Friday, August 23, 2013

The Dao of Poltical Power VI: Then Along Came the Sages

Scott Bradley


I have never much cared for the "primitivist" chapters of the Zhuangzi that immediately follow the Inner Chapters; they do not reflect Zhuangzi's philosophy, but have their own naive political agenda of blissful anarchy. Like the Daodejing, they follow the standard model that all was once well in a golden past only to have been subverted by our acquisition of knowledge and the ensuing wielding of power. There is truth in this in that while still in the trees and swinging from branch to branch we were probably more blissful, if ignorance is bliss. We still had our vicious hierarchies of power, of course, but being unconscious of them, we did not suffer as we do now.

So, there was a Fall and probably still others since (the Enlightenment, for example). But do we fall up or down? It does not matter; we are as we are, conscious and suffering — and thankful for the opportunity.

One problem with this golden age paradigm is that it naively believes that it is a time to which we can return; we cannot; we must deal with where we are now in the ever-evolving reality in which we live.

I bring up these "primitivist" chapters in a consideration of the seventh of the Inner Chapters because I believe they offer us insight into how the idea of a sage can become but yet another ideology, an extension of the actual structural problems that the exercise of political power represents. All was well; "Then along came the sages" (9) with their Humanity and Responsibility and messed it all up. These same sages are those who bundle up and secure the world's riches in the form of institutions and governments so that thieves can steal the whole lot more easily. How are they not the cause of our problems rather than the cure? (10)

These are, strictly speaking, not the hypothetical Daoist sages, but those who seek to impose morality and good governance upon the world, as did the Confucians and Mohists, but since the Daoist sages are in fact only hypothetical, it is easy to see how someone who aspires to be one, because he is not one, would similarly inflict himself upon the world. To the extent that Daoism is yet another ideology, it continues to abide within the structures of power that perpetuate the problems it seeks to ameliorate.

Of Zhuangzi's philosophy I think we can say this: it ever self-critiques, it ever-transcends itself, it ever returns itself to "critical zero". It calls for a realization of a mind of vast openness, one that transcends every ideology as something believed and grasped, and thus it requires of itself that it constantly release its own grip on any pretense of having arrived. It is a process and must ever remain a process; it never arrives, for to arrive is to become "fixed". It cannot, therefore, offer formulaic answers to the world’s problems, but must engage it as an affirming openness in each unique situation it encounters. It must never be yet another ideology.

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

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