Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Dao of Poltical Power IV: It Begins In You

Scott Bradley


The best way to help others to be happy is to be happy yourself. The best way to change the world is to change yourself. This is the core of Zhuangzi's political theory. What is wrong in the political world is a consequence of what is wrong in the individuals who make up the world.

We are used to hearing that change begins with us; we should get involved. However, Zhuangzi might be more inclined to say that it begins in us. There is no reason to believe that it should stop there, but we must remember how we got there in the first place. We do not become one thing so as to do another; what and how we become is what and how we effect change in the world. In the Daoist vision, we realize greater harmony when we stop "plaguing" ourselves; the way to personal transformation is by way of a realization of complete affirmation of ourselves and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It is a vision of an all-embracing freedom in which all final judgments are abrogated; ultimately, all is well. Having realized this, we do not turn around and start plaguing others. "This is called plaguing others — and he who plagues others will surely be plagued in return" (4:4). Not only does imposing one's opinions just serve to perpetuate the problem of oppositional and confrontational politics, but it might also get one killed. In philosophical Daoism, the end and the means are always the same.

This is essentially the message of the entire seventh chapter. In the first passage we are told that not-knowing the best way to rule is the best way to rule. A ruler who knows ‘what is best’ “may be able to win people over that way, but in doing so he never gets beyond criticizing people, considering them wrong.” (7:1; Ziporyn) The ruler who is so free of knowing that “sometimes he thinks he’s a horse, sometimes he thinks he’s an ox”, on the other hand, has a “truly reliable” understanding and never criticizes others. Here, we must bend our brains; this is about truly realizing the view from Dao, where ‘common sense’ does not necessarily apply.

In the second passage we have: “For when the sage rules, does he rule anything outside himself?” (7:2) This mirrors the sages of old who “had it in themselves before they tried to put it into others” (4:3).

In the third passage we are told that the world is best “managed” when left alone: “Let your mind roam in the flavorless, blend your vital energy with the boundless silence, follow the rightness of the way each thing already is without allowing yourself the least bias. Then the world will be in order” (7:4). The world is thereby managed because there is someone managing it without doing so. Something is done in not being done.

Similarly, in the fourth passage we are told that “When the clear-sighted sovereign rules, his achievements cover the world, but they seem not to come from himself. He transforms all things, and yet the people do not rely upon him. There is something unnamable about him that allows all creatures to delight in themselves” (7:5). Now that’s libertarian government!

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

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