On Taoism and Confucianism

1996-04-24

I've started reading the Tao Te Ching in a new translation by Victor H. Mair that is based on recently-discovered ancient manuscripts. It is interesting reading -- obviously far from the Western tradition, but containing value. Chapter 26 of the Tao Te Ching (Chapter 63 under the old numbering system) contains some thoughts on spontaneity, being available, and reaching one's goals without striving for them:

Undertake difficult tasks by approaching what is easy in them;
Do great deeds by focusing on their minute aspects.

All difficulties under heaven arise from what is easy,
All great things under heaven arise from what is minute.

For this reason, the sage never strives to do what is great.
Therefore, he can achieve greatness.

On re-reading Herbert Fingarette's Confucius: The Secular as Sacred, I find myself disagreeing with Confucius more than I remember. Fingarette says that Confucius has a purely external interest in life -- that for Confucius there is no such thing as the inner life (or at least that the inner life is unimportant). He makes Confucius out to be something of a behaviorist, almost -- concerned purely with behavior and outward action, not emotion or intention or inner experience. Of course, Fingarette also thinks that Confucius verbalized long ago ideas that are some of the signature insights of linguistic analysis, so perhaps one should take his thesis with some salt. However, I do like the interest in uniting the secular and the sacred. Another interesting idea of Confucius is that choice is not really important on a day-to-day basis: for Confucius, either one chooses (literally, embarks on) the Way or Path (the Tao) or one doesn't -- after that, it's all a question of knowing and doing what best conduces to the Tao. See the following quote:

Any task that is conceivable as choosing can also be formulated, instead, in terms of the Confucian task. This is the task of objectively classifying the prima facie alternative paths within the order of li [moral order, holy rite, etc.], of discovering which is the true Path and of detecting which is only an apparent path, perhaps a clearing in the brush leading nowhere except into brambles. [To see things in this way,] we need only make the tacit assumption that there is a Way, a self-consistent, self-authenticating way of universal scope. (Fingarette, p. 24)

I think Rand can be seen as saying something similar -- one chooses life, and after that it's all a question of knowing how to rank things in one's hierarchy of value and of acting according. Thus Rand seems also to believe that there is only one true Way, and in this she is similar to the Chinese tradition.


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