Wu-wei

Jonathan Barnes

  • The World of Thought in Ancient China by Benjamin Schwartz
    Harvard, 490 pp, £23.50, January 1986, ISBN 0 674 96190 0

In 1045 BC the Mandate of Heaven passed from the Shang to the Chou dynasty, and the sun rose on an age of gold. The tao prevailed in the land: the right path was taken, men were upright and amiable and rich, things went the way things ought to go. So at least thought Confucius five hundred years later. Finding his Utopia in the past, he claimed not to innovate but to transmit an ancient learning: in order to return to the tao, China need only recover the wisdom of the age of Chou.

Nor was the wisdom esoteric. There is a right way for the world, the tao. The way is marked by li: by rites and rituals, by rules of etiquette and propriety, of politeness and decorum, by good manners. These li must be sedulously observed. But rule-following is not enough, for li cannot cover every aspect of life, and there are areas in which a man must rely on ‘righteousness’, or i, and judge for himself what is ‘appropriate’. Moreover, the li must be observed in the right moral spirit, so that outward li expresses inward jen. Thus, after a bereavement, a sage ‘wears garments of mourning, walks with a rush cane, lives in a hovel, eats boiled rice, uses firewood for a chair and a stone for a pillow; for that is how a noble man expresses, with beauty and appropriateness, his grief and his sorrow’. Li without jen are empty gestures: jen without li is vulgar and formless. Yet despite the emphasis on inward virtue, it is the prominence given to li and to the requirements of formal courtesy which now seems most arresting. A later Confucian professed that ‘by li Heaven and Earth unite, by li the sun and the moon are bright ... by li all things prosper.’

The tao is not narrowly ethical in its content. Learning matters (’I have never tired of learning,’ said Confucius, ‘nor of teaching others what I have learned’), and music is an indispensable accompaniment along the way. Again, although Confucius can find joy in ‘poor food, water to drink, and my arm for a pillow’, yet ‘when the tao prevails in the country, you should count it a disgrace to be poor or obscure.’ The tao will, as Surtees put it, fill the chinks with cheese. Nor is the tao a private driveway: it is the public high-road for social and political life. For it is in the family that jen must be acquired and li learned (‘are not filial duty and brotherly love the bases of jen?’). And the Confucian sage hopes that in the end his wisdom will extend its influence throughout the whole of China: for ‘if the king himself is upright, all must go well.’ His political advice, unlike that of most philosophical counsellors, is neither idealistic nor totalitarian. The Confucian ruler will have a tough army and a vigorous police force, but he will interfere as little as possible with the lives of his subjects. ‘I hated Confucius from the time I was eight,’ confessed Mao Tse-tung.

Confucius had little success in his lifetime, and his immediate successors lacked his stature. Other schools of thought emerged. Mo-Tzu, in many ways the most intriguing of the early Chinese thinkers, urged a more active benevolence. Righteousness, i, consists in doing good, not in being good: let sages think less of their inner states and more of their outward actions; let them love all mankind and forget their families; let them cultivate logic and science and technology. Lao-tzu’s version of Taoism took a contrary course: ‘the sage is not benevolent – he treats the people like straw dogs.’ He counselled a life of wu-wei, of acceptance and passivity, and urged a return to primitivism and a rejection of the spurious benefits of civilisation. To this regressive morality he added a dash of mysticism, talking of the tao as a nameless and incomprehensible Something underlying the world of experience.

The fourth century saw Mencius (390-305) make a vigorous attempt to revive Confucianism. He did not succeed – indeed, according to an anonymous pupil, ‘he never gained a sympathetic hearing, no matter where he went.’ Hsun-tzu (340-250) did no better. ‘Li and i,’ sighed a student, ‘made no progress, and the attempt to change by teaching failed.’ A rival school of thought, known as Legalism, seemed more suited to the age. The Legalists, of whom Mencius’s contemporary Shang Yeng was the most remarkable, held that men should be governed by impersonal laws and not by the moral sensibilities of kings. Like the Confucians, the Legalists longed to restore the tao, but theirs was a different vision. ‘That by which a State is advanced,’ they held, ‘is agriculture and war,’ and they supposed that human behaviour is best determined by the judicious application of pleasures and pains. Like many theorists of this persuasion, they found the pains easier to provide than the pleasures. They urged savage laws.

Yet although the Legalists appealed to practical statesmen, they did not in the end prevail. Under the Han dynasty, Confucianism revived. It was, in truth, an altered Confucianism, for it adopted the metaphysics of yin and yang and the theory of the five ‘elements’, and its six classic books included the fantastical I Ching while excluding both the book of Mencius and Confucius’s Analects. Nor is it clear that the tao was rediscovered or the glories of Chou revived. Nonetheless, it was a sort of triumph. And in 136 BC the Emperor Han Wu-ti declared Confucianism the official cult of the State.

Such is the main plot of Benjamin Schwartz’s history of ancient Chinese thought. The concept of ‘thought’ is in principle construed in the most generous way possible. But in practice Schwartz concentrates his attention on the moral, social and political philosophies of Confucianism and its rivals. That is surely just: for the early Chinese thinkers had relatively little time for other aspects of intellectual endeavour. Taoist metaphysics is silly, and the later cosmology of Confucianism is at best charming (‘Why are there no dragons now?’ ‘Because the element of water has no president’). The later Mohists, however, appear to have had some noteworthy ideas in logic and in certain of the sciences. Schwartz has tantalisingly little to say about them, and the reader must turn to the formidable learning of Angus Graham’s Later Mohist Logic.

Schwartz has a good story to tell. The narrative on the whole runs well, and it is enlivened by pretty quotations. (Chuang-tzu: ‘Men say that the Lady Di is beautiful; but if the fish could see her they would dive to the bottom of the river.’) But it is demanding. Schwartz assumes that you know the geography of China and are reasonably familiar with the outlines of its early history; and he presupposes that you have some prior grasp of Chinese philosophy – that, for example, you know more or less what the ‘language crisis’ of ancient China was, and that you will understand ‘correlative cosmology’ without any detailed explanation. His book is not intended as an introduction to early Chinese philosophy. The tiro should first turn to some simpler text – say, to Howard Smith’s Confucius and Confucianism.

Narrative is only part of the book. There is also much scholarly controversy; there are philosophical exegeses and assessments; there are sociological comments and conclusions. I enjoyed the controversy – and as far as I can judge Schwartz usually has the better of the argument (for example, against Fingarette over the ‘internal’ nature of Confucian virtue, against Needham over the unscientific nature of Taoism). The other things I liked less well. By profession, Schwartz is (I think) a historian and a political scientist; and although he is not unacquainted with the pure air of philosophy, he comes to his Chinese texts trailing clouds of sociological smog. ‘The search for new meanings in all these civilisations continues to be refracted through pre-existent cultural orientations.’ ‘Once the tao had been made manifest as an entire gestalt, however, it was already fully present because, in a logical sense, the whole always “precedes” the parts.’ ‘If the notion of a landlord class suggests that with the rise of “private property” a whole element within the peasantry can now become large landed proprietors through strictly economic methods, it seems to me that the evidence for the widespread existence of such a new class initially separated from the evolution of the political order seems largely absent in the literature we presently have.’ ‘The view I would here put forth is that the problematique and dominant themes of ancient Chinese thought certainly set their constraints on the thought of later generations. Yet this did not prevent these generations ... from dealing with this problematique in unanticipated and “creative” ways.’

Add criminal abuse of such words as ‘protagonist’ and ‘particulate’, and criminal use of such unwords as ‘apotheosisation’ and entes rationis, and the result is the ponderous idiolect of the North American social scientist. Some people love it – they spoon it up for breakfast. I find it harder to masticate than a slice of Greek cake. It is uncouth. It is humourless. It is grindingly dull. It is frequently a cloak for vacuity. And it cannot catch the fragile elegance of Confucius’s thoughts.

The social sciences are also, I suspect, responsible for some of the presuppositions which accompany Schwartz to his study and which he gamely tries to fight off. I was struck by a passage in the first chapter of the book where Schwartz defends himself against anticipated attack. Having offered his reasons for ‘reconsidering the history of ancient Chinese thought’, he confesses to a double doubt: ‘the question remains – why the history of thought? ... The enterprise seems not only unfashionable; it may even be called élitist.’

The charge of ‘élitism’ (surely in itself a little old-fashioned?) arises because ‘the writers of these texts may have belonged to the ruling “élite”.’ It is evidently bad form to concentrate on ‘high culture’ at the expense of ‘popular culture’. Schwartz offers a sort of apology: ‘this connection [between the texts and the élite] neither makes it easy for us to predict their opinions nor necessarily diminishes the interest of what they have to say.’ The apology is bizarre in itself – and wholly unnecessary. For there is little evidence for the ‘popular’ Chinese culture of the period, and even if there were, it could hardly rival the writings of the clever élite in subtlety, profundity, interest, or importance. In the end Schwartz himself pretty well acknowledges as much: ‘the final justification of this enterprise must, however, be the intrinsic interest of the thought itself in terms of the comparative history of human thought.’

Schwartz’s guilt about his own putative èlitism spills on to his interpretation of the Chinese. For Confucius was an uncompromising élitist. Schwartz notes that ‘to many modern sensibilities, this frank acceptance of hierarchy and authority as a necessary and even good aspect of a civilised and harmonious society creates an enormous barrier to any effort at “understanding” (verstehen) Confucianism in the Weberian sense.’ He later gingerly suggests that modern ideology has not finally demonstrated that Confucius is wrong. But it is plain that his own sensibilities are troubled. I am, I confess, unsure how seriously to take this. Do sociologists really find such ‘barriers’ to their understanding? Does Schwartz? (He holds a chair at Harvard.) If he does, should he not change his religion? It is puzzling.

The charge of unfashionableness deserves a longer hearing. It arises because ‘the notion that the products of conscious life in other times and places may have affected reality or that they merit consideration as truth-seeking efforts has long been under sustained attack from all quarters.’ This really means what it says. For ‘the scandalous notion that the deliberations or reflections of individuals or groups may influence their own behaviour or the behaviour of others or the even more scandalous proposition that the truth-seeking claims of such individuals must be treated – seriously – is simply unthinkable.’ The two scandalous and unfashionable views are – in plain English – these: that the beliefs held by such people as Plato and Confucius had some effect on their actions, and that the theories and arguments of such people as Aristotle and Mo-tzu should be construed as serious attempts to discover the truth.

Are these views really unfashionable? Or rather, has anyone outside the madhouse ever denied such evident truths? Well, according to Schwartz, the attack has been sustained by psychology, both ‘depth’ and behaviourist, by ‘all the social sciences’, and by ‘linguistic determinism, Foucaultian doctrines of the dominance of “discourse”, and so on’. And Schwartz implies that he himself stands lonely and embattled, clutching his temerarious conviction that men’s beliefs sometimes mould their actions and sometimes are directed towards the truth.

Schwartz is not alone: every sane historian of philosophy is on his side. But do even psychologists and social scientists really believe what Schwartz says they believe? Or is Schwartz unfair in his report of their views? At one point he certainly goes wrong, for he associates Gilbert Ryle with the bad social scientists. He thinks that Ryle wants to show that mind is ineffective but fails quite to do so. This is wildly mistaken: nothing was further from Ryle’s concept of mind than the thought that beliefs were idle and ineffective. Schwartz has misunderstood Ryle. I am always happy to think ill of social scientists, but perhaps Schwartz is wrong about them too, and their buffoonery is not as grotesque as he implies.

However that may be, Schwartz’s conception of the modern ‘social sciences’ has coloured his interpretation of ancient Chinese thought. The Legalists differed from the Confucians in a number of ways. Schwartz thinks that their fundamental difference concerned the springs of human action. The Legalists must offer a crude behaviourist account, explaining everything in terms of responses to the stimulus of pleasure or pain, for their political philosophy ‘is a program which demands a simple behaviourist model of man based primarily on the elemental tropisms of pain and pleasure’. The Confucians, on the other hand, held that men may be moved by other, deeper, more honourable considerations – that they may act for moral reasons. The Legalists, according to Schwartz, are thus forerunners of the social scientists – and he names the behaviourist eccentric, B.F. Skinner.

But the comparison with Skinner is a slur on the Legalists, and Schwartz’s conception of social science has led him to misinterpret their views. There is no evidence for a ‘crude’ behaviourism on the part of Shang Yeng: on the contrary, as Schwartz himself admits, he is well aware that men may be moved by such sophisticated longings as the desire for honour. (And there is no cause to represent this as a concession to common sense, wrung from Sheng Yang at the cost of some theoretical inconsistency.) Confucius and he would no doubt differ in their assessment of the strengths of different motives in different men, but in principle they countenance the same range of motives as determinants of human actions. And the theory of behaviourism is simply irrelevant.

Shang Yeng is no more a ‘behaviourist’ than Confucius. The difference between the two men is more important. Confucius thinks that political decisions must ultimately be made by an individual (or group of individuals), and that political order must ultimately depend on the moral sense of the king. Shang Yeng thinks that the laws and institutions of society should be the ultimate source of authority, and that decisions should be determined by abstract and impartial entities. This dispute turns on two issues. The first concerns the nature of morality: can moral judgments be codified and reduced to a set of absolute and universal principles, to a canon of laws? Or will there always be room for ‘free’ individual judgment, problems which are not and cannot be solved by the mechanical application of universal rules? The second concerns the nature of authority: given that each of us is not sovereign of himself, is it best that we should cede authority to some other individual man or group of men? Or should we rather assign sovereignty to the impersonal force of the law? Neither of these issues has anything to do with behaviourism. On neither have the social sciences anything to say.