Saturday, January 25, 2014

Ziporyn on Yin-Yang I: Who's on Top?

Scott Bradley


Yin-Yang is a philosophical construct to which I make occasional reference, but have failed to explore in any depth. Speaking of one of the "Wings" (the Shuogua commentary) to the Book of Changes, the core of the Yin-Yang development, Legge calls it "silliness" and "drivel". I admit that I would like to take refuge in his dismissal, but Ziporyn (Ironies of Oneness and Difference) demonstrates not only how important "The Yin-Yang Compromise" (his chapter heading on the subject) is to understanding the course of Chinese philosophical development, but also to illuminating some of the implications of the ironic Dao of Daoism.

Ziporyn begins by dispelling some of our (Western) superficial understandings about Yin-Yang. Perhaps most important among these is the belief that they are co-equal; they are not. One is inevitably prioritized over the other. This is probably in part due to the fact that they are not intended to summarize the ultimate coherence of Reality, but only to point in that direction. They are not the final word, but are seen as a means to approach that coherence.

So, who gets to be on top, Yin (the "female") or Yang (the "male")? Not surprisingly, in the Book of Changes and subsequent philosophical adaptations, it is Yang. Yang (represented by a solid line) is Heaven or father. Yin (represented by a broken line) is Earth or mother. Yang on top (a tri- or hexagram assembly of Yin-Yang lines is read from the bottom up) is most auspicious. (Yet, the cognitive versatility of the images also allows for auspicious Yin on top.)

Staying with this imagery (which has, I hope, materialized in your mind), we can allow that a good tumble may involve a high degree of shuffling of relative positions; this is the interplay of Yin and Yang, the one merging into and transforming the other, so that the Yang that was is not the Yang that is — yet it remains Yang still. (As does Yin.) In our contingent world, Yin and Yang are mutually dependent and define each other, and on this level appear as if co-equal, but the final bias is toward Yang.

The prioritization of Yang can be seen as an insistence on the ultimate intelligibility of Reality. Yang is knowing, initiating, doing. Yin is not-knowing, letting things happen, not-doing. Yang is making one's mark, being somebody. Yin is attaching to no 'merit', being no one. We can see then how the ironic Dao of Daoism with its advocacy of Yin prioritization was incorporated into a Yin-Yang system where it is given its due, yet at the end of the day Yang is made to come out on top.

A parallel might be drawn here with Jesus, who in some respects was very much an advocate for Yin ("Blessed are the meek . . ., etc.), yet this being found incompatible with the acquisition of worldly power (Christianity became the Roman Empire and many believe it to now be the American Empire), was reworked into a warrior King. Thus, we have American fighter pilots praising God for protection as they drop bombs on the innocent.

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