Great Ideas of the Zhou: Daoism

Taoism or Daoism How is a man to

Episode 8: Great Ideas of the Zhou: Daoism

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

Lao Zhou, believed to be the founder of Daosim, was a contemporary of Confucius and they may have met. However some scholars believe Daoism resulted from the combined efforts of several different scholars.

In many ways Daoism, which favors individualism, is directly contrary to Confucianism, which favors collective action. While Confucians emphasized the preservation of culture and order, Daoists focused on the nature of human life itself in the context of nature. Viewing government, law and education as “artificial devices,” they taught only withdrawal from life and non-action could resolve negative social conditions. In general, the Daoists were pessimistic about humanity’s ability to create a constructive political system, viewing all social (human) harmonies as contradictory to nature. Instead they emphasized the need for people to understand their place in the universe (thus more easily accepting death).

At the same time, according to Benjamin, different scholars interpret Daoism in different ways. Some see it as a political movement (like Confucianism), some as a quasi-religious movement based on meditation and some as a philosophical approach to understanding reality.

In general, most Confucians accepted the philosophical, but not the religious, aspects of Daosim. Generally compatible with Buddhist doctrine, Daoism has become extremely popular in Southeast Asia and the West. Throughout history, many Chinese officials practiced Confucianism by day and Daoism in their private lives.

Benjamin identifies the Daodejing and the Zhuangnzi as the foundational texts of Daoism. The enigmatic nature of the former seems designed to tap into the subconscious mind and has led to numerous contradictory interpretations of its meaning.

According to the Daodejing, it’s impossible to identify or quantify the Dao (translated as “The Way” or the material force or energy of everything). The attempt by human beings to name things trivializes them. Like Buddhism, the Daodejing advises people to stop striving and live as simply as possible.

The Zhuangnzi was purportedly written by Zhunagnzi (369 -286 BC), though the writing style suggests it had multiple authors. It consists of dialogues, essays, epigrams and parodies of the teachings of Confucius and his disciples. It emphasizes that only the Dao is unchanging and everything else is impermanent and must be kept in perspective. It asserts that only relative truth, happiness and knowledge is possible.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

Great Ideas of the Zhou: Confuscianism

Episode 7: Great Ideas of the Zhou: Confucianism

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

The last 500 years of civil war under the Zhou Dynasty gave rise to more than 100 schools of philosophy as scholars searched for ways to end war. The three most important were Confucianism, Legalism and Daoism. According to Benjamin, the first millennium BC was one of extreme unrest in all civilized societies. He feels it’s no coincidence that most of humanity’s religious and philosophical foundations (including the Hebrew scriptures, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and the philosophy of Socrates) were laid down during this period (which some historians refer to as the Axial Age*).

Confucius (551 – 479 BC) spent most of his life visiting the courts of warring Chinese states seeking a job (as political advisor). To support himself, he accepted a number of disciples. Following his death, his disciples published his teachings in a book (The Analects). His philosophical teachings stressed the importance of ethical leadership and moral authority in rulers and the acceptance of one’s role in society. He taught that the primary obligation of all leaders was to dedicate themselves to the people they served and that they should be selected  based on knowledge and morality, rather than family background.

Confucius prescribed study five books as a prerequisite for wise and moral rule: the I-Ching (see The Mandate of Heaven and the Right to Overthrow Morally Unfit Rulers/), the Book of Odes, the Book of Rites and the Spring and Autumn Annals. These would serve as the basic texts of eastern philosophy for 2,500 years.

Confucianism identifies four important qualities of an effective government official:

  1. Benevolence and a deep understanding of the plight of humanity.
  2. Wisdom and courage.
  3. Sense of propriety and respect for superiors
  4. Filial piety – respect for parents and commitment to look after them in old age and after death.

*The ‘Axial Age’ (500–300 BCE) refers to the period during which most of the main religious and spiritual traditions emerged in Eurasian societies.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

The Hidden History of Money, Debt and Organized Religion

Debt the First 5,000 Years

David Graeber (2012)

In this presentation, anthropologist David Graeber talks about his 2012 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years

For me, the most interesting part of the talk is his discussion of the historical link between debt and the rise of the world’s major religions (Hinduism, Christianity, Confucianism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism) between 500 BC and 600 AD.

As Graeber describes it, all commerce was based on credit prior to the development of coinage around 500 BC. In all societies, coinage arose in conjunction with the onset of empire building – traveling armies had to be paid in hard currency rather than credit. The result, according to Graeber, was the simultaneous rise of military/coinage/slavery* empires in Greece, China and India.

According to Graeber, all the major religions arose around the same time – as a “peace movement” opposing militarism, materialism and slavery.

Around 400 AD, when the Roman and other empires collapsed, coinage vanished, along with the standing armies that necessitated its creation. During the Middle Ages, nearly all financial transactions were based on credit. Until 1493, when the “discovery” of the New World initiated a new cycle of empire building, accompanied by militarism, coinage and slavery.

I was also intrigued to learn that Adam Smith stole most of his thinking about free markets from medieval Islamic philosophers. The Islamic ban on usury enabled the Muslim world to operate pure free markets that were totally outside of government influence or control. Trying to operate an economy without such a ban (or a system of debt forgiveness like the Biblical practice of Jubilee) leads to inevitable economic chaos and ultimately collapse, even with government intervention.

People who like this talk will also really like a series Graeber recently produced for BBC4 radio entitled Promises, Promises: The History of Debt.  In it, Graeber explores  the link between Native American genocide and the harsh debt obligations imposed on the Conquistadors.  He also discusses the formation of the Bank of England in 1694, the role of paper money as circulating government debt and the insanity of striving for government surpluses.

* In ancient times, the primary mechanism by which people became enslaved was non-payment of debt.