Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Another Look at the Laozi VI

Scott Bradley


The first two chapters of the received Laozi are absolutely pregnant with philosophical insight and form the backbone for the book as a whole and the species of Daoism it represents. The problem is in trying to figure out what those insights are. Two things especially work together to make this a difficult undertaking. First, the text itself is ambiguous enough to allow for various interpretations. Secondly, and most importantly for those who interpret it in an ironic sense, the intended meaning, even when perceived, is hard to take hold of. Irony yields elusive meanings.

Before continuing, a word on irony: Irony, in its simplest form, is a statement that is purposely at odds with reality in order to demonstrate that aspect of reality. Ziporyn uses the following example. We were going to have a picnic, but it is raining, and one of us says, "It's a great day for a picnic!" This means the opposite of what it says and we all understand that. In order to do so, however, we must participate in that sense of irony. This is a first level benefit of the use of irony; it is the one used by Socrates to assist others to engage in self-critical thinking. (Someone 'knows' what justice is, and Socrates says, "That's great! Tell me about it", only to subsequently completely deconstruct the purported 'knowing' without providing a "positive teaching" to replace it. All that’s left is the self-critical method and its doubt. There is also great irony in the oracle's pronouncement that Socrates is the wisest man in the world; since he thinks he knows nothing, he sets about to prove the oracle wrong, only to discover that it is his not-knowing that makes him so wise.)

However, Ziporyn points to a double irony in this exclamation: It is a great day for a picnic! It may not be a great day for our intended picnic, but it is a great day for picnics generally, for it is the rain that makes possible the meadow where we were to have it and the food that we shall eat when we do. Again, we are required to engage in a critical process to come to this realization. We are required to open up to what on the surface is not self-evident, to look at the other side.

The opening chapter of the Laozi similarly requires of us that we open up to 'meanings' beyond the linear and definitive. We are invited to consider the un-considerable, to experience the presence of absence. It is not that there are 'secret meanings' here, something to know. Rather, there is something to experience. But again, that experience is not of something 'out there', or even of some inner enlightenment, but of the inner movement itself. Socrates did not discover what justice is; rather he discovered the freedom of not knowing what it is. This is the "gate to all mysteries". The "gate" is a psychological openness to the ironic dimension of our interface with reality. We know by not-knowing. Metaphysical Dao is conspicuous in its absence. Light appears in darkness. Being requires Non-Being. The known is embedded in the unknown.

Yang, the positive, requires Yin, the negative that gives it birth and shall absorb it once again.

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

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