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.

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.

Last day in Appalachia

Last day in Appalachia. Mountain birds, tall grasses, more horses.

Sing something, will you? Sing of a feather clinging to a window? Of the nights spent tossing words into the fire? Of the mornings spent meditating in calm? Of two young deer headed, in late spring, up the driveway?

Looking young and perplexed, the pair stood and looked around; estranged, amazed, regaining their bearings, they headed down the hillside.

We follow them until the woods get thick and then, on our own, go down as the mountain waters flow down to its source.

The water flows from its source and returns to its source and is changed along its course.

Yen Hui’s progress

We read in The Inner Chapters of Yen Hui’s progress. He had given up ‘doing good and being right,’ but Confucius tells him this is ‘not quite enough.’ He goes away and returns. He had given up ‘ceremony and music,’ which is also good but ‘not quite enough.’ Sometime later, he comes back to Confucius, relating that ‘I just sit and forget.’ Confucius is surprised. Sitting and forgetting?

Continue reading “Yen Hui’s progress”

‘Knowing enough to stop when one does not know is perfection’

Chuang Tsu observes, ‘Knowing enough to stop when one does not know is perfection.’ I welcome Chuang Tsu’s thoughts, his humor and his lightness. His measure and delight. Kant and Locke wrote of knowing one’s limits, but Kant said nothing of stopping and would have been shocked by Chuang Tsu’s epigrammatic ending: that stopping when one doesn’t know is perfection. Shocked rather than surprised, Kant would have said that it bespeaks human finitude, man’s imperfection, and he would have pressed on. The Christian believes that we are fallible and Montaigne seconds this thought; the Daoist Sage believes that we are a part of the ten thousand things. Observing this and gently smiling while stopping, we are perfection. Perfection? The wind moves the spring leaves, feeling its strength, then stops. Breathing, holding, releasing, then stopping. Death is stopping and the true man feels no elation at birth, no sorrow at death. Sometimes he laughs. Like Chuang Tsu’s line about perfection, the true man takes every event as a surprise. To be surprised is perfection.