C O U R S E L E C T U R E
Laozi: Stop the Journey and Return Home
Notes taken on May 29, 2016 by Edward Tanguay
Laozi, in contrast to Confucius, wants us to return to the unhewn wood
the evils of the social elite
it is bad to have social stratification
"The people are hungry because those above eat too much in taxes, this is why the people are hungry."
Daodejin Ch. 53: "The court is resplendent, yet the fields are overgrown."
but things are not going well in the countryside
the granaries are empty but people have fancy clothes
"find swords dangle at their side, they are stuffed with food and drink, and possess wealth in gross abundance"
they take pride in robbery
the text implies that this is just a symptom of a large-scale society
large societies always lead to income inequality
this dynamic of the idol, predatorial elite will always happen in a large society
organized government is the problem
desire for a larger tax base
they want to conquer more lands so they have more peasants they can tax
the solution is a return to villages
we have to break things down
get rid of large-scale societies
the Daodejing is a text that believes the transition to agricultural based societies was a mistake
we should go back to how humans lived before we had large-scale societies
decentralize political life and send people back to living in small, village-size agricultural communities
"When the world has the Way, fleet-footed horses are used to haul dung. When the world is without the Way, war horses are raised in the suburbs"
fleet-footed horses are military horses
there is no need for military horses so they are used to do farming work
you won't need an elite class
you won't need officials anymore
you won't have a tax base anymore
they won't be needing luxury goods anymore
"Reduce the size of the state. Lessen the population."
this is pretty much the opposite of what most rulers of the time wanted
"Make sure that even though there are labor saving tools, they are never used."
this explains the adherents of Laozi pulling the plow by themselves
we don't want to increase our productivity
we want to go back to simple things
create a situation in which people are not trying to improve technology
they aren't trying to raise agricultural output
they are happy with things the way they are
"Make sure the people look upon death as a weighty matter and never move to distant places"
grow up in a community, live there, and die there
the perfect state is where people can hear the sound of dogs barking and roosters crowing
have simple desires and everything you need will be right there in your village
"Even though they have ships and carts, they will have no use for them. Even though they have armor and weapons, they will have no reason to deploy them. Make sure that the people return to the use of the knotted cord."
the knotted cord was a way of keeping track of things before there was writing
so Laozi seems to be saying to go back to before we had writing, get rid of literacy
we don't need to count to more than about 20, to just keep track of our chickens and our eggs, a knotted cord is going to be enough
how to get people to accept this simple life style
why do we have large states?
the reason is excessive desire
"There is no greater crime than having too many desires. There is no greater disaster than not being content. There is no greater misfortune than being covetous."
excessive desires drive greed, greed drives aggression, and aggression and greed together leads to endless warfare, selfish elites, and inequality
it goes back to a problem in human beings in which we have too much desire
how do we get rid of desires?
where do desires come from?
the Deodejing does think that they come from our nature
socialization and learning cause us to have desires
"The five colors blind our eyes. The five notes deafen our ears. The five flavors deaden our palates."
we don't need sophisticated culture
sophisticated culture confuses us
"The chase and the hunt madden our hearts. Precious goods impede our activities."
socialization creates new products which lead to new tastes which is where excessive desire comes from
it doesn't come from our nature, it comes from the fact that we live in a society that has created all these shiny objects that we can start to chase after
"This is why the sages are for the belly and not for the eye. And so they cast off the one and take up the other."
the word for belly is the seat of your real, natural natural desires
what nature has given you
relatively modest needs
the basic picture is that human nature is good
society creates things that create desires
this is the opposite of Confucian who wants to improve the unhewn wood, carve it
the Deodejing doesn't mention Confucious by name
but the Deodejing is aware of the metaphors that were used in the Analects
one of the metaphors that Confucius uses in the Analects is carving
Confucian metaphor: self-cultivation as carving
Zigong said, "Poor without being obsequious, rich without being arrogant--what would you say about someone like that?"
The Master said, "That is acceptable, but it is still not as good as being poor and yet joyful, rich and yet loving ritual."
Zigong said, "An Ode says: As if cut, as if polished, as if card, as if ground. Is this not what you have in mind?"
The Master said, "Zigong, you are precisely the kind of person with whom on can begin to discuss the Odes."
this has to do with carving and polishing bone and jade
two very difficult to work substances
takes a long time to work on them
but that is what self-cultivation is like: taking crude and shaping it into something beautiful
we should become like unhewn wood
become the uncarved block
we want to be like the simple mass of honest to goodness wood
the nameless unhewn wood is but freedom from desire
our basic desires are simple
in this way, Laozi is directly aiming against the carving metaphor of the Confucians
Confucian metaphor: self-cultivation as a journey
Analects 9.11: "The more I look up at it the higher it seems,the more I delve into it, the harder it becomes. Catching a glimpse of it before me, I then find it suddenly at my back."
the goal of self-cultivation is always off beyond the horizon
"the way is long and the burden is heavy"
for Confucius, to become a Confucian gentleman takes 70 years
the Deodejing says, "let's end the journey, turn around and go back"
for the Deodejing, the metaphor is switched from the journey to a destination, replaced by the metaphor to turn around and come home
and then don't go out again
there are many metaphors of "going home and shutting doors and windows"
go back to your home base
"Without going out the door, one can know the whole world."
you don't need to travel
"Without looking out the window, you can see the Way of Heaven."
heaven is here with you, it is not something you need to go look for
"The further one goes, the less one knows."
the farther you go on your journey, the less authentic language you have
"This is why sages: Know without going abroad, name without having to see, and perfect through nonaction (wu-wei)."
Laozi is the philosopher who uses wu-wei in the closest to its literal sense, i.e. nonaction, or doing nothing and desiring nothing, and he thinks that the Confucians do too much