Saturday, October 31, 2009


Thomas Riggins

Fifth in a series on Chinese philosophy

As China continues to develop into a superpower a knowlege of its form of Marxism becomes imperative for Western progressives. The progressive movement cannot allow itself to be misdirected in an anti-Chinese direction by reactionary forces in the West. In order to understand Chinese Marxism fully it is important to be familiar with traditional Chinese philosophy, many elements of which reappear in Marxist guise in today’s China. I have therefore constructed a series of dialogues based on the actual words of the most important Chinese thinkers. Each dialogue will present the core beliefs of the philosopher discussed plus relevant Marxist commentary where warranted. Readers are welcome to add their own comments and observations.

“Well, Fred, I see you have the Chan book [Source Book In Chinese Philosophy]. Are you ready to begin our study of Mencius?”

“Yes I am Karl. But first why don’t you see what you can remember about the background to the life and times of Mencius?”

“As I recall, he lived around the same time that Plato was active in Ancient Greece. What dates does the book give for him?”

“Around 371 to 289 B.C.”

“Well Plato was around 447 to 327 B.C.”

“Mencius was contemporary with Chuang Tzu and Hsun Tzu but it is unlikely they had any personal contact.”

“I don’t know about Hsun Tzu. We will be studying him later but I think he was in the generation after Mencius. Anyway I remember that Mencius’ claim to fame was his doctrine that human nature is innately good. Also that he studied under Confucius’ grandson, or under someone who had, thus unlike Confucius he had a teacher. He is also considered the second greatest Chinese philosopher after Confucius himself. I read Fung last night [Fung Yu-Lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy] and he said Mencius was a native of Tsou in East China--modern Shantung. He also says that Mencius represents the idealist wing of Confucianism as opposed to the up coming Hsun Tzu who was a realist. Mencius is so important that his book, the Mencius as we will call it, was studied for the civil service exams which on and off throughout Chinese history almost everyone who wanted a government position had to take. The only philosophers as such who were so honored were he and Confucius. His life was also like Confucius’ in that he never got that big government job and he wandered about China just as Confucius had collecting a following of disciples. He retired and wrote his book. It became one of the Four Books, as I indicated, which everyone had to study.”

“The ‘Four Books’?”

“The ones used for the tests. The Analects, of course, the Mencius, the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean.”

“A pretty good little introduction Karl. Now lets look at his philosophy. I’m just going to use the headings from Chan who reproduces Book Six, Part I of the Mencius. He says this is the most important part of the book but he will quote other portions in a section of ‘Additions’. In this selection Mencius’ foil appears to be a philosopher called Kao Tzu who holds opposite opinions to Mencius. In 6A:2 Mencius declares ‘Man’s nature is naturally good just as water naturally flows downward.’ He doesn’t give any argument here. He is just contradicting Kao Tzu who said man’s nature can be good or bad just as water can flow east or west.”

“I think we need to get to an argument. What is next?”

“Next, Kao Tzu says that what we refer to as ‘inborn’ is the same as ‘nature.’ Mencius wants to contest everything Kao says it seems for we get the following exchange beginning with Mencius: ‘When you say that what is inborn is called nature, is that like saying that white is white?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then is the whiteness of the white feather the same as the whiteness of snow? Or again, is the whiteness of snow the same as the whiteness of white jade?’ ‘Yes.” ‘Then is the nature of a dog the same as the nature of an ox, and is the nature of an ox the same as the nature of a man?”

“That is a very bad argument. Mencius has to go take a Logic course! ‘White’ is being used as an adjective and ‘nature’ as a substantive. I feel sorry for Kao Tzu. I wonder how he would have fared if he composed a book?”

“Now in 6A4 Mencius and Kao have another exchange.”

“Lets hear it. I hope the logic is a little better!”

“ This time Kao maintains that ‘humanity’ is internal and ‘righteousness’ is external. Nature versus Nurture. He says that the pleasant feeling of love for the younger brother comes from within (humanity) but the respect for an old person is due to the person’s age (without/external). But Mencius says that we love roast beef if its our own or another's so would Kao say the love of roast beef is ‘external?’” This is supposed to take care of Kao’s position.”

“A very bad example. It might have been better if Mencius had said ‘food’ instead of roast beef since we love and need food regardless of where it comes from but ‘roast beef’ is an external culturally determined food--I doubt that Buddha would have loved it! In any event I don’t think Kao is refuted by any of these musings of Mencius.”

“Well, here is another bad argument. This time Meng Chi Tzu asks Kung-tu Tzu ‘What does it mean to say that righteousness is internal?” And he gets the reply ‘We practice reverence, and therefore it is called internal.’ Not a very helpful answer if you ask me Karl. Meng Chi Tzu now gives a lot of examples of ‘reverence’ all of which seem influenced by the context one finds oneself in so that one has to know what the external circumstances are before one can show the proper kind of ‘reverence.’ Kung-tu Tzu gets all confused and runs off to Mencius who gives him some examples which actually seem to confirm Meng Chi’s views in that they are also contextual in nature. Kung-tu gets the point, even if we don't, and goes back to Meng Chi with this crushing reply: ‘In the winter we drink things hot. In the summer we drink things cold. Does it mean that what determines eating and drinking also lies outside?’”

“ I see what you mean Fred. We would say to Kung-tu-- ‘of course it is--you just said its determined by winter or summer and that means by what is ‘outside’. The reasoning so far in this chapter is terrible. I hope it gets better or I won’t understand how Mencius got the reputation as a ‘sage’."

“6A:6 Maybe this is a little better Karl. Kung-tu Tzu is speaking to Mencius: ‘Kao Tzu said that man’s nature is neither good nor evil. Some say that man’s nature may be made good or evil, therefore when King Wen and King Wu were in power [founders of the Chou Dynasty r. 1171-1122 and 1121-1116 B.C.] the people loved virtue, and when Kings Yu and Li were in power [bad kings r. 781-771 and 878-842 B.C.] people loved violence. Some say some men’s nature is good and some men’s nature is evil. Therefore even under (sage emperor) Yao [3rd millennium B.C.] there was Hsiang [who daily plotted to kill his brother], and even with a bad father Ku-sou, there was [a most filial] Shun (Hsiang’s brother who succeeded Yao), and even with (wicked king) Chou [last Shang Dynasty ruler 1175-1112 B.C.] as uncle and ruler, there were Viscount Ch’i of Wei and Prince Pi-kan [good guys]. Now you say that human nature is good. Then are those people wrong?’”

“I hope Mencius is convincing as most people today would think Kao Tzu was on the money!”

“ Well, Mencius said ‘If you let people follow their feelings (original nature), they will be able to do good. This is what is meant by saying that human nature is good. If man does evil, it is not the fault of his natural endowment.... Humanity, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom are not drilled into us from outside. Only we do not think [to find them]! Therefore, it is said, ''Seek and you will find it, neglect and you will lose it.''' He thinks that different people develop their original natures more than others as ‘no one can develop his original endowment to the fullest extent.’ He then quotes the Book of Odes, ‘Heaven produces the teeming multitude. As there are things there are their specific principles. When the people keep their normal nature they will love excellent virtue.’ He also quotes Confucius to the same effect.’ Now before you say anything Karl, I want to also read you what Chan says about this passage. 'Mencius is the most important philosopher on the question of human nature, for he is the father of the theory of the original goodness of human nature. In spite of variations and modifications, this has remained the firm belief of the Chinese.’ And he adds that ‘evil or failure is not original but due to the underdevelopment of one's original endowment. Later Confucianists, especially Neo-Confucianists, devoted much of their deliberations to these subjects, but they have never deviated from the general direction laid down by Mencius.’”

“I’m still unimpressed Karl. Mencius is not arguing for his position he is simply declaiming his position. Look here for a moment.” Karl got up and pulled down a volume from his bookcase. “This is a classic study of Chinese thought by Herrlee G. Creel, Chinese Thought From Confucius to Mao Tse-Tung. I want to read a couple of passages on what you might call Mencius’ ‘technique’ if you don’t mind.”

“Sure Karl, go ahead all of this is interesting to me.”

“Here are a couple of quotes from pages 75 and 74: ‘The discussions of Confucius with his disciples were conducted in a relatively calm atmosphere and were devoted, at least in considerable part, to an attempt to arrive at and to examine the truth. [That is the Prime Directive again Fred!] The discussions of Mencius, on the other hand, are largely taken up with the enterprise of defending and propagating the true doctrine, which is of course another thing entirely.’ He also notes that ‘Mencius was usually more interested in winning the argument than in trying to find the truth. Not that he cared nothing for the truth but that he was convinced that he had it already, and needed only to persuade his opponent of that fact.’”

“But you say he isn’t doing anything but disclaiming not giving arguments.”

“True, but some arguments are coming up I’m sure. He just hasn’t made any yet. I think Creel’s observations will be borne out the farther we progress into the text.”

“The following may be more like an argument Karl. 6A:7--’Although there may be a difference between the different stalks of wheat, it is due to differences in the soil, as rich or poor, to the unequal nourishment obtained from the rain and the dew, and to differences in human effort. Therefore all things of the same kind are similar to one another. Why should there be any doubt about men? The sage and I are the same in kind. Therefore Lung Tzu [an ancient worthy] said, “If a man makes shoes without knowing the size of people’s feet, I know that he will at least not make them to be like baskets.” Mencius then says that the whole world [all men] agree with I-ya [ancient chef] with regard to flavor, Shih-k’uang [ancient musician] with regard to music and that Tzu-tu [ancient handsome man] was handsome. He concludes, 'Therefore I say there is a common taste for flavor in our mouths, a common sense for sound in our ears, and a common sense for beauty in our eyes. Can it be that it is in our minds alone we are not alike? What is it that we have in common in our minds? It is the sense of principles and righteousness (i-li, moral principles). The sage is the first to possess what is common in our minds. Therefore moral principles please our minds as beef and mutton and pork please our mouths.’”

“Well I can tell you right off that these are very bad examples for modern people to mull over. Nothing is more relative than taste in food, music and concepts of beauty. Mencius is just taking Chinese standards as universal. This may perhaps be forgiven for someone living well over two thousand years ago except that there were people in his age, as we shall see, who were very much more advanced in their thinking. His analogy of the stalks is a bit better but only goes to show that humans may have a common nature before environmental factors come into play. It does not give any evidence that that common nature is ‘originally good.’"

“I agree with you completely Karl, but now I’ll read you Chan’s comment on that very same passage. ‘In saying that one is of the same kind as the sage, Mencius was pronouncing two principles of utmost significance. One is that every person can be perfect, and the other is that all people are basically equal. Also, in pointing to the moral principle which is common in our minds, he is pointing to what amounts to the Natural Law. Belief in the Natural Law has been persistent in Chinese history. It is called Principle of Nature (T’ien-li) by Neo-Confucianists. It is essentially the same as Mencius’ i-li.’”

“But Mencius has not established that there is any common moral principle in our minds. He has only made a lot of assertions of his opinions but these opinions have not been grounded in anything like a philosophical demonstration. One may speak of T’ien-li as the Law of Nature with regard to the physical universe that we are a part of, and of the human mental and cognitive apparatus as a part of it as well, but this should not be confused with i-li, that is to say, with principle and righteousness. I think we will have to wait until we come to the Neo-Confucianists to see if they really do, as Chan asserts, confuse moral principles with physical principles. It may be that some do and some don’t.”

“Here is 6A:8, ‘Mencius said, “The trees of the Niu Mountain were once beautiful.... When people see that it is so bald, they think there was never any timber on the mountain. Is this the true nature of the mountain?.... People see that [a certain man] acts like an animal, and think that he never had the original endowment (for goodness). But is that his true character? Therefore with proper nourishment and care, everything grows, whereas without proper nourishment and care, everything decays.”’

“This is fine Fred. He is simply saying environmental conditions are responsible for how things appear. That an original X can end up not-X due to the environment. But it proves nothing with respect to his main thesis about humanity.”

“Well what about this in 6A:10, ‘I like life and I also like righteousness. If I cannot have both of them, I shall give up life and choose righteousness. I love life, but there is something I love more than life, and therefore I will not do anything improper to have it. I also hate death, but there is something I hate more than death, and therefore there are occasions when I will not avoid danger.... There are cases when a man does not take the course even if by taking it he can preserve his life, and he does not do anything even if by doing it he can avoid danger. Therefore there is something men love more than life and there is something men hate more than death. It is not only the worthies alone who have this moral sense. All men have it, but only the worthies have been able to preserve it.’”

“He has only established that the worthies have it. They may have gotten it by the study of philosophy. He has given no evidence that all men have it and just lost it. So far Creel is right. Mencius is just trying to convince us without any real evidence and discussion. It's as Creel said, he is convinced of his brand of truth and just keeps repeating it over and over. He is a far cry from the methods of Confucius!”

“6A:15, ‘The function of the mind is to think. If we think, we will get them (the principles of things). If we do not think, we will not get them. This is what Heaven has given to us. If we first build up the nobler part of our nature, then the inferior part cannot overcome it. It is simply this that makes a man great'.”

“Most interesting. Now he says we have 'superior' and 'inferior' parts to our nature. This is somewhat different from saying our (original) nature is 'good.' Now it appears as mixed and it is up to us to develop the right part. This is, of course, dependent on on our environmental circumstances-- for which a Confucian government is responsible. This appears to me to be more realistic that the notion that our original nature is good--for which Mencius has so far provided no evidence. Indeed this passage seems to contradict it!”

“That is because he is so unsystematic Karl. Chen says this passage has a great influence on later Neo-Confucianists. He says, ‘that the idea of building up the nobler part of our nature became an important tenet in the moral philosophy of Lu Hsiang-shan (Lu Chiu-yuan, 1139-1193), leader of the idealistic school of Neo-Confucianism.’”


“6A:16, ‘The ancient people cultivated the nobility of Heaven, and the nobility of man naturally came to them. People today cultivate the nobility of Heaven in order to seek for the nobility of man, and once they have obtained the nobility of man, they forsake the nobility of Heaven. Therefore their delusion is extreme. At the end they will surely lose (the nobility of man) also.’”

“Does he say what this ‘nobility’ of Heaven is?”

“Yes, he says it consists of, ‘Humanity, righteousness, loyalty, faithfulness, and the love of the good without getting tired of it....’”

“And of man?”

“ He says it's ‘to be a grand official, a great official, and a high official....’”

“Ok, I’ve found Fung’s comment on this on page 77 of his book [A Short History of Chinese Philosophy]. Shall I read it to you?”

“Go ahead.”

“’ According to Mencius and his school of Confucianism, the universe is essentially a moral universe. The moral principles of man are also metaphysical principles of the universe, and the nature of man is an exemplification of these principles. It is this moral universe that Mencius and his school mean when they speak of Heaven, and an understanding of this moral universe is what Mencius calls “knowing heaven.”’ And then Fung explains the meaning of that quote which you just gave Fred. He says it means that, ‘heavenly honors [the nobility of Heaven] are those to which a man can attain in the world of values, while human honors [the nobility of man] are purely material concepts in the human world. The citizen of Heaven...cares only for the honors of Heaven, but not those of man.’” Does that remind you of anything?”


"Yes indeed.” A pulled down a copy of The Republic. “This is a quote from the end of Republic IX in Reeve’s revision of Grube published by Hackett. Plato has just finished describing the best possible state based on justice and the Good but grants that it is too ideal, perhaps, to ever be seen on earth, yet he has Socrates say there might be ‘a model of it in heaven, for anyone who wants to look at it and to make himself its citizen on the strength of what he sees. It makes no difference whether it is or ever will be somewhere, for he would take part in the practical affairs of that city and no other.’ This is also similar to Augustine’s City of God. You know, the city of man, Rome, and then Heaven to which our real loyalties must ultimately be given. In so far as Mencius’ ‘sage’ or philosopher identifies with heaven rather than with man he and Plato are in agreement.”

“But how would that work Karl? How could we live in the 21st Century US of A and live by these Confucian or Platonic principles?”

“It would work like this Fred. I’ll use Plato as an example. Suppose you accepted Socrates’ argument for equality of the sexes. Now, if you live in a country which has sexual discrimination you will support measures for equality and your reason will be--in Plato’s republic equality is advocated and since I’m going to support his philosophy I’ll make my political, social, cultural decisions down here on earth according to the laws of the ideal republic. I may never get all the laws and customs of my country to be similar to that republic but the more they become that way the more like the republic will my actual country become.”

“So we have a Confucian model like a Platonic one if we are Confucians and we live according to the model, as best we can, and only really support the actual customs and conditions of our society in so far as they conform to our model.”

“That’s right Fred. The real crux is your qualifier ‘as best we can.’ How much will we compromise to safeguard our own personal interests, how committed are we to our beliefs, how much risk will we take in coming into conflict with the status quo?The answers to these questions define the hypocrite and the sage.”

“In 6A:17 Mencius says, ‘...all men have within themselves what is really honorable. Only they do not think of it. The honor conferred by men is not true honor. Whoever is made honorable by Chao Meng [high official in Chin] can be made humble by him again. The Book of Odes says, “I am drunk with wine, and I am satiated with virtue.” It means that a man is satiated with humanity and righteousness, and therefore he does not wish for the flavor of fat meat and fine millet of men. “

“In his own way, I think Mencius is saying something like the quote from the Republic i gave. I think his words are just another way of saying what I just said before.”

“Here is 6A:19--’Mencius said, “The five kinds of grain are considered good plants, but if they are not ripe, they are worse than poor grains. So the value of humanity depends on its being brought to maturity.”’

“This little saying is, of course, dependent on his still unproved assumption that the original nature of human beings is ‘good’ so it only has to be properly ‘matured.’ His position is if you take a seed and put it in bad soil you get a bad plant but if you put it in good soil you get a good plant. In one sense the soil determines the type of plant. But the good soil only allows the original potency or nature within the seed to come forth to be a good plant i.e., just the type of plant it was meant to be by its internal nature. The bad plant has had its original nature destroyed or corrupted by the bad soil it was put in. The human beings’ internal nature and potency is the same. The right environment just brings out the true inner nature of the human. But this has to be better argued. Suppose the nature is really evil and sinful, as Christians maintain, what then? Or maybe the human being’s nature is a ‘blank slate’ so it is neither good nor bad. Mencius hasn’t adequately addressed these issues.”

“We have come to the end of the main section in Chan’s anthology. Now I am going to turn to the ‘Additional Selections’ he has chosen. Hopefully he will address the problems you have raised with respect to his position on human nature.”

“This (1B:7) is the advice Mencius gave to King Hsuan. He told him that with respect to all of his ministers and great officers telling him that such a person was worthy or unworthy or that such and such a person should be executed, that this consensus of big shots was not enough for the King to make the right decision. The King has to ask the people what they think and only if the people agree with the advice of the big shots should the King then look into the recommendations and if he follows them it can be said that the people actually are responsible for them. ‘Only in this way can a ruler become parent of the people.’ And Chan remarks, a propos, of this passage: ‘No one in the history of Chinese thought has stressed more vigorously the primary importance of the people for the state.’”

“And Mencius will provide other examples,Fred, of this proto-democratic spirit. I think this is a good example of the positive influence some Confucians had in Chinese history. It also explains why he never got a real job at any of the Chinese courts!”

“Then what about this--1B:8. ‘King Hsuan of Ch’i asked....”Is it all right for a minister to murder his king?” Mencius said, “He who injures humanity is a bandit. He who injures righteousness is a destructive person. Such a person is a mere fellow. I have heard of killing a mere fellow Chou [murdered evil king], but I have not heard of murdering [him as] the ruler.”’ And Chan adds, ‘The doctrine of revolution is here boldly advanced and simply stated. A wicked king has lost the Mandate of Heaven and it should go to someone else.’”

“The Chinese Marxists should support Mencius on this one. It shows that the king is king only so long as he rules in the interest of the people. Since most of the people were peasants in China it appears that Mencius is in some sense a representative of peasant interests. Confucians in general favored benevolent rulers, and although the peasants were often ruthlessly exploited this was not in the spirit of Confucianism anymore than the Vietnam War,say, was waged in the spirit of Christianity whatever so called Christian leaders from Billy Graham to Cardinal Spellman may have said. This is something the Chinese party should take to heart in case the economic reforms being pushed end up only benefiting a narrow portion of Chinese society.”

“Now we are coming to what looks like some ideas concerning man’s internal constitution. Mencius says (2A:2) ‘The will is the leader of the vital force, and the vital force pervades and animates the body. Therefore I say, “Hold the will firm and never do violence to the vital force.”’ Later he says ‘I am skillful in nourishing my strong, moving power’ but he has difficulty saying just what this power is although he says,’It is produced by the accumulation of righteous deeds but is not obtained by incidental acts of righteousness. When one’s conduct is not satisfactory to his own mind, then one will be devoid of nourishment. I therefore said that Kao Tzu [putting him down again!] never understood righteousness because he made it something external.’ Chan says the concept he translated as ‘strong moving power’ is hao-jan chih ch’i in Chinese.”

“I remember that term from Fung. He translated it as ‘Great Morale.’”

“That seems to be really a different concept from Chan. Read out what Fung says Karl.”

“You mean about why he calls it the ‘Great Morale.’ He says this is a special term for Mencius. Fung says the ‘Great Morale is a matter concerning man and the universe, and therefore is a super-moral value. It is the morale of the man who identifies himself with the universe, so that Mencius says of it that “it pervades all between Heaven and Earth.”' In order to develop this Great Morale, Fung says two things are needed: ‘One may be called the “understanding of Tao;” that is, of the way or principle that leads to the elevation of the mind.’ The other is what Mencius mentioned in the quote you read from Chan concerning the accumulation of ‘righteousness.’ The Tao and the righteousness together will produce the Great Morale, or as Chan calls it, ‘the strong moving power’ i.e., our moral identification with ‘Heaven’--but this cannot be forced.”

“That’s right Karl. Mencius says ‘let there be no artificial effort to help it grow.’ To underscore this he tell us not to act like the man from Sung....”

“Let me read the story. Its right here on page 79 of Fung. Mencius is speaking: ‘There was a man of Sung who was grieved that his grain did not grow fast enough. So he pulled it up. Then he returned to his home with great innocence, and said to his people: “I am tired to-day, for I have been helping the grain to grow.” His son ran out to look at it, and found all the grain withered.’ You can’t ‘help’ the Great Morale to grow by taking shortcuts. As Fung says, ‘If one constantly practices righteousness, the Great Morale will naturally emerge from the very center of one’s being.’ The point of all this is that Mencius still has superstitious notions about the nature of ‘Heaven.’ That it is in favor of certain moral rules and regulations and we should follow ‘Heaven’ by carrying them out. According to Fung ‘righteousness’ is similar to the Kantian concept of ‘duty.’ “

“Very good, Karl. Chan says more or less the same thing. Mencius is against artificial efforts. Mencius says, ‘Always be doing something [in accordance with righteousness] without expectation.’ The Great Morale will follow of its own accord. The Buddhists have similar views but they are more concerned with our mental states rather than our actions. Chan says, ‘The difference between the Buddhists and the Confucianists is that the former emphasize the state of mind while the latter emphasize activity.’”

“I think we have said enough about this Fred.”

“OK, here is some political philosophy, from 2A:3: ‘Mencius said, “A ruler who uses force to make a pretense at humanity is a despot.... When force is used to overcome people, they do not submit willingly but only because they have not sufficient strength to resist. But when virtue is used to overcome people, they are pleased in their hearts and sincerely submit, as the seventy disciples submitted to Confucius.” And he gives us a comment which encapsulates Confucian political philosophy: ‘The foundation of Confucian political philosophy is “humane government,” government of the true king, who rules through moral example. His guiding principle is righteousness, whereas that of the despot is profit. This contrast between kingliness and despotism has always remained sharp in the minds of Confucian political thinkers.’”

"That is a good summary, Fred. I think if we looked at the policies of our own government and many others which are based on the control of the world’s oil resources and hegemony over financial and other markets backed up with the use of military might we would find this contradicts Confucianism completely.”

“This next quote isn’t very philosophical but it affords us a glimpse of economic life in ancient China. We can see what type of rules and regulations were considered good and bad by what Mencius approves of. There are FIVE THINGS which the ruler must do in order to have his neighbors ‘look up to him as parent.’ So here is Mencius version of NAFTA: 1.) honor the worthy and employ the competent; 2.) in cities if he charges rent but does tax goods OR enforces the regulations but does not charge rent; 3.) at his borders--inspections but no tax; 4.) the farmers should mutually cultivate the the public field and pay no taxes: 5.) no fines for idlers or families who fail to meet the cloth quota. Mencius adds, this is all in 2A:5, ‘Ever since there has been mankind, none has succeeded in leading children to attack there parents. Thus such a ruler will have no enemy anywhere in the world, and having no enemy in the world, he will be an official appointed by Heaven.’”

“A little optimistic, I think. Such a ruler would presumably have a prosperous kingdom so Mencius should not discount the desire of greedy rival kingdoms or barbarian nations to take over his country. Having a good constitution is no guarantee that you ‘will have no enemy anywhere in the world.’”

"Now we have a VIP [Very Important Passage]! This quote (2A:6) is a major statement of Mencius’ doctrine about the ‘innate goodness’ of humankind. Mencius details what he means by THE FOUR BEGINNINGS and Chan says, ‘Practically all later Confucianists have accepted the Four Beginnings as the innate moral qualities.’”

“So lets hear the quote Fred!”

“’Mencius said, “All men have the mind which cannot bear [to see the suffering of] others. The ancient kings had this in mind and therefore they had a government that could not bear to see the suffering of the people....When I say that all men have the mind which cannot bear to see the suffering of others, my meaning may be illustrated thus: Now, when men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they all have a feeling of alarm and distress, not to gain friendship with the child’s parents, nor to seek the praise of their neighbors and friends, nor because they dislike the reputation [of lack of humanity if they did not rescue the child]. From such a case, we see that a man without the feeling of commiseration is not a man; a man without the feeling of shame and dislike is not a man; a man without the feeling of deference and compliance is not a man; and a man without the feeling of right and wrong is not a man. The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of humanity; the feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness; the feeling of deference and compliance is the beginning of propriety; and the feeling of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom. Men have these Four Beginnings just have they have their four limbs.”’”

“He thinks his example proves all this! Actually he has only shown that some people experience a feeling of alarm when they see a child about to fall into a well. This might be the beginning of a feeling of humanity. I think this is the only immediate feeling. The others come about as a result of reflection. Mencius’ views are of course a result of his having lived in ancient China. I doubt that today we would consider these attitudes ‘innate’, that is, genetically constituted. We will see a better account of all this when we discuss Hsun Tzu down the line. In the meantime I can only say that Mencius’ views have deleteriously effected all subsequent Chinese thought by having pushed Hsun Tzu’ s theories into the background.

“More political philosophy in 3A:3. ‘Duke Wen of T’eng asked about the proper way of government. Mencius said, “The business of the people should not be delayed.”’ He means that the government should be making sure that the people have secure living arrangements, education, etc. He has in mind a government, within the feudal context, that is ‘for the people’. The welfare state or a socialist approach as in Cuba would be a contemporary example of his basic attitude. If the government fails to provide for the people--say there is a lot of homelessness, drug addition, unemployment [to use modern examples]-- the people will not be secure in their minds. ‘And,’ Mencius goes on, ‘if they have no secure mind, there is nothing they will not do in the way of self-abandonment, moral defection, depravity, and wild license. When they fall into crime, to pursue and punish them is to entrap them. How can such a thing as entrapping the people be allowed under the rule of a man of humanity? Therefore a worthy ruler will be gravely complaisant and thrifty, showing a respectful politeness to his subordinates, and taking from the people according to regulations.’ The ruler must also: ‘Establish seminaries, academies, schools, and institutes to teach the people.’ It is the responsibility of the ruler to set a good moral example and to instruct the people. ‘If human relations are made clear and prominent above, then the common people below will have affection to one another. When a true king arises, he will surely come to take you [Duke Wen] as an example, and thus you will be the teacher of kingly rulers.' Duke Wen was impressed by all this and sent Pi Chan to consult with Mencius about the ‘well-field’ land system.’ What is that Karl?”

“it is the system of land tenure recommended by Mencius. He claims it was the system of olden times but many scholars doubt that it ever existed. The land was to be divided into nine equal sections. Eight families would cultivate their own plots and the left over plot would belong to the state and all eight families would take turns cultivating it. Since the state would own zillions of these plots it would have much wealth of produce, etc., to do all the state business and every family would enough for its needs as well. A perfect mixture of state and individual ownership [with respect to the technical developments of the time]. What a fortunate country China would have been had Mencius’ theory been put into practice!”

“Anyway, this is what Pi Chan was told by Mencius: ‘Now that your ruler is about to put in practice humane government and has chosen you for this service, you must do your best. Humane government must begin by defining the boundaries of land. If the boundaries are not defined correctly, the division of the land into squares will not be equal, and the produce available for official salaries will not be fairly distributed. Therefore oppressive rulers and corrupt officials are sure to neglect the defining of the boundaries.’”

“To better understand the wisdom of Mencius as a practical reformer, Fred, I just want to mention that most of the suffering and killing and tyrannical government behaviors of the the last century, and so far in this one too, has been the result of a failure to have fair land distribution and neglect in the ‘defining of the boundaries’. This is what is behind all the massacres and killing of people from the Palestinians, to the Mayan Indians in Guatemala, also the Indians in Mexico and throughout Brazil and the rest of South America. the Bantu and others in South Africa, the people in Zimbabwe, in India, it was behind the Russian [and French] revolutions, the Communist victories in China, Cuba, and Vietnam, it's one of the reasons behind the overthrow of the pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan, it's the reason Turkey and Iraq kill Kurds and American Indians are confined to reservations. Everywhere you look the big, powerful governments of today spend trillions of dollars just to repress and kill the poor all over the world so that they won’t have to be fair about sharing the land. Humane government is very rare indeed.”

“I agree with that Karl, and you haven’t begun to list all the examples!”

“Enough of my going on about this. What is next in Mencius?”

“Next is 3A:4 which has been criticized for being undemocratic. It also discusses what are called the ‘Five Relations.’ Here is what Mencius said: ‘If one must make the things himself before he uses them, this would make the whole empire run about on the road. Therefore it is said, “Some labor with their minds and some labor with their strength. Those who labor with their minds govern others; those who labor with their strength are governed by others.” Those who are governed by others support them; those who govern them are supported by them. This is the universal principle....’ Its a little like Plato’s Republic. Chan has the following comment ‘Mencius, generally considered the most democratic of Chinese philosophers, has been severely criticized for this undemocratic class distinction. It does not seem to be in harmony with his idea of the basic equally of the people [Chan then gives a reference,7A:4, that has nothing to do with anything]. We should not overlook, however, that the distinction is essentially one of function, not of status, as in Plato, for no one is confined to one class by birth.’ “

“I don’t think we should be calling Mencius ‘democratic.’ The concept of democracy was not in use in China at this period. It developed in Greece around this time, or a little before, with its system of city states, but China was not organized into city states and did not have democratic ideals at this time. Mencius’ philosophy grew up in a system of feuding feudal territories based on an hereditary nobility. His thrust is to try to humanize this system and minimize the suffering and degradation within it. He should not be faulted for having ‘feudal’ notions--that is, the notions more or less of his historical time. He is simply describing the actual social reality around him. It is also ingenuous of Chan to say that people are not confined to one class by birth. In reality 99.9% are.”

“I think you are correct Karl. Mencius goes on to say that the people will be like animals if they are only fed and looked after by the lords. Education is needed. He said, ‘The Sage (emperor Shun) worried about it and he appointed Hsieh to be minister of education and teach people human relations, that between father and son, there should be affection; between ruler and minister, there should be righteousness; between husband and wife, there should be attention to their separate functions; between old and young, there should be a proper order; and between friends, there should be faithfulness.’ Chan then makes the following comment about the FIVE RELATIONS. ‘It is often said that these do include the stranger and the enemy. But to Confucianists, no one is unrelated, and a stranger is therefore inconceivable. He is at least related as older and younger. As to the enemy, there should never be such a person, for all people should be friends.’ Finally a bon mot as it were from Mencius: ‘It is the nature of things to be unequal.’”

“Just a minute Fred. I remember that bon mot. It has to do with his attack on equality of prices, the economic theory of some other scholar of the day.”

“Yes, Hsü Hsing. Most of what Mencius said before in this chapter was in response to Hsü and so was the bon mot.”

“Well, I think you should go ahead and contextualize the whole thing.”

“Hsü Hsing had put forth the theory of economic equality. ‘Linen and silk of the same length should be sold at the same price. Bundles of hemp and silk of the same weight should be sold at the same price. Grains of the same quantity should be sold at the same price. And shoes of the same size would be sold at the same price.’ You can see that he knows nothing about the cost of production of different things!”

“What else does he say?”

“After he says things are unequal he says ‘If you equalize them all, you will throw the world into confusion. If large shoes and small shoes were of the same price, who would make them? If the doctrines of Master Hsü were followed, people would lead one another to practice deceit. How can these doctrines be employed to govern a state?’”

“Here again, Fred, is an example of the lack of logical training, or if not that, of not paying attention to an opponent’s argument.”

“What do you mean?”

“Hsü said ‘shoes of the same size would be sold at the same price’ and we get a criticism from Mencius referring to large shoes and small shoes for the same price. This is not really attacking Hsü on what he actually said. Mencius should have criticized his views on hemp and silk of the same weight being sold for the same price where he could have made a point, if he really understood economics, that silk costs more to produce than hemp on an equal weight basis. I mean, Mencius had a valid point to make but he used sloppy logic.”

“Regardless, Chan thinks the bon mot that came out of all this is important because it was later used by the Neo-Confucianists to argue against a metaphysical point, namely ‘that reality is not an undifferentiated continuum’.”

“That is even better. A casual comment regarding an economic theory in the context of a political discussion is used by his successors to bolster a metaphysical position! We will eventually get to the Neo-Confucianists but I hope they have better arguments for their positions that you just indicated a la Chan.”

“We will find out. Now I have a great comment of Mencius that shows his attitude towards women. An attitude I fear that was pervasive in Chinese society and is even today a big problem in China. Remember the FIVE RELATIONS? Well, here is an elaboration of that between men and women. Mencius is speaking in 3B:2, ‘At the marriage of a young woman, her mother instructs her. She accompanies the daughter to the door on her leaving and admonishes her, saying, “Go to your home. Always be respectful and careful. Never disobey your husband.” Thus, to regard obedience as the correct course of conduct is the way for women.’”

“This will have to go, of course, if Confucianism is to be updated for our new century. The idea that women are somehow inferior to men is just rampant, not only in China, but in India, in Islamic lands (the Koran even says men are ‘superior’) in the plethora of Christian sects (with maybe a few exceptions) and in most third world countries (always excepting Cuba where a real struggle is being waged by the government for sexual equality.) It is a shame that neither Confucius nor Mencius recognized the potential of women, especially since such philosophers as Pythagorus Plato and Epicurus did so and encouraged women to study philosophy. Hypatia was in fact a famous woman philosopher ( brutally murdered by Christians) in the ancient world. I can’t think of an equivalent in ancient China.”

“In 3B:9 Mencius proclaims his purpose in being a philosopher, his ‘Manifesto’ as it were.”

“Lets hear it!”

“’Do I like to argue? I cannot help it.... Sage emperors have ceased to appear. Feudal lords have become reckless and idle scholars have indulged in unreasonable opinions. The words of Yang Chu and Mo Ti [Mo Tzu] fill the world. Yang advocated egoism, which means a denial of the special relationship with the ruler. Mo advocated universal love, which means a denial of the special relationship with the father. To deny the special relationship with the father and the ruler is to become an animal.... If the principles of Yang and Mo are not stopped, and if the principles of Confucius are not brought to light, perverse doctrines will delude the people and obstruct the path of humanity and righteousness.... I am alarmed by these things, and defend the doctrines of the ancient kings and oppose Yang and Mo.’’

“Of course we must remember that ‘the doctrines of the ancient kings’ is just code for ‘the principles of Confucius.’

It seems to be de rigor for a Chinese philosopher to make appeals to mythological past policies of ancient kings.”

“And Chan makes the following comment on this passage: ‘The dispute between Mencius and the Moists involves a fundamental issue of ethics, namely, whether there should be distinction in love....Applied to ethics, this means that while love is universal, its applications to the various [human] relations are different.”

“I know that Fred. Mencius thinks we must love our own parents, kin and country men more that other people’s in the sense that we owe our first responsibilities to them and then we should love the parents, kin and country men of others, while Mo says we should make no distinctions in love. We will see the difference very clearly if we just go back and review our earlier discussion of Mo Tzu.”
“Karl, here is an interesting observation in 4A:12. ‘If one does not understand what is good, he will not be sincere with himself. Therefore sincerity is the way of Heaven, and to think how to be sincere is the way of man.’”

“Actually the way of the philosopher or sage. People ignorant of the ethical requirements of jen [ren] or humanity really don’t know the ‘good’ they will not be sincere because knowing and doing the good are not priorities for them. To be ‘sincere’ of course means to be trying to implement the Confucian ideals of humanity. Otherwise people just try to do what is good for themselves without much thought of the consequences for others or at least not for others outside their own immediate circle and sometimes not even then. Examples are everywhere. Every time a business person or corporate executive makes a decision to cut costs in order to increase profits--as in moving a factory to a cheaper labor zone, skimping on safety checks (almost the rule in business) it is obvious these people, and they dominate the world system we live under, are enemies of the Confucian ideal of the good and of humanity.”

“You are a little too radical Karl, but Mencius might just be radical too. Here is what he thinks about war for territory. I can’t help but think of the fighting in the West Bank and Gaza that is going on even as we have this discussion [Spring, 2008]. This is 4A:14--’Mencius said,”When a ruler failed to practice humane government. all those ministers who enriched him were rejected by Confucius. How much more would he have rejected those who are vehement to fight for their rulers? When they fight for territory, they slaughter so many people that the field is full of them. When they fight for a city, they slaughter so many people that the city is full of them. This is what is called leading on the land to devour human flesh. Death is not enough for such a crime. Therefore those who are skillful in fighting should suffer the heaviest punishment.”’”

“It is fairly obvious that Mencius and Mo Tzu at least agree that only a defensive war not one to take some other people’s land is acceptable. In today’s world the equivalent to land taking is resource taking. Wars to get control of other peoples resources is equally a great crime. There are very few governments of today, at least in the so-called capitalist world, that a Confucian sage could work for. In fact the so called ‘free enterprise’ system itself, since it puts profits before humanity, might be totally inconsistent with a modern day Confucianism.”

“Or maybe, like feudalism Karl, the Confucian should work in the system to try and mitigate its worst features.”


“At any rate this is 4B:11: ‘Mencius said, “ The great man does not insist that his words be necessarily truthful [at all times and under (all) circumstances] or his actions be necessarily resolute. He acts only according to righteousness.”’”

“This is really interesting for it shows that Mencius was a precursor of situation ethics.”

“What is that?”

“Look Fred, take Kant for instance. He would say you should never lie or steal in general you can never break any ethical commandments--no exceptions. But Mencius has just said you don’t have to always be truthful--it depends on righteousness. This can only mean that you can sometimes lie, etc., if righteousness is promoted. Suppose you had to lie in order to save the child from falling into the well? There are situations in which righteousness outweighs our common notions of truth telling, etc. As for ‘situation ethics,’ let me read to you from Reese’s dictionary (1980: p. 531), ‘The position of Joseph Fletcher (Situation Ethics, 1966) that any action may be good or bad depending on the situation. What is wrong in most situations may sometimes be right if the end it serves is sufficiently good.’ There is more about how this works in Christianity (it's based on agape) but it applies to Confucian ends as well i.e., jen or ren.”

“Sounds like ‘the end justifies the means’ to me and that can lead to all kinds of problems. What Hitler considers ‘sufficiently good’ may not be either agape or ren.”

“I understand the complications Fred. I just wanted to point out that Mencius is not an ‘absolutist’ except on the ren question which is, after all, the basis of Confucianism. It's their prime directive and for us, we can make it the second directive after our own prime directive we set up in the discussion we had on Confucius.”

“First the truth of reason then the good of humanity. It doesn’t sound right. Shouldn’t it be reversed or the two rules given equal status?”

“This can take all day. Since I think that we can’t begin to know what constitutes ren without recourse to the Prime Directive given before, that is why I put them in that order. But they are inextricably bonded.”

“Here is 4B26: ‘Mencius said, “All who talk about the nature of things need only [reason from] facts [and principles will be clear]. The fundamental principle [of reasoning] from facts is to follow [their natural tendencies].”’”

“This is practically our own Prime Directive!”

“This next quote (4B:30) is just to remind us of the special role of ‘family values’ in Ancient China. ‘Mencius said, “There are five things which in common practice are considered unfilial. The first is laziness in the use of one’s body without attending to the support and care of one’s parents. The second is chess-playing and fondness for wine, without attending to the support and care of one’s parents. The third is love of things and money and being exclusively attached to one’s wife and children, without attending to the support and care of one’s parents. The fourth is following the desires of one’s ears and eyes, thus bringing his parents to disgrace. And the fifth is being fond of bravery, fighting and quarreling, thus endangering one’s parents.”’”

“Well, I think these five rules could be boiled down to ‘attend to the support and care of one’s parents’--i.e., ‘Honor thy father and thy mother.’”

“Sounds familiar.”

“What’s next?”

“In 5A:5 there is a discussion of just how we should understand the term ‘the will of heaven’ when we are using it politically. It is a rather long passage but the gist of it goes like this. In ancient times the good emperor Yao gave the empire not to his own son but to Shun. One of Mencius’ students, Wan Chang, asks him about this. Mencius replies that only Heaven can give the empire to someone. So how does Heaven show it’s ‘will’ so to speak. Well, Yao presented Shun to the people and, Mencius says, ‘the people accepted him. I therefore say that Heaven did nor speak, but that it simply indicated its will by his character and his conduct of affairs.’ The people were aware of the type of person Shun was and it ‘was Heaven that gave the empire to him. It was the people that gave the empire to him. Therefore I said, “ The emperor cannot give the empire to another person.”’ Now after the death of Yao, Shun withdrew from Yao’s son but the people went to him anyway. ‘The feudal lords of the empire, however, going to court, went not to the son of Yao but to Shun, litigants went not to the son of Yao but to Shun, and singers sang not to the son of Yao but to Shun. Therefore I said, “Heaven [gave the empire to him].”’”

“This is vox populi, vox dei. Mencius is saying that the will of Heaven is made known through the consciousness of the people, intimations of democracy, and that the person the people think most likely to champion their interests, peace, fair taxation, eliminating poverty, feeding the poor, preventing famines, etc., is the person they would support. This is a good Confucian notion--the ruler is last, the people first and the will of Heaven is just a symbolic way of saying the Tao of Government is the Tao of the interests of the masses of people."

“So you think, Karl, that ‘Heaven’ is just a metaphor for conditions and events that can be given more properly a naturalistic or ‘scientific’ explanation. Do you think that was all ‘Heaven’ meant to Mencius?”

“I think that was the track that he was on. The fully developed logical conclusion of his ideas would end up with what you just said. I’m not sure Mencius was fully conscious of this conclusion which first becomes explicit in the thought of Hsun Tzu which we are yet to discuss.”

“Well, Chan gives a comment on all this as a part of 7A:1 when he discusses the different notions the Chinese had of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ or ming = ‘fate’. Here is what Chan says: ‘In ancient China there were five theories about destiny or the Mandate of Heaven. The first was fatalism: the Mandate was fixed and unchangeable. The second was moral determinism: Heaven always encourages virtue and punishes evil; therefore man can determine his reward and punishment through moral deeds. The third was anti-fatalism, advocated by the Moist school. The fourth was naturalistic fatalism which means that destiny is not controlled by Heaven in the sense of an anthropomorphic God but by Nature and works automatically. Lastly, there was the Confucian theory of “waiting for destiny.” According to this doctrine, man should exert his utmost in moral endeavor and leave whatever is beyond our control to fate. It frankly admits that there are things beyond our control but that is no reason why one should relax in his moral endeavor. The tendency was definitely one of moralism and humanism. The Confucian theory represents the conviction of enlightened Chinese in general.’”

“I would say about these,Fred, that the first theory is just classical determinism--no event could have happened otherwise. The second theory is like karma but is confusing because people argue about what ‘moral deeds’ are. It also opens up the option of an anthropomorphic God. We have already discussed Mo Tzu’s view--the third one of Chan. I don’t get the forth one--it just seems to be a rehash of the first in other words. This fifth one, the Confucian, does not seem very clear. What does it mean to leave what is beyond our control to ‘fate’. It can only mean that we live in a non-deterministic universe but one which has deterministic sequences in it. We should do our best to live according to morality but when we bump into one of the deterministic sequences we just go with the flow. That doesn’t sound right at all. And what does it mean to say ‘we leave whatever is beyond our control to fate.’ What is beyond our control is going to happen whether we ‘leave it’ or not. I don’t think Chan really clears up the notion of ‘fate’ very well.

“This next quote from Mencius (7A:2) is even more confusing. ‘Everything is destiny (ming). A man should accept obediently what is correct [in one’s destiny]. Therefore, he who knows destiny does not stand beneath a precipitous wall. Death sustained in the course of carrying out the Way to the limit is correct destiny. But death under handcuffs and fetters is not due to correct destiny.’”

“So ming isn’t really ‘fate’. There seems to be a configuration of factors making up the world at any given time and one of those factors is the individual and his or her mental make up and ability to make choices based on the educational level of the person, position in society, etc. Its like Sartre’s being thrown into the world then you have to make choices. You make the best choices you can given your circumstances but since you don’t have control over all the factors you can’t really control ming. Even looked at this way Mencius’ statement still has some problems. Suppose, in correctly following the Way, you end up in fetters? E.g., suppose you oppose some unjust action of the government. Was it not ‘correct destiny’ for Martin Luther King, Jr. to end up in the Birmingham

“Like most philosophers, from the Ancient Greeks to modern times, Mencius doesn’t think much of hoi polloi! Here is what he says in 7A:5-- ‘To act without understanding and to do so habitually without examination, following certain courses all their lives without knowing the principles behind them--this is the way of the multitude.’”

“Yes, Fred, this is the traditional view but it does not mean that the multitude should be abused or exploited by the rulers who must be guided by the Confucian principles of ren. And please note, that in the historical circumstances of the past this attitude is justified. Only now have we the ability to see to it that all humans can have the educational opportunities such that the ‘multitude’ will be able to approach the wisdom of the Sage. Remember 6A:7? In theory Mencius held that every person could be a sage [he may not have included women, so I am updating him] it was the material conditions of his time that held people back. In our time it is possible to achieve this goal or at least lay the foundations for it but for us it is the property relations not the material conditions [i.e, scaricity as a brute rather than social fact] that are holding us back. The institution of socialism would lead to the educational advance of the multitude and without a ruling class there would be no motivation to impart a false consciousness to the people.”

“Here is a good passage that really spells out the Mencian view of ‘love’. Mencius says, in 7A:45, ‘In regard to [inferior] creatures, the superior man loves them but is not humane to them (that is, showing them the feelings due human beings). In regard to people generally, he is humane to them but not affectionate. He is affectionate to his parents and humane to all people. He is humane to all people and feels love for all creatures.’”

“Nicely put. If humanity could just get to this level, as opposed to the almost impossible level of ‘love’ that Mo Tzu aspires to, it would be a great advance. This position is possible, I think, with proper education and the restructuring of society to human needs rather than the accumulation of money and wealth and profit. One thing should be noted. When Mencius says ‘love for all creatures’, I think that commits him to vegetarianism and an anti-hunting ethic, neither of which, as far as I know, the historical Mencius committed himself to.”

“OK, Karl, here is the last passage from Mencius. This is 7B:14, ‘Mencius said, “[In a state] the people are the most important; the spirits of the land and grain (guardians of territory) are the next; the ruler is of slight importance” Oops, and one more [7B:33] to just sum up--’The superior man practices principle (Natural Law) and waits for destiny (ming,
Mandate of Heaven) to take its own course.’”

“So, Fred, this has been a long discussion, but I think we have a pretty good idea of Mencius’ philosophy and its relation to both Confucius and Mo Tzu. Is it time to discuss Hsun Tzu next?”

“You complained about the lack of logic in Mencius so I want to do something on a school Chan calls ‘The Logicians’. Specifically, a philosopher called Kung-sun Lung [Gongsun Long].”

“Sounds good to me. But lets go out for some lunch and a break for a while.”

“Good idea Karl. Lets come back here around two or three. Chan’s section on the logicians isn’t very long so we won’t have to spend as much time on it as we just did on Mencius.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A "New" Philosophy of Terrorism?

Thomas Riggins [from Political Affairs Archives 2008]

Bobbitt is a distinguished professor of constitutional law holding degrees from Princeton, Yale and Oxford. He has served in important government positions under Presidents Carter, Bush 1 and Clinton. He is now at both the University of Texas and Columbia University. His theories on history and the origins of terrorism are widely respected and his books are used as college texts. His views have influenced not only Hillary Clinton but also John Howard the former Prime Minister of Australia. There is an informative article about his career and ideas in Wikipedia and also about his earlier work “The Shield of Achilles" (900 pages).

My remarks are based on Edward Rothstein’s review of his most recent book, “Terror and Consent,” in the Friday, May 9, 2008 New York Times (‘In a Changing World an Ever-Evolving Terrorism’.) At 672 pages this is a hefty tome. Does Rothstein’s review suggest we should make time to read it? Despite Rothstein’s description of it as “powerful, dense and brilliant” I hope to show, from his own review of it, that it does not seem worth the time or effort.

Bobbitt maintains that throughout history “terrorist” groups have resembled the type of political state they have been up against. Rothstein tells us that Bobbitt “is too subtle” to hold that “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” This may be because the terrorism he supports he doesn’t want to call “terrorism.” We shall see there is nothing very subtle about it.

Since the world today is so different from the past the War on Terror will be different than previous efforts against terrorists. There will be many types of wars to contain and defeat terrorism. Bobbitt says "it will take some time before the nature and composition of these wars are widely understood." Does this imply we should give Bush 2 and his generals more time to figure out what is going on? "We will not win the Wars against Terror," he writes, "if we do not understand the novelty of the problems we face."

What novelty? If you invade, oppress, and exploit others they will eventually fight back with whatever means at their disposal however crude and uncivilized you may find them. Imagine roadside bombs instead of attack helicopters and missiles!

The reviewer tells us Bobbitt sees the terrorists of today as, in his own words, "a threat to mankind that is unprecedented." Who can take this stuff seriously? The US with its desire to militarize space, retool its nuclear weapons, police the world, ignore climate change and global warming, poses "a threat to mankind" so qualitatively greater, by many magnitudes, than a dozen or so small groups of fanatics hanging out in the mountains and jungles of the third world. Bobbitt can only be counting everyone, including nation states, that object to US policy as "terrorists" to get his scary and preposterous threat to mankind off the ground. By "threat to mankind" he really means "threat to international capital and war profiteers sponsored by the US government and its hangers on." This is what passes for serious scholarship these days.

The review goes on to tell us Bobbitt says the terrorists of today are modeled on the new type of state that is coming into existence -- the "market state" (such as the US and EU) described by Rothstein as follows: "Such a state defines its main ambition not as seeking the well being of its people, but as maximizing the opportunities it offers its citizens." Such nonsense is unbelievable. You cannot maximize opportunity without increasing well being. Without guarantying jobs, education and health benefits how can you provide opportunities? What type of opportunities can unemployed ignorant sick people have?

There is no "new type of state." The "market state" is in essence the same old monopoly capitalist state Lenin wrote about in "Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism" and "State and Revolution."

The new type of terrorists Bobbitt imagines, who correspond to his fictional state, "are not seeking" Rothstein says, "to sway public opinion, but to expand their domain of terror." Terror for its own sake. This is a ridiculous idea. The groups Bobbitt does not like, and hence calls "terrorists", have the same goals as the groups he likes, and hence does not call "terrorists." Hamas and Zionist settlers want the same things, control of land and resources for their peoples. Al Qaeda and the US military have the same goals-- each wants to be the dominate power in the Middle East. Each wants to control the resources in the area. Each wants to sway public opinion to see the world as it does.

The difference is that Al Qaeda is a small and insignificant group of fanatics who could have easily been contained by efficient policing. They have been elevated into a world threatening power by US propaganda to justify the terroristic and barbaric assault on the Iraqi people by the greatest killing machine in modern history whose attempt to dominate the international order has no parrallel since the Vietnam War.

That Bobbitt was a supporter of the invasion of Iraq should demonstrate to all that regardless of his erudition and supposed command of historical processes, he really hasn't the faintest idea of what is going on and that it is a waste of time to read his hefty tomes to try and figure out the modern world.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Thomas Riggins

This is a reflection on a review by Barbara King, a biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary of Steven Pinker’s new book, “The Stuff of Thought” in the April 11, 2008 issue of TLS. Pinker is a very influential cognitive scientist who made a name for himself with his 1994 book “The Language Instinct.”

In that book he proposed that ONLY humans have language and that the claims that other animals have language abilities as well is bogus. “For Pinker, children learn language because their brains are specifically prepared by evolution to do so.” King will take issue with some of Pinker’s ideas but I am a little bit dubious as to her motivations. She implies he is not “even handed” because he has said religious beliefs are “akin to astrology or alchemy,” which, in fact, they are. However, that said, we will see that her review draws some justifiable critical conclusions about Pinker's work as she presents it.

Pinker thinks the key to understanding human nature is to learn how we put our ideas and feelings into words. King tells us that he uses "conceptual semantics" to do this. Pinker himself says, "Linguists call the inventory of concepts and the schemes that combine them 'conceptual semantics.' Conceptual semantics -- the language of thought -- must be distinct from language itself, or we would have nothing to go on when we debate what our words mean."

Pinker's book is full of examples of how we express ourselves in speech that show we have an underlying of reality to which language conforms . King gives one. "Why, driving home from the grocery store, do we refer to a gallon of milk in our car, but never a gallon of blood (even though blood circulates inside our body as we sit there)? Because we conceptualize our bodies as solids rather than as containers." Expressions such as this lead us to think about space and time, cause and effect, and substance, "through which in turn we may identify the deeper rules of conceptual semantics."

Pretty thin gruel! If our bodies are conceived as solids why do say we put too much food in our mouths, or have a pain in our stomach, or too much gas in that self same organ? I fear we cannot draw Pinker's conclusions based on the different idiomatic expressions of different languages and cultures.

Half way through the book, we are told, Pinker reveals the key to his speculations. One of his inspirations is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, of whom he says:

"Kant's version of nativism, with abstract organizing frameworks but not actual knowledge built in to the mind, is the version most viable today, and can be found, for example, in Chomskan linguistics, evolutionary psychology, and the approach to cognitive development called domain specificity. One could go so far as to say the Kant foresaw the shape of a solution to the nature-nurture debate: characterize the organization, whatever it is, that makes useful learning possible."

This is a strange theory for an evolutionist to hold. The human mind has a built in abstract framework a la Kant which is there to organize our experiences into categories (domains) before we even have them. Only humans have this with regard to languages, so the first humans to have a language must have come with this ready made. This is a pre-Darwinian outlook.

According to Darwinian notions language ability would have gradually developed by natural selection and there is no reason "lower" forms in the evolutionary sequence would not exhibit different stages of this ability.

Pinker thinks that the way evolution worked was to form different domains in the human brain each with its own task to fulfill. King says, for Pinker, "The human past constrains our present human nature because it has so closely shaped our brain modules." Pinker says, for instance, that it is necessary to "pry our mental modules free of the domains they were designed for."

This is not good science. Our so called modules were not "designed" for anything. Our responses evolved as the result of environmental adaptations. There is no reason to think that this process halted sometime in the paleolithic and is no longer functioning.

King quotes Pinker as saying that "left to our own devices, we are apt to backslide to our instinctive conceptual ways." The solution, he says is, by education "to make up for the short comings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world." This outlook is basically that of Confucianism as put forth by Xunzi well over two thousand years ago and in our time by Freud. We are apt to let the Id take over if we are not educated to be social by Ivy League Super Ego types.

Marx asked who educates the educators. King is fairly critical of Pinker and thinks his views could lead to a "ranked hierarchy" of humanity antithetical to democratic values. She says he back pedals a bit from his basic theory when he grants that some of the properties he finds in the domains may not be, in his words, "necessarily direct reflections of the genetic patterning of our brains: some may emerge from brains and bodies interacting in human ecologies over the course of human history."

King thinks this much more likely than Pinker allows. Marxists would think it is the most important factor and agree, I think, with King when she concludes that our real "human nature" is much more creative and contingent than the pre-programmed computer brains (her analogy) of Pinker's pre-Darwinian Kantian humans.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Fourth in a series on Chinese philosophy
by Thomas Riggins

Introductory note. As China continues to develop into a superpower a knowlege of its form of Marxism becomes imperative for Western progressives. The progressive movement cannot allow itself to be misdirected in an anti-Chinese direction by reactionary forces in the West. In order to understand Chinese Marxism fully it is important to be familiar with traditional Chinese philosophy, many elements of which reappear in Marxist guise in today’s China. I have therefore constructed a series of dialogues based on the actual words of the most important Chinese thinkers. Each dialogue will present the core beliefs of the philosopher discussed plus relevant Marxist commentary where warranted. Readers are welcome to add their own comments and observations.

“Well, Fred, are you ready to discuss Chuang Tzu?”

“Yes. I have just finished reviewing the text of Chuang Tzu in Chan [Source Book in Chinese Philosophy] and reading Chan’s introductory remarks. Chuang lived in the 4th Century BC and was a Taoist.”

“Fung [A Short History of Chinese Philosophy] says he might have been the greatest of the early Taoists! This would elevate him even over Lao Tzu.”

“And Chan might agree. He thinks that an advance was made by Chuang over the views of Lao. His book seems to have been compiled after his death. It's an amalgam of his writings and those of his followers, so Chan has selected those passages considered most authentically Chuang’s own. We will start with Chapter Two which Chan says ‘reveals his philosophy.’ Here is a short passage: ‘Tzu-chi of Nan-kuo sat leaning on a low table. Looking up to heaven, he sighed and seemed to be at a loss as if his spirit had left him. Yen-ch’eng Tzu-yu (his pupil), who was standing in attendance in front of him, said, “What is the matter? The body may be allowed to be like dry wood but should the mind be allowed to be like dead ashes? Surely the man leaning on the table now is not the same man leaning on the table before.' Chan says this expression of body as ‘dry wood’ and the mind as ‘dead ashes’ has become famous in Chinese philosophy and literature as metaphors regarding the question of the status of the human spirit or mind--’whether man is a spirit and whether the mind is alert’ - as he puts it.”

“Fred, it reminds me, the last part of the passage, of both Heraclitus the ancient Greek and Sartre the existentialist.”

“How so?”

“The part about not being the ‘same man’ seems to suggest we are always changing and being different from what we were before, This certainly suggests Sartre’s view that human beings have no fixed ‘essence’ but are always able to create themselves anew. Also, Heraclitus believed in an eternal ‘flux’ we are never the same from one moment to the next. So there are elements of Taoism that seem in harmony with Western ways of seeing the world.”

“I see what you mean. I have always thought that the so called big separation or difference between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ ways of thinking was a bit artificial. When we humans start to think about things we will create very similar philosophies despite whatever superficial cultural differences may indicate.”

“You know, Fred, there is a passage in Chan that I find ironic. Look there at the top of page 179, about Chuang’s influence.”

“...’ since the fifth century [AD] , his doctrines have never been propagated by any outstanding scholar’.”

“Yet his views, we will see, influence everyone right up to the present day so that is a way of ‘propagating’ doctrines. Chan himself said, as you mentioned before, that his comment about the body and mind and ‘dry wood’ and ‘ashes’ became a standard expression in literature and philosophy. But lets go on and we will better see what I mean.”

“ OK. Tzu-chi likes Tzu-yu’s comment. He then speaks of the relations of humanity with nature and heaven i.e., all the similarities and mysteries thereof. He especially talks about the ‘mind’ which is far from being ‘dead ashes’ at least until the end of life. When, he says, ‘it is old and exhausted. And finally it is near death and cannot be given life again. Pleasure and anger, sorrow and joy, anxiety and regret, fickleness and fear, impulsiveness and extravagance, indulgence and lewdness come to us like music from the hollows [the music of the wind] or like mushrooms from the damp.’ All this seems to indicate that the ‘self’ is responsible for these feelings. But then in a famous passage Chuang goes on to say ‘Without them (the feelings mentioned above) there would not be I. And without me who will experience them? They are right near by. But we don’t know who causes them. It seems there is a True Lord who does so, but there is no indication of his existence.’”

“The ‘problem of God’ I see. What is this ‘True Lord’. I thought we had established that only Mo Tzu had ‘God ideas’.”

“Don’t worry Karl. The ‘True Lord’ will turn out to be Spinoza’s ‘God’--that is Nature.”

“What does Chan say?”

“Basically he has a comment to the effect that Chinese agnosticism has been reinforced by this attitude expressed by Chuang. The rule of interpretation is that Chuang, whenever he uses the term ‘creator’ is best understood as referring to ‘nature.’ “Any personal God or one that directs the movement of things is clearly out of harmony with Chuang Tzu’s philosophy.’”

“It only makes sense, Fred, since the supreme principle is the TAO.”

“Indeed, and Chuang says ‘Tao is obscured by petty biases and speech is obscured by flowery expressions. Therefore there have arisen the controversies between the Confucianists and the Moists, each school regarding as right what the other considers as wrong, and regarding as wrong what the other considers as right.”

“That's a great observation Fred, and it goes to the heart of Chuang’s dialectics as he maintains that opposites flow back and forth interchanging with one another.”

“Wait, Karl, there is more in this vein. He says,”to show what each regards as right is wrong or to show what each regards as wrong is right, there is no better way than to use the light (of Nature).’ He goes on:’ There is nothing that is not the “that” and there is nothing that is not the “this.” Things do not know that they are the “that” of other things; they only know what they themselves know. Therefore I say that the “that” is produced by the “this” and the “this” and the “this” is also caused by the “that.” This is the theory of mutual production.... Because of the right there is the wrong, and because of the wrong, there is the right. Therefore the sage does not proceed along these lines (of right and wrong, and so forth) but illuminates the matter with Nature.... When “this” and “that” have no opposites, there is the very axis of Tao. Only when the axis occupies the center of a circle can things in their infinite complexities be responded to. The right is an infinity. The wrong is also an infinity. Therefore I say that there is nothing better than to use the light (of Nature).’”

“if we, Fred, equate the ‘light (of Nature)’ with our ability to think and reason about the Tao of things, the ‘this’ and ‘that’ distinctions become intertwined. This reminds me of Hegel’s discussion of ‘sense-certainty’ in the beginning of his Phenomenology of Mind.”

Karl pulled down a volume from his book shelf and began to read: “A simple entity of this sort, which is by and through negation, which is neither this or that, which is a not-this and with equal indifference this as well as that [he is discussing the ‘Now’--is it night or day] --a thing of this kind we call a Universal.... the universal which the object has come to be, is no longer such as the object was to be for sense-certainty. The certainty is now found to lie in the opposite element, namely in knowledge....” “Here is another example of how Eastern and Western thought have points of convergence,” Karl said.

“This next passage is a little difficult, at least for me: ‘Only the intelligent knows how to identify all things as one. Therefore he does not use [his own judgment] but abides in the common [principle]. The common means the useful and the useful means identification. Identification means being at ease with oneself. When one is at ease with himself, one is near Tao. This is to let it (Nature) take its own course. He has arrived at this situation, and does not know it. This is Tao.’”

“This is a little mystical. You know,Fred, you forgot to name this famous second chapter of the Chuang Tzu that is ‘The Equality of all things (Ch’i Wu Lun). From the limited individual point of view we look out upon a universe made up of millions of different and conflicting entities, ‘the one thousand things’, but the sage comes to understand that they are really one. An example from the life of our time. In the MIddle East, as elsewhere in our world unfortunately, different groups of humans, innocent of philosophy, are fighting and killing one another because they think they are so different from one another because they speak different languages or subscribe to different culturally imposed superstitions or have different eating habits or historical experiences. But they are really all just human beings cast into the world to live and die the same. Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice catches this exactly for all of us. This is the equality of all humans, all evolved from the same primordial glop as everything else. We can extend this to the rest of life as well. All this is just the way it is, the way Nature is as the result of the Tao. The sage knows this and can be just as happy in Brooklyn as the West Bank the earth too is one--all things are, ultimately. So Chuang tells us when we figure this out (identification) and it is second nature to us, as it were, so we don’t even have to think about it all the time (being at ease) then we are arrived at Tao without having to think it through each time we confront a worldly situation--the sage ‘knows’ and ‘does not know it’--i.e. have to think about it all the day long.”

“That is just so true Karl. All our social problems, at least, come from non recognition of this Tao. If only we could solve our problems as easily as the monkey keeper! ‘A monkey keeper once was giving out nuts and said, “Three in the morning and four in the evening.” All the monkeys became angry. He said, “If that is the case, there will be four in the morning and three in the evening.” All the monkeys were glad. Neither the name nor the actually has been reduced but the monkeys reacted in joy and anger [differently]. The keeper also let things take their own course. Therefore the sage harmonizes the right and the wrong and rests in natural equalization. This is called following two courses at the same time.’”

“As I remember it, this is a very important point in Chinese philosophy.”

“It sure is, Chan says that almost all Chinese schools of thought adopt it--the doctrine of following two courses at the same time. They even follow three courses. He says in his comment ‘In the Book of Changes [the I Ching, which we will get to], it is said that “in the world there are many different roads but the destination is the same.” The upshot is that most Chinese follow the three systems of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, and usually take a multiple approach to things.’”

“And we can now add Marxism! If they are non- dogmatic they can follow four systems depending on the requirements of life. The so called ‘Cultural’ Revolution was a big mistake on this way of thinking.”

“O.K. Karl, back to Chuang. He says ‘When the distinction between right and wrong became prominent, Tao was thereby reduced, individual bias was formed.... Therefore the sage aims at removing the confusions and doubts that dazzle people. Because of this he does not use [his own judgment] but abides in the common principle. This is what is meant by using the light (of Nature).’"

“Wittgenstein said doing philosophy was like showing the fly the way out of the fly bottle that is the same as removing confusions and doubts that dazzle people.”

“O.k. Karl, Chuang now talks about what he calls the ‘eight characteristics’--left and right, discussions and theories, analyses and arguments, competitions and quarrels. And he says ‘What is beyond the world, the sage leaves it as it exists and does not discuss it. What is within the world, the sage discusses but does not pass judgment. About the chronicles of historical events and the records of ancient kings, the sage passes judgments but does not argue. Therefore there are things which analysis cannot analyze, and there are things which argument cannot argue. Why? The sage keeps it in his mind while men in general argue in order to brag before each other. Therefore it is said that argument arises from failure to see [the greatness of Tao].... Therefore he who knows to stop at what he does not know is perfect.’”

“This seems to be pretty good advice. It seems that with regard to religion and such other worldly stuff the philosopher won’t be wasting his or her time, that he or she will be nonjudgmental regarding what actually exists [this can be regarded as ‘quietism’ in the social realm and seems a departure from Lao Tzu’s views] and as far as history goes it looks a little dogmatic, this making judgments but no arguments allowed. Plato tells us the philosopher has to be ready to argue his or her position and be willing to follow the argument wherever it leads. The problem is, of course, that if one understands the Tao one understands the inner necessity and whatness and whyness of all things--therefore argument is not necessary. But it would seem some type of argument and reasoning with people is necessary if you want to remove the confusions and doubts that dazzle people. Maybe you can have ‘discussions’ and ‘theories’ because he thinks arguments are more for people who want to show off their (limited) knowledge.”

“You might be right Karl. Chan says that Chuang exhibits a spirit of doubt that has influenced ‘China’s long tradition of skepticism.’ This is another reason he might consider ‘arguments’ as a waste of time as opposed to discussions with other people.”

“Indeed. You really can’t force people to believe things by arguments [except of course philosophers]. They have to come to see the truth of things themselves. The Taoist sage is one who comes to this position. I think the Confucian sage might use argument a bit more often.”

“Look a little further in the text Fred. Chuang, as I remember it, gives some reasons for not relying on arguments to find the truth.”

“Well, he does say this:’ Suppose you and I argue. If you beat me instead of my beating you, are you really right and am I really wrong. If I beat you instead of your beating me, am I really right and are you really wrong? Or are we both partly right and partly wrong? Since between us neither you nor I know which is right, others are naturally in the dark. Whom shall we ask to arbitrate?’”

“What is needed is obviously a decision mechanism by which good arguments can be separated from the bad. There was no Aristotle in ancient China to develop the science of the syllogism and logic in general. Chuang here exhibits an admirable open mindedness but the accumulation of knowledge by experience and science and the logical analysis of truth claims would be paralyzed by this attitude. Taoist mysticism may have some good points but you can clearly see the wisdom the Chinese show by using simultaneously different systems and taking what Chan called ‘a multiple approach to things’”

“Now A we come to a famous passage which shows the Taoist attitude par excellence towards the unity of everything encompassed by the Tao. Chuang Chou is Chuang Tzu’s given name. ‘Once I, Chuang Chou, dreamed that I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Chou. Suddenly I awoke, and there I was, visibly Chou. I do not know whether it was Chou dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that it was Chou. Between Chou and the butterfly there must be some distinction. [But one may be the other.] This is called the transformation of things.’”

“It is a great passage despite the fact that lacking the higher centers of the mammalian brain it doesn’t seem that it is possible for a butterfly to dream. The ‘transformation of all things’ is undoubtedly true. All the atoms that make up every thing on earth had their origin in our Sun or at least they are the direct result of the so called ‘Big Bang.’ Hence everything that we know that exists is just a recombination of the same elemental particles in different proportions and arrangements. The atoms that make up me will eventually be those of a butterfly or a rock and atoms from past butterflies and even dinosaurs make up people today. This is a Taoist understanding I think. It is not unique. Anaxagoras held that ‘All things were together’ and arranged themselves by ‘Mind’ [νουs] which is like Tao. The Greek Atomists would also agree.”

Now we move on to Chapter Six of the Chuang Tzu, ‘The Great Teacher.’ Chuang writes, ‘He who knows the activities of Nature (T’ien, Heaven) and the activities of man is perfect. He who knows the activities of Nature lives according to Nature. He who knows the activities of man nourishes what he does not know with what he does know, thus completing his natural span of life and will not die prematurely half of the way .... However, there is some defect here.... How do we know that what I call Nature is not really man and what I call man is not really Nature? Furthermore, there must be the pure man [i.e., simple and in accord with the Tao] before there can be true knowledge.’”

“I see the problem. How can we be sure we are on the road to being a true sage? Maybe we will end as a fascist stooge as did Heidegger or betray humanity or human heartedness (jen) as did Nietzsche.”

“We are going to come to some difficult passages now Karl. I’m not sure we can understand them outside of the entire context of ancient Chinese culture in which they are embedded.”

“Well, we will have to make the attempt. It may be some of this philosophy just won’t be able to smoothly move over into our way of seeing things but we can at least try to understand what Chuang means.”

“Chapter Six continues: ‘Therefore he who takes special delight in understanding things is not a sage. He who shows [special] affection [to anyone] is not a man of humanity (jen, love).... He who seeks fame and thus loses his own nature is not learned. And he who loses his own nature and thus misses the true way is not one who can have others do things for him.’”

“This seems to indicate that the sage should love all forms of learning equally. He also seems to be in agreement with Mo Tzu in thinking that one should not be partial in showing affection [love]. If so it shows that some Taoists were close to Mohism and even distancing themselves farther from the Confucianists. It is obvious that the sage should not seek fame at the expenses of truth. I’m not sure the sage should want ‘others to do things for him.’ Others might be helpful, as say the followers of Socrates helped him out due to his singled minded pursuit of philosophy and consequent neglect of practical affairs, but this should not be something the sage ‘wants’ or expects.”

“What about this: ‘To regard knowledge as a product of time means to respond to events as if they had to be. And to regard virtue as people’s observance means that it is comparable to the fact that anyone with two feet can climb a hill, but people think that a pure man makes a diligent effort to do so. Therefore what he liked was one and what he did not like was also one.... He who regards all things as one is a companion of Nature. He who does not regard all things as one is a companion of man. Neither Nature nor man should overcome the other. This is what is meant by a pure man.’ So tell me Karl that this is not confusing!”

“Confusing it is. But I think he means that we should be impartial and also accept Nature for what it is. Don’t make value judgments about Nature. For example, as a person I don’t like the aids virus and would like to eradicate it. But from the point of view Nature the virus is simply a part of the totality of existence and is doing its thing just as everything else is that makes up the fabric of the interaction of all the elements of reality. As Hume said--from the point of view of Nature an oyster is the same as a human being. The sage knows this. But as a human being the sage also knows it's ok to be against the aids virus. These two views or attitudes are in balance in the ‘pure man’. As to the comment about regarding knowledge as a product of time, it seems to suggest determinism. This seems to be in accordance with Tao and the sage should be in accordance with Tao.”

“This may also be reflected in the following Karl: ‘If our physical bodies went through ten thousand transformations without end, how incomparable would this joy be! Therefore the sage roams freely in the realm in which nothing can escape but all endures’”

“But the sage does not endure!”

“He goes on: ‘Tao has reality and evidence but no action or physical form. It may be transmitted but cannot be received. It may be obtained but cannot be seen. It is based in itself, rooted in itself. Before heaven and earth came into being, Tao existed by itself from all time.... It created heaven and earth.’”

“Tao is playing the role of Yahweh only without the personality attributed to It. “

“Chan makes a good point here. Chuang says the sage has to be impartial: ‘In dealing with things, he would not lead forward or backward to accommodate them.’ Chan says this phrase ‘has become a favorite dictum [“not to lean forward or backward”] among later Chinese thinkers, especially Neo-Confucianists. It does not mean moderation or indifference but absolute spontaneity and impartiality in dealing with things and complete naturalness in response to things.’”

“Chan’s observations are usually quite good.”

“What do you think of this. I think Chuang would have been a Stoic had he lived in ancient Rome instead of China. This is a vignette about a very sick person, Tzu-yu, whose ‘internal organs were on top of his body’ so he was really in dire straits about to pass on but was very accepting of his condition because, as he told his friend Tzu-suu: ‘When we come, it is because it was the occasion to be born. When we go, it is to follow the natural course of things. Those who are contented and at ease when the occasion comes and live in accord with the course of Nature cannot be affected by sorrow or joy. This is what the ancients called release from bondage. Those who cannot release themselves are so because they are bound by material things. That material things cannot overcome Nature, however, has been a fact from time immemorial. Why, then should I dislike it [the disease]?’”

“I see what you mean Fred.”

“Wait up Karl, there’s more.”

“Another vignette?”

“Tzu-li goes to visit the dying Tzu-lai and says to the grieving family: ‘Go away.... Don’t disturb the transformation that is about to take place.... Great is the Creator [i.e., Nature]! What will he make of you now? Where will he take you? Will he make you into a rat’s liver. Will he make you into an insects leg?’ Far from being upset by this intrusion, Tzu-lai responds in kind: ‘Wherever a parent tells a son to go, whether east, west, south, or north, he has to obey. The yin and yang are like man’s parents. If they pressed me to die and I disobeyed, I would be obstinate. What fault is theirs? For the universe gave me the body so I may be carried, my life so I may toil, my old age so I may repose, and my death so I may rest.
Therefore to regard life as good is the way to regard death as good.’”

“Well, this is very Stoic, a very Greco-Roman attitude. This is the Stoic apathia. To accept whatever comes along in life as just the working out of the logos or the law of the universe. Resistance is futile!”

“Here is a passage about Confucius!”

“Don’t be alarmed Fred. Chuang Tzu never knew Confucius. The Taoists, who were great rivals of the Confucians and didn’t appreciate their philosophy at all, liked to pretend that in his old age Confucius was finally enlightened and converted to Taoism. As a result of this phantasy, Confucius crops up in Taoist works expressing very un-Confucian opinions. What is he doing here?”

“One of three friends has died and Confucius has sent his rather orthodox pupil to the funeral to represent him. This pupil, Tzu-kung,[he was of the major disciples] no less, was shocked to see the two surviving friends singing and playing the lute. This was a big no-no from Tzu-kung’s viewpoint--a major violation of the li or ceremonial procedures required for a proper funeral. He hurries back to Confucius to complain about the unseemly behavior of the departed’s companions. But this Taoist Confucius remarks: ‘They travel in the transcendental world and I travel in the mundane world. There is nothing in common between the two worlds, and I sent you there to mourn! How stupid!... How can they take the trouble to observe the rules of propriety of popular society in order to impress the multitude?’”

“Do you think the real Confucius would have said that Fred?”

“Maybe. I don’t say he would have, but he was a very open minded person. IF he had known Chuang Tzu he might have been able to deal with this. After all, it was a private funeral with a few like minded friends.”

“We will never know.”

Chan thinks this passage is very important. Do you want me to read his commentary?”


“He says, “Chuang Tzu distinguished traveling in the transcendental world, or fang-wai (literally, “outside the sphere” of human affairs), and traveling in the mundane world, or fang-nei (literally, “inside the sphere”). Later the former came to mean Buddhism and the latter Confucianism. The first distinction was made here. To consider life as a temporary existence of various elements is highly Buddhistic, for in Buddhism an entity is but a temporary grouping of five elements. But Taoism is free from the quietism of Buddhism and emphasizes non-action. As Kuo-Hsiang [died 312 AD] emphatically stated, however, taking no action does not mean doing nothing but simply doing nothing unnatural.’”

“Is that it for Tzu-kung and Confucius?”

“No, there’s more bogus Confucius. ‘Confucius said,”Fishes attain their full life in water and men attain theirs in the Tao. Those fish which attain a full life in water will be well nourished if a pool is dug for them, and those men who attain a full life in the Tao will achieve calmness of nature through inaction. Therefore it is said, ‘Fishes forget each other (are happy and at ease with themselves) in rivers and lakes and men forget each other in the workings of Tao.’” “May I ask about those strange people?” said Tzu-kung. Replied Confucius, “Those strange people are strange in the eyes of man but are equal to Nature. Therefore it is said, ‘The inferior man to Nature is a superior man to men, and the superior man to men is an inferior man to Nature.’”’”

“I seem to remember Yen Hui, Confucius’ favorite disciple, getting into the act.”

“You remember correctly Karl. Chuang Tzu’s famous doctrine of ‘sitting down and forgetting everything’ [famous because of its later use by the Neo-Confucians] is put in to the mouth of Yen Hui. Yen made the comment in the context of being asked by Confucius what progress he had made. ‘I cast aside my limbs,’ replied Yen Hui, ‘discard my intelligence, detach from both body and mind, and become one with [the] Great Universal (Tao). This called sitting down and forgetting everything.’”

“Excellent. This would no doubt drive an orthodox Confucian to distraction.”

“No doubt. That’s it for the two major philosophical chapters presented by Chan, but he has some interesting passages in his ‘Additional Selections.’”

“Well what are you waiting for?”

“This is from ‘The Nature and Reality of Tao’. Which comes from chapter 12 of the Chuang Tzu. Its rather long.”

“Is it important?”

“Chan thinks so. He says its a pretty important statement of Taoist metaphysics.”

“By all means then,Fred, lets hear it.”

“Here goes: ‘In the great beginning there was non-being. It had neither being nor name. The One originates from it: it has oneness but not yet physical form. When things obtain it and come into existence, that is called virtue (which gives them their individual character). That which is formless is divided [into yin and yang], and from the very beginning going on without interruption is called destiny (ming, fate). Through movement and rest it produces all things. When things are produced in accordance with the principle (li) of life, there is physical form. When the physical form embodies and preserves the spirit so that all activities follow their own specific principles, that is nature. By cultivating one’s nature one will return to virtue. When virtue is perfect, one will be one with the beginning. Being one with the beginning, one becomes vacuous (hsü, receptive to all), and being vacuous, one becomes great. One will then be united with the sound and breath of things. When one is united with the sound and breath of things, one is united with the universe. This unity is intimate and seems to be stupid and foolish. This is called profound and secret virtue, this is complete harmony.’”

“This requires some thought.”

“What do you make of it?”

“I think it fits with what we today might agree to. Before the universe there was nothing (non-being) --if we can use the word ‘before’ in this context--there is then the ‘Big Bang’ (the One originates) and the rest of the universe evolves into what we have now by means of the laws of nature (ming, li or fate and principle). If we want to live intelligent and happy lives we must understand the natural laws and conform to them (virtue). If we follow this Taoist outline of virtue we will be in harmony both with ourselves and with Nature. But I must stress, Fred, that Chuang Tzu is of course not privy to the type of modern scientific understanding of the universe that has developed over the last few centuries, never-
theless this passage of his is not contrary or out of step with modern notions. It is certainly nearer to contemporary scientific understanding than anything the spokesmen of the currently popular so-called ‘world’ religions are dishing out!”

“There is some strange evolutionary speculation that Chan includes about insects turning into horses and horses turning into men! This may not be a meant to be taken seriously but Chan says it shows the Chuang saw everything in Flux (Heraclitus) and ‘conceived reality as ever changing and as developing from the simple to the complex.’”

“Don’t forget Chuang is only a few hundred years away from the Pre-Socratics who also had strange, by our lights, views on evolution especially Empedocles. Not so much Anaxamander who thought we came from fish.”

“O.K., now it's time for supplement five ‘Tao as Transformation and One.’ Ready?”


“’Although the universe is vast, its transformation is uniform. Although the myriad things are many, their order is one. Although people are numerous, their ruler is the sovereign. The sovereign traces his origin to virtue (te, individual and essential character), and attains his perfection in Nature. Therefore it is said in the cases of sovereigns of high antiquity no [unnatural] action (wu-wei) was undertaken and the empire was in order.... When all things in general are seen through Tao, the response of things to each other becomes complete. Therefore it is virtue that penetrates Heaven and Earth, and it is Tao that operates in all things. Government by the ruler means human affairs, and when ability is applied to creative activities, it means skill. Skill, is commanded by Nature. Therefore it is said that ancient rulers of empires had no [selfish] desires and the empire enjoyed sufficiency.’”

"Anything more in this section?”

“Yes-- the Ten Points that the great man or the sage must adhere to if he wants the world to listen to him. This is the Grand Master talking....”

“The Grand Master?”

“Its really Confucius but Chuang calls him the ‘Grand Master’. By the way, these may be Taoist points but from what we discussed about Confucius, I think he really would agree with all of them.”

“Let’s hear them!”

“’ [1] To act without taking an [unnatural action] means Nature. [2] To speak without any action means virtue. [3] To love people and benefit all things means humanity (jen). [4] To identify with all without each losing his own identity means greatness. [5] To behave without purposely showing any superiority means broadness. [6] To possess an infinite variety means richness. [7] Therefore to adhere to virtue is called discipline. [8] To realize virtue means strength. [9] To be in accord with Tao means completeness. [10] And not to yield to material things is called perfection.’”

“I also think the real Confucius would go along with these Fred. But I would add ‘unnatural’ before ‘action’ in number 2 as it doesn’t make that much sense to me without it.”

“Supplement Six: ‘Nature vs. Man’: This is the Spirit of the North Sea speaking to Uncle River--’An owl can catch fleas at night, and sees the tip of a hair, but in the daytime even with its eyes wide open it cannot see a mountain, which shows that different things have different natures. Therefore it is said, “Why not let us follow the right instead of the wrong, and follow order instead of chaos?” This is to misunderstand the principle (li) of nature and the reality of things.’ This confuses Uncle River as to what he should be doing, so the Spirit of the North Sea adds, ‘Never stick to one’s own intention and thus handicap the operation of Tao.’”

“I see. This means, of course, that we must first understand the Tao and then not be bull headed and try to force the world to do what we want rather than to adjust ourselves to reality. This is reminiscent of Descartes’ third maxim in his Discourse on Method where he says he will always try ‘to conquer myself rather than fortune, and to alter my desires rather than change the order of the world’ so he too seeks to be in tune with the Tao.”

“Uncle River next wants to know the value of Tao. He is told ‘One who knows Tao will surely penetrate the principle of things, and one who penetrates the principles of things will surely understand their application in various situations.’ I take it that was what Descartes was also interested in. The Spirit of the North Sea continues, ‘It means that he discriminates between safety and danger, remains calm whether he suffers calamity or enjoys blessing, and is careful about taking or not taking an action, so that none can harm him. Therefore it is said that what is natural lies within and what is human lies without, and virtue abides in the natural.’ The Spirit then gives an example of just what he means by Nature. ‘A horse or a cow has four feet. That is Nature. Put a halter around the horse’s head and put a string through the cow’s nose, that is man. Therefore it is said, “Do not let man destroy Nature.”’

“Very good L, but must we not admit that man is also part of Nature and it is not against the Nature of a horse to put a halter on it and to ride it, as it would say, to try to do that to a tiger. Men ride horses not tigers and that is also Nature and due to Tao.”

“Then the Spirit of the North Sea is giving bum answers to Uncle River?”

“Let us just say that the Spirit of the North Sea may have a point but there is no Chinese Wall between man and Nature. It is because of this that Confucianism is able to function as an enlightened philosophy and the true sage is not exclusively a Taoist nowadays.”

“In Supplement Seven, Chuang further develops his ideas of objectivity. He says, ‘Exercise fully what you have received from Nature. In one word, be absolutely vacuous (hsü) [having no selfish desires or bias--Chan]. The mind of the perfect man is like a mirror. It does not lean forward or backward in its response to things. It responds to things but conceals nothing of its own. Therefore it is able to deal with things without injury to [its reality].’”

“I remember that Chan said the mirror symbolism was important. Why don’t you read his comment?”

“O.k.--he says its an important ‘symbol for the mind both in Zen Buddhism and in Neo-Confucianism. The difference is that with Buddhism, external reality is to be transcended, whereas with Chuang Tzu and the Neo-Confucianists, external reality is to be responded to naturally and faithfully, like a mirror objectively reflecting all.’”

“This is like naive realism in Western epistemology and in some forms of Marxism. I remember Lenin’s opinion that the mind ‘reflects’ external reality. This seems to be a rejection of Kantian views.’”

“In Supplement 8 ‘Sageliness and Kingliness’ we find the following: ‘The evolution of the Tao of Nature goes on without obstruction. Therefore all things are produced. The evolution of the Tao of the sovereign goes on without obstruction and therefore the whole empire comes to him. The evolution of the Tao of the sage goes on without obstruction and therefore the whole world pays him homage.’”

“I’m glad the term ‘evolution’ is used Fred. We live in vastly different times here in the West as do many of the people of the East undergoing ‘modernization’. Chuang’s views still can hold but they must be seen to have ‘evolved.’ The Tao of Nature is the same but the Tao of the sovereign no longer can be seen in terms of the emperor system of pre-revolutionary China. The ‘sovereign’ of today is the mass of the people and in China this means the workers and peasants. If the Chinese Communist Party truly represents their interests--i.e., if it represents the sovereign--then we can interpret the phrase ‘the whole empire comes to him’ to mean that the party has the support of the people in its policies. In this way of speaking, I would say that updated Chuang means as long as the Tao of the people’s interests is without obstruction the party will have the ‘Mandate of Heaven.’ This analysis goes for any country--not just China--but you have to be clever enough to match Chuang’s views with the objective reality you are confronting in each case. Finally, the sage should not care if the whole world gives him/her homage but if the sage correctly understands the Tao this may happen. Sages, however, are often out of tune with the times.”

“I agree with you Karl. I think Chuang would too. Here is another quote: ‘Vacuity, tranquillity, mellowness, quietness, and taking no [unnatural] action characterize the things of the universe at peace and represent the ultimate of Tao and virtue. Therefore rulers and sages abide in them.’”


“Finally, Chuang says, ‘ One who is in accord with the world is in harmony with men. To be in harmony with men means human happiness, and to be in harmony with Nature means the happiness of Nature.’ What do you make of that Karl.?”

“In the first place ‘the happiness of Nature’ must be our happiness with Nature since Nature is neither happy nor unhappy, it just is what it is. In the second place, does the statement about the one who is in accord with the world being in accord with men mean (1) going along with what everyone thinks is being in accord with them and hence with the world [don’t rock the boat] or does it mean [2] if you correctly understand the nature of the world that means you will find yourself in accord with your fellow men [definitely counterfactual!]. If it means (1) it is trivial and unworthy of the Sage [so Chuang doesn’t mean this] and if it is (2) then it must be false as hoi polloi predominate and they do not see the world as the Sage does in most instances and so the Sage will be out of accord on many issues. Of course it is happiness to be in harmony with men but only if the men in question are themselves in harmony with the Tao. For example, the German Nazi philosopher Heidegger found himself in ‘harmony’ with most of his fellow Germans believing that the Tao of Hitler was the Tao itself. But would we want to say he was ‘happy’--maybe for a short while. And if he was in accord with ‘men’ was he with Nature? You may reply that ‘men’ means ‘all men’ and so the Nazis lost because their Tao was a false Tao. As you can see, Fred, this is a very complicated issue.”

“So I see. Coming up is a famous vignette about the death of Chuang’s wife.”

“Lets hear it!”

“This is Chan’s Ninth Supplement ‘The Equality of Life and Death’ I’m going to read all of it because it is so famous:

‘Chuang Tzu’s wife died and Hui Tzu went to offer his condolence. He found Chuang Tzu squatting on the ground and singing, beating on an earthen bowl. He said, “Someone has lived with you, raised children for you and now she has aged and died. Is it not enough that you should not shed any tear? But now you sing and beat the bowl. Is this not too much?”

“No,” replied Chuang Tzu. “When she died, how could I help being affected? But as I think the matter over, I realize that originally she had no life; and not only no life, she had no form; not only no form, she had no material force (ch’i)."

"In the limbo of existence and non-existence, there was transformation and the material force was evolved. The material force was transformed to be form, for was transformed to become life, and now birth has transformed to become death. This is like the rotation of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, and winter. Now she lies asleep in the great house (the universe). For me to go about weeping and wailing would be to show my ignorance of destiny. Therefore I desist.”’”

“That says it all, Fred. No Stoic, Epicurean or classical Skeptic, let alone any religious thinker, could have put it any better. Secular humanists, atheists, and agnostics would be hard pressed to to top Chuang here. But I think it takes a real sage -AKA philosopher-to find comfort in this view of life.”

“Maybe ‘comfort’ is not what this view offers.”

“True. Maybe ’resignation’ and ‘acceptance’ of the Tao is a better understanding than ‘comfort’.”

“One last vignette, A. Supplement Ten--’Subjectivity’--’Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu were taking a leisurely walk along the dam of the Hao River. Chuang Tzu said, “The white fish are swimming at ease. This is the happiness of the fish.”

“You are not fish.” said Hui Tzu. “How do you know its happiness?”

You are not I,” said Chuang Tzu. “How do you know that I do not know the happiness of the fish?”

Hui Tzu said, “Of course I do not know, since I am not you. But you are not the fish, and it is perfectly clear that you do not know the happiness of the fish.”

“Let us get to the bottom of the matter,” said Chuang Tzu. “When you asked how I knew the happiness of the fish, you already knew that I knew the happiness of the fish but asked how. I knew it along the river.”’

“This is a cute story, Fred, but Chuang’s logic can be used right back at him by Hui. I don’t suppose, though, that these vignettes are supposed to be taken as logical.”

“You are surely correct Karl. That ends our readings in the Chuang Tzu. What do you think we should do next?”

“I think we should do Mencius the official number two man in Confucianism--or Mengzi or Meng Tzu as he is also known. Since the Latin form of Mencius is so traditional let’s stick with that.”

“Sounds good to me Karl. But its getting late and I have stuff to do tonight. Let us meet tomorrow after breakfast back here in your study. I’ll come by around ten or so for coffee and conversation.

“All right Fred, I’ll see you then.”