Friday, December 01, 2006

Ave, Sperwer!

Sperwer emails with a fantastic exegesis of Chapter 60 of the Tao Te Ching. He writes:

I really like the The Feng/English translation of the Chuang Tzu, which is one of my favorite books, but their effort on the TTC is obtusely and mistakenly abstract. Even so, the import of TTC 60 is not that obscure.

One aspect of the TTC is its guidance on how the Sage-ruler should govern the polity, and TTC 60 is one of a group of chapters -- 63, 64 and 36 are others -- that counsel a subtle, quiet, hieratic, symbolic, non-confrontational and (as much as possible) non-interventionist style of ruling.

It's wu-wei for politicians -- pretty much a contradiction in terms (which is an important reason why I don't think much of TTC -- or any of its Eastern cognates, including Confusionism - as political philosophy; I don't disagree with the main thrust of the advice, just with the notion that one can implement a polity embodying those principles by reposing power with some group of supposedly superior individuals presumed to be possessed of the requisite virtue (te). Korea's long history of misgovernance gives the lie to that fantasy of the self-important.)

So turning to TTC 60, my take -- to put it prosaically -- is as follows:

1. The social organism is as delicate as a small fish that you can't stir around too much without making a mess -- instead of a meal -- of it.

2. So the Sage-ruler should act in accordance with the Tao, i.e., in accordance with 'nature,' natural law ...

3. Part of what that means is not trying to go toe-to-toe with whatever is perceived to be inimical to the common good, but instead defusing it by skillfully accommodating it.

4. In that manner, the Sage-ruler protects the people from being collateral damage in the struggle, while also lessening the danger of getting roasted in the blowback himself.

5. In other words, if he's got the right stuff, he can harness the power ("virtue," in its original meaning) of both himself and what is inimical in the service of the common weal.

Where Feng and English go wrong, I think, is in obscuring the political import of the passage by, e.g., using the abstractly portentous "approach the Universe" and capital E "Evil." If you look at the other translations, e.g., Waley, Wilhelm, LaFargue, Lynn (including the Wan Bi commentaries, etc.), the consensus translation of what F&E render as "approach the Universe" is to "rule" or "oversee" the more concrete "world," "state," or " ten thousand things"; and "Evil" is "ghosts" or "spirits."

Belief in in the latter, especially the spirits of ancestors, predominated at the time. They were real actors in human affairs to the ancient Chinese -- and not a few of their modern descendants and neighbors. If such ghosts happened to have been rulers, they (their supporters and legacy) thus were a force with which a successor had to reckon. The tropes of the time don't resonate with us unless you think of it in terms of, say, the Democrats or Republicans parking the federal courts with ideologically-vetted judges with life tenure.

One of my profs once told us about the fairly recent theory that the TTC might be a Legalist manual of statecraft, a guide for small kingdoms surrounded by larger ones. Sperwer's analysis of Chapter 60 would seem to dovetail somewhat with that contention (at the very least, this appears to be a statecraft-friendly chapter).

This isn't to say that nothing philosophical should be attributed to the TTC; on the contrary, one of the neat-- and dangerous-- things about scripture is its semantic pliability. Scripture tends to be three-dimensional: you can approach it from multiple angles and see completely different terrain each time. This is as true diachronically as it is synchronically: scripture changes as you age. The text on the page never changes, of course, but the relationship between you and the text is in constant flux. There's no reason why a putative manual of statecraft wouldn't also contain a large dose of metaphysical and psychological wisdom.

I happen to agree with Sperwer's preference for Chuang Tzu over Lao Tzu. Chuang Tzu's sense of humor comes through in his writing, whereas the TTC's sometimes-lugubrious profundity can make the book a bit of a chore, and more of a sermon than it needs to be. Narrative trumps theory, as PoMo religion writer Edith Wyschogrod would say. The Chuang Tzu is largely a collection of stories; the TTC is a parade of principles.


No comments: