stream, rather than be yoked with the expectations of men. And this is why Confucians declare their namesake the greatest sage; he was a kingly sage. He was both sagacious and politically involved. Yet he never succeeded in his life time to even approximate his goal.

Still, I think their point is well made. Only I think that the distinction, like most all those we make, is, in the end, a false one. There is a place for 'fleeing from the world' both physically, as to a mountain retreat, and internally, into a vastness which is both beyond and inclusive of all the world. And until one has so fled, involvement in the world will most likely only lead to its further confusion.

We need to remember, too, that every act is a political one. We live in a global polis, and everything we do effects others — even fleeing to the mountains. The Taoist belief is that the sage does more for the world in having in some sense fled it, than if he had tried to save it.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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