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.