How the Daoist philosopher lives in a good and beautiful world: A brief overview

This series of reflections begins with the post entitled ‘The World does not Need Saving’ (September 17ff).


Dear Philosophical Friend,

In reply to your puzzlement, there’s a larger argument that I’ve been canvassing over the past couple of year, an argument that’s become clearer to me over time. I’ll try to sketch a part of that larger argument here:

1. There’s no such thing as a Philosopher-King. One is either a philosopher (self-cultivation) or a king (a statesman). (In what follows, put aside the question of the king.)

2. The philosopher seeks to perceive the world as being good and beautiful. This is the work of a lifetime.

3. The final aim of his life is to live in accordance with nature.

4. The philosopher is not a Sage. He is always on the path to wisdom but is not himself wise. He becomes less unwise over time.

5. The philosopher dwells in a realm between this-worldliness (social conventions) and other-worldliness (godliness). Not governed by the cares and desires of most people, he is not tempted to try to transcend the bounds of this human world. Rather, he seeks to love the world when it is properly perceived.

6. When he acts, he does so not out of the No (as the early Marx writes somewhere: not ‘to diminish needless suffering’) but out of the Yes (in order to cultivate and prolong the kind of life that matters most). He acts (and thinks) out of the Yes: joy, lightness, reverence, etc.

7. The Daoist philosopher is a particularist. He thinks and acts in the case by case. He does not resort to a ready supply of principles. Sometimes X is the case, sometimes Y is the case.

8. The Daoist philosopher is a parochialist. He cultivates philosophical friendships, i.e., friendships of virtue. He curates his thoughts and avoids contact, as much as possible, with those who are not friends of virtue. He does well by those he cares for so that they too might live–or continue to live–good and beautiful lives. He remains agnostic toward strangers living halfway around the world. E.g.,

9. The Daoist philosopher does not intrude or intervene. He comes when he is called and invited. On such an occasion, the other makes plain to him that he is open and ready. The philosopher comes in the spirit of inquiry and leaves when it is time.

Lacking awe is disaster, having awe is reverence

This series of reflections begins with the post entitled ‘The World does not Need Saving’ (September 17ff).


Either one learns to perceive the world as being good and beautiful, or one takes the world to be ugly and unjust. The first is the contemplative path, one that requires a lifetime of philosophizing in order to coalesce into the many things. The second is the modern path whose starting point is that how things are is not how they ought to be, whose rallying cry is ‘changemaking’ and ‘social change,’ and whose terminus is disaster. The contemplative view is reverent; the muddled view is complaining; the modern view is disastrously heroic.

Re-read the opening stanzas from Daodejing 72:

When men lack a sense of awe, there will be disaster.

Do not intrude in their homes.
Do not harass them at work.
If you do not interfere, they will not weary of you.

Having a sense of awe means that the world as such is sacred. Thus, it cannot be changed, and it cannot be saved. When one lacks a sense of awe, one intrudes, breaking into and breaking apart the lives of others. As an intruding neighbor, one is a busybody. As an intruding development organization, one supplies locals with computers. As a utilitarian bureaucrat, one starts ‘tallying up’ happiness.

Return to the sense of awe, and you will only approach the other when he has invited you over. You will not intrude or harass or intervene but welcome and inquire. This means: letting go of that and perceiving this. This means: honoring all of existence.

A Daoist particularist

‘So sometimes things are ahead, and sometimes they are behind; / Sometimes breathing is hard, and sometimes it comes easily; / Sometimes there is strength, and sometimes weakness; / Sometimes one is up, and sometimes down.’ –Laozi, Daodejing 29


A Daoist does not complain about how things go; he considers the matter at hand in order to ease himself into his understanding of the way things are going.

I read the third stanza of Daodejing 29 as a beautiful case for particularism. Particularism holds that one can what is good or think what is correct without relying upon a ready supply of principles to guide one’s actions or thoughts. In poem 29, Laozi helps us see what this might involve in our everyday lives, provided our lives accord with what is good and beautiful.

A child demands that the world always go his way. (Most who travel complain because the world swerves from their unconsidered desires. Thus are they children in spirit.) A principalist believes that the world is such that it is (or that it ought to be) always on time. The Daoist reasons, considerably, slowly, that there are some cases in which things come before what we expect and there are also other cases in which things are behind what we anticipated. A mature man wants to understand in what sort of cases it is true that things are ahead (or behind or on time) and wants to be able to give reasons that are well-suited for the case at hand.

In some cases, for instance, things are ahead of what we anticipated. This means: ‘When the weather is inclement, then a plane is bound to be behind schedule.’ Perceiving this to be the case, I accord myself with its being so, adjusting and readjusting my view of things. It certainly feels as if I am easing myself into considered reality.

This sort of reasoning applies to any situation at hand. Thus, in the spirit of a Daoist particularist, one learns to ask:

  • What kind of case is this? Is it, e.g., a case of weakness?
  • What reason or reasons help me to understand why it is so?
  • How can I see this as an exercise in examining my desires and my misunderstandings in order to put me (back) in touch with the Way?

I do not complain about how things go; I learn to perceive things in the proper light. Only thus does my life go smoothly.

Complaining or coalescing

Complaining requires believing that the complainer has been singled out for ill-usage. What hubris! What error in perception! For how is it possible for one to be singled out at all, let alone for ill-usage, if the world is good and beautiful?

Complaining implies that the world runs contrary to one’s desires. In this respect, complaining is not only a misperception but also an implicit rejection of the world. This is self-indulgence.

Philosophy is theodicy. To the one so attuned, it is impossible to ever complain about anything, and there is nothing for one to think but how to stretch into the world. How to fast with it. Melt into it. Coalescing.

What follows from the assumption that the world is bad?

What follows from the assumption that the world is bad?


I. Misery (Passive, Individual)

1. The world is bad.

2. Here is an instance of its badness.

3. It applies to me, adversely affects me.

4. Therefore, I shall complain.

II. Accusation (Active, Individual)

1. The world is bad.

2. Here is an instance of its badness.

3. It applies to me, adversely affects me.

4.  The event is caused by some agent.

5. Therefore, I shall accuse him.

III. World-Changing (Active, Political)

1. The world is bad.

2. Here is an instance of its badness.

3. It applies to certain others.

4. Therefore, I shall change it such that it no longer applies to these others.

IV. World-Saving (Active, Political)

1. The world is bad.

2. Here is an instance of its badness.

3. It applies to everyone.

4. Therefore, I shall save the world so that the world is no longer bad.


But if the world is not bad but rather good and beautiful provided it is perceived in the proper light, then it does not follow that one would ever think to complain about it, accuse another, change it, or save it. A good and beautiful world does not need saving.