Taoism as Hermit Philosophy

Taoism and Confucianism

Briefly put, Taoism is the near opposite of Confucianism. Confucianism established social and political norms in ancient China. A thorough reading of the Confucian writings, such as the Analects and Mencius, is essential for the understanding of philosophical and ethical thinking in ancient China. However, Taoism derives its ethics from nature and the universe, not from the authority of tradition or a body of scholars and gentlemen.

Confucianism is based on the preeminent contrivance of humanity: society. Just as Aristotle defined humans as social animals, Confucianism saw society's needs as overriding nature and the individual to assure order and continuity. This made authority, tradition, and institutions the source of ethics and not mythology, folk wisdom, or philosophy. Confucianism posited a Way to be followed, a Way which governed the universe. However, because the earth was the immediate and practical expression of the Way, Confucians considered the earth's highest product, human society, to be the source of authority.

In contrast, the reputed founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu, the "old man," realized that government and society are not intrinsically ethical. As contrivances of humans in particular eras and places, they are the whim of their rulers, not ordained by heaven, i.e. by the universe or nature. Lao Tzu developed a philosophy that identified the nature of the universe and the Way or Tao that transcended human thinking. Only such a concept of the Tao would permit humanity to break free of contrivance.

The Tao

The Tao is a way or path to living as optimally as possible in accordance with the nature of things. In contrast to Confucians, the Tao did not ordain humans as the apex of the universe. The universe is a flux of forces (yin and yang), of paradoxical opposites. Humanity is only part of this whole. People must find their rightful place in it, but human contrivances not in harmony with nature (i.e., the universe) must be examined and rejected. Simplicity, non-contrivance, and non-action are derived from how nature functions.

Clearly this is not the Western notion of nature as the "contrivance" of God. This is nature in its totality, including all of the universe, all of existence, and all Emptiness, Tao as All. At one extreme of contrivance was the state and society. At the other was the soul or consciousness of humans (and anything higher, presumably, though there is no metaphysics or speculation in Taoism). The Tao is full of all things extant, but also empty because all these things are parts, not wholes, they are forces not things.

The experience of solitude, of the trembling beauty of a swaying pine or twinkling star, or a bird call, is our self reflecting the infinite Tao and becoming, in that moment, conscious of being part of it and not apart from it.

Taoist Classics

The classics of philosophical Taoism are three: the Tao te ching, the Chuang-tzu and the political works revolving around the Hui-nan-tzu and Wen-tzu. A later work, the Lieh-tzu may be added.

The Tao te ching is very discrete, never mandating a particular way of life, while addressing the well-born ruler and sage as to what would make things better, if not perfect. The Tao teaches the right way of living, not any earthly authority. In this regard it may be said that Taoism is "optimistic" because it sees true human nature, uncorrupted by society, as good. But the premises differing, Taoism is not the optimism of the West.

The story of Lao Tzu abandoning the capital and his profession to disappear alone into the West is the Taoist model of livelihood. A life of solitude, a hermit's life, was the only consonant life for the Taoist because only solitude enabled true human nature to be made manifest.

The Tao te ching is a masterpiece of complexity and simplicity. Its complexity is based not on logical argument but attentiveness to nature and its subtleties. Its simplicity does not contrive metaphysics or epistemology. The course of nature and its patterns, witnessed in the cycles of the heavens, of the seasons, of life and the passage of life, is expressed as yin-yang, light-dark, nurture-nature, and many of the metaphorical but philosophical senses. Ultimately, to paraphrase the very first lines of the Tao te ching, ultimate Truth cannot be expressed by our limited rational faculties but can be sensed in the absence of contrivance, the emptying of the self.

The emphasis on individual's experience of what is necessary to discern reality is a fruitful basis of solitude. Solitude is the absence of contrivance noise, arguments, sentiments, persuasions, desires, demands. With silence, the Taoist begins to identify the patterns of reality. With the life of a hermit, the Taoist is free, free to ascend with the immortals upon a wild crane portrayed so vividly in the landscape paintings of China, later to be strengthened by Buddhism.

The hermit par excellence is reflected in Chuang-tzu (the name of an ascribed person as well as the classic text). Eccentric, care-free, trenchant, indifferent, gentle, empathetic, anti-social ... every stereotype is confirmed in Chuang-tzu, which is sometimes placed chronologically before the Tao te ching because of its simplicity and chaotic train of thought.

With Chuang-tzu, the inspiration of shamanism is more clearly seen as an inheritance of Taoism. The shaman's authority relied on individual experience and inspiration, in contrast to the priest's authority which depended not on personal qualifications but on institutional affiliation and power. Here is the root dichotomy between Taoism and Confucianism: shaman versus priest, mystic and hermit versus ritual supervisor and bureaucrat. Chuang-tzu is not the last word on Taoism, nor every Taoist's model. But the tension between the philosophical and the eccentric in Taoism, as in any philosophy of life, is clearly seen in the hermit

In the Huai-nan-tzu and the portion identified as Wen-tzu, pre-eminent social and political solutions are offered, demonstrating the depth of Taoist insight into political and social issues. At the same time, these texts elaborate on characteristics of the individual who embraces the Tao. More concrete thn the Tao te ching, more stable and constructive than the Chuang-tzu, these texts are masterpieces of a controlled and clear-headed sagacity, an ethical roadmap for individual and society.

The Lieh-tzu is somewhat less optimistic about the efficacy of direct action and less confident in the ability of individuals to manifest the Tao. This is the fruit of the chaos experience in China for centuries, for the Lieh-tzu was probably inspired and compiled over the period 200 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. The world-wise pessimism of its authors present the individual as pre-eminent given the chaos of the world. While it adds no new philosophical approaches, the Lieh-tzu brings full circle the reliance on folk-wisdom and intuition that are the hallmark of Taoism.

Taoist Classics: Bookshelf

Tao Te Ching.  A tidy summary of English language versions is provided by Ursula Le Guin in her version. As a writer, she rightly identifies the task of translating this classic as an exercise in interpretation. Le Guin collaborated with J. P. Seaton in producing her own rendering. The most reliable versions she recommends are Lau, Waley, and Henricks. Lau is clear and concise while offering excellent notes, as does Henricks. Arthur Waley's version is enjoyable, while his profound sense of Chinese culture balances his lyricism. Le Guin also recommends the Gia-Fu Fen and Jan English. Conspicuously omitted is Thomas Cleary, whose exclusion of  bibliographical apparatus distresses many. Here, then, is the short list, subtitles omitted.

Chuang-tzu. The preeminent version is Burton Watson, either Chuang-tzu, Basic Writings. New York, Columbia U.P., 1964. or the enlarged version, Complete Works of Chuang-tzu. same press, 1968. Older versions like Giles and Legge are unreliable. Thomas Cleary's edition is The Essential Tao. San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.
. Selections available by various authors; the most accessible is Thomas Cleary: The Tao of Politics : Lessons of the Masters of Huainan: Translations from the Taoist classic Huainanzi. Boston, Shambhala, 1990.
. Only English translation is Thomas Cleary: Further Teachings of Lao-tzu: Understanding the Mysteries: a Translation of the Taoist Classic Wen-Tzu. Boston, Shambhala, 1991.
. The best translation with good explanatory notes, is A. C. Graham: The Book of Lieh-tzu: a Classic of the Tao. New York, Columbia U.P., 1990. Also available but more popularizing is Eva Wong: Lieh-tzu : a Taoist Guide to Practical Living. Boston, Shambhala, 1995.