I am presently reading a great treatment of ancient Chinese philosophy entitled The Concept of Man in Early China by Donald Munro. This is largely a comparison of the Confucian and Daoist concepts of 'man' and their antecedents. Among their differences is the radical shift which Daoism made in its understanding of the place of the human in the cosmos.
Confucianism formulates 'Heaven' in human terms; Daoism sees humanity in Heaven's terms. This is very much like the question as to whether God has created man in his own image, or man has created God in his image.
Munro argues that Confucianism created its understanding of Heaven (Reality) based on human inclinations, specifically, humanities' preoccupation with morality (right and wrong) and the hierarchical character of human society. In the Confucian world-view, Heaven is both moral and hierarchical. One unites with Heaven through moral perfection as evinced in fulfilling one's hierarchical duties within the family and its larger expression into society.
In the Daoist world-view, by contrast, humanity loses its defining role. Writes Munro: "Where the Confucians read the human social order into nature, the Taoists tried to read nature into man." He further describes Daoism as "the attempt to make people cease treating man as if he were at the center of the universe." And again: “The Taoist wanted to eliminate the human point of view and see man in cosmic terms.” When observing the nature of Nature, the Daoist sees neither morality nor the discriminating prerequisites to hierarchy. Dao is impartial and non-benevolent (jen). Since the essence of sagacity is to emulate Dao, the sage is likewise impartial and non-benevolent (as a purposive act).
In Confucian thought, Heaven, though defined in human terms, is above and greater than Earth. In Daoist thought, all things are equal; Heaven, Earth, and the Human are one.
Understood in this way, it is easy to see how the Daoist world-view might more easily speak to the needs of a increasingly post-religious world. However much science might further demonstrate the insignificance of man, it feeds directly into the Daoist point of view. The Totality is not about 'us', nor is it about 'Itself' — it simple is.
Yet Daoism does not leave humanity absurdly dangling over a void; it rather invites absorption into that void. Ceasing to see oneself as the distinct (though precarious) center of the universe, one becomes that universe. The loss of the particularity of identity is the gain of Totality. Nor does it invite immoral behavior; the consequence of becoming Dao-like (amoral) is complete tolerance for and accommodation to the ways of others. Rather than benevolently destroying villages in order to save them, one allows them to realize their own unique expression.
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