Tuesday, July 21, 2009


by Thomas Riggins

Why is it so difficult to build a Marxist mass movement in the US? There are Marxist movements of considerable size, in comparison to the US, both in many Third World nations and in countries more advanced than the US. Not only is Marxism seemingly at a disadvantage in the US but a scientific world outlook is similarly hindered with respect to a favorable growth outlook. At the same time many views and outlooks characteristic of medieval obscurantism (fundamentalist religious beliefs-- for example), blatant superstition (astrology), superficial intellectually childish “philosophical” trends (Ayn Rand, Deepak Chopra, etc.), are flourishing.

There may be a scientific explanation for Adult Resistance to Marxism (ARM). In this article I will explore the causes of ARM and propose possible remedies to this serious mental deficiency which severely prevents those who are victims of this disorder from properly functioning in their social environment and maximizing their abilities to provide the best possible existential conditions for the flourishing of themselves and their loved ones.

The scientific information on which this article is based is critically culled from the article “Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science” by Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg (SCIENCE 18 May 2007 VOL 316).

The authors of this article are concerned about the negative social consequences of the resistance that many American adults have to the acceptance of scientific ideas. I believe that ARM results from some of the same fundamental causes that Bloom and Weisberg list for the rejection of science and that the same negative results are involved with ARM.

The authors maintain that “a scientifically ignorant public is unprepared to evaluate policies about global warming, vaccination, genetically modified organisms, stem cell research, and cloning.” There are social repercussions as a result of this ignorance.

I hasten to add, that as a result of ARM the public is also ignorant with respect to the proper attitudes to take on the issues of war and peace, racism, international relations, employment and unemployment, proper education polices and health issues, among many other social problems.

The authors use developmental psychology to suggest that two basic characteristics about children may make some resistance to ideas based on science “a human universal.” This would also explain the origin of ARM if their views are correct.

The authors claim that, "The main source of resistance concerns what children know before their exposure to science." We are told that "recent psychological research" shows that babies are not "blank slates" [the authors, however start with one year olds for their argument] and that children know all sorts of things about the world-- objects are solid, people react emotionally to appropriate situations, etc. What they call "naive" physics and psychology.

Bloom and Weisberg think this is a problem. Children don't have an accurate perception of the world in a scientific sense, according to them. Scientific views are so different from normal common sense (Einstein, Quantum Theory, Darwin, etc.). This makes it difficult to teach scientific theories to them.

This is hogwash. Children learn by trial and error and learn from their mistakes. They are natural born scientists using the empirical method and induction (as well some deduction after many experiences.) They learn the same way all mammals do. The scientific method is simply a more sophisticated extension of this "naive" common sense approach to understanding the world. They also have basic moral intuitions such as fairness and empathy which, if they were properly educated, would reinforce socialist ideals of equality and non-expoitation in adulthood.

The authors, however, think this intuitive approach leads to a resistance to science and ultimately to belief in things such as ESP, astrology, ghosts, fairies, divination, and creationism. None of these things, by the way, follow from the common sense view of the world any more than do scientific theories, indeed rather less so.

Children have natural developmental stages that they go through. If they are taught properly, at age appropriate levels, there will be no untoward resistance to science education and understanding. Almost all the examples the authors give of childhood scientific resistance is the result of bad educational methods and poor nurturing. If this "resistance" really were "inborn" science would never have gotten off the ground in the first place.

The second fact, having, I hope, disposed of the bogus first factoid (what children spontaneously intuitively know), has more merit. This is "how children learn." This basically has to do with the fact that children trust the adults that raise them and tend to believe what they are told as long as it doesn't conflict completely with common sense.

The children of uneducated and ignorant adults will tend to be more ignorant and uneducated that those of knowledgeable educated adults-- and vice versa. This is hardly startling. Take the example of creationism versus evolution. Children trust their parents and their teachers. But if their parents are creationists, other things being equal, the children will likely be so too. This is because they spend far more time around their parents and their like-minded parent's friends, etc., than they do around their science teachers.

The authors hold that the evidence suggests these science resistant people maintain their beliefs for reasons "not necessarily rooted in an appreciation of the evidence and arguments." But this surely a problem of nurture not nature.

The reason, they say, that this nonscientific, or even antiscientific group of people resists scientific rationality is "because they trust the people who say it [the unscientific explanation] is true." All of this can be explained by education, class and culture without recourse to any inborn psychological
propensities to be found in babies.

The authors finally arrive at the amazing conclusion that "recent studies" suggest that children, just as adults, "rely on the trustworthiness of the source when deciding which asserted claims to believe." And if the educational system has done its job of providing a basic scientific analysis, I think, of the world system for people they will also be able to rely on the objective evidence for an assertion as well.

It is for the same reasons that Marxism is not objectively taught in the US that science is also played down. Namely, there are too many vested interests that benefit from the ignorance of the population. In our class riven society neither science nor a Marxist understanding are in the interests of the ruling corporate elites or the political parties and forces that control the levers of power.

The authors seem to recognize this when they write that unscientific beliefs in the US "are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities." But instead of having a Marxist analysis of why this so in a capitalist society, the authors fall back on the notion that "developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging intuitive expectations." This is a cop out as the so called "clash" can only take place when age inappropriate teaching methods are applied to the education of young children, or anti-scientific (also anti-socialist) attitudes are deliberately cultivated.

It is the fact that our ruling class is not committed to a universal scientific education for children, not "intuitive expectations" that is responsible for the backward educational climate in the US. The fact that the authors don't see that Marxism, or scientific socialism, is as important a part of education as neuroscience and evolutionary biology only shows that many scientists themselves have a resistance to science. Perhaps they should have entitled their paper "Adult Origins of Childhood Resistance to Science."

Finally, antiscientific outlooks, as well as ARM, will only be eliminated by a reorganization of the educational system, especially early childhood education, with an emphasis on independent critical thinking, scientific method, and the banning of religious propaganda.

[from PA archives 2007]

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Are We Born Moral?


by Thomas Riggins

The above named article by John Gray appears in The New York Review of Books for May 10, 2007. It is a critical commentary on two new books-- Marc D. Hauser’s “Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong” (Ecco, 458pp.) and Frans de Waal, et al, “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved” (Princeton University Press, 209pp.)

I am only going to comment on the first book as I have previously discussed de Waal in “Marxism, Monkeys and Morality” which is in the archive.

Gray makes an important point early on in his article, and that is, that if evolution is correct, then the human capacity for morality must have come about “in some part from evolutionary processes.” Some might argue, I think, that this is true but all those processes arose after we split from the common ancestor we share with the chimps so that, as a result, morality is a purely human affair restricted to the genus Homo if not to our species alone.

There is evidence, however, that human morality can be traced back to our primate ancestors. This was Darwin’s view, and Gray quotes the following passage from “The Descent of Man”: “Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts.... would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

And, Gray maintains, the idea that morality is something unique to humanity is ultimately based on the view that we are “exempt from the evolutionary laws that govern other animals.” Hauser, however, doesn't share this view. He thinks that "both moral judgment and behavior are largely the product of unconscious [inherited] processes."

He thinks, in other words, "that humans have an inborn moral faculty, parts of which they share with other animals." This is based on his research (he a professor of psychology at Harvard) on monkeys and other primates. I should point out that there is evidence of empathy, compassion, social awareness, tool use, sympathy and sharing exhibited by monkeys and chimps. Human moral systems are based on such feelings and behaviors and it is perfectly rational and scientific to see our moral systems as part of an evolutionary continuum reaching back and deriving from our prehuman ancient primate ancestors.

Gray points out that the world's major religions, at least in the western big three (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) think of morality as a system of principles to be followed which are unique to humans because revealed by a supernatural being. Gray calls this a morality of "acting on rational principles" shared by western religions and philosophy (Kant and Rawls both of whom influenced Hauser).

I don't agree, however, that religion acts on rational principles. The natural human compassion and empathy that we inherited is in fact repressed by religion and turned into their opposites. So-called religious people who use their "moral" beliefs to justify honor killings, repressing women's rights, or starting wars and invading other countries, or trying to steal the land from other people are not following a natural morality based on empathy, compassion, and social cooperation.

Gray is partial to David Hume's views on morality he quotes him (Treatise on Human Nature): "When any hypothesis... is advanc'd to explain a mental operation, which is common to men and beasts, we must apply the same hypothesis to both."

Gray says he agrees with Hauser on the evolutionary origin of morality, but not on an innate moral structure (analogous to Chomsky's views on language). "Applying principles," he writes, "remains a distinctive feature of moral life, but one that reflects human conventions rather than rules of conduct hardwired in the human brain."

In sum, Hauser's book is important and we can learn about the latest scientific consensus regarding our evolutionary inheritance from it, but that inheritance is more like a foundation upon which human morality has developed and expanded rather than as one that is built into us determining how we must act and behave within preconditioned parameters.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Philosophy of Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu
by Thomas Riggins

After finishing their discussion of Confucius,[check blog archive] Karl and Fred were ready to look at the philosophy of Lao Tzu. Karl, who knew more about Chinese philosophy than Fred, began by asking Fred what he knew about Lao Tzu.

“The philosophy of Lao Tzu is called Taoism, do you know much about it Fred?”

“ I have read a little Karl. I know that the philosophy of Lao Tzu is contained in a book called the Tao-te ching or The Way and its Virtue. Also that not much is really known about him. The Chinese think he lived around the time of Confucius, maybe twenty or so years before him. It is unlikely they ever met. It is also possible that he really lived hundreds of years after Confucius. Legend has it that he got tired of all the hassles in China and departed for the West riding on the back of an ox, but was stopped by the gatekeeper of the Western Pass and not allowed to proceed unless he wrote down his thoughts. That is how the Tao-te ching came about. Having complied, he disappeared over the mountains heading for India--or so they say.”

“Pretty good introduction seeing as we don’t even know if he was a real person or a mythical one! Well, you have the book, Chan’s translation, lets see if we can figure out what it means.” [A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy by Wing-Tsit Chan]

Fred picked up the book and began to read. “I, that’s Chapter One, of eighty six,--’The Tao (Way) that can be told of is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth; the Named is the mother of all things. Therefore let there always be non-being so we may see their subtlety, And let there always be being so we may see their outcome.’ Now what is that all about?”

“This is a mystical book. Taoism is a tradition at odds with what will develop out of the Analects. The TAO is incapable of being pinned down by human language. If someone thinks they know what it is you can be sure they are wrong because it will be even more than that. You know, Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed says that God is undefinable so that we really can’t say anything about him correctly--in just this sense is the TAO nameless.”

“OK, here is 2: ‘When the people of the world all know beauty as beauty, There arises the recognition of ugliness. When they all know the good as good, There arises the recognition of evil. Therefore: Being and non-being produce each other; Difficult and easy complete each other; Long and short contrast each other; high and low distinguish each other; Sound and voice harmonize with each other; Front and back follow each other. Therefore the sage manages affairs without action (wu-wei) And spreads doctrines without words.’ “

“ The term for ‘non-action’, i.e., wu-wei, means no action contrary to nature. I think Chan points this out. In general we see here a dialectical approach to reality. Everything has its opposite and complements that opposite. Until we know what the ‘good’ is we don’t know ‘evil.’ It looks like we have to use a lot of ‘names’ after all since ‘good.’ ‘evil,’ ‘beauty,’ ‘ugliness,’ etc., are all names. Thus while the TAO as ground of the world is ‘nameless’ the things in the world are known by names. This seems not to contradict Confucius's views about the Rectification of Names--remember Rule Two from our last discussion? [Cf. Confucius reference above. Rule Two- Language must be in accord with truth]. Also, note that Confucius did not allow himself to be drawn into discussions about the ultimate metaphysical basis of the world so he too seems not to be in disagreement with the view of the TAO as nameless. The part about spreading doctrines without words may mean that it is by EXAMPLE that influence is spread, and I don’t think Confucius would disagree with this.”

“I though you said Taoism was in conflict with Confucianism. It looks like they agree on everything!”

“What can I say? We have only looked at the first two chapters. I’m sure the big differences will soon manifest themselves.”

“3: ‘Do not display objects of desire, so that the people’s hearts shall not be disturbed. Therefore in the government of the sage He keeps their hearts [peaceful and pure] (hsü), Fills their bellies, Weakens their ambitions, And strengthens their bones, He always causes his people to be without knowledge (cunning) or desire, And the crafty to be afraid to act.’”

“I really don’t know what to make of this! The sage ruler evidently keeps his wealth under lock and key so the masses won’t see the class differences in the state. He provides bread and circuses as a Roman emperor so that the people remain content and don’t mess with the government. This is obviously the product of a feudal mentality.”

“5: ‘Heaven and Earth are not humane (jen). They regard all things as straw dogs. The sage is not humane. He regards all people as straw dogs.’ That doesn’t sound very good to me Karl.”

“Well lets not read too much into it. I remember Chan on this selection saying that it means that Nature and the Sage are really IMPARTIAL and not playing favorites unjustly. Heaven and Earth are just following Tao, as we would say, ‘the laws of nature’, and as you know the sun shines on the just and the unjust alike. The Sage too has to be impartial and examine things according to their merits. The Prime Directive! [Cf. Confucius article. The Prime Directive of philosophy is to ‘Always seek the truth by means of logic and reason without appeals to faith and emotion.’]

“7: ‘Heaven is eternal and Earth everlasting. They can be eternal and everlasting because they do not exist for themselves. And for this reason can exist forever. Therefore the sage places himself in the background but finds himself in the foreground’.”

“Now I understand the last part. Don’t toot your own horn and all that, lead by example, but the first part is just mystical excess as far as I can tell. Heaven and Earth not existing for themselves what can that mean? Perhaps he means they are manifestations of Tao, but this passage is all too mystical for me.”

“I like the following from 9: ‘To be proud with honor and wealth Is to cause one’s own downfall. Withdraw as soon as your work is done. Such is Heaven’s Way.’”

“Yes, don’t overstay your welcome. At least this counteracts the view that Taoists are recluses. You have a job or function to perform and you should stick with it until its done--but then leave!”

“Chapter Eleven is a little mysterious. ‘Doors and windows are cut out to make a room But it is on its non-being that the utility of the room depends. Therefore turn being into advantage, and turn non-being into utility.’”

“I think Lao is saying that the room is ‘empty’ hence ‘non-being’ and because it is empty it can be used for something--a dining room, bedroom, study, etc. The ‘being’ would be the material of the room from which the doors and windows were cut.”

“And what can this mean? 12:’Goods that are hard to get injure one’s activities. For this reason the sage is concerned with the belly and not the eyes, Therefore he rejects the one but accepts the other.’”

“Your guess is as good as mine Fred. But look at it this way. It is easy to get a bowl of rice to eat, all the simple fare required, really, for a Taoist sage but you can see palaces and treasures and things of that sort which others have and will never be yours so it is better to avoid that kind of ‘concern’ and stick to your proper activities.”

“Sounds good to me Karl. Here is 13: ‘If I have no body, What trouble could I have? Therefore he who values the world as his body may be entrusted with the empire.’”

“I remember this. Chan says something about it doesn’t he?”

“Here is his comment on page 145 of his Source Book:’On the basis of this attitude toward the body, it is difficult to accept the theory that Yang Chu who would preserve one’s own life under any circumstances, was an early Taoist, as Fung has maintained.’ Now what is all that about?”

“Well, here is a good time to tell you who Fung was. Chan means Fung Yu-lan who wrote the most important history of Chinese philosophy we have in English, it was translated from Chinese by one of his students, Dirk Bodde. This is the History of Chinese Philosophy in two volumes, also available abridged as A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. Yang Chu is a character we will run into if we ever make it to Mencius.”

“OK, and....”

“And Chan is, I think wrong. This passage from Lao is not putting down the body. He says we value it and even love it --otherwise there is trouble. Since this is the case the person who loves the world just as much as himself, since he will love himself, will be the best ruler. If Yang Chu thought as much of the world as he did of himself he would be a good ruler. He was, however, an egotist. Yang may not have been an admirable Taoist, a sage, but Fung has not been proven wrong by this comment by Lao. But we will have to wait till we meet Yang himself later in our discussions.”

“14: ‘We look at it and do not see it; Its name is the Invisible. We listen to it and do not hear it; Its name is the Inaudible. We touch it and do not find it; its name is the Subtle (formless). These three cannot be further inquired into, And hence merge into one.’”

“A typical mystical statement. The hidden ground of the universe is not available to our knowledge, at least not to our sense knowledge so we will have no direct empirical knowledge of it. “

“Chan says this view of the non-detectability of ultimate reality--the ‘formless’ is in contradistinction to the Confucian view that reality is ‘manifest.’ He also points out that as Chinese philosophy developed under the influence of Buddhism, centuries later, the so called Neo-Confucianists made a synthesis and he quotes a Neo-Confucianist Ch’eng I who wrote ‘there is no distinction between the manifest and the hidden.’”

“That is a very Hegelian type of synthesis. Hegel did not have a high regard for Chinese thought, perhaps because of limited access to it in his day. But Hegel taught that ‘Thought’ advances by developing concepts that engender counter concepts that then result in a synthesis of the two into a new ‘higher’ concept that combines what was the one-sidedness of the original concepts. This is quite a simplification, but from what you just read from Chan, I’m sure Ch’eng I’s unification of these two concepts the ‘hidden’ and the ‘manifest’--’there is no distinction’ would meet with Hegel’s approval.”

“I notice here a reference to p’u in 15 and ’uncarved wood’? What is that image about?”

“That, Fred, is one of the most famous Taoist images. A sage is like an ‘uncarved block of wood.’ I see it as meaning we are all ‘potential’. An uncarved block could become anything under the hands of an artist--a horse, a figure of a man, or any thing at all. But once carved that's it--the carved horse can’t later be a carved man. Also, Lao calls the uncarved block ‘genuine.’ So there is something artificial about the carved block. This somehow implies that human actions are not fully natural they contrast to the Tao. This is, I think, incorrect on Lao’s part! Everything is comprehended under the Tao so humans are too and the uncarved block and the carved block originate from the same universal process. There is an unresolved contradiction at the heart of Taoism which we will have to see played out. Sartre, in his Existentialism, would say humans have to live in the world even when trying not to interfere with it--they are committed to some ‘project’ or other so even being an ‘uncarved block’ is a form of being ‘carved’. For now, I’ll leave this as an unresolved ‘Hegelian’ contradiction.”

“18: ‘When the great Tao declined, The doctrines of humanity (jen) and righteousness (i) arose. When knowledge and wisdom appeared, There appeared great hypocrisy. When the six family relationships [father, son, elder and younger brother, husband and wife--Chan] are not in harmony, There will be the advocacy of filial piety and deep love to children. When a country is in disorder, There will be praise of loyal ministers,’”

“Pretty obvious. All of these things are a reflection that there are problems and imperfections, a sign that Tao is not working properly--the Tao of human affairs that is, the Tao of Nature is something else it seems. Look at our example. We like to think we care about the environment and other people--but look at the reality. It is just because we degrade both the environment and our fellow beings that we have to have so many laws to protect them. Big corporations such as GE, Exxon-Mobil, etc., spend millions in ad campaigns telling us how corporate America is environmentally conscious--but the fact that we need anti-pollution laws and regulations aimed at these very companies shows that what they claim they are and what they are are vastly different. Do you think that if there were freedom and equality in the United States we would need civil rights laws? And why did they pass a law in Texas against having sex with sheep? This is the message of Lao Tzu. “

“Lao goes on in 19: ‘Abandon sageliness and discard wisdom; then the people will benefit a hundredfold. Abandon humanity and discard righteousness; Then the people will return to filial piety and deep love. Abandon skill and discard profit; Then there will be no thieves or robbers. However these three things are ornament (wen) and not adequate. Therefore let people hold on to these: Manifest plainness, Embrace simplicity, Reduce selfishness, Have few desires.’”

“Its too late for this Taoist program I fear. Civilization was even so far advanced in Lao’s time that a program such as this, a going back to ‘nature’ program as it were, was not realistic. Taoism is reactionary--it reacts to the problems of the times by harking back to a mythical past when the Tao was not in decline and we didn’t need all the regulations and rules that have evolved along with our social development. Nevertheless, the four rules he gives at the end are not so bad--just on utilitarian grounds--if we all practiced them many of the negative aspects of our technological world system would be mitigated. I’m sure you can see how their application would bring this about.”

“Now this is really important Karl--Chapter 21, Chan says its the most important in the entire book--philosophically that is.”

“Well, lets hear it then!”

“ OK, here goes, ‘The all-embracing quality of the great virtue (te) follows alone from the Tao. The thing that is called Tao is eluding and vague. Vague and eluding, there is in it the form. Eluding and vague, in it are things. Deep and obscure, in it is the essence [intelligence, spirit, life-force]. The essence is very real; in it are evidences. From the time of old until now, its name (manifestations) ever remains, By which we may see the beginning of all things. How do I know the beginnings of all things are so? Through this (Tao).’”

“In itself this passage is too vague . What do we learn from saying ‘the Tao is all encompassing and is the ultimate explanation for everything?’ Not much. Chan thinks it so important because it is similar to passages in the Book of Changes [of which more later] which were utilized in NeoConfucianist metaphysics.”

“Here is 22, some more ‘mysticism’--’To have plenty is to be perplexed. Therefore the sage embraces the one and becomes the model of the world. He does not show himself; therefore he is luminous. He does not justify himself; therefore he becomes prominent. He does not boast of himself; therefore he is given credit. He does not brag; therefore he can endure for long.’”


“23: ‘Nature says few words. For the same reason a whirlwind does not last a whole morning, Nor does a rainstorm last a whole day. What causes them? It is Heaven and Earth (Nature). If Heaven and Earth cannot make them last long, How much less can man? Therefore he who follows Tao is identified with Tao.’”

“Very interesting. He seems to be saying don’t mess with Nature. You have heard of the ‘Three Gorges” dam project in China?”

“Its supposed to be the world’s largest dam project--displacing thousands of people and completely changing the face of land.”

“And you know that projects like this, and many other man made attempts to change the environment have ended in disasters. Think of the problems in the Everglades since we have monkeyed around with the water levels in Florida--and the extinction of many species throughout the world due to the destruction of habitats. I think those in power could learn a thing or two from this passage in Lao. Work with Nature, don’t try to completely rearrange the natural processes that have developed on the planet--that is following Tao.”

“This chapter,25, reminds me of the opening: ‘There was something undifferentiated and yet complete, Which existed before heaven and earth. Soundless, and formless, it depends on nothing and does not change. It operates everywhere and is free from danger. It may be considered the mother of the universe. I do not know its name; I call it Tao. If forced to give it a name; I call it great...Being far-reaching means returning to the original point. Therefore Tao is great.’”

“As Chan says, this passage is representative of the Chinese view that history and nature operate cyclically. [Of course, now that they are Marxists they are not supposed to believe this.] Whereas we in the West more or less think in terms of progress and continual betterment, the Chinese in classical times thought in terms of cycles rather than progress.”

“26: ‘The tranquil is the ruler of the hasty. Therefore the sage travels all day Without leaving his baggage....How is it that a lord with ten thousand chariots Should behave lightheartedly in his empire? If he is lighthearted, the minister will be destroyed. If he is hasty, the ruler is lost.’”

“Not really a Taoist paradox. The ruler is secure and tranquil being lighthearted is a sign of assuredness. On the other hand the function of the minister is to carry out his duties--lightheartedness ill behooves him.”

“This next chapter is interesting and I don’t think it really needs any explication--27: ‘A well-tied knot needs no rope and yet none can untie it. Therefore the sage is always good at saving men and consequently no man is rejected. He is always good in saving things and consequently nothing is rejected. This is called following the light (of Nature) Therefore the good man is the teacher of the bad, And the bad is the material from which the good may learn. He who does not value the teacher, Or greatly care for the material, Is greatly deluded although he may be learned. Such is the essential mystery.’”

“A lot of faith in the salvation power of the sage! Confucius wants to enlighten people, this is a form of salvation but a bit more limited than Lao here. Remember the ‘square’--if you don’t get the other three sides from the one Confucius gives to you, you get dropped!” [Cf. the Confucius dialogue]

“I remember. Here is something about the ‘sage’--28: ‘He will be proficient in eternal virtue, And returns to the state of simplicity (uncarved wood). When the uncarved wood is broken up, it is turned into concrete things (as Tao transformed into the myriad things). But when the sage uses it, he becomes the leading official. Therefore the great ruler does not cut up’”

“The Taoist Sage is using and not using the uncarved block it would seem. This is because he prefers things to remain in their original state of simplicity--he rules by not ruling. This is all very fine if you have a well ordered state in the first place but what if you come along in a ‘time of troubles’ and forceful action is needed? Would this Taoist minimalism work in that case, or must the Taoist wait for a natural cyclical return to simplicity? I don’t think Lao has an answer to this problem.”

“Well, we may find one later on in the book. This is chapter 29, it has relevance to your questions: ‘When one desires to take over the empire and act on it (interfere with it), I see that he will not succeed. The empire is a spiritual thing and should not be acted on.’ He then says, ‘...the sage discards the extremes, the extravagant, and the excessive.’”

“That last part is like Aristotle’s ‘mean’--you know, virtue is a mean between two extremes--e.g., ‘courage’ is a mean between ‘foolhardiness’ and ‘cowardice.’”

“But what about the other part, about not ‘acting’? What if the ‘empire’ needs some ‘action’--such as tax reform or an agricultural reform or something like that? I’m beginning to agree with what you just said a few minutes ago. This might be a real problem with Lao’s views.”

“I’m glad you agree. What is next?”

“Something our gun toting friends in the NRA will appreciate. 31: ‘Fine weapons are instruments of evil. They are hated by men. Therefore those who possess Tao turn away from them’”

“I remember this chapter. Forget the NRA, read some more and then try to reconcile Lao’s ideas with our government’s or any government’s obsession with military spending. This quote goes well beyond the NRA!”

“’Weapons are instruments of evil, not the instruments of a good ruler. When he uses them unavoidably, he regards calm restraint as the best principle. Even when he is victorious, he does not regard it as praiseworthy, For to praise victory is to delight in the slaughter of men....For a victory, let us observe the occasion with funeral ceremonies.’”

“This shows real understanding of the horrors of war on Lao’s part. Someting we have yet to understand, it seems. Yet he admits the ruler may not be able to avoid the use of weapons--think of trying to stop Hitler without them. Nevertheless, even when defeating Hitler it was wrong to celebrate with a Roman triumph. The fact that we did so shows how far we are from the real spirit of the Tao.”

“I wonder what Lao would think about our current and past warlike activities in the Balkans and Iraq.”

“We have not very good rulers I fear.”

“In 33 he says ‘He who dies but does not really perish enjoys long life.’ Is he talking about the immortality of the soul?”

“I don’t think so. If you read on you will find that Chan points out that the Chinese think of immortality not in terms of individual survival but in terms of an immortality of reputation--your writings and your deeds. Look at it this way--some older person helps a child, say by sending her to school, she grows up to be a doctor and saves the life of some one who later becomes a ruler, etc. etc., a causal sequence extending over a thousand years--these people in the sequence, their deeds have never really perished.”

“OK, now I’ll read parts of 34; ‘The Great Tao flows every -where....It clothes and feeds all things but does not claim to be master over them. Always without desires, it may be called The Small. All things come to it and it does not master them; it may be called The Great. Therefore (the sage) never strives himself for the great, and thereby the great is achieved.’”

“I can’t help but think of this in Western terms! It means, to my mind, that there is some universal ‘law’ or ‘power’ which is responsible for all that happens--but the expression ‘does not claim to be master’ allows for freedom of action at least on the part of self-conscious beings as ourselves, so Lao is not a Calvinist or Augustinian predestinationist. I admit, however, that this is a Western interpretation and may or may not coincide with what Lao had in mind.”

“Just when you think Lao isn’t so bad, he comes up with a recommendation that is just awful and shows how out of
line his views are to democratic thinkers today.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Listen to this from 36: ‘Fish should not be taken away from water. And sharp weapons of the state should not be displayed to the people.’”

“I see what you mean, but his advice is generally followed even today by so called democratic governments, although I don’t consider governments that practice this really democratic at all in the true sense of the term.”

“Now what are you talking about?”

“You know, all this stuff you read about in the papers about the FBI and the CIA how they run all kinds of secret operations without any seeming control trying to assassinate people they deem a threat to their power--or the really terrible secret weapons systems the military creates such as the poison gases and germ warfare toxins they have made--not to mention the nuclear weapons they have and now all this information coming out about depleted uranium weapons or the training of terrorists at the School of the Americas run by the military (even if they changed the name to further conceal what goes on there). Don’t you think all this falls under Lao’s dictum that sharp weapons shouldn’t be displayed to the people?”

“Its all very confusing to me. I would have thought that Lao would be against ‘sharp weapons’ and things like you described. He says in the same chapter ‘The weak and the tender overcome the hard and the strong’ so he should be against ‘sharp weapons’--the state should get what it wants by being ‘weak and tender’ that is by education and treating people as people and following the Tao.”

“So there seems to be a contradiction in his teachings, just look back at 31 when he attacks ‘fine weapons’ and says they go against the Tao! I’ll admit there can be a lot to argue about here.”

“And Chan points out that this doctrine of ‘deceit’ really upset the Confucianists. I guess Confucius would want the people to be educated and know what is going on in their state. After all, he thought government was for the benefit of the people and ultimately to be extended to the whole world so people who are not displaying their ‘sharp weapons’ must be up to no good!”

“So noted! What’s next?”

“I’ll read part of 38: ‘The man of superior virtue is (not conscious of) his virtue, And in this way he really possesses virtue. The man of inferior virtue never loses (sight of) his virtue, And in this way he loses his virtue. The man of superior virtue takes no action, but has no ulterior motive to do so. The man of inferior virtue takes action, and has an ulterior motive to do so. The man of superior humanity takes action, but has no ulterior motive to do so. The man of superior righteousness takes action, and has an ulterior motive to do so. The man of superior propriety takes action, And when people do not respond to it, he will stretch his arms and force it on them. Therefore, only when Tao is lost does the doctrine of virtue arise...propriety is a superficial expression of loyalty and faithfulness, and the beginning of disorder...the great man...dwells in the fruit (reality), and does not rest with the flower (appearance). Therefore he rejects the one, and accepts the other.’”

“This is a passage which again puts forth the view that the simple and natural are best, closest to the Tao. This is almost like Rousseau in the rejection of the artificialities of civilization.”

“Here in 39 Lao talks about the ‘One’--which I take to be Tao-- he says ‘Heaven obtained the One and became clear.... If heaven had not thus become clear, It would soon crack.’ He makes similar remarks about the efficacy of the One with regard, for example to the earth (without the One ‘It would soon be shaken’) and about kings and barons who became rulers by it and ‘They would soon fall’ without it. But then he says ‘Therefore humble station is the basis of honor. The low is the foundation of the high.’ I just don’t understand the conclusion he draws!”

“Well, this isn’t a syllogism after all. If you equate the One with the Tao this implies again the power of the Tao to have the ultimate influence over reality. Lao is being ‘mystical’ not ‘logical’ by referring to the ‘humble’ and the ‘low’--you see he is using the ‘One’ as a symbol for the ‘low’--a low number--and the ‘humble’. The ‘One’ is the beginning but the ‘thousand’, so to speak, is ultimately dependent upon it.”

“OK Karl, here is a verse from 40--’All things in the world come from being. And being comes from non-being.’”

“Now is the time to bring in some outside assistance,” Karl said as he went to his bookcase and pulled down a book.

“What is this book,” Fred asked.

“This is A Short History of Chinese Philosophy by Fung Yu-Lan, edited by Derk Bodde. Its really required reading if we are interested in Chinese philosophy. Fung was a major philosopher in his own right and this is based on his great two volume work History of Chinese Philosophy. I think it is the best of the histories because it is by one of the most important philosophers in the modern Chinese tradition. It is similar to having A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell.”

“So now we can use Fung as well as Chan for clarification, why didn’t you bring it out earlier?”

“Its better to introduce these aids slowly, besides Confucius wasn’t into all this metaphysical speculation but Lao’s work is full of these kind of statements so where Chan does not give any clarification we can turn to Fung. I remember he had interesting comments to make on this Chapter from Lao Tzu.”

“Chapter 40?”

“That is correct,” said Karl, flipping through Fung’s book. “Ah, here is the passage I was looking for. Listen to this Fred, its on page 96: ‘...the being of all things implies the being of Being. This is the meaning of Lao Tzu’s saying [40].... The saying of Lao Tzu does not mean that there was a time when there was only Non-being, and that then there came a time when Being came into being from Non-being. It simply means that if we analyze the existence of things, we see there must first be Being before there can be any things. Tao is the unnamable, is Non-Being, and is that by which all things come to be. Therefore, before the being of Being, there must be Non-being, from which Being comes into being. What is here said belongs to ontology, not to cosmology. It has nothing to do with time and actuality. For in time and actuality, there is no Being; there are only beings.’”

“And you think that quote is helpful?”

“Well, it looked better when I was reading this book as a student. Fung was a metaphysician himself and sometimes requires to be explained even more than what he is explaining!”

“So why bring him up.”

“Because he brings all the latent issues to the fore.”

“Well then, what else is there besides ‘time and actuality’? Are not ‘time and actuality’ circumlocutions for ‘existence’ so that Fung is saying ‘in existence there is no Existence only existents’. And I would say that what is true of ‘cosmology’ is true of ‘ontology.’”

“Fred, I wouldn’t disagree with you. This passage from Fung is turning out to be nonsense! I think Fung should have said ‘Being’ is a logical category that precedes ‘being’ but even that is taking us far and away from the, I think, much more simple meaning of Lao Tzu’s words.”

“So, how would you explain 40?”

“First, I want to say these digressions are philosophically interesting. Second, I think the best way to look at Lao’s saying is to think of ‘all things come from being’ as meaning ‘whatever exists today comes from previously existing things’. Things just don’t pop up out of nothing. And ‘being comes from non-being’ means there is some principle or cause that is responsible for the state of the existing world as we know it and this is TAO which is not itself the same as the beings of this world which are ultimately dependent upon it and for this reason Lao calls it ‘non-being.’ “

“I’m moving on Karl, to Chapter 41.”


“’When the highest type of men hear Tao, They diligently practice it. When the average type of men hear Tao, They half believe in it. When the lowest type of men hear Tao, They laugh heartily at it. If they did not laugh at it, it would not be Tao. Therefore there is the established saying: The Tao which is bright appears to be dark.’”

“Two observations about this Fred. How can the three types ‘hear Tao’ since (Chapter One) the Tao that can be spoken of isn’t the Tao. I mean, how would they know they actually knew what they heard was Tao? Second, since this is supposed to be Lao’s book introducing his views how can there be an ‘established view’? Anyway, since I’m not interested in the history of the text but the idea content, I will restrict myself to this idea of the ‘bright’ appearing as the ‘dark’. This view is right out of the the species of doctrines that gave rise to Plato’s views of the reception of philosophical ‘Truth” as he expressed it in The Republic. I mean this is at one with the Allegory of the Cave. The ultimate ‘Truth’ is the Tao, so if we replace ‘tao’ with ‘truth’ in the quote you read we have the exact meaning intended by Lao. We also have a theme which is common to almost all philosophy whether in China, India or Greece at this time and that is that philosophical truth is ultimately esoteric and limited to a few individuals. The great mass of humanity, hoi polloi, are unable, why is the big question, to grasp the truth and so while it is bright for the sage or philosopher it remains dark to them. The average sort of understand it but it really doesn’t motivate them. So we have three groups of people--a small group motivated by the truth (they get into a lot of trouble most of the time), a middle group that is neither motivated nor hostile (too busy living the every day problems of life) and a ‘low’ group that is hostile and prefers to continue along in a dark and ignorant and unthreatening life style based on unreflective acceptance of common ideas.”

“You seem to be giving a Confucian twist to this! Wouldn’t Lao praise the simple unreflective life style as the manifestation of the Tao? In fact, once you have the ‘highest type of men’ and the ‘lowest type’ of men hasn’t the Tao already been lost?”

“You know, you are right Fred. This is a bit of a contradiction. But the fact is the Tao has been lost from the point view of Lao--and a long time ago too. So we must make do with the world we live in. “

“Does Fung cast any light on this?”

“Actually he does and his comment is based on part of Chapter 40 you didn’t quote a few minutes ago.”

“What was that?”

“Go back and read the first line.”

“’Reversion is the action of Tao.’”

“Fung points out that this sums up Lao’s views on what we would call dialectics. He says ‘The idea is that if anything develops certain extreme qualities, those qualities invariability revert to become their opposites. This constitutes a law of nature.’”

“Sounds like Hegel or Marx.”

“In a way, but Lao’s ‘law’ is more mechanical than really dialectical in the Hegelian sense.”

“How so?”

“Well, in Lao the ‘hard’ becomes the ‘soft’ and then the ‘soft’ becomes the ‘hard’ or the ‘weak’ overcomes the ‘strong’ and then the ‘strong’ becomes the ‘weak’ etc. There appears to be just alteration going on but no advance. When Hegel or Marx and Engels say something like ‘things transform into their opposites’ they don’t intend by this mere alteration back and forth ad infinitum but an advance to a higher level or if you object to ‘higher’ a radically different level. An imaginative but simple example is Lao would give opposites as water-ice, ice-water whereas Hegel might say something like ‘hydrogen is the “opposite” of oxygen but the two opposites transform in to water’ (and other things as well). Fung says this ‘law’ is so paradoxical that hoi polloi can’t grasp it and that is why they laugh at it. Anything really ‘true’ about the world is like that--if hoi polloi grasp it it can’t be true! Of course Marxists would like it to be the other way around.”

“You know, Karl, for all his praise of the simple he is really a snob. This view of the ‘low’ never understanding anything, along with ‘hiding the sharp weapons of the state’ call into question Lao’s sincerity about the concern he is alleged to express for the ‘common people.’”

“A case can be made for this. It is Confucius who wants to educate as many people as possible seeing in education an almost universal panacea.”

“Yes, but he won’t show you the other three corners if you can’t get them yourself after he shows you the first.” [Cf. Confucius dialogue on my blog]

“Why don’t you read the next interesting tid-bit?”

“This is from 42: ‘Tao produced the One. The One produced the two. The two produced the three. And the three produced the ten thousand things. The ten thousand things [i.e. everything] carry the yin and embrace the yang [Chan:’ Yin is the passive, female[!] cosmic principle or force while yang is the active[!] or male principle.’] {You can see males thought this one up!}, and through the blending of the material force (ch’i) [Chan:’Variously translated as matter, matter-energy, vital force, breath, etc.] they achieve harmony....What others have taught, I teach also:”Violent and fierce people do not die a natural death.” I shall make this the father (basis or starting point) of my teaching.’”

“I remember Chan on this passage. He made some good points. Why don’t you read the salient passages?”

“His main point is ‘...the natural evolution from the simple to the complex without any act of creation. This theory is common to practically all Chinese philosophical schools.’”

“The word ‘creation’ is confusing. In the West, following the developments of Neo-Platonism, the ‘ten thousand’ things also came about by emanation from the One or ‘God’ this is how they were ‘created’. I think Chan has in mind the Western notion of creation ex nihilo which was read back by Christians (and then Jews) into the Genesis creation account and has become a dogma. And out of the blue comes this new starting point--I mean, the comment about fierce people. I think it is better to retain the starting point as the Tao and regard this new passage as the starting point of his ethics or social or moral ideas.”

“44:’ Which is worse, gain or loss? Therefore he who has lavish desires will spend extravagantly. He who hoards will lose heavily. He who is contented suffers no disgrace. He who knows when to stop is free from danger. Therefore he can long endure.’ There is a string of quotable quotes here which I’ll just read to give more of a flavor of Taoism in these middle chapters. Go ahead and chime in, Karl, if you think any explication is needed.”

“I will.”

“46: ‘When Tao prevails in the world, galloping horses are turned back to fertilize (the fields with their dung). When Tao does not prevail in the world, war horses thrive in the suburbs.’”

“I guess the fact that we spend so much on the military and have such big budgets dedicated to killing and maiming our fellow human beings all over the world doesn’t say much for the prevalence of the Tao in the current world order.”

“47: ‘The further one goes, the less one knows. Therefore the sage knows without going about, Understands without seeing, And accomplishes without any action.’”

“That might have been true in the days of yore, Fred, before the development of the scientific method and the realization of the importance of research programs. If Lao thinks that knowledge and understanding come about just through contemplation and intution he is wrong, at least by our standards. Darwin would never have come up with his theory of evolution without his ‘going about’ on the HMS Beagle.”

“49: ‘The sage has no fixed (personal) ideas. He regards the people’s ideas as his own. I treat those who are good with goodness, And I also treat those who are not good with goodness. Thus goodness is attained. I am honest to those who are honest, And I am also honest to those who are not honest. Thus honesty is attained.”

“I don’t see how this agrees with Chapter 41. The sage follows Tao on a higher level than ‘the people’ who appear to be indifferent if average or if ‘low’ laughing at it. So, it may be that the the sage, like the ideal scientist or philosopher, leaves him or herself out of the equation (knowlede being ideally objective) but the ‘people’ is too much of an abstraction nowadays, especially since the Tao is not prevailing, to believe the sage’s ideas are the same as the people’s. The only way this could be the case is if the sage represents the ‘general will’ in Rousseau’s sense, and this might, after all just be what Lao Tzu actually means.”

“51: ‘Tao produces them (the ten thousand things). Virtue fosters them. Matter gives them physical form. The circumstances and tendencies complete them. Therefore the ten thousand things esteem Tao and honor virtue. Tao is esteemed and virtue honored without anyone’s order. They always come spontaneously. Therefore Tao produces them and virtue fosters them.’”

“The word being used for ‘virture’ is 'te'--which also means ‘power’. Fung says that Tao is the ‘ground’ and the things come to be by the power manifested in them. Think of Tao as the laws of nature by which material things come to be what they are and manifest their ‘virtue’ or power. Its as when Aristotle said the virtue of a knife is its ability to cut. In this we see Spinoza’s universe reflected in the ideas of the Chinese sage.”

“54: ‘He who has a firm grasp (of Tao) cannot be separated from it.... When one cultivates virtue in the world, it becomes universal.’”

“The point of this chapter is that such cultivation begins with the person then extends to the family, then to the community, the country and finally the whole world.”

“You get the idea from this next quote of the remoteness of the sage from the concerns of most people. 56: ‘Become one with the dusty world. This is called profound identification. Therefore it is impossible either to be intimate and close to him or to be distant and indifferent to him.’ A little before this quote he says, ‘He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.’”

“A real problem since Lao has to ‘speak’ in order to give this bit of information to us!”

“57: ‘The more laws and orders are made prominent, The more thieves and robbers there will be. Therefore the sage says: I take no action and the people of themselves are transformed. I love tranquillity and the people of themselves become correct. I engage in no activity and the people of themselves become prosperous. I have no desires and the people of themselves become simple.’ Chan says this laissez-faire attitude was also that of Confucius.”

“I can’t agree with Chan. How can Confucius say ‘I take no action’ and the people are transformed. This is an attack on Confucius. Confucians seek to take a lot of actions to improve the world and correct and make new laws to govern society. According to Fung this ‘laissez-faire’ attitude is preceded by the sage ruler first undoing ‘all the causes of trouble in the world’ which is very ‘proactive’--if I may use this pretentious and ridiculous word being currently substituted by the semi-literate for ‘active.’ After the troubles have been eliminated then the sage ruler rules by means of wu-wei--i.e., by non-action [meaning no unnatural action]. Fung says, ‘The Taoists agree with the Confucianists that the ideal state is one which has a sage as its head.’ They both agree with Plato on this. But they are different kinds of sages.

“ I feel another a rule coming on.”

“Why not? We can review our rules from the discussion on Confucius when we finish with Lao Tzu but now I am proposing Rule Four-’Always strive to have a philosopher-sage as the chief executive of the state.’”

“That's too abstract. What really qualifies a person as a philosopher-sage? Lao-Tzu’s ideas on this are different from those of Confucius.”

“I know, I know. This is just the framework the rule will have to be further discussed when we evaluate the different philosophies as we go along. I now want to make a comment about the laws being made leading to the conclusion that ‘the more thieves and robbers there will be.’ Of course there are some minimum laws that any society needs, but when the state begins to make more and more new laws it also makes criminals where there were none before.”

“What do you mean?”

“During the rise of Capitalism, for example, when the government closed off the commons to the peasants, as in England, many people were forced into criminal activity just to survive. By making new laws about who can use the commons then actions which were legal--grazing you animals on such and such land or hunting-- became illegal and you became a criminal for doing today what yesterday was a right. Prohibition in the United States turned millions of people technically into criminals and also fostered the development of criminal industries which became non-criminal as soon as prohibition was repealed. The criminalization of certain drugs in this country has filled the prisons with non-violent ‘offenders’--recreational pot smokers right along with drug gang lords. This is certainly an exemplification of Lao Tzu’s dictum.”

“Here are some more political views--58: ‘When the government is non-discriminative and dull, The people are contented and generous. When the government is searching and discriminative, The people are disappointed and contentious....The people have been deluded for a long time. Therefore the sage is as pointed as a square but does not pierce....He is as bright as light but does not dazzle.’”

“Well, Fred, that’s the way it is when the Tao is not being observed. Even in our world today special interest groups bombard the people with biased self serving messages. It is so easy to delude the people about what should be done with respect to the environment, fighting diseases such as AIDS or TB, fighting starvation in the world, or domestic homelessness. ‘Sages’, that is philosophers and scientists, may be able to devise solutions to these problems but with a ‘discriminative’ government catering to special interests rather than the general welfare how are the deluded people to know what to do to get the Tao of society back on track?”

“What do you think of this? 61: ‘A big country may be compared to the lower part of a river. It is the converging point of the world; It is the female of the world. The female always overcomes the male by tranquillity, and by tranquillity she is underneath. A big state can take over a small state if it places itself below the small state; And the small state can take over a big state if it places itself below the big state. Thus some, by being (naturally) low, take over (other states)....’”

“What is this--the political missionary position? The first part sounds like sexist nonsense, to be expected, I’m afraid, considering the time and place of Lao Tzu. I think big states treat little states in a more canine fashion. This appears to be some more ‘mysticism’ which is impracticable in our day. Yet the recommendation that small states will be better being ‘tranquil’--I mean by humoring and trying to get along with big states--is probably good advice. In our day, however, big states try to get their way by throwing around their ‘bigness’. “

“62: ‘Tao is the storehouse of all things.... Even if a man is bad, when has (Tao) rejected him? Therefore on the occasion of crowning an emperor or installing the three ministers [grand tutor, grand preceptor, and grand protector], Rather than present large pieces of jade preceded by teams of four horses, it is better to kneel and offer this Tao’”

“Well, this makes sense. Wisdom, knowledge of the Tao in so far as it is knowable, is to be preferred to the outward show of ceremony. Even Confucius would agree, though he liked the ceremonies.”

“The next chapter is interesting both in itself and because of Chan’s comment. 63: ‘Whether it is big or small, many or few, repay hatred with virtue... Difficult undertakings have always started with what is easy, And great undertakings have always started with what is small. Therefore the sage never strives for the great, and thereby the great is achieved... He who takes things too easily will surely encounter much difficulty. For this reason even the sage regards things as difficult, And therefore he encounters no difficulty.’ “

“What does Chan say?”

“He says this is the ‘Taoist doctrine of walking the second mile, which was unacceptable to Confucius.’ He means the comment about repaying hatred with virtue. Remember Analects 14:36? “

“Yes, Confucius said repay hatred with uprightness and virtue with virtue. But uprightness is the same as impartially and that is a virtue in itself (most of the time) so this difference between Confucius and Lao doesn’t amount to a whole lot in my opinion.”

“Now we go to 64: ‘A journey of a thousand li [ a li = about 1/3 mile] starts from where one stands.’ Hey! I always thought that was from Confucius--’A journey of a thousands miles starts with one step’....”

“What’s that from --a fortune cookie?”

“Not funny, Karl. Well, live and learn.One of my favorite quotes turns out to come from Lao Tzu instead of Confucius. I shall continue. ‘He who grasps things loses them. For this reason the sage takes no action and therefore does not fail. He grasps nothing and therefore does not lose anything... If one remains as careful at the end as he was at the beginning, there will be no failure. Therefore the sage desires to have no desire... He learns to be unlearned, and returns to what the multitude has missed (Tao). Thus he supports all things in their natural state but does not take any action.’ What do you make of all this?”

“Again, that ‘no action’ means no unnatural action. The sage tries to understand Tao--still a dubious prospect from his opening verses! And there is another negative thought about hoi polloi. I’m still pro-Confucius here. We can study the Tao and we should then try to impart it to the multitude. I think Lao doesn’t share this idea fully.”

“Karl, the very next chapter bears on this question--Chapter 65 I mean.”

“Excellent! Read it because Fung also comments on this chapter.

“65: In ancient times those who practiced the Tao well Did not seek to enlighten the people, but to make them ignorant. People are difficult to govern because they have too much knowledge. Therefore he who rules the state through knowledge is a robber of the state: He who rules a state not through knowledge is a blessing to the state.’ There is some more about returning to the natural standard, but what about this keeping the people ignorant?”

“A greater contrast to Confucius could not be found. But to understand this in the Chinese context, I’m going to read this passage from Fung. ‘”Ignorant” here is a translation of the Chinese yu, which means ignorance in the sense of simplicity and innocence. The sage not only wants his people to be yu, but wants himself to be so too....In Taoism yu is not a vice, but a great virtue’ And Fung goes on to say, however, that the yu of the sage is really higher than that of the common people. This means its not really yu at all! ‘The yu of the sage is the result of a conscious process of cultivation. It is something higher than knowledge, something more, not less. There is a common Chinese saying: “Great wisdom is like ignorance.” The yu of the sage is great wisdom, and not like the yu of a child or of ordinary people. The latter kind of yu is a gift of nature, while that of the sage is an achievement of the spirit. There is a great difference between the two. But in many cases the Taoists seem to have confused them.’”

“I’ll say! Using the same word for the uneducated ignorance of hoi polloi--and calling that a ‘gift of nature’! and the sophisticated understanding of the philosopher is no good. This is a clear case where a Confucian ‘rectification of names’ is needed!”

“I couldn’t agree more Fred. Naturally people become more difficult to govern the more they get away from the ‘gift of nature’ and find out what is really going on. Thinking of all the peasant uprisings in Chinese history, I image that the Chinese ruling class must have identified with this passage from Lao Tzu.”

“Yet they were officially Confucian and thus believed in education even if not to the extent of Confucius himself.”

“That’s right. It only shows how impractical Taoism is in the real world. People are not going to stay ignorant and you need knowledge and education and Confucian norms to make sure people are not ‘over exploited’ and thus rebel. When we look at more Confucians we will see this.”

“Here is Chapter 66: ‘The great rivers and seas are kings of all mountain streams Because they skillfully stay below them. That is why they can be their kings. Therefore, in order to be the superior of the people, one must, in the use of words, place himself below them. And in order to be ahead of the people, One must, in one’s own person, follow them. Therefore the sage places himself above the people and they do not feel his weight. He places himself in front of them and the people do not harm him. Therefore the world rejoices in praising him without getting tired of it. It is precisely because he does not compete that the world cannot compete with him.’”

“If this is interpreted as ‘learn from the people’ it would be acceptable. But with the doctrine of keeping people ignorant it looks more like a plan for simply making the ruler’s life easy. Considering the feudal system in China, I suspect that the latter interpretation may be more on the mark.”

“He says something incomprehensible to me in 69: ‘There is no greater disaster than to make light of the enemy. Making light of the enemy will destroy my treasures. Therefore when armies are mobilized and issues joined, The man who is sorry over the fact will win.’ Now how is being ‘sorry’ got anything to do with winning a battle?”

“This is mystical (that is, ‘meaningless’) to me, Fred. Unless to ‘win’ refers to some inner state. Anyway, a sage ought not to have ‘enemies’. If things come to blows, the Taoist sage must have screwed up royally!”

“70: ‘My doctrines are very easy to understand and very easy to practice, But none in the world can understand or practice them. My doctrines have a source (Nature); my deeds have a master (Tao). Few people know me, and therefore I am highly valued. Therefore the sage wears a coarse cloth on top and carries jade within his bosom.’”

“Lao seems to be preoccupied about being ‘highly valued’, but this chapter is expressing a truth that sages need to and do understand. Most people don’t understand ‘Nature’. That is, they have no conception of science or scientific method--not that Lao did either--and so really don’t understand the workings of the world around them and this is one of the great reasons why many people are not happy and cannot attain their ends. For Lao, I think this notion of ‘Nature’ is more like ‘fatalism’ but this is an advanced concept in itself for his age. The closest thing to understanding in a scientific way is the ‘Tao’ which operates in a law-like manner. The sage tries to live according to ‘Nature’ and understand the ‘Tao’. Thus far what Lao says makes sense. The question is whose Tao, Lao’s or Confucius’s?”

“OK Karl, here is 71: ‘To know that you do not know is the best. To pretend to know when you do not know is a disease.’” And Chan refers us to a part of the Analects we missed! Namely 2:17: ‘Confucius said, “Yu, shall I teach you [the way to acquire] knowledge? To say when you know that you do know and to say that you do not know when you do not know--that is [the way to acquire] knowledge.”’

“Sometimes I think sages are the same the world over! Remember that Socrate’s claim to wisdom was that he knew that he did not know.”

“And 72 has both a warning for the people and some sage advice or at least a motto for sages. ‘When the people do not have fear of what is dreadful, Then what is greatly dreadful will descend on them.’ The motto goes ‘...the sage knows himself but does not show himself. He loves himself but does not exalt himself.’”

“Sage advice indeed, Fred.”

“This is interesting, 73: ‘Who knows why Heaven dislikes what it dislikes?...Heaven’s net is indeed vast. Though its meshes are wide, it misses nothing.’ Chan says the idea of Heaven’s net greatly reinforced the Chinese idea about ‘retribution.’”

“Sounds like a Taoist version of karma. There is nothing directly related to the concept of karma in this quote, but it is easy to conjecture that after the arrival of Buddhism this concept was read back into Lao Tzu.”

“Next we have some good social commentary, actually not at all inconsistent with Confucian notions and must have endeared Lao to many of the more uptight emperors. 75: ‘The people starve because the ruler eats too much tax-grain. Therefore they starve.They are difficult to rule because their ruler does too many things. Therefore they are difficult to rule. The people take death lightly because their ruler strives for life too vigorously. Therefore they take death lightly.’”

“Yes, Fred, you’re on the money. It is certainly wrong to think that Taoists, at least of the Lao Tzu stripe, as not being interested in social questions. A Confucian could have easily stated the same ideas expressed in this passage.”

“How do you make sense of the following? Its number 76: ‘When man is born, he is tender and weak. At death, he is stiff and hard. All things, the grass as well as trees, are tender and supple while alive. When dead, they are withered and dried. Therefore the stiff and hard are companions of death. The tender and weak are companions of life. Therefore if the army is strong, it will not win. If a tree is stiff it will break. The strong and the great are inferior, while the tender and the weak are superior.’ I get most of it--but what can it mean to say a strong army won’t win?”

“I think this is very subtle, but I’ll give an example from Chinese history and you can try to think up examples from other historical periods. In 222 B.C. the first Chinese empire was created when the state of Ch’in vanquished all the rival petty states that existed at that time. Ch’in was led by a man called Cheng who was now called Shih-huang-ti or ‘First Emperor.’ He had a very strong army and ran his new empire practically like a ‘fascist’ dictator. He killed all his opponents violent and non-violent alike, and burned all the books by anyone whose philosophy he didn’t like--which was everyone except those who supported without question his government and personal rule. These methods were supposed to assure that his empire would last ten thousand generations. But he so alienated everyone that that after he died in 210 B.C. his whole empire was gone within three years. So much for having a strong army. If he had been more ‘tender’ and not so harsh perhaps his empire would have lasted and not fallen due to internal disintegration. You can perhaps make analogies to what happened to the ‘Thousand Year Reich’ and to the American Army in Vietnam which was defeated by the ‘weak’ because, while ‘strong’ it was harsh and cruel rather than showing a ‘tender’ side to the poor and impoverished peasants. So real ‘strength’ may be just the opposite of what those ignorant of the Tao think it is.”

“This makes sense, Karl, and seems reinforced by this from 77: ‘Heaven’s Way is indeed like the bending of a bow. When (the string) is high, bring it down. When it is low raise it up.... The Way of Heaven reduces whatever is excessive and supplements whatever is insufficient. The way of man is different. It reduces the insufficient to offer to the excessive. Who is able to have excess to offer to the world? Only the man of Tao. Therefore the sage acts, but does not rely on his own ability ‘ [i.e. he follows the Tao].”

“Absolutely, Fred. First Emperor was not following the Way of Heaven but that of man, that is of the man ignorant of Tao.”

“Right, and Lao continues in 78: ‘All the world knows that the weak overcomes the strong and the soft overcomes the hard. But none can practice it. Therefore the sage says: He who suffers disgrace for his country Is called the lord of the land. He who takes upon himself the country’s misfortunes Becomes the king of the empire. Straight words seem to be their opposite.’”

“I can only add, ‘in the long run.’”

“Now here is 79: ‘To patch up great hatred is surely to leave some hatred behind. How can this be regarded as good? Therefore the sage keeps the left-hand portion (obligation) of a contract And does not blame the other party.’ And he ends this passage with what Chan calls a ‘common ancient proverb’ to wit: ‘The Way of Heaven has no favorites. It is always with the good man.’”

“And the ‘good man’ is the one who follows the Tao of things of course.”

“Now here is an interesting quote having nothing to do with Taoism, other than Lao’s usual back to nature and down with civilization motif, I mean this from 80: ‘Let the people again knot cords and use them (in place of writing).’ What does that remind you of Karl?”

“It reminds me of the Inca.”

“That is correct. The Inca did not have a writing system and they kept records and even sent messages by means of knotted cords called quipu. I just find it very interesting that both ancient China and the Inca civilization had these methods of communication. It may even be pre-Inca. Who knows how far back in time this went?”

“Well it can certainly lead to interesting speculation. Are you suggesting some prehistoric contact between the Chinese and the Inca or their predecessors? The Inca were rather late you know, around 1200 AD or so.”

“Not really. I just thought it was a strange coincidence.”

“You know, Fred, if that quote was from 80 we have come to the end of the Tao-te ching. It only has 81 chapters.”

“Right you are Karl, and here is the last quote I’m going to read: ‘A good man does not argue; He who argues is not a good man. A wise man has no extensive knowledge; he who has extensive knowledge is not a wise man. The sage does not accumulate for himself. The more he uses for others, the more he has himself. The more he gives to others, the more he possesses of his own. The Way of Heaven is to benefit others and not to injure. The Way of the sage is to act but not to compete.’”

“I see an altruistic moral sense at work here, but it contradicts some of the previous passages about keeping the people ignorant, etc., it can’t really benefit the people to be lacking in knowledge....”

“Ignorance is bliss.”

“When knowlede is folly--but you still need knowlede to be aware of folly. If Lao Tzu had been consistent he would have thought the Tao-te ching itself was folly and never have written it! And he is just wrong about the relation between the wise man and knowledge. Extensive knowledge of the uses of plants and herbs, etc., in medicine or how to take care of animals, or what foods to grow and how to do it, or how to read the weather signs to be able predict storms or floods, etc., are all examples of being ‘wise’ by accumulating ‘extensive knowledge.’ I can see why the Confucian sages were upset with many of the ideas floated about in this book. But I’m glad we went over it since it is so important in the history of Chinese thought.”

“Well, I’m game to forge ahead and continue this study. Why don’t we do Mo Tzu, someone neither Confucian nor Taoist?”

“Fine by me Fred. Our third discussion will be about Mo Tzu.

[Check out "Confucius: A Marxist Dialogue" in the archives of Thomas Riggins Blog]

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Sword of Constantine [PA Archives]

Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews
James Carroll, New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001.

Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

In this book James Carroll traces the history of Christian
anti-Semitism and the role of the Catholic Church, his Church, in its
development. Despite his goal of portraying the responsibility of the
Church in what became the holocaust, he ends up with a nuanced
apologetic for his religion and dilutes Catholic responsibility by
deflecting some of the blame to the Enlightenment, Luther and Marxism.

This apologetic begins early in the book when he mentions Nazi
anti-Semitism "with its tap root planted perhaps in a particularly
Lutheran hatred of Jews." Hitler, however, was a Catholic, evidently a
good one as the Church celebrated a mass for the repose of his soul
after he killed himself at the end of World War II, who learned his
anti-Semitic catechism in Catholic Austria. Luther's anti-Semitism was
a carry-over of the existing anti-Semitic tradition of classical and
medieval Catholicism.

Carroll writes "the hatred of Jews has been no incidental anomaly but
a central action of Christian history, reaching to the core of
Christian character." Nevertheless it "did not have to be" and his
book "opens to possibilities of a new future." Carroll wants to have
his cake and eat it too. He wants to condemn anti-Semitism as "no
anomaly," yet validate the religion responsible for it. He will have
an unhappy consciousness in the company he keeps as Hitler and the
Nazi's were never excommunicated by his Church – that ritual being
saved for the real bad guys – the Communists.

Carroll has no class understanding of fascism and blames the Holocaust
on the German people – it was "the work of an entire people." But he
seems confused on this issue as elsewhere he says it was the Nazis
"who murdered the Jews."

Carroll's remarks on Marx and the Soviet Union need to be scrutinized.
He says, Marx's Jewish descent was repressed. "In the Soviet Union
this family history was never referred to." And there was a "Soviet
policy of never referring to Marx's Jewish roots." But in the Soviet
biography of Marx, published in 1968, we read that Heinrich Marx,
Karl's father, "came from a rabbinical family." The family converted
to Christianity (before Marx was born) to escape persecution.

Carroll refers to Marx as "the ex-Christian Jew hater."
This intemperate ranting about Marx stems from an early essay (1843),
"On the Jewish Question," directed not against Jews but religion. This
was before Marx met Engels and before he developed a consistent
materialist philosophy.

Two points should be noted. First, it was written to refute articles
by Bruno Bauer that denied Jews civil equality. Marx advocated civil
equality for Jews. Bauer argued Jews would have to abandon their
religion to obtain equality and Marx attacked that notion. Second,
when Marx's article was published it was reviewed favorably by a
Jewish newspaper that saw Marx as a supporter of Jewish rights. One
has to pervert the facts to claim Marx was a "Jew hater." Readers are
referred to Julius Carlebach's Karl Marx and the Radical Critique of
Judaism (missing from Carroll's bibliography) and "Judaism" in A
Dictionary of Marxist Thought.

When Carroll turns his attention from Marxism (as well as Voltaire and
the Enlightenment tradition – he is a non-officiating Roman Catholic
Priest and hostility to these targets were no doubt ingrained in his
education) and focuses on the role of the Church his indictment is

He writes "in the 1930s, there is reason to believe, vast
numbers of Catholic Germans, and perhaps other Catholic Europeans as
well... would have preferred Hitler to Pius XII" [and whose "moral"
teachings would be the cause of that?]. "Shall I bring them into
conflicts of conscience?" Pius asked, referring to Catholic Germans,
in explaining why he could not protest the extermination of Jews."

The Church did not protest the extermination of Jews because it did
not care about the Jews – unless they converted to Catholicism.
Carroll himself notes that "The Church laid a tentative claim to
authority regarding baptized Jews" but the Vatican "at its highest
level sent a signal both to Hitler and to the German Catholic Church
that the Jews 'facing a wretched fate' were on their own."

The logical conclusion from Carroll's evidence is that the leadership of the
Catholic Church, besides having lost all claims to any moral authority,
is both reactionary and a blight on progressive humanity.

One would think this book would be a call to abandon a belief system
implicated in the Holocaust and one that had preached the hatred of
Jews for over two thousand years. But no. Carroll concludes: "This
tragic story offers a confirmation of faith too. God sees us as we
are, and loves us nevertheless." Please! Some God, some love!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Plekhanov, Marx and Engels on Freedom and Necessity

Plekhanov, Marx and Engels on Freedom and Necessity [Political Affairs Archives]

by Thomas Riggins

For many revolutionary organizations to act on their desire to further the socialist cause, it is necessary to focus not on revolutionary posturing but on a "reform" initiative, namely the defeat of the Republicans in the 2008 election.

The concept of necessity with respect to the fight for socialism has to do with a widespread view within the socialist movement of the "inevitability" of socialism and the consequent end of capitalism. At one time this led to the view that it really didn't matter what people did or did not do since socialism was "fated" to eventually come about regardless of what anyone thought or did.

The problems associated with this view are often discussed within the context "Freedom vs. Necessity," or more generally as the problem of determinism.

Determinists generally hold that everything that happens happens because of a necessitating cause – itself also the result of a previous cause (all the way back to the "Big Bang") so nothing could have happened differently than it did happen.

Restricting ourselves to social development and what Marx called "the natural laws of capitalist production" we can ask if Marxism is determinist in the above sense.

In one of the prefaces to Das Kapital we find these laws described as "tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results." But the use of the word "tendencies" seems to belie a strict determinist outlook on Marx's part.

We also have Engels' formulation from Anti-Duhring: "Freedom does not consist in the dream of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of making them work towards definite ends."

This implies that Marx and Engels believe that human agency is not strictly determined since humans have the ability to "make" natural laws work in their interests. This view is fully consistent with Plekhanov's observation from "The Role of the Individual in History" that "owing to the specific qualities of their minds and characters, influential individuals can change the individual features of events and some of their particular consequences, but they cannot change their general trend, which is determined by other forces."

It appears that there is a dialectical relation between freedom (a characteristic of human "minds") and necessity (general trends "determined by other forces.")

This Marxist view – deriving from Spinoza and Hegel – is a synthesis of the contradictory principles of absolute voluntarism (freedom) and absolute determinism (necessity).

In the “Fundamental Problems of Marxism”, Plekhanov attempts to delineate how this dialectic unfolds. Necessity is seen as the
opposite of freedom. Freedom is when we can fulfill our desires, and necessity is when we are forced to act in ways we do not choose. To update Plekhanov, we can say that for the present day predatory capitalists who control the pharmaceutical markets of the world to have to slash their prices on AIDS medications and other drugs for the underdeveloped world is a sad but necessary requirement that is being forced upon them by attendant circumstances. They are the victims of a social necessity that they cannot control.

However, what is necessity to the capitalists is freedom to the people of the underdeveloped world. The new availability of cheaper drugs (as limited and inadequate as it may be) means better health and longer lives for millions of people – surely the same social forces that compel the capitalists empower and free their victims. This is an example of the synthesis of dialectical opposites.

In “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific,” Engels maintains that in order to bring about positive social change for the betterment of the people it is necessary to understand the laws of social development and to utilize the actually existing historical conditions. To simply dream up ideal solutions to problems and try to bring them about regardless of the real situation "on the ground" is a fruitless exercise in utopianism.

The current quagmire in which the US imperialists find themselves in Iraq is a good example. Deluded by their own desires and wishful thinking they exercised their "freedom" to take over another people. But being ignorant of the actual social realities, the cultural conditions, and the anthropological and historical structures and how they have developed over time in the regions they have invaded they are now "forced" to deal with the situation in ways they had not anticipated or planned for.

It is only by understanding necessity and learning how to work along with it that freedom can be exercised. Freedom is therefore a synthesis – the fusion of a knowledge of necessity and the harnessing of untrammeled desire.

How we understand this dialectic in the context of the current political struggle in our own country will greatly influence the effectiveness of our actions in the coming months and years.

Many radical groups desire to see the establishment of socialism. The establishment of socialism requires a mass revolutionary consciousness ready to make a leap into a wholly new mode of social production and ownership – a leap even the barest glimmerings of which are not currently detectable.

What role would Marx and Engels suggest a revolutionary organization play in these circumstances? The answer Plekhanov gives is that it should "contribute to the 'gradual changes'... try to bring about reforms. In this way both the 'ultimate aim' and reforms find their place, and the very contraposition of reform and 'ultimate aim' loses all meaning, is relegated to the sphere of utopian legends."

Concretely, this means for many revolutionary organizations to act on their desire to further the socialist cause, (indeed, to be a bit melodramatic) to further the cause of the world revolutionary movement of which they are small components, it is necessary for them to focus not on revolutionary posturing but on a "reform" initiative, namely the defeat of the Republicans and their allies in the 2008 election. Paradoxically, as dialectical opposites often are in their synthetic unity, the road to socialism leads, at this historical juncture, through the "left" wing of the bourgeois Democrats.

In “ The Holy Family,” Marx and Engels wrote "With the thoroughness of the historical action, the size of the mass whose action it is will therefore increase."

Plekhanov ends his work with this quote and it is an appropriate note to conclude a commentary on necessity vs. freedom by remarking on its significance. Progressive organizations will grow only if they engage in significant actions that are thoroughly necessitated by the concrete struggles of the working class and its allies against the oppressions the capitalists, in exercising their freedoms, force upon them. In fighting back they exercise their freedom and are, as Rousseau in another context observed, forced to be free.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs, and can be reached at pabooks@politicalaffairs.net.