Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Uncle Iroh as Daoist Sage

You're a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Of course you are! How could you not be? (Okay, if you don't know what I'm talking about, check it out here.)

And if you're a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, you love Uncle Iroh. Of course you do! How could you not?

So my son David and I have been working on an essay celebrating Iroh. (David is a cognitive science graduate student at Institut Jean Nicod in Paris.) Uncle Iroh deserves an essay in celebration. Yes, there will be spoilers if you haven't finished viewing the series.

Uncle Iroh, from Fool to Sage -- or Sage All Along?

by Eric Schwitzgebel and David Schwitzgebel

Book Three of Avatar: The Last Airbender portrays Uncle Iroh as wise and peace-loving, in the mold of a Daoist sage. However, in Book One, Iroh doesn't always appear sage-like. Instead, he can come across as lazy, incompetent, and unconcerned about the fate of the world.

Consider Iroh's first appearance, in Book One, Episode 1, after Prince Zuko sees a giant beam of light across the sky, signaling the release of the Avatar:

Zuko: Finally! Uncle, do you realize what this means?

Iroh: [playing a game with tiles] I won't get to finish my game?

Zuko: It means my search is about to come to an end. [Iroh sighs with apparent lack of interest and places a tile on the table.] That light came from an incredibly powerful source! It has to be him!

Iroh: Or it's just the celestial lights. We've been down this road before, Prince Zuko. I don't want you to get too excited over nothing.[1]

On the surface, Iroh's reaction appears thoughtless, self-absorbed, and undiscerning. He seems more concerned about his game than about the search for the Avatar, and he fails to distinguish a profound supernatural occurrence from ordinary celestial lights. Several other early scenes are similar. Iroh can appear inept, distractible, lazy, and disengaged, very different from the energetic, focused, competent, and concerned Iroh of Book Three.

We will argue [in this post] that Iroh's Book One foolishness is a pose. Iroh's character does not fundamentally change. In Book One, he is wisely following strategies suggested by the ancient Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi for dealing with incompetent leaders. His seeming foolishness in Book One is in fact a sagacious strategy for minimizing the harm that Prince Zuko would otherwise inflict on himself and others -- a gentle touch that more effectively helps Prince Zuko find wisdom than would be possible with a more confrontational approach.

We will also present empirical evidence [in a subsequent post] that -- contrary to our expectations before collecting that evidence -- Iroh's wisdom-through-foolishness is evident to most viewers unfamiliar with the series, even on their first viewing. Viewers can immediately sense that Iroh's superficial foolishness has a deeper purpose, even if that purpose is not immediately apparent.

Iroh as a Zhuangzian Wise Fool

Like Iroh, Zhuangzi mixes jokes and misdirection with wisdom, so that it's not always clear how seriously to take him. The "Inner Chapters" of the Zhuangzi contain several obviously fictional dialogues, including one between Confucius and his favorite disciple, Yan Hui. Yan Hui asks Confucius' political advice:

I have heard that the lord of Wei is young and willful. He trifles with his state and does not acknowledge his mistakes. He is so careless with people's lives that the dead fill the state like falling leaves in a swamp. The people have nowhere to turn. I have heard you, my teacher, say, "Leave the well-governed state and go to the chaotic one. There are plenty of sick people at the doctor's door." I want to use what I have learned to think of a way the state may be saved (Kjellberg trans., p. 226-227) [2].

Zuko, like the lord of Wei in Yan Hui's telling, is a young, willful prince, leading his companions into danger, unwilling to acknowledge his mistakes. Even more so, the Fire Nation is led into peril and chaos by Fire Lord Ozai and Princess Azula. If ever a nation needed wise redirection by someone as practiced in conventional virtue as Confucius and his leading disciples, it would be the Fire Nation.

Zhuangzi's "Confucius," however, gives a very un-Confucian reply: "Sheesh! You’re just going to get yourself hurt." Through several pages of text, Yan Hui proposes various ways of dealing with misguided leaders, such as being "upright but dispassionate, energetic but not divisive" and being "inwardly straight and outwardly bending, having integrity but conforming to my superiors," but Zhuangzi's Confucius rejects all of Yan Hui's ideas. None of these conventional Confucian approaches will have any positive effect, he says. Yan Hui will just be seen as a plague and a scold, or he will provoke unproductive counterarguments, or he'll be pressured into agreeing with the leader's plans. At best, his advice will simply be ignored. Imagine a well-meaning conventional ethicist trying to persuade Zuko (in Book One), much less Ozai or Azula, to embrace peace, devoting themselves to improving the lives of ordinary people! It won’t go well.

So what should Yan Hui do, according to Zhuangzi's Confucius? He should "Fast his mind." He should be "empty" and unmoved by fame or accomplishment. "If you’re getting through, sing. If not, stop. No schools. No prescriptions. Dwell in unity and lodge in what cannot be helped, and you’re almost there." Advising another worried politician a few pages later, Zhuangzi's Confucius says:

Let yourself be carried along by things so that the mind wanders freely. Hand it all over to the unavoidable so as to nourish what is central within you. That is the most you can do. What need is there to deliberately seek any reward? The best thing is just to fulfill what’s mandated to you, your fate -- how could there be any difficulty in that?

Zhuangzi's advice is cryptic -- intentionally so, we think, so as to frustrate attempts to rigidify it into fixed doctrines. Nevertheless, we will rigidify it here, into two broadly Zhuangzian or Daoist policies for dealing with misguided rulers:

(1.) Do not attempt to pressure a misguided ruler into doing what is morally right. You'll only become noxious or be ignored. Instead, go along with what can't be helped. "Sing" -- that is, express your opinions and ideas -- only when the ruler is ready to listen.

(2.) Empty your mind of theories and doctrines, as well as desires for fame, reward, or accomplishment. These are unproductive sources of distortion, wrangling, and strife.

Despite advocating, or appearing to advocate, this two-pronged approach to dealing with misguided rulers, Zhuangzi doesn’t explicitly explain why this approach might work.

Here Avatar: The Last Airbender proves an aid to Zhuangzi interpretation. We can see how Iroh, by embodying these policies (especially in Book One), helps to redirect Zuko onto a better path. We thus gain a feel for Zhuangzian political action at work.

Iroh doesn't resist Zuko's unwise plans, except in indirect, non-threatening ways. He does suggest that Zuko relax and enjoy some tea. At one point, he redirects their ship to a trading town in search of a gaming tile. At another point, he allows himself to relax in a hot spring, delaying the departure of their ship. Despite these suggestions and redirections, he does not outright reject Zuko's quest to capture the Avatar and even helps in that quest. He does not make himself noxious to Zuko by arguing against Zuko's plans, or by parading his sagely virtue, or by advancing moral or political doctrines. Indeed, he actively undercuts whatever tendency Zuko or others might have to see him as wise (and thus noxious or threatening, judgmental or demanding) by playing the fool -- forgetful, unobservant, lazy, and excessively interested in tea and the tile game Pai Sho. In this way, Iroh keeps himself by Zuko's side, modeling peaceful humaneness and unconcern about fame, reward, wealth, or honor. He remains available to help guide Zuko in the right direction, when Zuko is ready.

A related theme in Zhuangzi is "the use of uselessness." For example, Zhuangzi celebrates the yak, big as a cloud but lacking any skill useful to humans and thus not forced into labor, and ancient, gnarled trees no good for fruit or timber and thus left in peace to live out their years. Zhuangzi's trees and yak are glorious life forms, for whom existence is enough, without further purpose. Uncle Iroh, though not wholly useless (especially in battle) and though he can devote himself to aims beyond himself (in caring for Zuko and later helping Aang restore balance to the world), possesses some of that Zhuangzian love of the useless: tea, Pai Sho, small plants and animals, which need no further justification for their existence. Through his love of the useless and simple appreciation of existence, Uncle Iroh unthreateningly models another path for Zuko, one of joyful harmony with the world.

We can distill Iroh's love of uselessness into a third piece of Zhuangzian political advice:

(3.) Don't permit yourself to become too useful. If the ruler judges you useful, you might be "cut down" like a high-quality tree and converted to a tool at the ruler's disposal. Only be useful when it's necessary to avoid becoming noxious.

Iroh is an expert firebender with years of military wisdom who could surely be a valuable asset in capturing and dispatching the Avatar if he really focused on it. However, Zuko rarely recruits Iroh's aid beyond the bare minimum, probably as a consequence of Iroh's fa├žade of uselessness. Through conspicuous napping, laziness, and distractability, Iroh encourages Zuko and others to perceive him as a mostly harmless and not particularly valuable traveling companion.

By following Zhuangzi's first piece of advice (don't press for change before the time is right), the Daoist can stay close to a misguided leader in an unthreatening and even foolish-seeming way without provoking resistance, counterargument, or shame. By following Zhuangzi's second piece of advice (empty your mind of doctrines and striving), the Daoist models an alternative path, which the misguided leader might eventually in their own time appreciate -- perhaps more quickly than would be possible through disputation, argumentation, doctrine, intellectual engagement, or high-minded sagely posturing. By following Zhuangzi's third piece of advice (embrace uselessness), the Daoist can avoid being transformed into a disposable tool recruited for the ruler's schemes. This is Iroh's Zhuangzian approach to the transformation of Zuko.

Throughout Book One and the beginning of Book Two, we observe only three exceptions to Iroh's Zhuangzian approach. All are informative. First, Iroh is stern and directive with Zuko when instructing him in firebending. We see that Iroh is capable of opinionated command; he is not lazy and easygoing in all things. But elementary firebending appears to require no spiritual insight, so there need be no threatening moral instruction or questioning of Zuko's projects and values.

Second, Iroh gives Zuko one stern piece of advice that Zuko rejects, seemingly thus violating Policy 1. In Book One, Episode 12, Iroh warns of an approaching storm. When Zuko refuses to acknowledge the risk, Iroh urges Zuko to consider the safety of the crew. Zuko responds "The safety of the crew doesn't matter!" and continues toward the storm. When they encounter the storm and the crew complain, Iroh attempts to defuse the situation by suggesting noodles. Zuko is again offended, saying he doesn't need help keeping order on his ship. However, at the climax of the episode, when the storm is raging and the Avatar is finally in sight, Zuko chooses to let the Avatar go so that the ship can steer to safety. The viewer is, we think, invited to suppose that in making that decision Zuko is reflecting on Iroh's earlier words. Iroh's advice -- though at first seemingly ignored and irritating to Zuko, and thus un-Zhuangzian -- was well-placed after all.

Third, consider Iroh's and Zuko's split in the Book Two, Episode 5. Book Two, Episode 1 sets up the conflict. Azula has tricked Zuko into thinking that their father Ozai wants him back. In an un-Zhuangzian moment, Iroh directly, though mildly, challenges Zuko's judgment: "If Ozai wants you back, well, I think it may not be for the reasons you imagine... in our family, things are not always what they seem." This prompts Zuko's angry retort: "I think you are exactly what you seem! A lazy, mistrustful, shallow old man who's always been jealous of his brother!"

The immediate cause of their split seems trivial. They have survived briefly together as impoverished refugees when Zuko suddenly presents Iroh with delicious food and a fancy teapot. Iroh enjoys the food but asks where it came from, and he opines that tea is just as delicious in cheap tin as in fancy porcelain. Zuko refuses to reveal how he acquired the goods. Iroh is remarkably gentle in response, saying only that poverty is nothing to be ashamed of and noting that their troubles are now so deep that even finding the Avatar would not resolve them. When Zuko replies that therefore there is no hope, Iroh answers:

You must never give in to despair. Allow yourself to slip down that road and you surrender to your lowest instincts. In the darkest times, hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner strength.

A bit of sagely advice, kindly delivered? This is the next we see of Zuko and Iroh:

Zuko: Uncle ... I thought a lot about what you said.

Iroh: You did? Good, good.

Zuko: It's helped me realize something. We no longer have anything to gain by traveling together. I need to find my own way.

Zuko's and Iroh's falling out reinforces the Zhuangzian message of Avatar: The Last Airbender. As soon as Iroh deviates from the first of the three Zhuangzian policies -- as soon as he challenges Zuko's morality and starts offering sagely advice, however gently -- Zuko reacts badly, rejecting both the advice and Iroh himself.

Zuko and Iroh of course later reunite and Zuko eventually transforms himself under the influence of Iroh, with Iroh becoming more willing to advise Zuko and dispense explicit wisdom, in proportion to Zuko's readiness for that advice and wisdom. Apart from his un-Zhuangzian moments in the first part of Book Two, Iroh "sings" only when he is getting through, just as Zhuangzi's "Confucius" advises. Otherwise, Iroh acts by joke, misdirection, and a clownishly unthreatening modeling of peaceful humaneness and unconcern.

How might a Zhuangzian Daoist might effectively interact with a misguided ruler? Iroh’s interactions with Zuko throughout Book One serve as illustration.


[1] All transcripts are adapted from https://avatar.fandom.com/wiki/Avatar_Wiki:Transcripts

[2] All translations are Kjellberg's, with some minor modifications, from Ivanhoe and Van Norden's Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd ed.

[image source]


Howard said...

Is coping with a bad ruler driven by the common features of a situation or by the idiosyncrasies of the ruler?
Does it work for modern and hence more complicated because on a grander scale situations?
Would it work under the bad Roman Emperors, under the Mongols, the colonial British etc?
Does it apply to totalitarian situations?
In today's America a democracy would it apply to people in the cabinet to congresspeople, to vote certifiers to regular citizens?
Could we do case studies from history?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Howard! Case studies would be fascinating. I'm inclined to doubt that the Zhuangist/Iroh strategy is generally the best approach across circumstances or even in the majority of circumstances. However, I find it interesting to treat Avatar: The Last Airbender as a case study in how it might sometimes potentially work.