Sunday, March 2, 2014

Graham on Confucius II: De

Scott Bradley

The little word de (te), best known as part of the title of the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), has presented translators with many a headache. The main problem is not so much with finding the right equivalent word, though that poses one, but with understanding what it means in the first place. Graham offers a definition for its use by Confucius which might profitably be taken as the foundation for every other subsequent usage: "the power . . . to move others without exerting physical force." Here is a concept, an orientation, through which the entirety of the classical Chinese philosophic enterprise can be brought into focus.

A curious thing about classical Chinese philosophy is that it is always political. Yes, even philosophical Daoism, the supposedly "quietist" philosophy of hermits and drop-outs, is profoundly political. The most celebrated 'Daoist' work, the Daodejing, is a manual for rulers on how best to rule. And even Zhuangzi, who is said to have refused political office so he could, like a free turtle, drag his tail in the mud, does so, in part, that he might more effectively "move others without exerting physical force."

On the face of it, it seems so obvious that philosophy would always be a political enterprise. That it has often attempted to be otherwise in the West (though, in the end, nothing is not political) is in itself telling. We are, after all, communal beings. Confucius understood everything in this context. Personal ethics could not be abstracted from the network of human relationships. The point was to be a better human being so as to make for a better society. Were he to run for office today, it would be under the banner of "family values".

Zhuangzi is noteworthy for his individualism; he introduced the value of one's own self-realization outside the context of societal conventions, a personal freedom from dependence upon esteem and merit. But never is this forgetful (even when forgotten) of the benefits that accrue to society generally. The freak of "discombobulated de" is identified as praiseworthy precisely because that de extends to the material benefit of many others.

A species of fish spit on each other when the pond goes dry, Zhuangzi tells us, but how much better when there is enough water for them to forget each other in the rivers and the lakes. The best thing one person can do for another, except in situations of distress, is to leave them to find their own unique expression. De tells us, however, that this apparent gap of disinterest and forgetting is in fact spanned by what Graham calls a "charisma" that assists without assisting. It is, in part, respect for personal context, the affirming gift of allowing others to be themselves.

For Zhuangzi, as for Laozi, it is the empty space that gives value to the whole, as a window makes for the usefulness of a room, or as the realization of inner emptiness (qi) allows for light to enter the heart-mind. De is a quality that, like emptiness, gives things space to be and grow.

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


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    Confucius, also known as Kong Fuzi, was a prominent Chinese philosopher and teacher whose ideas have profoundly impacted Chinese culture and ethics. His most famous work, the "Daodejing," explores the concept of a virtuous life and the importance of personal ethics. The term "Dao" in Confucius' philosophy refers to the path of righteousness and virtue that individuals should follow in their lives.
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    In contrast to Confucius, Zhuangzi, a philosopher from the Daoist tradition, presented a more individualistic approach to life. His philosophy, which is often embodied in the text known as the "Zhuangzi," celebrates self-realization outside the constraints of societal conventions. Zhuangzi's philosophy encourages individuals to find their path, respecting their context and desires.
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