Open main menu

Note on the Philosophy of Chaps. i-vii.


Tutor of Keble and Magdalen Colleges, Oxford; Hon. Canon of Christ Church, &c.

The translator of Chuang Tzŭ has asked me to append a note on the philosophy of chs. i-vii. It is difficult to see how one who writes not only in ignorance of Chinese modes of thought, but with the preconceptions of Western philosophy, can really help much towards the understanding of an admittedly obscure system, involving terms and expressions on which Chinese scholars are not yet agreed. But an attempt to point out parallelisms of thought and reasoning between East and West may be of use in two ways. It may stimulate those who are really competent to understand both terms in the comparison to tell us where the parallelism is real and where it is only apparent; and it may help to accustom ordinary readers to look for and expect resemblances in systems in which an earlier age would have seen nothing but contrasts.

There was a time when historians of Greek philosophy used to point out what were considered to be the characteristics of Greek thought, and then to put down to "Oriental influence" anything which did not at once agree with these characteristics. How and through what channels this "Oriental influence" was exercised, it was never easy to determine, nor was it always thought worthy of much discussion. In recent times, however, a greater knowledge of Eastern systems has familiarised us with much which, on the same principle, ought to be attributed to "Greek influence." And the result has been that we have learned to put aside theories of derivation, and to content ourselves with tracing the evolution of reason and of rational problems, and to expect parallelisms even where the circumstances are widely different.

One instance may be worth quoting in illustration. We used to be told that the Greek mind, in its speculation and its art, was characterised by its love of order, harmony, and symmetry, in contrast with the monstrous creations of the Oriental imagination, and the "colossal ugliness of the Pyramids"; and it was said with reason that the Aristotelian doctrine of "the mean" was the ripe fruit of the practical inquiries of the Greeks, and was the ethical counterpart of their artistic development. But in 1861 we were introduced by Dr. Legge to a Confucianist work, attributed to Tzŭ Tzŭ, grandson of Confucius and a contemporary of Socrates, and entitled The Doctrine of the Mean,[1] which is there represented as the true moral way in which the perfect man walks, while all else go beyond or fall short of it. Yet even those who discovered the doctrine of the Trinity in the Tâo-Tê-Ching have not, we believe, suggested that Aristotle had private access to the Li Chi.

We may then, without bringing any charge of piracy or plagiarism against either, point out some parallels between Chuang Tzŭ and a great Greek thinker.

Chuang Tzŭ's first chapter is mainly critical and destructive, pointing out the worthlessness of ordinary judgments, and the unreality of sense knowledge. The gigantic Rukh, at the height of 90,000 li, is a mere mote in the sunbeam. For size is relative. The cicada, which can just fly from tree to tree, laughs with the dove at the Rukh's high flight. For space also is relative. Compared with the mushroom of a day, P'êng Tsu is as old as Methuselah; but what is his age to that of the fabled tree, whose spring and autumn make up 16,000 years? Time, then, is relative too. And though men wonder at him who could "ride upon the wind and travel for many days," he is but a child to one who "roams through the realms of For-Ever."

This doctrine of "relativity," which is a commonplace in Greek as it is in modern philosophy, is made the basis, both in ancient and modern times, of two opposite conclusions. Either it is argued that all sense knowledge is relative, and sense is the only organ of knowledge, therefore real knowledge is impossible; or else the relativity of sense knowledge leads men to draw a sharp contrast between sense and reason and to turn away from the outward in order to listen to the inward voice. The one alternative is scepticism, the other idealism. In Greek thought the earliest representatives of the former are the Sophists, of the latter Heracleitus.

There is no doubt to which side of the antithesis Chuang Tzŭ belongs. His exposure of false and superficial thinking looks at first like the destruction of knowledge. Even Socrates was called a Sophist because of his destructive criticism and his restless challenging of popular views. But Chuang Tzŭ has nothing of the sceptic in him. He is an idealist and a mystic, with all the idealist's hatred of a utilitarian system, and the mystic's contempt for a life of mere external activity. "The perfect man ignores self; the divine man ignores action; the true sage ignores reputation" (p. 5). The Emperor Yao would have abdicated in favour of a hermit, but the hermit replies that "reputation is but the shadow of reality," and will not exchange the real for the seeming. But greater than Yao and the hermit is the divine being who dwells on the mysterious mountain in a state of pure, passionless inaction.

For the sage, then, life means death to all that men think life, the life of seeming or reputation, of doing or action, of being or individual self-hood. This leads on to the "budget of paradoxes" in chap. 11. As in the moral and active region we escape from the world and self, and are able to reverse and look down upon the world's judgments, so in the speculative region we get behind and beyond the contradictions of ordinary thinking, and of speech which stereotypes abstractions. The sage knows nothing of the distinction between subjective and objective. It exists only ex analogiâ hominis. "From the standpoint of Tao" all things are one. People "guided by the criteria of their own mind," see only the contradiction, the manifoldness, the difference; the sage sees the many disappearing in the One, in which subjective and objective, positive and negative, here and there, somewhere and nowhere, meet and blend. For him, "a beam and a pillar are identical. So are ugliness and beauty, greatness, wickedness, perverseness, and strangeness. Separation is the same as construction: construction is the same as destruction" (pp. 19–20). The sage "blends everything into one harmonious whole, rejecting the comparison of this and that. Rank and precedence, which the vulgar prize, the sage stolidly ignores. The universe itself may pass away, but he will flourish still" (p. 29). "Were the ocean itself scorched up, he would not feel hot. Were the milky way frozen hard he would not feel cold. Were the mountains to be riven with thunder, and the great deep to be thrown up by storm, he would not tremble" (pp. 27–28).

Si fractus illabatur orbis,
Impavidum ferient ruinæ.

He is "embraced in the obliterating unity of God," and passing into the realm of the Infinite finds rest therein (p. 31).

It is impossible in reading this chapter on "The Identity of Contraries" not to be reminded of Heracleitus. The disparagement of sense knowledge, and the contempt for common views is indeed equally marked in Eleaticism, and there is much in Chuang Tzŭ which recalls Parmenides,[2] so far as the contrast between the way of truth and the way of error, the true belief in the One and the popular belief in the Many, is concerned. But it seems to me that the "One" of Chuang Tzŭ is not the dead Unit of Eleaticism, which resulted from the thinking away of differences, but the living Unity of Heracleitus, in which contraries co-exist. Heracleitus, indeed, seems to have been a man after Chuang Tzŭ's own heart, not only in his obscurity, which won for him the title of ὁ σκοτεινὸς, but in his indifference to worldly position, shown in the fact that, like the Emperor Yao, he abdicates in his brother's favour (Diog. Laert. ix. 1), and in his supercilious disregard for the learned like Hesiod and Pythagoras and Xenophanes and Hecataeus,[3] no less than for the common people[4] of his day.

"Listen," says Heracleitus, "not to me, but to reason, and confess the true wisdom that 'All things are One.'"[5] "All is One, the divided and the undivided, the begotten and the unbegotten, the mortal and the immortal, reason and eternity, father and son, God and justice."[6] "Cold is hot, heat is cold, that which is moist is parched, that which is dried up is wet."[7] "Good and evil are the same."[8] "Gods are mortal, men immortal: our life is their death, our death their life."[9] "Upward and downward are the same."[10] "The beginning and the end are one."[11] "Life and death, sleeping and waking, youth and age are identical."[12]

This is what reason tells the philosopher. "All is One." The world is a unity of opposing forces (παλίντροπος ἁρμονίη κόσμον ὅκωσπερ λύρας καὶ τόξου).[13] "Join together whole and not whole, agreeing and different, harmonious and discordant. Out of all comes one: out of one all."[14] "God is day-night, winter-summer, war-peace, repletion-want."[15] The very rhythm of nature is strife. War, which men hate and the poets would banish, "is the father and lord of all."[16] But "men are without understanding, they hear and hear not,"[17] or "they hear and understand not."[18] For they trust to their senses, which are "false witnesses."[19] They see the contradictions, but know not that "the different is at unity with itself."[20] They cannot see the "hidden harmony, which is greater than the harmony which is seen."[21] For they live in the external, the common-place, the relative, and never rise above the life of the senses. "The sow loves the mire."[22] "The ass prefers fodder to gold."[23] And men love their "private conceits" instead of clinging to the universal reason which orders all things,[24] and which even the sun obeys.[25]

Of the fragments which remain to us of Heracleitus, the greater number belong to the region of logic and metaphysics, while Chuang Tzŭ devotes much space to the more practical side of the question. He not only ridicules those who trust their senses, or measure by utilitarian standards, or judge by the outward appearance;—he teaches them how to pass from the seeming to the true. The wonderful carver, who could cut where the natural joints are,[26] is one who sees not with the eye of sense but with his mind. When he is in doubt he "falls back upon eternal principles"; for he is "devoted to Tao" (chap. iii). There is something of humour, as well as much of truth, in the rebuke which Confucius, speaking pro hâc vice as a disciple of Lao Tzŭ, administers to his self-confident follower who wanted to "be of use.""Cultivate fasting;—not bodily fasting, but the fasting of the heart." Tao can only abide in the life which has got rid of self. So the Duke of Shê is reminded that there is something higher than duty,[27] viz., destiny, the state, that is, in which conscious obedience has given way to that which is instinctive and automatic. The parable of the trees (pp. 50-53), with its result in the survival of the good-for-nothing, is again a reversal of popular outside judgments. For as the first part of the chapter had taught the uselessness of trying to be useful, so the last part teaches the usefulness of being useless. And the same thought is carried on in the next chapter, which deals with the reversal of common opinion as to persons. Its motto is:—Judge not by the appearance. Virtue must prevail and outward form be forgotten. The loathsome leper Ai T'ai To is made Prime Minister by the wise Duke Ai. The mutilated criminal is judged by Lao Tzŭ to be a greater man than Confucius. For the criminal is mutilated in body by man, while Confucius, though men know it not, by the judgment of God is πεπηρωμένος πρὸς ἀρετήν.

This protest of Chuang Tzŭ against externality, and judging only by the outward appearance, might easily be translated into Christian language. For Christianity also teaches inwardness, and, in common with all idealism, resents the delimitation of human life and knowledge to "the things which are seen." In its opposition to a mere practical system like Confucianism, Taoism must have appealed to those deeper instincts of humanity to which Buddhism appealed some centuries later. In practice, Confucianism was limited to the finite. Action, effort, benevolence, unselfishness,—all these have a place in it, and their theatre is the world as we know it. Its last word is worldly wisdom; not selfishness, but an enlarged prudentialism. To the Taoist such a system savours of "the rudiments of the world." Its "charity and duty," its "ceremonies and music," are the "Touch not, taste not, handle not," of an ephemeral state of being, and perish in the using. And the sage seeks for the Absolute, the Infinite, the Eternal. He seeks to attain to Tao.

It is here that we reach (in chaps, vi, vii) what properly constitutes the mysticism of Chuang Tzŭ. Heracleitus is not a mystic, though he is the founder of a long line, which through Plato, and Dionysius the Areopagite and John the Scot in the ninth century, and Meister Eckhart in the thirteenth, and Jacob Böhme in the sixteenth, reaches down to Hegel. Heracleitus despises the world and shuns it; but he has not yet made flight from the world a dogma. Even Plato, when in a well-known passage in the Theaetetus,[28] he counsels flight from the present state of things, explains that he means only "flee from evil and become like God." Still less has Heracleitus got so far as to aim at self-absorption in God. In Greek thought the attempt to get rid of consciousness, and to become the unconscious vehicle of a higher illumination, is unknown till the time of Philo. Yet this is the teaching of Chuang Tzŭ. "The true sage takes his refuge in God, and learns that there is no distinction between subject and object. This is the very axis of Tao" (p. 18). Abstraction from self, then, is the road which leads to Tao (chap. vi). The pure of old did not love life and hate death. They were content to be passive vehicles of Tao. They had reached the state of sublime indifference, they had become "oblivious of their own existence." Everything in them was spontaneous; nothing the result of effort. "They made no plans; therefore failing, they had no cause for regret; succeeding, no cause for congratulation" (p. 69). "They cheerfully played their allotted parts, waiting patiently for the end." They were free, for they were in perfect harmony with creation (p. 71). For them One and not One are One; God and Man. For they had attained to Tao, and Tao is greater than God. "Before heaven and earth were, Tao was. It has existed without change from all time. Spiritual beings draw their spirituality therefrom; while the universe became what we see it now. To Tao the zenith is not high, nor the nadir low; no point of time is long ago, nor by lapse of ages has it grown old" (p. 76). The great legislators obtained Tao, and laid down eternal principles. The sun and moon, and the Great Bear are kept in their courses by Tao.

"Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong;
And the most ancient heavens, through thee, are fresh and strong."

He who would attain to Tao must get rid of the thought of "charity and duty," of "music and ceremonies," of body and mind. The flowers and the birds do not toil, they simply live. That is Tao. And for man a state of indifference and calm, the ἀταραξία not of the sceptic but of the mystic, a passive reflecting of the Eternal, is the ideal end. "The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing, it refuses nothing. It receives but does not keep. And thus he can triumph over matter without injury to himself" (See p. 98.)

It would of course be presumption to attempt to assign a meaning to Tao, and still more to discover an equivalent in Western thought. But it may be lawful to say that Heracleitus often speaks of Λόγος as Chuang Tzŭ speaks of Tao. It is Necessity (ἀνάγκη), or Fate (εἱμαρμένη), or Mind (γνώμη), or Justice (Δική). In nature it appears as balance and equipoise; in the State as Law; in man as the universal Reason, which is in him but not of him. Sometimes it is identified with the mysterious name of Zeus, which may not be uttered;[29] sometimes like the Ἀνάγκη of the Greek poets, it is supreme over gods and men. If it is hard to say what is the relation of Tao to God, it is not less hard to define the relation of Λόγος to Zeus. To speak of Chuang Tzŭ and Heracleitus as pantheists is only to say that, so far as we can translate their language into ours, that name seems less inappropriate than Theist or Deist. But it is doubtful whether the distinction between Pantheism and Theism would have been intelligible to either philosopher, and certain that if they could have understood it, they would have denied to it reality. Both held the immanence of the Eternal Principle in all that is. Both taught that the soul is an emanation from the Divine, and both, though in very different degrees, seem to teach that a life is perfect in proportion as it becomes one with that from which it came, and loses what is individual in it.

In Chuang Tzŭ, as in all mystics, there is an element of antinomianism. That "good and evil are the same," may contain a deep truth for the sage, but "take no heed of time, nor of right and wrong" (p. 31) is, to say the least, dangerous teaching for the masses. The mystic's utterances will not bear translation into the language of the world, and to take them au pied de la lettre can hardly fail to produce disastrous results. This is why antinomianism always dogs the heels of mysticism. And this may perhaps help to explain the debased Taoism of to-day. But of this I know nothing.

It would be interesting to know whether in the undisputed utterances of Lao Tzŭ (i. e. putting on one side the Tâo-Tê-Ching), Quietism and the glorification of Inaction are as prominent as they are in Chuang Tzŭ. One would be prepared à priori to find that they are not. Lao Tzŭ was born at the end of the seventh century B.C., and was, therefore, some fifty years older than Confucius, with whom in 517 B.C., he is said to have had an interview.[30] By the time of Chuang Tzŭ, who was possibly contemporary with Mencius, and therefore some two or three centuries after Lao Tzŭ, Confucianism had become to some extent the established religion of China, and Taoism, like Republicanism in the days of the Roman Empire, became a mere opposition de salon. Under such circumstances any elements of mysticism latent in Lao Tzŭ's system would develop rapidly. And the antagonism between the representatives of Lao Tzŭ and Confucius would proportionately increase. But philosophy does not become mystical and take refuge in flight until it abandons all hope of converting the world. When effort is useless, the mind idealises Inaction, and seeks a metaphysical basis for it. For mysticism and scepticism flourish in the same atmosphere though in different soils, both, though in different ways, implying the abandonment of the rational problem. The Sceptic, the Agnostic or Positivist of to-day, declares it insoluble, and settles down content to take things as they are; the mystic retires into himself, and dreams of a state of being which is the obverse of the world of fact.

The triumph of Confucianism in the centuries which intervened between Lao Tzŭ and Chuang Tzŭ would account for the antagonism between Taoism and Confucianism as we find it. But it fails to account for the way in which Confucius is sometimes represented as playing into the hands of Taoism. On p. 85 f. n. the translator explains it as a literary coup de main. Dr. Chalmers, quoted by Dr. Legge,[31] says that both Chuang Tzŭ and Lieh Tzŭ introduced Confucius into their writings "as the lords of the Philistines did the captive Samson on their festive occasions, 'to make sport for them.'" But there is not a hint of this given in the text, though throughout one long chapter (chap. iv) we find Confucius giving a Taoist refutation of Confucianist doctrines when defended by his own pupil Yen Hui. It might seem like an attempt to draw a distinction between Confucius and Confucianism, though elsewhere Confucius is ridiculed as wanting in sense.

May not the explanation be as follows?—

(i.) Lao Tzŭ and Confucius were probably much nearer to one another philosophically than the Taoism of Chuang Tzŭ and the Confucianism of Mencius. The passages in which Confucius talks Taoism would, on this hypothesis, represent a traditional survival of their real relations to one another. The episode of Confucius' visit to Lao Tzŭ "to ask about the Tao," would, whether it records a fact or not, tend in the same direction.

(ii.) From the first we may assume that the one took an ideal, the other a practical and utilitarian view of Tao "the Way"; Confucius finding it in social duties and the work of practical life, Lao Tzŭ in the hidden and the inward, the "interior life," as Christian mystics would call it. Thus the historian Ssŭ-ma Ch'ien[32] says, "Lao Tzŭ cultivated the Tao and virtue, his chief aim in his studies being how to keep himself concealed and unknown. Seeing the decay of the dynasty he withdrew himself out of sight, and no one knows where he died."

(iii.) The divergence between the two views, the ideal and the actual, the mystical and the practical, would increase with time, each intensifying the other by opposition and reaction, until the practical won its way to security, and the mystical got left out in the cold, perhaps persecuted, certainly suspected, and treated as heterodox, and naturally retaliating by scornful criticism of the dominant view. When this stage is reached, Mencius regards Lao Tzŭ as a heresiarch, while Chuang Tzŭ often treats Confucius with contempt and ridicule. For "the Way that is walked upon is not the Way," and "the Tao which shines forth is not Tao" (p. 25). But Confucianism being "established," the Taoists are now "dissenters," and not being strong enough to disestablish Confucianism become more and more mystical, and content themselves with a policy of protest.

If there is little direct evidence for this theory as to the relations of Taoism and Confucianism, there is a curious parallel in Western thought. When Plato was known only in a neo-Platonic disguise, and Aristotle judged by the Organon, it was possible for partisans to represent the two philosophers as typical opposites, and to assume that "every one is born a Platonist or an Aristotelian," forgetting that Aristotle was Plato's pupil, and both were followers of Socrates. Later on, when Aristotelianism became "established" as the Christian philosophy, Platonism, which survived in the more mystical schoolmen, fell under suspicion, and not unfrequently justified the suspicion by developing in the direction of Pantheism. It was not till the thirteenth century that the world appealed from Platonists and Aristotelians to Plato and Aristotle, and discovered that the divergent streams flowed from neighbouring springs. Such an appeal, it is to be feared, is hardly possible in the case of Lao Tzŭ and Confucius, especially as the authenticity of the Tao-Tê-Ching is still in controversy among Sinologues.

My object, however, in this note, which has grown out of all proportion, was not to suggest a theory as to the possible relations of Lao Tzŭ and Confucius, but to point out what seemed to be a remarkable parallel between the teaching of Chuang Tzŭ and Heracleitus. In doing this I have accepted Mr. Giles's translation as an ultimate fact, for the simple reason that I do not know a single Chinese character. So far, therefore, as the translation prejudices or prejudges questions of Chinese scholarship, I must leave the defence to the translator. It is also possible, and more than possible, that my Western preconceptions may have biassed my judgment of Chuang Tzŭ's philosophical teaching. Recent attempts[33] to draw a parallel between the life of Gautama and the life of Christ have shown how easy it is unconsciously to read between the lines, and find parallelisms where they do not exist. If I have been guilty in the same way, then, with Socrates in the Republic, I say, "I can but suffer the penalty of ignorance; and that penalty is, to be taught by those who know."

A. L. M.


  1. In 1885 this treatise was republished by Dr. Legge in its place as Bk. xxviii of the Lî Kî or Li Chi (Sacred Books of the East, vols, xxvii, xxviii), with a new title The State of Equilibrium and Harmony. But the parallelism with the Aristotelian doctrine is as obvious as ever.
  2. See the fragments in Ritter and Preller's Hist. Phil. Græc. § 93 and § 94 a. b. Seventh edition.
  3. Heracl. Eph. Rell. Bywater, xvi.
  4. ὀχλολοίδορος Ἡράκλειτος. Timon ap. Diog. Laert. ix. i.
  5. Οὐκ ἐμεῦ ἀλλὰ τοῦ λογου ἀκουσάντας ὁμολογέειν σοφόν ἐστι ἓν πάντα εἶναι. Heracl. Eph. Rell. i.
  6. Hippolytus Ref. haer. ix. 9.
  7. Heracl. Eph. Rell. xxxix.
  8. Ibid., lvii.
  9. Ibid., lxvii.
  10. Ibid., lxix.
  11. Ibid., lxx.
  12. Ibid., lxxviii.
  13. Ibid., xlv.
  14. Ibid., lix.
  15. Ibid., xxxvi.
  16. Ibid., xliv.
  17. Ibid., iii.
  18. Ibid., v.
  19. Heracl. Eph. Rell. iv.
  20. Ibid, xlv.
  21. Ibid, xlvii.
  22. Ibid., liv., and notes.
  23. Ibid., li.
  24. Ibid., xci, xix.
  25. Ibid., xxix.
  26. Cf. Plat. Phaedr. 265: κατ᾽ ἄρθρα ᾗ πέφυκεν καὶ μὴ ἐπιχείρειν καταγνύναι μέρος μηδὲν κακοῦ μαγείρον τροπῳ χρώμενοσ.
  27. Cf. Herbert Spencer's well-known paradox,—"The sense of duty or moral obligation is transitory, and will diminish as fast as moralisation increases."—Data of Ethics, p. 127.
  28. Theaet. 176. A. διὸ καὶ πειρᾶσθαι χρὴ ἐνθένδε ἐκεῖσε φεύγειν ὅ τι τάχιστα . φυγη δὲ ὁμοίωσις Θεῷ κατὰ τὸ δυνατόν . ὁμοίωσις δὲ δίκαιον καὶ ὅσιον μετὰ φρονήσεως γενέσθαι.
  29. Heracl. Eph. Rell. lxv.
  30. Chuang Tzŭ, chap, xiv, p. 182–189.
  31. Encycl. Met., Art. "Lao Tzŭ."
  32. Quoted by Dr. Legge, loc. cit.
  33. E.g. Mr. Edwin Arnold's Light of Asia, and still more Professor Seydel's Das Evangelium von Jesu in seinen Verhältnissen zu Buddha-Sage und Buddha-Lehre. On the other side of the question, cf. Dr. Kellogg's The Light of Asia and the Light of the World. London, 1885. And an article in the Nineteenth Century for July, 1888, on Buddhism, by the Bishop of Colombo.