THE PROBLEM OF GOOD VII

In its imaginative equalization of all things and the consequent cosmo-centric recontextualization of an otherwise individual- and species-centric world-view philosophical Daoism translates into universal caring.

All things have their right to be. All things exist for themselves. Nothing exists solely for the use of humanity or any single individual. Nothing is to be completely objectified. All things are treasured.

Paralleling Zhuangzi’s pronouncement on the mutual goodness of life and death we can say: If my existence is good, so also is the existence of all other things. In having psychologically identified with the Totality our self-love transfers to a love for all things.

This is philosophical Daoism’s organic foundation for environmental justice. Tree- and boulder-hugging are as natural as hugging one’s child. And if there is pleasure in the latter, how much more pleasure awaits the opening of our hearts to all things?

THE PROBLEM OF GOOD VI

How do we arrive at universal flourishing as our everyday good? It is rooted in the imaginative equalization of all things. This is the central theme of Zhuangzi’s second chapter. The title of this chapter (Qiwulun) can be taken as speaking to the equalization of our theories about things or of the things themselves. Since our world is a cognitive creation, these amount to the same thing.

Ziqi has lost his “me”. He explains this experience through the very dense metaphor of the response of the forest trees to the wind (qi) belched forth by the Great Clump. (2:1ff) Each tree makes its own unique sound, though they are all the same in responding to the one wind. Yet no “doer” can be found. Neither the wind nor the trees can be said to be the cause of these expressions. They spontaneously arise.

So too is it for Ziqi who cannot find any actual “doer” in himself—he has lost his “me”. Like Yan, he has experientially understood that he “has not yet begun to exist”. (4:10) He is a spontaneously arising happening, not a concrete fixed self.

This experience of the (provisional) loss of one’s “counterpart”, the objective side of the I-me self-experience, is also the loss of the objectified world, the world as something different than oneself. More simply, Ziqi has realized a sense of oneness with all things.

“Heaven and earth were born together with me, and the ten thousand things and I are one,” exclaims Zhuangzi. (2:32)

This equalization of the cognitive construct of self and other transfers self-concern to world-concern. We care for the flourishing of all things because we are all things, and caring for what we are is inseparable from being at all. Our self-caring becomes our world-caring.

Nothing is quite so simple, however. In the real world, compromise is necessary. There are natural conflicts between the needs of things, and our self-caring must frequently trump our world-caring. For though we may have lost our “me”, our “I” remains just the same. The primary, organic self-caring that energizes our world-caring is our first responsibly.

Our awareness of the oneness of things still obtains, nevertheless. Where all things are one, nothing can be lost. This is “hiding the world in the world”.

THE PROBLEM OF GOOD V

If we take universal flourishing as our ideal understanding of the everyday good, then we have a guiding principle by which to live well in the world. However, since our decisions and actions in this regard are most always necessarily compromised in that the flourishing of one thing usually requires the non-flourishing of another, we must admit to our dwelling in perpetual ambiguity.

Some Daoist and Confucian thought imagines a sage so insightful as to be capable of sorting out her decisions in perfect harmony with every situation in its total context. Zhuangzi, I think, might again quote an ancient proverb and call this “fleeing the Lord’s dangle”. His response to life pivots on the unavoidable ambiguity that permeates our every experience. This is the obvious. The other is religious idealism.

Thus, we remain essentially at sea despite our having a moral compass. Fortunately, we also have sails by which to steer by that compass, though we do not know where we are eventually going or what hazards might lay in our chosen course.

It is also fortunate that it will all work out well in the end. Unless, of course, we take the cosmos as evil; for if any evil endures, no Totality is imaginable.

THE PROBLEM OF GOOD IV

What is the good? That which brings universal flourishing. Why? Because everything wants to flourish. The good is agreement with existence; no other foundation is possible. What does it mean to flourish? To experience the fullest possible expression of one’s potential. For this reason, we do well to attempt the good.

Longevity is a good. We do well to attempt to live out our “allotted years”. But we might get cut off before our time just the same. From the perspective of Daoism, this is also good. Long life or short, the sage considers this of no great ultimate importance. “No one lives longer than a dead child.” (2:32)

There is thus a good that transcends our everyday determinations of good and bad. This is “the rightness of the present ‘this’”. This is the affirmation of all happenings within the Great Happening because they are that Happening. There is no ultimate rift in the fabric of Reality. This is how we imagine it for the sake of our own flourishing.

We also see that “the trails of right and wrong are hopelessly tangled and confused.” (2:39) What’s right for one may be wrong for another. What’s more, what’s right for the one may result in bad for the other. The snake’s good is the frog’s bad. Life requires the death of others. We eat to survive; and although, like the Jains, we may go to extremes to avoid this killing, still our very existence requires the ceaseless death of others, both living and inanimate. Our very bodies are in constant warfare, and their continuation requires the death of countless others.

When we “break the jade” to make a sacred vessel we kill it. Even things seek their own flourishing in the perpetuity of their identity.

Thus, we can say that “universal flourishing” is the good, but must remember that it remains forever compromised and fraught with ambiguity. Existence is a messy business. The Daoist adopts the perspective that sees that all is well (good) despite its all being a Great Mess from top to bottom. This facilitates her self-flourishing.

THE PROBLEM OF GOOD III

Is there right and wrong on Mars? Was there good and evil in the Jurassic? It seems that when we absent humanity good and evil disappear. So, this must be uniquely our problem. And it is a problem. And we need to deal with it as such.

But the cosmos is bigger than our new and tiny world and its concerns. Do we want to understand ourselves in a broader context? Isn’t this what has been happening since the Enlightenment? We are no longer the center of everything. Everything is no longer about us. The “meaning of life” has lost its answer.

Philosophical Daoism is a response to this enlightened point of view. It is inspired by the “Illumination of the Obvious”. It suggests we move beyond the hocus-pocus of religious belief (which can manifest in many apparently non-religious ways) and understand and creatively respond to the actual facts of our circumstance.

Part of this response is to put our concerns about right and wrong in context. Relativizing our concerns frees us from bondage to them. We have them still, only now they are not such a heavy burden. Indeed, now you could make the burden itself an occasion “to chariot upon what is true to both Heaven and earth, riding upon the back-and-forth of the six atmospheric breathes, so that your wandering could nowhere be brought to a halt. You would then be depending on—what?” (1:8)

You would depend on no particular outcome, whether good or evil, but would be unburdened even as you took upon yourself the heaviest of burdens.

THE PROBLEM OF GOOD II

Zhuangzi’s treatment of the opposites “this” and “that” covers a wide range of issues. Primarily, he wishes to show the relative character of our opinions as determined by our unavoidably situated points of view. In this case the terms stand for subject and object, self and other. However, the word for “that” also means “wrong”. My opinion is right while the other’s is wrong. Thus, the same arguments that apply to self and other—that they are mutually generating opposites—also apply to right and wrong.

“This” generates “that”, and vice versa. Thus, every “this” is also a “that” and every “that” is also a “this; every self is also an object to another self, and every right is also another’s wrong. “So is there really any ‘this’ versus ‘that’, any right versus wrong?” (2:17)

This being the case, Zhuangzi suggests we unite them all to form a oneness. This takes us out and beyond our “normal human inclinations”. This is his psychological Dao. “When ‘this’ and ‘that’—right and wrong—are no longer coupled as opposites—that is called the Dao as Axis, the axis of all daos.” (2:17)

This does not lead the sage to lawlessness. To the contrary, the sage now “goes by the ‘rightness’ of the present ‘this’”. (2:23) Everything has become good and acceptable. Good has not been abandoned, but rather finds a new expression de-coupled from its opposite. It now arises from Dao. Dao is the affirmation of all things because all things are Dao.

It also arises from our common humanity as an expression of a new desire for universal flourishing. In the union of self and other self-flourishing becomes universal-flourishing.

As genuine human concerns right and wrong still remain coupled as opposites. The sage concerns herself with them as would anyone else, only now she also makes use of a broader perspective, one that frees her from an unexamined anthropocentrism. She walks two roads at once.

THE PROBLEM OF GOOD I

Embrace the good

And the bad shall rule.

Cling to hope

And despair will cling to you.

                          —Chen Jen

Chen Jen is one of my made-up sages. I find that I agree with them most, while not taking them too seriously.

Traditionally, philosophy and theology concern themselves with “the problem of evil”. This is especially the case with the latter, where the goodness of an omnipotent God needs to be reconciled with its co-existence with evil.

Philosophical Daoism, needless to say, turns this on its head. The problem of evil is just as much the problem of good. And since the default mentality that poses the problem as concerning evil fails to see this, Daoism finds value in taking the contrary tack. Such a gadfly philosophy it is.

Without good, there would be no evil, and vice versa. Embracing the one creates the other. But why would we want to embrace the good? Because we dislike evil. What then is the motivating factor that determines our choice? Evil. In this way, evil rules; evil decides our actions.

So as to alleviate unnecessary aggravation, let’s cut to the chase and say that Daoism is all in for the good. Only it is a good that has no relationship whatsoever with evil. It is what naturally arises, not as an intellectualized and mediated moral construct, but as an expression of our humanity. This is the goodness of the sage: “To do this without knowing it, and not because you have defined it as right, is called Dao.” (2:23; with modifications)

WRITING PRACTICE III

If this is my practice, then you the reader are only a secondary consideration. Hopefully, this is reassuring. No one likes to be preached at. It helps to know that the preacher is really just preaching to himself. Nothing said here is not addressing some perceived lack in myself.

Not that we don’t share the same fundamental lacks. One value of a shared self-exploration is that we can learn through the processing of another without that directly telling us what to think or how to behave. That would be the antithesis of the approach of philosophical Daoism.

These latter are of only tertiary importance in any case. The primary benefit is the implied suggestion that one also engage in self-inquiry. What one subsequently uncovers is likely to be similar, but may lead to different responses altogether.

This begins and ends in freedom from all things fixed. None of it is required. Nothing is prescribed. It’s all optional. It is all about freedom, after all.

 

Know thyself also means think for yourself; and the former can only be accomplished by way of the latter.

WRITING PRACTICE II

If writing can be a practice it is only because it is practice. A point of view is largely a mental construct, and in thinking things through by way of writing one incrementally tweaks it. One practices a new way of thinking. Yet, there must obviously be other still more powerful determining forces involved. Otherwise, the desired paradigm shift would be easily accomplished; and we know that it is not.

One of these forces, the egoic-self that thinks it really exists in some concrete way, is largely a habit. If it is indeed possible to experience that one “has not yet begun to exist” as Zhuangzi has Yan do, then the habitual nature of the self is established. We needn’t take his word for it, however. Our core emptiness is an obvious and ever-present experience.

Is the egoic-self a “bad” habit? We must assume that it has had an important and positive role to play in the evolutionary process. We have survived after all. However messy in psychological and sociological terms it might be, it has helped us through the messiness of evolutionary existence. The valuation of self is thus a question of utility; it is not a moral issue, or one that pertains to the health and happiness of the cosmos.

This being the case, we can also ask if we are not ready to move beyond this habit to something more psychologically, sociologically and environmentally friendly. Daoism suggests we are. The egoic-self has served its purpose, but its beneficial contributions have mostly long expired. Might it not be time to move on? Might not our continued survival require it?

I have now written about this possibility. Has anything changed? Certainly not discernibly so. Yet still it seems to be a necessary first step. And evolution takes time.

WRITING PRACTICE I

Kierkegaard wrote that philosophers construct magnificent intellectual castles and then live in broken-down shanties beside them. For all his tortured attempts to do otherwise, we must assume that he did likewise if only in that he failed to fully realize his own vision however down-to-earth it might have been.

I take this as the norm. I do not believe. Whether there are or have been fully realized sages or not remains moot—I have no basis for believing so. Such a belief would only serve to draw me out and away from the only reality I know—my own. And I am certainly no sage for all my blabber about sagacity.

This need not negate the value of philosophizing or the practice of writing that it typically entails. For it is in fact a practice. It is a method by which one hopes to approximate something of what one imagines. If this seems less than ideal, so much the better. The real is all that matters.

Thus, the value of this practice requires self-honesty. And this in turn requires making publicly clear the disconnect between words and reality. My disconnect. It is done.