Taoist teachings from the book of Lieh Tzŭ/Introduction
The history of Taoist philosophy may be conveniently divided into three stages: the primitive stage, the stage of development, and the stage of degeneration. The first of these stages is only known to us through the medium of a single semi-historical figure, the philosopher Lao Tzŭ, whose birth is traditionally assigned to the year 604 B.C. Some would place the beginnings of Taoism much earlier than this, and consequently regard Lao Tzŭ rather as an expounder than as the actual founder of the system; just as Confucianism — that is, a moral code based on filial piety and buttressed by altruism and righteousness — may be said to have flourished long before Confucius. The two cases, however, are somewhat dissimilar. The teachings of Lao Tzŭ, as preserved in the Tao Tê Ching, are not such as one can easily imagine being handed down from generation to generation among the people at large. The principle on which they are based is simple enough, but their application to everyday life is surrounded by difficulties. It is hazardous to assert that any great system of philosophy has sprung from the brain of one man; but the assertion is probably as true of Taoism as of any other body of speculation.
Condensed into a single phrase, the injunction of Lao Tzŭ to mankind is, 'Follow Nature.' This is a good practical equivalent for the Chinese expression, 'Get hold of Tao', although 'Tao' does not exactly correspond to the word Nature, as ordinarily used by us to denote the sum of phenomena in this ever-changing universe. It seems to me, however, that the conception of Tao must have been reached, originally, through this channel. Lao Tzŭ, interpreting the plain facts of Nature before his eyes, concludes that behind her manifold workings there exists an ultimate Reality which in its essence is unfathomable and unknowable, yet manifests itself in laws of unfailing regularity. To this Essential Principle, this Power underlying the sensible phenomena of Nature, he gives, tentatively and with hesitation, the name of Tao, 'the Way', though fully realizing the inadequacy of any name to express the idea of that which is beyond all power of comprehension.
A foreigner, imbued with Christian ideas, naturally feels inclined to substitute for Tao the term by which he is accustomed to denote the Supreme Being — God. But this is only admissible if he is prepared to use the term 'God' in a much broader sense than we find in either the Old or the New Testament. That which chiefly impresses the Taoist in the operations of Nature is their absolute impersonality. The inexorable law of cause and effect seems to him equally removed from active goodness or benevolence on the one hand, and from active evil, or malevolence on the other. This is a fact which will hardly be disputed by any intelligent observer. It is when he begins to draw inferences from it that the Taoist parts company from the average Christian. Believing, as he does, that the visible Universe is but a manifestation of the invisible Power behind It, he feels justified in arguing from the known to the unknown, and concluding that, whatever Tao may be in itself (which is unknowable), it is certainly not what we understand by a personal God — not a God endowed with the specific attributes of humanity, not even (and here we find a remarkable anticipation of Hegel) a conscious God. In other words, Tao transcends the illusory and unreal distinctions on which all human systems of morality depend, for in it all virtues and vices coalesce into One.
The Christian takes a different view altogether. He prefers to ignore the facts which Nature shows him, or else he reads them in an arbitrary and one-sided manner. His God, if no longer anthropomorphic, is undeniably anthropopathic. He is a personal Deity, now loving and merciful, now irascible and jealous, a Deity who is open to prayer and entreaty. With qualities such as these, it is difficult to see how he can be regarded as anything but a glorified Man. Which of these two views — the Taoist or the Christian — it is best for mankind to hold, may be a matter of dispute. There can be no doubt which is the more logical.
The weakness of Taoism lies in its application to the conduct of life. Lao Tzŭ was not content to be a metaphysician merely, he aspired to be a practical reformer as well. It was man's business, he thought, to model himself as closely as possible on the great Exemplar, Tao. It follows as a matter of course that his precepts are mostly of a negative order, and we are led straight to the doctrine of Passivity or Inaction, which was bound to be fatally misunderstood and perverted. Lao Tzŭ's teaching has reached us, if not in its original form, yet in much of its native purity, in the Tao Tê Ching. One of the most potent arguments for the high antiquity of this marvellous little treatise is that it shows no decided trace of the corruption which is discernible in the second of our periods, represented for us by the writings of Lieh Tzŭ and Chuang Tzŭ. I have called it the period of development because of the extraordinary quickening and blossoming of the buds of Lao Tzŭ's thought in the supple and imaginative minds of these two philosophers. The canker, alas! is already at the heart of the flower; but so rich and luxuriant is the feast of colour before us that we hardly notice it as yet.
Very little is known of our author beyond what he tells us himself. His full name was Lieh Yü-k'ou, and it appears that he was living in the Chêng State not long before the year 398 B.C., when the Prime Minister Tzŭ Yang was killed in a revolution (see Book VII). He figures prominently in the pages of Chuang Tzŭ, from whom we learn that he could 'ride upon the wind'. On the insufficient ground that he is not mentioned by the historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien, a certain critic of the Sung dynasty was led to declare that Lieh Tzŭ was only a fictitious personage invented by Chuang Tzŭ, and that the treatise which passes under his name was a forgery of later times. This theory is rejected by the compilers of the great Catalogue of Ch'ien Lung's Library, who represent the cream of Chinese scholarship in the eighteenth century. Although Lieh Tzŭ's work has evidently passed through the hands of many editors and gathered numerous accretions, there remains a considerable nucleus which in all probability was committed to writing by Lieh Tzŭ's immediate disciples, and is therefore older than the genuine parts of Chuang Tzŭ. There are some obvious analogies between the two authors, and indeed a certain amount of matter common to both; but on the whole Lieh Tzŭ's book bears an unmistakable impress of its own. The geniality of its tone contrasts with the somewhat hard brilliancy of Chuang Tzŭ, and a certain kindly sympathy with the aged, the poor and the humble of this life, not excluding the brute creation, makes itself felt throughout. The opposition between Taoism and Confucianism is not so sharp as we find it in Chuang Tzŭ, and Confucius himself is treated with much greater respect. This alone is strong evidence in favour of the priority of Lieh Tzŭ, for there is no doubt that the breach between the two systems widened as time went on. Lieh Tzŭ's work is about half as long as Chuang Tzŭ's, and is now divided into eight books. The seventh of these deals exclusively with the doctrine of the egoistic philosopher Yang Chu, and has therefore been omitted altogether from the present selection.
Nearly all the Taoist writers are fond of parables and allegorical tales, but in none of them is this branch of literature brought to such perfection as in Lieh Tzŭ, who surpasses Chuang Tzŭ himself as a master of anecdote. His stories are almost invariably pithy and pointed. Many of them evince not only a keen sense of dramatic effect, but real insight into human nature. Others may appear fantastic and somewhat wildly imaginative. The story of the man who issued out of solid rock (Book II) is a typical one of this class. It ends, however, with a streak of ironical humour which may lead us to doubt whether Lieh Tzŭ himself really believed in the possibility of transcending natural laws. His soberer judgment appears in other passages, like the following: 'That which has life must by the law of its being come to an end; and the end can no more be avoided than the living creature can help having been born. So that he who hopes to perpetuate his life or to shut out death is deceived in his calculations.' That leaves little doubt as to the light in which Lieh Tzŭ would have regarded the later Taoist speculations on the elixir of life. Perhaps the best solution of the problem is the theory I have already mentioned: that the 'Lieh Tzŭ' which we possess now, while containing a solid and authentic core of the Master's own teaching, has been overlaid with much of the decadent Taoism of the age that followed.
Of this third period little need be said here. It is represented in literature by the lengthy treatise of Huai-nan Tzŭ, the spurious episodes in Lieh Tzŭ and Chuang Tzŭ, and a host of minor writers, some of whom tried to pass off their works as the genuine relics of ancient sages. Chang Chan, an officer of the Banqueting Court under the Eastern Chin dynasty (fourth century A.D.), is the author of the best commentary on Lieh Tzŭ; extracts from it, placed between inverted commas, will be found in the following pages. In the time of Chang Chan, although Taoism as a philosophical system had long run its course, its development into a national religion was only just beginning, and its subsequent influence on literature and art is hardly to be over-estimated. It supplied the elements of mystery, romance and colour which were needed as a set-off against the uncompromising stiffness of the Confucian ideal. For reviving and incorporating in itself the floating mass of folklore and mythology which had come down from the earliest ages, as well as for the many exquisite creations of its own fancy, it deserves the lasting gratitude of the Chinese people.