There is a persistent belief that there are those who involve themselves in the world and those who do not; there are engaged and the hermits. This, I think, is largely a false distinction. Who of us is not entirely "in the world"? Were we to enter a primeval forest and live our lives alone, still we would be in the world of our own creation. Do we not create every "world" in which we live? It is our interpretation of the world that makes it what it "is". In this sense, the political activist and the hermit are both equally in the world.
But there are various ways of being in the world, and these are what lead us to make distinctions. Among these are the belief that we are morally obliged to be engaged in the world (society) and the belief that we cannot 'grow' without being actively engaged with others.
In the case of the first, Daoism cannot agree, for it recognizes no "moral" obligations; what it does recognize, is the primacy of fulfilling our humanity which, we discover, has a definite social aspect. There are no "shoulds" except to say, everything should be what it is. But this is no should at all.
Daoism does teach that the hermit-sage wields a very real, positive influence on the world, not despite her non-engagement, but because of it. But this is only incidental; it is not her answer to "should". Ironically, the sage is sometimes depicted as having to flee still further from society, which would have her engage directly in its affairs, so as to continue her transcendent experience, which (incidentally) positively affects that society.
Whether such a positive influence emits from such a sage or not, I cannot say. Nor do I know that it matters in any case. What I think I can say is that Daoism does not teach the way of a hermit as the only way for a sage; for the experience and psychological way of being-in-the-world of a sage is essentially the same wherever he finds himself and in whatever activity. It is not so much a question of what one does, but how one does it.
In the case of the second distinction, that no true 'spiritual' growth can take place without social engagement, I think Daoism would again fundamentally disagree on the grounds that it would impose obligations on life, when life is perfectly able to be itself without our imposing obligations upon it. We are engaged. And even if, like Tarzan, we were to find ourselves removed from all others (except for apes, of course), we would still have ourselves as 'other' to deal with. There is no 'other' more powerful or immediate than the one we posit within ourselves. We call it myself. Personally, it is this 'other' that is the greatest Whetstone of Heaven that I find challenging me to growth, not external 'others'.
Still, we typically find ourselves amidst other ‘others’ and in this regard, Shi Deqing (1546-1623) makes a valid point when he says, “what really nourishes life is an inner skill that can only be made your own and verified by involving yourself in the ways of the world.”
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