The Sage is Not Friendly

Having finished the Daodejing section of my introductory course, one of my students said to me, “The Daoist sage doesn’t sound very friendly.” That caught me by surprise because I had always based my images of Daoist sages on the colorful — and it seems to me, friendly — figures in the Zhuangzi, including the image of Zhuangzi and Huizi having clever and fun conversations with each other. But I realized that my student was responding to the account in the Daodejing and that she was onto something.

The sage there is alternately austere, reclusive, silent, and in some ways “up to something” — he is trying to set the world right, albeit through unconventional means. Take, for example, Daodejing 5, where sages follow Heaven and hence, 聖人不仁 “Sages are not humane.” If we take 仁 ren in its full meaning of “having affection for others as human,” it seems clear that sages are not friendly, much less humane. Is there something here, or am I being mislead by some sort of genre difference between the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi?

20 replies on “The Sage is Not Friendly”

  1. I had the same reaction when I read the DDJ for the first time in high school. The Sage seemed like a pretty repellent person, treating people as straw dogs and keeping his populace ignorant. In fact those passages were the first thing I thought of when I watched Shanghai Triad, with its highly repellent but extremely compentent mob boss. Fortunately there is enough other interesting stuff in the DDJ that I continued reading it. I now tend to read those passages much more narrowly as meaning: in the context of decision-making, refrain from sentimentality.

    Insofar as the Zhuangzi has an ideal type of person in mind, and I’m not sure that it does, it seems to me that it would be a totally different class of person, unless it’s simply that the Zhuangzi is not intended to advise on the art of ruling?

  2. I think an intriguing theme of Daoist texts is precisely to illuminate the problems with conventional conceptions of moral character. Recall Zhuangzi’s “大仁不仁,大廉不嗛,大勇不忮”. There is a sense in which the Laoist sage IS benevolent: he provides for the people better than any other kind of monarch could. He’s their mother and father, just like Mengzi wants him to be. But he is only able to do so by seeing them in a way that is not captured by the everyday associations of benevolence. The Laoist sage does do various things that match with conventional intuitions: avoiding conflict, giving without thought of reward. Kongzi is made to object to the saying 以德報怨, but there is nothing terribly alien or radical about requiting mistreatment with kindness. “Not caring” about the people *in order* to care about them is alien and radical. The sage gives without thought of reward, but neither does he have sentimental attachment (to use Alex’s word) to the people he is so selflessly benefiting. Such a person is, minimally, very hard to understand. Which is why it makes sense that Laoists liken the sage not to human exemplars, but to superhuman forces like tian and the ultimate ancestor. Uncanny territory here.

  3. I’m not sure the sages of Laozi and Zhuangzi are comparable in the way you indicate. The Daoist philosophical tradition which combines the two is later. The Laozi sage is involved in government, but in some sense ‘above’ the normal discourse. The statement about ren might also be able to be read in a similar way as the opening passage of the Laozi (the Dao that can be dao-ed is not the eternal dao), although there does seem to be something fundamentally un-humane about the Laozi.

    Where does the definition of ren you cite hail from?

    • Hi Joel; the meaning of ren 仁 I’m bringing into play is based on the traditional “humanity” or “humaneness” definition, which is itself based in part on the etymological analysis of the character as composed of the signific for “human” and the character for “two.” Hence, “having affection for others as human.” Maybe that seems to read more into the traditional definition than is obvious; I think I’d stand by it.

    • I’m not sure I follow. Does the ‘as human’ clause mean that we have affection because the object of the affection is human, because we are human, or because the affective relationship is between humans?

      Certainly something about humanity is important, but I can’t endorse or disagree with your position since I don’t quite grasp it.

    • Fair question! I had in mind that the object of affection is human but more strongly, that the affection toward other humans is intra-species specific — the affection itself has other humans, at that general level, as its natural “target.” As a consequence, the affective relationship in ren is normally between humans (though it may, through analogy, either appropriate or not, be extended to other animals — oxen, say). The model I’m depending on for this is based on the way that filiality (xiao 孝) is conceived of as a submissive and loyal attitude that has older family members as its natural target. Maybe that clears things up.

    • Sorry to nitpick, but couldn’t your original definition then be reduced to “having affection for other humans” ? Also, in this case you are describing an emotion rather than an act — and it would be entirely consistent with the rest of the Laozi (and presumably also Zhuangzi) to be suspicious of the emotive.

  4. Joel – I think current textual research indicates that neither “Laozi” nor “Zhuangzi” was an airtight text or tradition during the formative centuries. They both show evidence of multiple authorship and juxtaposition of opposing views; this is very explicit in Zhuangzi, which is textually all over the map. Many portions of the Zhuangzi cite “Laoist” teachings or illustrate their application in specific political programs, and indeed the very portrait of somebody called Lao Dan may owe primarily to the Zhuangzi authors. While it is true that we should try to avoid the conflations to which the later interpretive tradition was prone, I prefer to think of both anthologies of reflecting a shared, and diverse, intellectual milieu.

    • Certainly there is to some extent a shared tradition, and, since ‘nearness’ and ‘farness’ are to some degree relative to other perceived philosophical traditions, I agree that the label of Daoist philosophy is to some degree appropriate.

      That said, would you agree that the Laoist approach is explicitly an attempt at a political philosophy — in which presumably governmental prerogatives take priority over individual relationships?

      In which case, the difference between ‘friendly’ and ‘unfriendly’ might simply be that between ‘available’ and ‘distant.’

    • These days I tend to make the (admittedly confusing) move of calling early Daoist philosophy “Lao/Zhuang”. I do this not to identify it with the Wei-Jin notion of Lao/Zhuang thought, nor to suggest that Lao and Zhuang constitute a single meaningful school or point of view. Rather, I hold that (1) both Lao and Zhuang represent a variety of ideas (in Zhuang’s case, a mad variety of ideas), not all of which can be easily harmonized with each other, (2) the overlap of material and interest between the two texts is larger than is sometimes portrayed these days, (3) material in each text can, gingerly and with tact, be used to explain what’s going on in the other. I don’t mean that Lao authors held the same views for the same reasons as Zhuang authors; I mean that (among other things) Zhuang explications of shared concerns (wuwei, emptiness, politics, etc.) are often fuller, easier to understand, and not obviously irrelevant to the concerns we customarily attribute to Lao. Lao is often so vague about particulars that it’s nice to see what early authors did concretely with some of its basic ideas like technological primitivism and the imitation of natural forces.

      The Laozi *as it stands* seems like a manual for government. But the Zhuangzi as it stands is not obviously anything except an exploration of challenging, generally non-conformist ideas. I’d like to resist the habit in recent decades of taking “Zhuangzi” to mean “the Zhuangzi of the Inner Chapters”, particularly “the uniquely sophisticated Zhuangzi of the Inner Chapters (vs. the less sophisticated mass of inferior writers surrounding him)”. I agree with many characterizations of a coherent, specifiable Laoist trajectory – even if the evidence consists simply in the fact that we have the Laozi as we have it – but I think that much scholarship since Graham has excessively privileged the supposed unity of the Inner Chapters.

    • I like the Lao-Zhuang term myself.

      I’m confused by your comment, “the Laozi *as it stands* seems like a manual for government.” Is there another Laozi? Or are you attempting to refer to a trajectory or tradition which uses the Laozi as a fundamental text (as in the Daoist religious tradition to this day) ? And is your supposition that the text as used in the tradition is not a manual for government?

    • On the three-ring binder principle (or comment thread principle) there were certainly other Laozis and Zhuangzis – speculation is not even required, since we know about the much more extensive Zhuangzi that existed before Guo Xiang’s editorial work, and we have archaeologically recovered (Guodian) something that is not Laozi but includes much Laozi material. Any number of possible textual variations could have been available in the Warring States. My “as it stands” keeps this in mind while noting that the Laozi material was ultimately transmitted in a form strongly suggestive of political application. Relative to the Zhuangzi as-it-stands, Laozi as-it-stands is easier to read as something with a coherent trajectory. (I concede that, aside from any substantive differences, this impression may owe much to their relative size – enormous vs. tiny – and the greater degree of ambiguity in Laozi.) Many of the earliest reflections *on* the Laozi text (Hanfeizi, Zhuangzi primitivist) foreground the governmental aspects. Obviously the Laozi talks about other things, particularly cosmological speculation and self-cultivation, but I’ve often found that keeping the politics front-and-center helps illuminate the other aspects better than does the reverse arrangement. (Do others here share that preference?)

    • I’d agree with you that keeping the political aspects front-and-center may be the obvious method for presenting the Laozi to a contemporary Western audience, although it may obscure the extent to which the idea of cultivation of the self is seen as a mirror as cultivation of the ‘body politic.’ In this case, it would seem that self-cultivation is necessarily prior to cultivation of the ‘body politic’ (if we chose to use this term), as the cultivated one can exist on his own outside the state — this is true about both Confucian and Daoist traditions. Of course, in the Daoist tradition (and here is where it gets complicated) various ‘religious’ practices (wai and nei dan) are transmitted privately and thus never fully incorporated in the textual tradition.

      I suppose this means I generally agree with you.

  5. Manyul, I think you’re right about finding such a difference in attitude between the texts. Probably it can be partly explained by genre and theme. Unlike the DDJ, the ZZ frequently employs dialogues, many of which present friendly encounters between speakers. Much of the DDJ focuses on rulership and so concerns a ruler’s relation to the people or the masses, not individuals’ relations to each other, so again it’s predisposed to sound “unfriendly.”

    Beyond those differences, though, I think most readers will agree that friendship is positively valued in parts of ZZ in a way that isn’t echoed in DDJ. And parts of ZZ are concerned with how we as individuals are to get along with others. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that a Zhuangist stance on that issue incorporates attitudes and conduct that could be described as friendly, or at least accommodating.

    I think this difference may be tied to fundamental differences in the predominant conceptions of dao and dao-following we find in the two texts.

    (I say “predominant” because, as Stephen points out, in the Zhuangzi itself, “Laoist” tendencies criss-cross with “Zhuangist” ones, and “Laoist” passages can be found throughout the Zhuangzi.)

    The Laoist stance is more absolutist, esoteric, and restrictive or exclusionist. Solitary, misunderstood figures disengage from conventional social mores in order to discern and follow a mysterious, unique, absolute dao. The Zhuangist stance is pluralistic, liberal, and easy-going — dao is all around us, you can follow it in a plurality of ways, part of doing so involves getting along well with others, and you can share your understanding and enjoyment of dao with friends.

  6. Thanks Chris, that’s helpful.

    Alex, I share your doubt about whether the DDJ has an ideal type of person in mind. The things the DDJ says about the are in places so wild when read as describing an ideal or even possible type of person, that perhaps they should be read in some other way (perhaps as describing a kind of authoritative objective standpoint that one might briefly or partially occupy, or conditions such a standpoint would have to fulfill — which conditions might be used to argue that such a standpoint is impossible).

    That aside —

    The DDJ-sage may not be friendly, but neither does she seem exactly unfriendly. She is not full of herself, greedy, controlling, deceptive, mean, etc. Ch. 8 says:

    … 與善仁,言善信…
    … excellence of association is virtue (rén 仁); excellence of speech is good faith …

    If one of the features of a DDJ-sage is that she largely lacks personal association, maybe she has little or no occasion for friendliness or unfriendliness. Is it unfriendly of a celebrity, an official, or a hermit not to respond to my overtures with genuine personal warmth?

    Alex, you write: “I now tend to read those passages much more narrowly as meaning: in the context of decision-making, refrain from sentimentality.” That’s charitable, at least. Is there in the DDJ any positive indication of a limitation on the realm in which the sage is non-friendly or impartial? Decision-making, as you suggest, or official decision-making, or the evaluation of basic life-maxims?

  7. I’ll confess to this: I not only share the sentiment that the sage in the DDJ “doesn’t sound very friendly”, on some days at least, I find the text as a whole repellent. That I don’t consistently do that is only because sometimes, I do without the assumption that the text is meant to offer political counsel to a ruler…

    Something that I’ve been doing when teaching the DDJ is to set the following as an exercise for my students: One, read the DDJ; paying special attention to Ch. 80. Two, read up the basic history of what the Khmer Rouge did (especially the infamous “Year Zero” policies). Three, pretending that you are an apologist for Pol Pot, make your best case for the notion that all that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge did was mere to put DDJ 80 into practice, i.e., justify their actions on the basis of the teaching of the DDJ. (Failing that, make the best case that even if the teaching of the DDJ does not directly counsel policies of the KR, said teaching will either entail a benign attitude towards those policies, or at least have no internal grounds for condemning them.) Finally, using considerations internal to the DDJ as much as possible, show that the justifications offered can’t be right (assuming that it can be done).

    (There’s also a variation of the above where the counter-part is not Pol Pot/KR but a tamer Hanfeizi, Ch. 5.)

    • Loy, that’s interesting, bringing up DDJ 80. But DDJ 74 seems relevant here: 民不畏死,奈何以死懼之?若使民常畏死,而為奇者,吾得執而殺之,孰敢?常有司殺者殺。夫代司殺者殺,是謂代大匠斲,夫代大匠斲者,稀有不傷其手矣。Roughly: “When the people don’t fear death, what point is there in threatening them with it? If I make them to fear death at every turn, and I apprehend and execute the deviant, then who would dare [to deviate]? But at every turn, there is a Resident Executioner that kills. Generally one who kills in the executioner’s stead may be said to be like the person who chisels in the Master Artisan’s stead — rare is he who does not injure his own hand!” The Khmer Rouge was perhaps not allowing things to take their more “natural” course to the primitivist ends outlined in DDJ 80; they were chiseling in the Master Artisan’s stead. (Apologies for taking up your students’ task!)

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