Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Living Dao in An Age of Tyranny I

Scott Bradley


Daoism has often been described as quietist, which I take to mean that it advocates removing oneself from concern for and active involvement in the world of politics. And although such a label fails to understand the true transformative dynamic of the implied withdrawal, it is easy to understand how the label came to be applied. Zhuangzi tells the emissaries of a king who wishes him to become prime minister that, like a turtle free in its pond, he'd rather drag his butt in the mud than be constrained by the compromising demands of office.

This story is, I think, true to the general spirit of the Zhuangzi. The Daodejing, on the other hand, was seemingly written for rulers, with a view to demonstrating how quietist principles might actually facilitate effective government. Such a ruler would be a sage-king, the epitome of the Confucian ideal as seen in Confucius himself, though fate failed to provide him the opportunity to put it into practice.

I am not sure that these two views can be reconciled, but there is something common between them, namely that truly effective political involvement begins at home, in the heart of the individual. Confucius, from the Daoist perspective, failed of this in that he wore himself out traipsing about China looking for an opportunity to rule and was distressed when it did not arise. He had the 'answers', knew what was the 'right way', but because he lacked the detachment of the quietist, failed to bring peace to either the world or himself.

Gandhi, who, in theory at least, lived the non-violence he proclaimed as an effective means to political change, would seem to be one who succeeded where Confucius had failed. But what has he wrought? He helped create yet another nation-state, one which has fought several wars with Pakistan and one with China, possesses nuclear weapons, bullies its neighbors, and has killed more of its own citizens than the British ever did. I don't mean to denigrate India — it simply does what all nation-states do — but that's the point.

"The Consummate Persons of old made sure they had it in themselves before they tried to put it in others," wrote Zhuangzi. (4:3; Ziporyn) Although the best choice of the nature of one's political involvement may not be easily sorted out, at least we can begin here. Whatever we wish for others, individually or collectively, our first task is to realize it in ourselves.

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

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