Philosophy East and West, Pt III; “Dao Deh Jing” Ch. II

This is part 3 of a series, if this part does not make sense to you, the following links with take you to Parts One and Two

Chapter II.

A. “Yin, Yang and the Two Truths”

The whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly; the whole world recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad.

Thus Something and Nothing produce each other;

The difficult and easy complement each other;

The long and short off-set each other;

The high and low incline towards each other;

Note and sound harmonize with each other;

Before and after follow each other.” Dao Deh Jing II.4-6


In the first half of this chapter we see a list of pairs of opposites. According to conventional truth, the opposites are completely other from each other, but from the perspective of Ultimate truth, they are *the Same*.

Traditional Chinese origin myths always began with the mating of two original principles of Yin and Yang. What Classical Chinese philosophy adds to this myth is the idea that underlying the Yin Yang dualism there must be a common unified principle which they called the “Dao”. Both Daoists and Confucians used this term in this way, although their approaches were quite different. In any case, this relates to “Two Truths” theory from the previous post since we clearly see that we have preceded from a discussion of the Two Truths into a series of complementary opposites, each of which form an underlying unity. If you look at the Yin-Yang symbol above with this in mind, you see that this is exactly what is illustrated; within each opposite half is a core that belongs to the other. In each case it is said that the opposites define, produce, or complement each other. Thus it seems the the Yin and Yang pattern spans radically different levels of discourse:

  1. conceptual definitions – It is commonly noticed that many things cannot be defined without their opposites; e.g. odd and even, more and less, good and bad.
  2. production by nature of skill – “Thus Something and Nothing produce each other”; in which yin and yang are placed directly in the realm of form and matter, i.e. Aristotle’s hylomorphic theory of change, a theory of natural and artificial change. More on this later!
  3. value – “complement each other” refers to the fact that many things are worthless without a opposite counterpart. For example fuel is worthless without oxygen, a tool without material, building material without a location, the weather without land, etc.

In the next section, we see another version of the yin and yang, where the highest/best exemplar of a thing is alson the same as the highest exemplar of its opposite:

Therefore the sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practices the teaching that uses no words.” Dao Deh Jing II.6

The greatest action consisting laisez-faire, non-intervention, being fully present as an example, or some other small token action done at the right time. In Chinese this is called “Wei wu wei”, literally “doing not doing”. The greatest action is in simply being there and acting very little. The natural world is filled with these things: in biology, for example, the most intricate design appears with no designer.

In the last section, this trait is attributed to the lack of selfish motive or egoistical method in taking the action:

The myriad creatures rise from it yet it claims no authority; it gives them life yet claims no possession; it benefits them yet exacts no gratitude; it accomplishes its task yet claims to no merit. It is because it claims no merit that its merit never deserts it.” Dao Deh Jing II.7,7a

This gibes well with many findings of modern science; evolution is not so elegant in spite of the lack of a Intelligent Designer, but because of that lack. Guiding intelligence would ruin Nature. Likewise with society; a properly run nation does what it does not because of the ruler, but in spite of them; the best ruler will simply get out of the way.

What Lao Tzu shares with Greek thought is the idea that metaphysics’ proper task is a comprehensive theory of change that suits both the natural, the artificial and the political. In both China and Greece none of these realms can be reduced to another, but they are all subsumed to the highest form of knowledge with draws closest to the general principles underlying cosmic levels of both permanence and change. While Greek thought includes extended reflection on the logically necessary that is lacking in the Dao Deh Jing, However, Aristotle shares with Daosim the attitude that reflection on the natural is of higher dignity to the conceptual.



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