From the book: Chum for Thought: Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters by David Satterlee
Read or download this essay as a PDF file at:https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B4eNv8KtePyKX0N1cTNqMTY1N2c/edit?usp=sharing
The classic tenants of Confucianism and Taoism take disparate, but not mutually-exclusive, views of existence. While only Confucians would seek to give advice for improving society, elements of both views are important to a balanced and healthful existence within a society.
Confucianism is all about improving society. Individuals are expected to yield to established laws and the greater good of the community. The fundamental concept for maintaining society is the competence and fairness of public servants, which earns respectful honor and loyalty (for others, family, ancestors, public servants, and tradition). Law and tradition are looked to for guidance. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophyexplains:
Confucius’ social philosophy largely revolves around the concept of ren, “compassion” or “loving others.” Cultivating or practicing such concern for others involved deprecating oneself. … Learning self-restraint involves studying and mastering li, the ritual forms and rules of propriety through which one expresses respect for superiors and enacts his role in society in such a way that he himself is worthy of respect and admiration. A concern for propriety should inform everything that one says and does (Stanford).
Taoism is all about withdrawing from society. Individuals are expected to yield to the law of nature and the harmonious dynamics of the universe. Rather than seeking to improve society, Taoists focus on individual balance and a harmonious relationship with “the way of Heaven.” An immediate sense of rightness is looked to for guidance.
Taoism rejects “established” knowledge and wisdom as obstacles in the path of Tao. An enlightened mind effortlessly reflects universal principles, not rejecting the actual world so much as it’s society and societal conventions. A Taoists’ inner world must be purged of scripted external sensation and interpretation. In Section 47 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu explains:
Without going out of your door,
You can know the way of the world.
Without peeping through your window,
You can see the Way of Heaven.
The farther you go, the less you know.
Thus, the Sage knows without traveling,
Sees without looking,
And achieves without Ado (Tzu 97).
I feel that both Confucianism and Taoism contribute important ideas for the personal choices and the accommodations that are needed to live within a community. Personal compromises are needed to exist without undue conflict with others.
As per the Confucianists, meaning can come from seeking the greater good and embracing orderliness. However, personal liberties are also needed to allow creative expression and developmental growth. As per the Taoists, meaning can also come from creating (or following) a personal path and embracing chance and change.
A fundamental structure underlying our lives is a continuous cycle of being and becoming. One may take the yearly seasons as an example. In the fall, there is a time that peaks at harvest, with processes of gathering in, sorting, organizing, consolidation, and withdrawing. In the winter, there is a time that peaks at storage, with processes of being and resting. In the spring, there is a time of germination, with processes of sowing, cultivating, nurturing, and growth. In the summer, there is a time of change, with processes of chaotic growth, reproduction, and metamorphosis.
It seems like Confucianists are more oriented toward sustaining a stable “winter” perspective while Taoists are more oriented toward flowing with the chaos of a “summer” perspective. Neither or these perspectives can be inherently better as they co-exist in the same system of being and becoming.
American culture already embraces a wide range of competing cultural ideals including those found in Confucianism and Taoism. In fact, the two major political parties in the United States have paradoxical cross-polarizations along philosophical lines.
Republicans are considered conservatives, holding to family values and traditions, yet they are fiercely defensive of their liberty to make personal choices, sometimes to the neglect of the welfare of others. On the other hand, Democrats are considered liberals, holding to values like diversity and adapting to the changing situation, yet are open to giving up personal choice for the benefit of the community.
John Locke and Thomas Jefferson insisted that we have the right to keep and defend individual property, but within the context of compliance to group consensus. Like Confucius, they felt that those in authority served at the will of the people and would decline and be replaced if they failed in their responsibilities.
Americans are also known for their fierce individualism. Like Ralph Waldo Emmerson and Allen Ginsberg, we tend to define our valued and privileged way of life by individual freedom to follow one’s own path.
The adoption and adaptation of our complex mix of philosophical roots encourages both sustainable stability and creative progress in our selves and in our society.