I recently stumbled on the Yuan Dao: Tracing Dao to Its Source (Lao and Ames; 1998). This is a translation of the first of the twenty treatises of the Huainanzi (c. 139 BCE), a major document of the Han Dynasty. This compendium of essentially Daoist thought was sponsored and probably partially written by Liu An, an uncle of the Emperor Wu and king of a vassal state, and was presented as a gift to the Emperor. It may very well have been an attempt, through the philosophy it espoused (let many voices speak), to forestall the inevitable annexation of his already diminished kingdom. In this regard, it utterly failed and Liu An was either executed or pressed to suicide. Not really knowing the audience, I presume to share what might be well-known to many. In any case, I will be sharing from this work in several subsequent posts.
What I find most enlightening in this book is actually not the Yuan Dao itself, but the commentary on it and the Daoism it represents. I honestly find truly insightful commentaries on philosophical Daoism quite rare, and this work is a pleasant exception.
The Huainanzi epitomizes the syncretistic approach to understanding the world which became known as "Han thinking". The Han Dynasty, the first stable consolidation of numerous kingdoms which vied with each other during the Warring States Period from whence the "hundred philosophies" arose, provided an opportunity for the more removed consideration and consolidation of those philosophies.
In this regard, Ames (I will assume Ames as the commentator, Lau as the translator) points to a methodology and approach to understanding largely foreign to Western thinking. Syncretism, the borrowing and synthesizing of many ideas from various, often contradictory, traditions, has a certain negative connotation in the West. This may, in part, have its roots in Christian orthodoxy which from its inception fought off attempts to reconcile and synthesize it with other religious philosophies of the time. (This is not to say that this cross-fertilization did not in fact take place, but that a certain less syncretic orthodoxy won out over others.) But it also has roots in the Western penchant for analytical and discursive reasoning. The truth can be dug out of things and represented in sure propositions.
Thus, "Han thinking" takes the many disparate voices of the previous centuries and offers them up to the reader as a whole. And the reader is enjoined to interact with and derive meaning from them according to his or her own time and personal inclinations. Comparing it with the many voices found in Genesis, Ames explains how the cultural authority of many conflicting accounts took precedence over logical consistency. It is an expression of the necessarily diverse cultural voice, rather than of a single “truth”. This, I believe, is very much in harmony with the Daoist approach to ‘truth’, the exposure to which may help those who wish to break the shackles of an inflexible belief in analytic truth to do so. I certainly need the help.
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