The Daoist ethic without principles

‘Now the Taoist ideal,’ writes the ever-quarky Raymond Smullyan in his best Lewis Carroll The Tao is Silent, ‘is not so much to feel that he shouldn’t be moral (which is, of course, a morality all its own), but rather to be independent, free, unentangled from moral “principles”‘ (112). The poem from the first chapter of the book represents, he assures us, the ‘quintessence’ of Taoism:

The Sage falls asleep not

because he ought to

Nor even because he wants to

But because he is sleepy. (3)

At the heart of the poem is the Sage’s reason for falling asleep. His reason seems to be that, as a Sage, he desires the good because it is good and that, in this case, means falling asleep. He does not fall asleep because he has a prior desire to do so nor because he ought, just now, to fall asleep. He feels no strain from the fact of falling asleep because some voice is telling him that he ought not to do so perhaps for no other reason than that he has more work to do. For the Sage, there is no such voice to hear.

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Split wood, light breathing

The Dao has nothing to say not because it is mute, not because it is coy but because it communicates in its own way. Best, therefore, not to ask it anything but to rest–anywhere–in the light of its presence. On  this second spring, the mountains will serve that end.

The Daoist Sage does everything lightly, including loving. Excessive effort bears little, yields nothing save contortions and distortions of spirit, save strife. The Sage walks lightly, speaks with lightness, has mastered appropriate lightness. Accordingly, he is neither wilted nor husky, neither a brute nor a dandy. When he loves, he loves with lilies and splinters and grace. Last night I tweeted:

To split wood with grace, cast the axe forcefully downward and feel the lightness–the light breath–of success. The moon is just so.

Religion without God: Our post-Kantian moment

Ours is a post-Kantian moment. We can neither do without the idea of transcendence but nor can we embrace it as a substantial presence coursing throughout our lived experiences. For the Kant of the First Critique, reason aspires to travel beyond the bounds of human understanding but, when it does so and when it seeks to make certain claims, it gets caught in any number of entanglements (or antinomies).

One strategy for overcoming reason’s predicament would be to ‘tame’ reason’s aspiration, to ‘domesticate’ its yearning; quite another would be to become  agnostic about matters metaphysical and be done with it all. Domestication would be a fine thing were it not that the total loss of metaphysical aspiration would–notwithstanding existentialists’ nonsensical clamoring that each of us ‘create’ meaning–terminate in nihilism. The second, agnosticism, is like sex without teeth: lukewarm, bloodless, enervating, the proffered condom proving unnecessary.

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Commentary on Laozi’s Daodejing, no. 34: ‘The great Way floods her banks…’

The excerpt, below, is from Laozi, Daodejing, trans. Edmund Ryden, intro. Benjamin Penny, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 71. Bracketed numbers, e.g., [1], occurring at the end of the lines correspond to my notes following the text.

Bear in mind that I have never studied Daoism and, in fact, had not picked up Daodejing before this past Monday, so my commentary is more Borgian than scholarly. In this respect, I am an amateur avant la lettre. As the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, before the 19th C. the amateur was (1) “one who loves or is fond of; one has has a taste for anything” and (2) “one who cultivates anything as a pastime, as distinguished from one who prosecutes it professionally; hence, sometimes used disparagingly, as = dabbler, or superficial student or worker.” The slippage in the second quote intimates the subsequent reversal of meaning of the concept of amateurism, a reversal that begins around the end of the 19th C. when the lawyerly, medical, and engineering professions began to seek legitimization, and that reaches a finale by the middle of the 20th C.

Today, the amateur is only a “mere dabbler” and, it is said, typically a fool, someone who lacks the expertise of the professional, an individual who does not get paid, and has no claim to getting paid, to make, potter about with, or tinker with something. But then the philosopher is not a professional but a serious amateur.

No. 34
The great Way floods her banks; she can go left or right. [1]
She completes her tasks, pursues her affairs, yet she is given no ownership for this. [2]
The myriad things flow back to her, yet she does not lord it over them, [3]
On the contrary,
She is ever without yearning and can be named among the small things. [4]
The myriad things flow back to her, yet she does not lord it over them.
She can be named among what is great.
For this reason,
The reason why the Sage can do great things is because he never himself acts as great, [5, 6]
There he can be great. 


[1] The Way is like a flood, so plentiful as to rise above the river banks. Fullness itself, the Way bathes all, bringing nourishment to the myriad things it touches.

The Way is absolutely indifferent with respect to “the left” and “the right.” If the Way flows over all things, this it does without making any distinctions between “things.” For in the “eyes” of the Way, there is no thinghood, hence it can make no difference to the Way whether it goes “left” or “right”, “up” or “down,” “backward” or “forward,” for these are human concerns derived from all too human concepts. Therefore, the word “can” marks the power of the Way to go wherever it may and in going wherever to wash over all. The Way, like the flood waters, simply goes.

[2] The Way flows “outward” with the power of doing enough. Flowing “outward,” the Way completes its movement as far as finality goes. The Way sweeps the porch of leaves and then, in the next breath, leaves. It is of particular importance that the Way does not own or possess, does not grab and take what it uses or completes. Neither the porch nor the broom nor the leaves nor the stone upon the path are the Way’s. Of course, all myriad things, inasmuch as the Many belongs to the One, belongs to the Way, yet belonging is not to be confused with owning. The Way is invited into the house, dwells within it, takes care of it, and then puts the keys under the pot beside the doormat.

[3] All things flow “back” into the Way. The Way welcomes all things, receiving all gifts. The Way, a great recipient, does not subdue the stranger or the guest. The Way is not a master, and the other is not a servant. The Way has no thumbs.

From [1-3], it follows that the Way bathes all yet holds none.

[4] It is for this reason that the Way is without yearning, for yearning requires lack. The one who yearns for something lacks that which he longs to possess or secure or re-possess. For how could the Way yearn since it passes over and through myriad things, completes every assignment, but takes nothing with it? If the Way cannot grab, how can it hold? And if it cannot hold, then how can it lose? And if it cannot lose, then how can it yearn? In essence, the Way is all there is, and all there is, full and entire, can never want for “something.”

[5] The third and final stanza introduces us to the Sage. The Sage is the figure who lives according to the Way. In this, ethics is at one with metaphysics. As a result, the Sage cannot be estranged from life, estrangement being a logical impossibility.

Now, the Sage would be the one who acts simply: giving forth, receiving unto, holding nothing, and thereby incapable of yearning. It could be said that the Sage is without properties and thus is perhaps invisible when he walks among the common people. Like the Way, the Sage goes unseen.

[6] Not being as great as the Way and perceiving this, the Sage is humble. The Way is great and utmost, the Sage is in the Way, of the Way, but never as magnificent as the Way. This mystery–the Sage’s partaking of the Way, being of the Way’s being, but not being as great as the Way–doubtless leaves the Sage overawed.