Saturday, September 25, 2021

 522. Tao, virtue, and politics

 Politics includes, or should include, ethics. What is Taoist ethics, and how does it affect politics?

 Tao rejects universal, rigid rules, moral or otherwise. Specifically, it rejects benevolence and righteousness. However, it has moral values of modesty, temperance, frugality, spontaneity, alacrity, openness to others, recognition and acceptance of diversity between people. Those values are enacted in following the way of Tao, immersing oneself in the ongoing transformation process of nature. Tao is akin to the ethics of eudaimonia, the good life, of life as a whole, in the development of character, as with Aristotle.

 Ho (1995) explained that while Buddhism strives to eliminate the self, as a source of suffering, denying its ontological reality, and seeks escape in Nirwana or emptiness, and Hinduism seeks to transcend the self in Atman, a manifestation of Brahman, the single whole of reality, which is unchanging, Tao does not deny or surrender the self, but seeks to become the true self, free of social and mental strictures, the individual as different from others, in ongoing transformation, and relishing it.

 Politically, in contrast with Confucianism, Tao is against political direction, hierarchy and authority. Tao is liberal, anarchic, opposed to collectivism. One wonders how this sits with the authoritarian rule that emerged in communism, and remains since the opening, to a degree, of capitalist market liberalism. Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese dream’ is Confucian, with the unabashed, patriotic display of military, economic and political power. What role does Taoism play in the present thinking of citizens and of the communist party? One can see how communism and central direction is consistent with Confucian thought, which was dominant during the Han dynasty, 200 before to 200 years after Christ. But there has been a revival of Taoism since. What remains, except the materialist, consumerist celebration of exercise and mindfulness, the Tao of Pooh, that Tao has produced in the West? I have tried but so far failed to find a source with a more positive report of remnants of Taoism in China. Perhaps the reader can give me one.

 Research has shown that in China there is a high level of trust in the political system, due to the increase of prosperity it has brought, in contrast with the ‘dissatisfied citizen’ phenomenon in most developed capitalist countries that have brought continuing prosperity, although with the rise of prosperity that is emerging in China also (Wang, 2005). Ho (1995) said that: ‘Taoism and Buddhism have degenerated into materialism and superstition, hopelessly out of touch with their philosophical roots’

The scientific revolution occurred in the West, not China, which lagged behind in those centuries, while it was more advanced than the West before that time, until the fourteenth century. There is a literature to try and explain this. Some ascribe the falling back relative to the West to the Confucian centralised bureaucracy and the associated inflexible teaching and examination system for civil servants. Woo (1993) ascribed it to epistemological factors. For one thing, Chinese thought was holistic, lacking the power of analytical thought. That is true, but thinking of systemic coherence, with the system having emergent properties that the parts don’t have, has its value. Second, Woo claimed, the Chinese.lacked the respect for facts, the experimental method and the flourishing and application of mathematics. But artisanship flourished in China, and that cannot be without a pragmatic regard for facts, for what works and what does not. Both Confucianism and Taoism are pragmatic. An economic explanation was that China got stuck in a relatively low equilibrium of excess population, lack of capital and lack of labour-saving innovation that in the West generated a demand for machinery. A legal explanation was that China had not developed laws of property, including intellectual property, commercial laws, insurance and limited liability companies. Businessmen had to fall back on kinship relations and personal relations with officials and local interest groups (Woo, 1993: 136). There was no primogeniture, so that accumulated profits were dissipated rather than re-invested.

Perhaps these forces together smothered any positive Taoist impulse of liberalism, individualism, anti-authoritarianism, and dynamism. Tao was not strong enough to block communism. But perhaps Taoism was oriented too much at the individual good life rather than action in the world and entrepreneurialism. The call to surrender to the flow of the natural self, as if that is always for the best, and only discard the obstacles of cultural and intellectual preconceptions, is not exactly a call to action. And it is not clear how feasible that is.

Ho, D.Y.F. 1995, ‘Selfhood and identity in Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Hiduism: Contrast with the West’, Journal of the Theory of Social Behavior , 25/2, 0021-8308.

Wang, Z. 2005, ‘Before the emergence of critical citizens: Economic development and political trust in China’, International Review of Sociology, 15/1, 147-63.

Woo, H.K.H. 1993, The making of a new Chinese mind: intellectuality and the future of China, Hong Kong: China Foundation.

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