Friday, March 30, 2007

The Dark Laozi

Laozi (Lao Tzu) and Kongzi (Confucius) are the best-known and most admired ancient Chinese philosophers. Yet -- with apologies to Laozi enthusiasts (including many of the students in my Asian Philosophy classes) -- I myself find Laozi's philosophy hateful. And I don't think the secondary literature has done a very good job of exposing what is hateful in him.

Consider Laozi's views on government (all translations from P.J. Ivanhoe):

Ch. 3:

... sages bring things to order by opening people's hearts [or "emptying people's minds"] and filling their bellies.
They weaken the people's commitments and strengthen their bones;
They make sure that the people are without knowledge or desires;
And that those with knowledge do not dare act....

Ch. 80:
Reduce the size of the state;
Lessen the population.
Make sure that even though there are labor-saving tools, they are never used.
Make sure that the people look upon death as a weighty matter and never move to distant places.
Even though they have ships and carts, they will have no use for them.
Even though they have armor and weapons, they will have no reason to deploy them.
Make sure that the people return to the use of the knotted cord [i.e., that they abandon writing].
Make their food savory,
Their clothes fine,
Their houses comfortable,
Their lives happy.
Then even though neighboring states are within sight of each other,
Even though they can hear the sounds of each other's dogs and chickens,
Their people will grow old and die without ever having visited one another.

Ch. 5:
Heaven and earth are not benevolent;
They treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs [i.e., ceremonial offerings treated with respect during the ceremony but discarded and defiled afterward].
Sages are not benevolent;
They treat the people as straw dogs....

It is hard to imagine a more elitist and patronizing attitude than that expressed in these passages.

Laozi is also a devotee of what I take to be cheap paradox:

Ch. 1:
A Way that can be followed is not a constant Way.
A name that can be named is not a constant name....

Ch. 36:
What you intend to shrink, you must first stretch.
What you intend to weaken, you must first strengthen.
What you intend to abandon, you must first make flourish.
What you intend to steal from, you must first provide for....

Ch. 45:
...Great straightness seems crooked;
Great skillfulness seems clumsy;
Great speech seems to stammer....

Once one gets the hang of it, it is easy to generate Laozi-esque paradoxes: The darkest intention is the most benevolent. The oldest man seems the youngest. What is steady is unstable. To achieve certainty, you must be ignorant. The greatest toothbrush is the one that brushes least!

This is, it seems to me, sham profundity. It requires and reveals no deep thought or special insight. (See also my post on the "profound" in philosophy.) In fact, sham profundity perfectly fits Laozi's elitist and explicitly obfuscatory agenda: It baffles and frustrates the mind, destroys good thinking, and establishes Laozi as an authority whose insight one can't achieve or challenge.

(The other leading ancient "Daoist" (Taoist), Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), is another matter entirely, by the way. Where Laozi is authoritarian, self-satisfied, arrogant, and superficial, Zhuangzi is self-deprecating, anti-authoritarian, and his paradoxes seem to reflect genuine puzzlement and self-questioning.)


Lester Hunt said...

I enter here with some trepidation, since you obviously know a lot more about Chinese philosophy than I do, but I have to say something to defend Lao Tse (as I am still used to spelling him).

First, let me point out that the same things can and have been said about Henry David Thoreau, and for all the same reasons. Most strikingly, both Lao Tse and HDT have an overwhelming urge to speak paradoxically, which some people find annoying. But in neither case is the paradoxicality facile or mechanical. There is an obvious difference between a real paradox, like "great speech seems to stammer" and a machine produced one like your "the oldest man seems youngest": the real paradox is a challenge to interpret it in such a way as to change its seeming falseness into a possible truth. What did Henry mean by saying that the swiftest traveler is he who goes afoot? Something about how the time it takes to earn the price of the train trip has to be added to the length of the trip. When Lao Tse made the above-quoted comment about speech, he may have meant that when illusion is deeply ingrained, a true statement (on a relevant subject) will sound paradoxical -- exactly the way his sound!

I also take exception to your characterization of him as "authoritarian." He spoke for government by common sense, tradition, and moral and intellectual exemplars rather than coercive, monopolistic state-government. It's true that he had a high opinion of the value of the sage, but the sage does not ram his wisdom down your throat. The sovereignty of the state leaves you no choice. The sage says, take my advice or leave it, the state (including the democratic state, to be sure) says, obey or else! Which is truly more authoritarian?

Criminally Bulgur said...

Hello Dr. Schwitzgebel,

I agree with Dr. Hunt: there is good philosophy and bad philosophy, good poetry and bad poetry, and there is good and bad in that hybrid genre that is called "philosophy of life" and/or existential philosophy. Personally, I never get anything out of the Tao, but I might from Heidegger or Thoreau.

And the list of people who had good ideas but bad politics is too long to comment--Frege, of course, being our own albatross.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Lester and Ignacio!

* I very much like your characterization, Lester, of the difference between "real paradoxes" and facile or mechanical ones. I'm just not sure Laozi's paradoxes are "real paradoxes" in your sense. Maybe some are -- like the one you mention. Maybe if you think charitably and hard enough about them, most can be interpreted that way. But I bet if you thought charitably and hard enough about "The greatest toothbrush is the one that brushes least" you could find possibilities there too. Maybe partly it comes down to trust, again -- but I want my paradoxes *motivated*.

* The reason I say Laozi is authoritarian is that he advocates a sharp distinction between the rulers and the ruled and advocates keeping the ruled in the dark about the true aims of the government. This is the opposite of open, egalitarian, collaborative government.

* On your point, Ignacio, I'd suggest that the relevant difference between Laozi and Frege is that the yucky politics is central to Laozi's philosophical vision.

Justin Tiwald said...

Boy, you really come out swinging! It's nice to see this sort of analysis for a change.

When you say that the Laozi's views on government are "hateful," what implications does this have for would-be readers and scholars of the text?

I assume it's not that the text isn't worth reading (or unworthy of reading to the extent that it's hateful, and therefore just barely worth reading). A view doesn't have to be right to be philosophically interesting or useful. There's real value in reading Machiavelli or Han Feizi, despite their odious views. Han Feizi's theory of power is philosophical interesting. The Laozi's distinctive conception of rule-by-virtue (de) is philosophically interesting.

Another possibility: being hateful, the Laozi's views on government should be flagged as such. Most commentators stress the happier side of Laoism. You want to bring out the darker side. Is this what you're getting at?

As for the paradoxes, I'd like to throw my lot in with Lester's, but with a twist. What makes Laoist paradoxes a worthy challenge, in my view, is not just that they express substantive and interesting doctrines, but that the solutions to those paradoxes often complement other substantive and interesting views in the text (some themselves expressed in paradoxical ways). These paradoxes aren't free-floating. Therefore they really are motivated, and they don't leave all of the relevant work to the interpreter (as in "the greatest toothbrush is the one that brushes least").

Criminally Bulgur said...

Hi Dr. Schwitzgebel,

* On your point, Ignacio, I'd suggest that the relevant difference between Laozi and Frege is that the yucky politics is central to Laozi's philosophical vision.

Point taken: and you were charitable in not mentioning the ties between Heidegger's theoretical philosophy and politics (at a particularly important stage of his career and history, no less).

But what about a situation like this: I admire Anarchy, State, and Utopia as a work of political philosophy, but I disagree almost wholeheartedly with libertarianism as a practical political program. I suspect there are many others in this camp.

Is it only when a thinker crosses the boundary into fascism that we should get worried?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting reflections, Justin! "Hateful" is a strong word -- maybe too strong, or maybe not. There are several interesting philosophers whose philosophy is, to me, hateful in various ways -- Han Feizi and Machiavelli, for example, and aspects of Nietzsche. All those three are worth reading, though, despite what is odious in their views.

I'm not as sure Laozi is worth reading, apart from his historical importance. I guess I have the feeling, as you nicely put it, that paradoxes like "What you intend to steal from, you must first provide for" are free-floating, leaving all the relevant work to the interpreter -- more like "The greatest toothbrush is the one that brushes least" than Thoreau's "the swiftest traveler goes afoot". Thus, I think in addition to being hateful in its positive views, the text has little of real substance to offer the reader (unlike Nietzsche and Han Feizi).

A harsh judgment, to be sure.

Ignacio: Yes, that's an interesting example. I think -- for reasons nicely articulated in Mill's On Liberty -- that we need to expose ourselves to the best arguments and expressions of views we disagree with, including even the most noxious fascism, lest we forget the reasons for rejecting those views. This includes Han Feizi and Machiavelli and Nietzsche and Nozick (though I don't find Nozick quite as awful as the others!) -- but I'm not sure it includes Laozi any more than it includes Ayn Rand and third-rate demogogues. There's a threshold of quality of thought that it doesn't seem to me Laozi reaches.

David Hunter said...

Eric I have to say I pretty much agree with your analysis, and don't find there to be much in Laozi that isn't inserted in the reading. I have heard rumours that Laozi may be a fictional invention of some followers of Zhuangzi rather than a preceding authentic text. While I don't know how correct this view is, it has a certain satisfying irony.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

I really enjoyed your post! ‘Hateful’ is strong, but ‘elitist’ is okay in my books and ‘patronizing’ seems right on the money. We have a strong pressure to associate the text with a benevolent primitivism and simplicity, but there are several passages in the text (some of which you cite) that seem to be amenable to an elitist, manipulative reading not unlike similar themes in the Hanfeizi. Alongside the passages you single out, I have long suspected that others advocating 'discarding wisdom' or 'discarding knowledge' might be open to less-than-flattering interpretations.

There are also the Primitivist chapters of the Zhuangzi (8-10, opening essay of 11) that seem to be closely related to Laozi, and which have always seemed very radical and hateful in their orientation (as noted by Graham, among others). I presented a paper along these lines at the AAS Annual a few years ago, and Bruce and Taeko Brooks (in attendance) agreed that there is a darker side to 'Laoism' than many are willing to allow.

David, the greatest champion of the theory you cite is Graham. You can find his argument in a collection edited by Kohn and Lafargue

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, I agree Hagop. Thanks for the comment!

As for "hateful" -- well, it is a strong word. But when I think at length and in detail about the text, it does start to produce a very strongly negative reaction in me. Why it does so more than, say, Nietzsche and Hobbes (whom I also find morally noxious), I'm not entirely sure....

Anonymous said...

I see this as a controversy post. I believe the language translation of "Tao" isn't flatering to the teaching at all. The essence of Chinese can't be translated and understood in English. This explains the line "The Tao can be told is not the Absolute Tao" This is a life paradox isn't it? This can be intepreted as without practical experience to possess a 'life skill' , one cannot be learnt by just listening or seeing - he has to do - he has to act upon - to have the 'life skill' . From my point of view, the teaching of Tao intention is to stir controversy and make people aware of their being . Not something to ponder, to study or take action upon, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Does not the first chapter warn that the following chapters are full of nonsense? How many other philosophers have been so kind to the reader as this "hateful" Laozi? :)

A wise man once said, text without context is pretext. As we have no choice when communicating verbally but to omit context, the question is not whether an interpreter must "do the work", but whether they appreciate the scope of their responsibility.

One could argue that Laozi contains no paradoxes at all, that it is as complete and straightforward as it can be, and that it thankfully makes no pretensions otherwise. Again, as Laozi said, the sage most importantly knows when to stop.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Zhuangzi also warns at the beginning that much of what he says won't make sense or won't seem to make sense. Yet his work is humane in a way Laozi's is not, on my reading. And he includes himself in his own mockery, while Laozi does not. The whole tone and character of the two works is utterly different, despite superficial similarities that have led to the retrospective classification of both works as Daoist. It is not the nonsense per se that I object to.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dr Schwitzgebel,

how can we email you? What exactly is your email address? It's list at the top a little vaguely as well =)

Could you re-write it clearly pls.

thank you for pointing out that Laozi could be advocating a despotic type government that sorts to keep its doing clouded against the public eye.

-Charles Ardy

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Charles! I put it vaguely so that bots can't glean it from the site and increase my load of spam. Just replace the "at domain-" with an @ and remove the spaces.

Anonymous said...

Dear Professor,

Your reading of Laozi is really through the lens of Han Fei Zi who was the student of Confucian master, Xunzi but hijacked Laozi for the cover of his authoritarianism that was ironically rooted deeply in his dear master, Xunzi, instead of Laozi.

I believe that you can have a totally different image of Laozi if you can try the lens of Wang Bi, Chinese commentator of Laozi.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Lili, you're right that I see Laozi and Han Fei as much closer than most do. I should spend more time with Wang Bi. I generally stop reading after unification. I confess, though, that I tend not to take commentaries very seriously except where they illuminate linguistic or factual points. My feeling is that our interpretation gets distorted through the lens of later commentaries and it's better for the most part to come to the texts again naked, as it were.

Anonymous said...

Your rash interpretations of the Laozi reflect inadequate consideration of a translation that may or may not be of dubious quality. The Internet is a very poor place to find quality Laozi translations, interpretations, and commentary. A book that contains a translation without commentary is not a good place to start at understanding an ancient Chinese document about 24 centuries old.

To give you an idea of the complexity of all this, take a look at the beautiful website:

There are 2 English translations presented with the Chinese. Try to figure it out.

I would suggest the following. First, read the Laozi and Daoism articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Then spend about $20 to buy a couple of good translations that have commentaries. An accessible one is Ellen Chen's "Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary." She's not right about everything, but, then, no one can be sure about everything. (You'll understand after reading the encyclopedia articles.)

I have my own project on my blog. You'll find that there's much more to Chapter 3 than meets the eye (for example two different Chinese words are used for knowledge), and that you've wrongly read into an intellectual battle between Laozi and Confucius about ren in Chapter 5.

Overall, given what you've said. How could it be that the Laozi has been embraced and studied by so many people for 2,400 years? A document that really advocates treating people like "straw dogs" would not stay long in any culture's popular imagination.

The legendary story of Laozi is about an old man alone fleeing his native country riding an ox. The director of the border guard post stopped him and asked that he write down what we knew. After Laozi finished, he left the country and was never seen again. That's not a story about a person who advocated violence.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for your comment, Daren, but you underestimate my familiarity with Laozi, which I have read in about seven translations and have taught in its entirety several times in upper-division philosophy classes. My preferred translation is by P.J. Ivanhoe, who is one of the world's leading scholars of Chinese philosophy and whose translation builds on the insights of many previous translators. I'm not sure on what basis you are concerned that his translation is of "dubious quality".

There are many explanations for why a philosopher may have long term popularity, not all having to do with the plausibility of the view or an admirable moral vision.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I studied both Lao Zi and Nietzsche's "Thus Spoke Zarathustra."

I find them both very similar and very insightful.

If one has trouble with Ancient text translations, I would suggest one to read Nietzsche's TSZ instead.

The central theme to these two great and controversial philosophers are their "lack of the desire to judge what is right and wrong."

These two pieces are INTENDED to stir self reflection. They are to challenge a reader's psyche and their morality and their past education and perception.

"Nothing" or "empty" is repeated in both literatures repeatedly to demonstrate a thought process. It is not humility. It is not "reserve judgment." It is absolute openness to OTHER ideas that you may find confrontational.

Even Confucious said Lao Zi was a dragon amongst men.

The exact reason why you dislike Lao Zi and Neitzsch may be because they trample upon your conception of morality and utility.

The use of paradox is profound in it that it challenges readers to FIND FAULT in it on purpose. Everybody knows paradox is meaningless without a lesson. And the easiest way to shatter any preconceptual idea is to state an obvioius, and then immediately shatter it with the counter-argument.

Lao Zi and Nietzsche both are destructionists. That is exactly the reason why they value CREATION so highly. One must destroy the existed structure to start anew. These two philosophers have the utmost respect for human beings to create - that's why they do not hesitate to destroy.

One easy way to demonstrate this is ask yourself this: How did you know the Earth is round? Did you learn it from a text book? Did some authority told you so? Or did you FIND OUT YOURSELF that the Earth was round through logic and mathematical or methods of calculation with the sun?

Taking knowledge is easy, exhaust all other possibilities before coming to a conclusion is the hard part. Exhausting other possibilities is destruction of ideas.

Lao Zi said: "one doesn't have to leave one's room to learn the world." I interpret it as: "Before learning can begin, one must sit alone by himself, and destroy any idea what the world IS and SHOULD be before venturing out to learn without prejudice.

Ignorance is a fortified citadel that has the ability to overcome challenges without reason, explanation, or proof. That is one's "house." One can know the world only by DESTRUCTION of the citadel. Besides, you do not need to go anywhere to realize that you really don't know anything. Ignorance is a symptom of fear and dread of failure. Failure to achieve, failure to understand, failure to gain higher knowledge. One doesn't need to read any books to understand one's fear. Just look in yourself in the mirror and stay at home.

One can also equate what Lao Zi and Neitzsche's teaching to the teaching of elimination of fear. Destruction of the most primal emotion of human beings.

Wan Sau Keung (尹秀強) said...

Not logically valid. It would be helpful to move your argument foward if you address anal;yze alternative interpretations and translations of Chapter 3 of the Laozi.

Anonymous said...

I have a B.A. In Chinese studies, the guy who taught me is the scholar who edited and oversaw the Cambridge encyclopedia of China (1991). I got a scholarship to one of the top Taiwanese universities and took an M.A. at a C9 + Universitas 21 in China (which means its part of the super-elite universities in China). I also spent years in the Far East. Now, all this doesn't mean much apart from the fact that I might be a uni junky. Obviously though, I am very interested in China.

I wholeheartedly agree with Prof. Schwitzgebel. Zhuangzi is a warm hearted, self deprepiatve person with a great sense of humour. He knows the power of words and uses this power to illuminate not to obfuscate.

Lao Shi on the other hand takes himself very seriously and doesn't really say that much of substance. In fact a lot of japanese koans and sayings go back to Zhuangzi line of thought, not Lao Shi's. The best known being 井戸の中にいるカエル

The point that people for over 2500 years took his texts very serious doesn't really say much. Look at some religious texts that influence the greater part of huge segments of the world's population and you wonder what on earth these people see in these bronce age oriental fairytales.

Of course faulty translations can change the meaning of a text tremendously. But it is somewhat unfair to blame the internet since you can find tons of translations and some are far more accessible to Western readers than others because they focus on the meaning People love Shakespeare but nobody gets his references to the attire of the time. For example, what does it mean when a young unmarried man uses a hat instead of a cap in one of Shakespears plays? Huge impact on a medieval crowd, absolutely no impact nowadays. We simply don't get it. Therefore translations that incorporate this kind of info - which is all quite recent ie. last 15 to 20 years - is much better.

Just one more thing. The greatest library in Europe in the 13th and 14th century had fewer books than the Daoist library alone in China. In the 15th and 16th century the number of books in these Daoist libraries exploded due to the patronage of the emperor. All these texts are virtually unknown in the West, ... , well there are probably about 3 people who have read a portion of these books. All these inter-Chinese and inter-faith/philosophical discussions were hampered by the 'ambiguity' of Lao Shi's texts. The same cannot be said about Zhuangzi.

"Words offer the means to meaning and for those who will listen the enunciation of truth." This applies so much more to Zhuangzi than to Lao Shi.

What more can you ask for in a philosopher?