Monday, December 2, 2013

Another Look at the Laozi V

Scott Bradley

I have previously mentioned how the Laozi seems to have been differently compiled and edited, both in chapter order and actual wording, over time from sayings from various sources. Alternatively, there may have been a single source with various schools manipulating this raw resource to serve their different agendas. In either case, there is clear evidence (in the Guodian Fragments, for instance) that there were different versions to enunciate different philosophical positions. In light of this, Ziporyn wonders if our received edition isn't the Zhuangzian version:
"One is tempted to speculate that this is post-Zhuang Zhou Daoism, i.e., that ironic Daoism is a Zhuangzian invention and that the present version of the Laozi represents a post-Zhuangzian restructuring of older, pre-ironic Daoism in a way consistent with Zhuangzian irony." (Ironies of Sameness and Difference; note 2, p. 283)
This is merely a possibility, but a very real one nonetheless, and one that turns a great deal of traditional thinking on its head. The traditional view is that the Laozi (as we have received it) predated Zhuangzi and that he is the inheritor and amplifier of this ironic point of view. If this is the case, however, he was a poor and somewhat plagiaristic disciple, for he gives no credit to his teacher. Ziporyn's suggestion, on the other hand, allows that there was indeed a Laozi at and previous to his writing, but since it was not reflective of his own views, he had no reason to quote it.

Zhuangzi does make use of a 'person' Laozi, puts words in his mouth, but he never quotes 'him'. (It may also be that he made him up, or saw no relation between an historical Laozi and the work that came to bear his name, but this does not explain why he did not quote a work purported to be his inspiration.) He also makes use of Confucius to speak on his behalf, and even makes reference to incidents in the Analects, thought to be the work of Confucius (though probably of his disciples). These references, however, are not to words spoken, but to historical events in his life. The Laozi, on the other hand, is notoriously innocent of any and all historical reference.

We need not endorse this speculative view or any other to be cautioned not to attempt to understand Zhuangzi through the Laozi. That is the chief practical reason for these hypothetical considerations.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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