Review of Crane, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dao

Here is another in our occasional series of book reviews. Thanks to Mat for doing this, and comments are, of course, welcome!

Mathew A. Foust       Central Connecticut State University

Review of Sam Crane, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dao: Ancient Chinese Thought in Modern American Life (UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), xi + 201 pp.

Sam Crane intends this volume for “people who have an interest in seeing how ancient Chinese thought might cast new light on the present day but who are not yet familiar with the time-honored works” (3), with the belief that Chinese thought can “show us something about our world and ourselves that we might otherwise not see” (10). More specifically, Crane applies concepts and theories from Confucianism and Daoism to several contemporary issues dotting the American landscape. After a chapter explaining key concepts of Confucianism and Daoism, Crane explores how these teachings might be brought to bear on debates arising in virtually every sphere of human life, from birth (e.g., the issue of abortion) to death (e.g., the issue of euthanasia). Although his arguments are occasionally strained by inadequate textual support, his volume is largely able to achieve its stated objectives.

The key concepts Crane presents as most essential to Confucianism thinking are ren (仁), yi (义), and li (礼), rendered as humanity, duty, and ritual. The key concepts Crane presents as most essential to Daoism are Dao (道), de (德), and wu-wei (无为), rendered as Way, integrity, and non-actions. Acknowledging the imprecise nature of translating these terms, Crane briefly introduces alternate translations, and guides the reader to clearer understanding via textual excerpts featuring (or indirectly invoking) the concepts in question. Although Crane’s treatments of these terms are admirably clear given their succinctness, the reader who is new to Daoism may be confused by Crane’s treatment of wu-wei, rendering it “non-actions” in the heading of the section devoted to the concept (32), while indicating that David Hinton’s “nothing’s own doing” is his favorite translation (32), and dubbing it “doing nothing” when concluding the chapter (34).

The more provocative claims come in the chapters that follow. Crane articulates Confucian and Daoist positions on a number of contemporary moral issues, some of which probably did not enter the imaginations of the thinkers in question (e.g., stem cell research, same-sex marriage). Of course, such speculative claims are difficult, if not impossible, to support definitively. Crane deserves credit both for explicitly acknowledging this constraint on his project and for forging ahead to critically and creatively interpret the old in light of the new. In most cases, Crane navigates these constraints nimbly, presenting coherent accounts of Confucian and Daoist responses to vexing issues arising in contemporary American life.

Crane prompts a chapter focused on work in words that should resonate with virtually any reader: “Whatever we create through our labor, either physical or mental, becomes an extension of ourselves. We are what we produce. And that can be a very important part of how we define ourselves and how we determine whether our lives are worthwhile” (94). From here, Crane offers Confucian and Daoist visions of what conditions for meaningful livelihood, as well as how to negotiate competing demands of work and family. Enlisting numerous passages from the Analects (e.g., 4.12, 4.16, 7.12) and Mencius 3A4, Crane makes a convincing case against pursuit of profit and renown as aims conducive to happiness from a Confucian standpoint, stressing that following ritual, living dutifully, and creating humaneness are what is most fulfilling (102). Perhaps predictably, but no less effectively, Crane describes Cook Ding from the Zhuangzi as an embodiment of Daoist work ethos. While Daoism shares with Confucianism a suspicion against the drive for profit and reputation, a point of divergence is revealed in the example of Cook Ding, the butcher whose carving of oxen has, with continuous practice, evolved into an elegant and seamless dance. Cook Ding “is finding himself by himself through his solitary engagement with his work” (107). That Confucianism is more preoccupied with the sustaining and flourishing of social networks, whereas Daoism tends to make more room for independence and transitory relations, is a point of contrast undergirding several of Crane’s analyses. This is a useful earmark for the reader who is a newcomer to these philosophies.

Insisting that “historical novelty does not imply philosophical irrelevance,” Crane asserts, “Confucianism and Daoism have something to say about same-sex marriage” (120). Confucianism presents the more complex case, and Crane does not shy away from the challenge. Recognizing that Confucianism is strongly beholden to tradition, Crane imagines an objector suggesting that Confucius’s prioritization of zhengming (正名) (i.e., rectification of names) would demand that marriage remain as marriage has traditionally been (i.e., between a man and a woman). Crane deftly addresses this objection, pointing out that zhengming is a behavioral concern, meaning that “we should name a thing ‘marriage’ only if the reality of it fulfills the moral criteria of marriage, which at base is the mutual fulfillment of duties” (125). Provided that same-sex unions can promote humaneness, duty, and ritual, there is no prima facie reason that a Confucian would preclude them. Indeed, Crane convincingly argues that the fact that same-sex couples can raise children means that such unions can provide contexts in which central Confucian values can be cultivated.

In some cases, however, Crane is less adroit. Crane bases Confucian positions on matters related to birth (e.g., abortion, in vitro fertilization, stem cell research) on the irreducibly social nature of human life, invoking ren (仁) in the suggestion that “a person alone cannot move toward humanity” (39). On the basis of Analects 5.26, in which Confucius expresses a desire to “love and protect the young” (although it should be noted that translations of this passage vary), Crane asserts that Confucianism would be generally predisposed to bring to delivery any given pregnancy, for “raising children creates another forum for the enactment of humanity” (41). Although not necessarily an implausible inference, more textual support for this interpretation is in order.

Seeming to want to avoid getting bogged down in textual analysis, Crane’s treatment of this issue proceeds at a dizzying pace. Crane next stipulates, “If parents do not want a child, Confucians would then acknowledge that the fetus had no social import” (i.e., given the irreducibly social nature of human life, it would not be presumed to be a person). Under what conditions would a Confucian allow abortion? Selfish motives such as the desire to maintain “a rollicking, hedonistic lifestyle without the burdens of child-rearing” would not justify abortion, for delivery and adoption would “allow the child to participate in the humanizing practices of another social network” (41-2).

Instead of providing textual support for this claim, Crane next makes a very surprising assertion: “If the parents’ existing social duties to living family members and relations would be fundamentally obstructed by the responsibilities a new child brings, then terminating the biological life of the fetus would be acceptable. The claims of the living trump the claims of the not yet socially alive. This position can be derived from Confucius’s views of life and death.” Here, Crane draws on just one piece of textual evidence, Analects 11.12:

Jilu asked how one should serve the gods and spirits. The Master said, When you don’t yet know how to serve human beings, how can you serve the spirits?

Jilu said, May I venture to ask about death? The Master said, When you don’t understand life, how can you understand death? (Burton Watson, tr.)

Although Crane interprets the passage as indicating that life “is the process of serving the living” (42), it is unclear how this view would generate the permissibility of abortion over and against delivery and adoption. If the rollicking, hedonistic would-be parents are obligated to bring the child to term and offer it for adoption, why wouldn’t the same obligation obtain for the dutiful-to-living family would-be parents? Moreover, there is reason to doubt that any position concerning the nature of life and death is even implicit in Analects 11.12. Confucius may be doing nothing more in this bit of dialogue than tersely expressing his annoyance with Jilu (Zilu), a disciple notorious for impetuousness.

A similar interpretive problem punctuates Crane’s analysis of Daoism on the importance of marriage and family. Crane quotes the following from Daodejing 54:

Something planted so deep it’s never rooted up,

something held so tight it’s never stolen away;

children and grandchildren will pay it homage always.

Cultivated in yourself

it makes integrity real.

Cultivated in your family

It makes integrity plentiful.

Cultivated in your village

it makes integrity enduring.

Cultivated in your nation

it makes integrity abundant.

Cultivated in all beneath heaven

it makes integrity all-encompassing.

So look through self into self,

through family into family,

through village into village,

through nation into nation,

through all beneath heaven into all beneath heaven.

How can I know all beneath heaven as it is?

Through this. (David Hinton, tr.)

Holding that the institution of family is not particularly important in Daoism, Crane asserts, “Family here is just one of a variety of human groupings, from individual isolation to all beneath heaven, which are manifest in Way and in which Way is manifest. There is nothing to suggest that family is any more important than village or nation; it is simply a matter of scale” (116). While it is true that family is one among a variety of human groupings in this passage, and there is nothing to explicitly suggest that family is any more important than village or nation, it is also plausible that each variety of human groupings in this passage is regarded as essential, and perhaps those mentioned earlier are necessary conditions for those mentioned later (e.g., there are no villages without families). Consider next the excerpt that Crane quotes from Daodejing 80:

Let people knot ropes for notation again

and never need anything more,

let them find pleasure in their food

and beauty in their homes

and joy in their ancestral ways. (David Hinton, tr.)

According to Crane, “The text implies that, when left to their own devices, people will find solace in supporting one another in small-scale family contexts. These sorts of loose expectations, however, should not, from a Daoist perspective, crystallize into hard and fast social codes. If family members truly love one another and stay together, that’s fine; and if a family grows apart and disintegrates, that would not be seen as a tragedy by Daoists, just the natural divergence of individual integrities in Way” (117). One struggles to find the stipulation against crystallization into hard and fast social codes in this passage, and although Crane does not necessarily imply that it is to be found therein, he provides no additional passage as proof of the qualification.

Although Crane’s confining his Daoist sources to the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi may be parsimonious, it is at times like these when drawing from the Liezi would have been useful. In Liezi 7, Confucius’s disciple, Zigong is portrayed as encountering an old man picking up grains in a field, and laughing and singing. Zigong expresses his sympathy for the old man, inferring that the old man has had no wife and no children to look after him in his old age, and he is oblivious to the fact that he has wasted his best years. The old man resents Zigong’s sympathy (shaped by Confucian values). His reply, in part: “As for not having a family, all the better. In this way, I will not have to worry about their livelihood when I die. I can even look forward to the day when I die. Can you tell me why I shouldn’t be happy?” (Eva Wong, tr.) On the side of Confucianism, Crane is not hampered by his exclusive focus on Confucius and Mencius, though his lone passing reference to Xunzi (and lack of indexical entry for him) strikes the reader familiar with Confucianism as odd. To his credit, Crane does refer the reader to a resource for further reading about Xunzi (though he errs on the title of Paul Goldin’s Confucianism).

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dao is optimal for an undergraduate class introducing Confucianism and Daoism through the lenses of contemporary issues. It is also a solid, though not unflawed, piece of scholarship. Those working on applied ethics via Confucian or Daoist frameworks should consider it required reading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.