The use of being useless

The superior man
Understands the transitory
In the light of the eternity of the end.

Sometimes when reading the Yi Jing or Confucian books, we can forget that the “superior man” is not recognised as such by our society or culture.

The Daoist classics offer a more colourful account of the sage or the man of virtue as someone who stands apart from society and culture, someone whose words and actions are as likely to bemuse or confuse as they are to enlighten.

In emulating the “uncarved block” Laozi describes himself as seemingly inferior to others:

All men, indeed, are wreathed in smiles,
As though feasting after the Great Sacrifice,
As though going up to the Spring Carnival.
I alone am inert, like a child that has not yet given sign;
Like an infant that has not yet smiled.
I droop and drift, as though I belonged nowhere.
All men have enough and to spare;
I alone seem to have lost everything.
Mine is indeed the mind of a very idiot,
So dull am I.
The world is full of people that shine;
I alone am dark.
They look lively and self-assured;
I alone depressed.
(I seem unsettled as the ocean;
Blown adrift, never brought to a stop.)
All men can be put to some use;
I alone am intractable and boorish.

His description is reminiscent of Zhuangzi’s “use of what is useless”, and we find it echoing again in the theme of this blog – the superior man is not a utensil.

To be interested in this stuff, to take it seriously, let alone to try to practice it, is to invest in something profoundly anti-social and counter-cultural, at least as our society and culture currently stand. Like choosing poverty over wealth, low status over high, solitude over popularity.

Understanding the transitory in the light of the eternity of the end sounds well and good until you realise that “the transitory” includes everything that occupies and demands our attention in nearly every moment of ordinary life.

Who wants to be dull, dark and depressed? Who wants to be intractable and boorish? But that’s what remains when your desire for the transitory begins to fade.

I don’t like “God”

The etymology of God comes from the proto-germanic word for “that which is invoked”.

Which is not a bad term to use for a supreme being; so why don’t I like it?

Perhaps it is the sound: too short, too round, too hard. It should rhyme with cod, sod, mod, rod, but doesn’t; the vowel-sound is lengthened unlike any word I can find (in Australian English, mind you).

It stands alone, doesn’t fit, which could be fitting for the subject.

But the word of our ancestor’s faith is Deus. Deus from the same root as Zeus, both from a root that means to gleam or shine, God being the shining thing.

Familiarity breeds contempt. Perhaps “God” is an invocation now so worn from over and mis-use it no longer shines?

In via negativa fashion we don’t have to give it a name. “The name which can be named is not the eternal name”. And when denoting an ineffable transcendent reality, a name is only as good as its power to invoke the thing named, or as a reminder of what it is and what it isn’t.

It’s hard to go beyond “I am He who is”.

We are supposed to go beyond concepts, let alone beyond names. So there’s no problem in not liking “God”, when what we really don’t like is centuries of accretion, familiarity, worldly meaning and false piety.  The more important thing is to know what we’re naming, whether and however we name it or not.



Easter vigil notes

Another reading that caught my attention over the Triduum was the Easter vigil Epistle from Romans I:

If in union with Christ we have imitated his death, we shall also imitate him in the his resurrection. We must realise that our former selves have been crucified with him to destroy this sinful body and to free us from the slavery of sin. When a man dies, of course, he has finished with sin.

But we believe that having died with Christ we shall return to life with him; Christ, as we know, having been raised from the dead will never die again. Death has no power over him any more.  When he died, he died, once for all, to sin, so his life now is life with God; and in that way, you too must consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus.

Paul has never made a great deal of sense to me, and it was not until recently that I learned he is not supposed to ‘make sense’ in terms of proposing a fully developed, explicit theological system. Still, I can’t help but wonder about the nature of “union with Christ”, and in what sense we have “imitated his death”. How have we died with Christ? A friend explained it in the Catholic context of sacramental theology, which led to an interesting but inconclusive discussion. Coming from a more naive realist perspective, the key phrase would seem to be “you must consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus”, with consideration and imitation the operative factors.

In this light, what struck me was another point of comparison from my reading in Daoism, specifically the work of Edward Slingerland – Effortless Action: Wu-Wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China – which includes an intriguing analysis of dyadic metaphors of higher and lower terms in the Laozi:

Throughout the text we are presented with dyads of metaphorically “lower” and “higher” terms: soft/hard; weak/strong; empty/full. As Benjamin Schwartz notes, the “lower” (by conventional standards) term inevitably enjoys a higher true status in Laozi’s scheme than the ostensibly “higher” term; water, as he puts it, is “in a profounder sense stronger than stone” (Schwartz 1986: 203). Such is the Way the world works: that which is conventionally “high”(e.g., strong) inevitably reverts to the low (weakness), and thus true strength thus lies in holding to “weakness.” One is able to endure by holding fast to the “roots” (to “Nothing” and the negative qualities associated with it) and not getting dragged “up” into the realm of doing and regarding.


The Way itself is thus described in terms of “lower” qualities that actually encompass their opposites (“empty yet full”), and the best advice is to emulate the Way and hold fast to the conventionally lower element of the dyad. Once one is able to accomplish this, both sides of the dyad will be obtained.

In practice this spiritual ideal of embracing the lower half of the dyad and thus emulating the Way extends into some very familiar territory:

The Way does not discriminate between injury or kindness and choose its response accordingly, but nourishes equally all of the myriad things. It thus gives things life without demanding “justice” in the Confucian sense—that is, demanding to be honored and showered with ritual gratitude:

The Way gives [the myriad things] life, raises them;
Causes them to grow, nourishes them;
Perfects and matures them;
Cultivates and protects them.
Giving birth to them and yet laying no claim;
Acting, but not dwelling upon the action;
Leading without being domineering—
This is called mysterious Virtue [xuande]. (chapter 51)

So rather than discriminating—imposing human distinctions upon the world— one should emulate the Way and stick to the “lower” path: that is, to the element of dyadic distinctions (such as kindness in the dyad “sternness/kindness”) that is closest to the Way. Thus we read in chapter 79 that the sage “takes the left-hand tally, but exacts no payment from the people,” The left-hand tally is the half of a contract held by the creditor, and “uprightness” in the Confucian sense would demand that this contract be fulfilled—that the debt incurred by the creditor be paid. The Laozian sage, however, is undemanding in the same manner that the Way is undemanding, understood in terms of the social metaphor of the mother: he gives to the people and yet asks for nothing in return, holding fast to kindness and discarding the sort of sternness that would demand a quid pro quo.

So much of this is reminiscent of aspects of Christ’s teaching, such as the parable of the unmerciful servant, or the passage: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Finally, the promise of salvation in its various expressions, whether it be the remedial passages of the beatitudes (“the meek shall inherit the earth”), or Christ’s own reference to the book of psalms: “The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief corner stone. This is the LORD’S doing; It is marvelous in our eyes” likewise brings to completion this dyadic paradox in which “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”:

This method of sticking to the conventionally lower, more encompassing term—and thereby attaining in reality the higher term—is referred to by Laozi in chapter 22 as “holding to oneness” (zhiyi):

The crooked will be whole;
The bent will be straight;
The empty will be full;
The exhausted will be renewed;
The few will win out;
The many will be thrown into confusion.
Therefore the sage holds to oneness
And in this way serves as the shepherd of the world.
He has no regard for himself, and so is illustrious;
He does not show himself, and so is bright;
He does not brag, and so is given merit;
He does not boast, and so his name endures.
It is only because he does not contend that no one in the world is able to contend with him.
When the ancients said, “The crooked will be whole,” these were not
idle words. Truly they return us to wholeness [quan guizhi]



Thinking beyond gender equality etiquette

My latest article has been published on Eureka Street, wherein I bring a bit of Chinese philosophy to bear on the ideal approach to gender equality:

Our family performed well in regard to key gender equality concepts described in the report, such as: power-sharing and decision-making within relationships, whilst avoiding stereotypical ideas of gender roles, ‘benevolent sexism’, hostility towards women and gender equality, and narrow ideals of masculinity and femininity, including objectification of women. Yet the concept of gender or of gender equality was never explicitly invoked. Instead it was simply common sense that we ought to treat people as individuals and have concern for their individual well-being.

The Disadvantages of Depth

One of the first attractions of philosophy was that it offered a deeper understanding.  It may not have promised answers, but some things are too big for questions and answers, and philosophy was the one discipline that allowed no limitations on its inquiry.  I took for granted that a deep understanding was superior to a shallow one; that a considered answer would always trump an ill-considered response.  But it turns out that there are realms where a shallow understanding is more than sufficient, and an ill-considered response is by no means disadvantageous.

How is this possible?

It is possible because regardless of the merits of depth, it has the following drawbacks: depth is slow, depth is cautious, depth is elitist.  Depth is therefore easy to decry as unnecessary, wasteful, and inappropriate.  Better still, depth can be characterised as something other than depth entirely – it can be superficially described as uncertainty, hesitation, arrogance, obstinacy, or inactivity.  In fact all of these descriptors may seem entirely justified from the point of view of someone with no interest in depth or appreciation of its value.  So long as one is judged by shallow people, one’s pursuit of greater depth will be entirely unappreciated and disparaged.

In many fields, shallow people are at an advantage.  Why look for greater depth than is required to convince one’s peers?  Greater depth will just slow you down, and when it comes to selling oneself, creating an image, or making an impression: qui prior est tempore potior est jure.  ‘He who is earlier in time is stronger in law’.

As one of the most enigmatic passages from the Dao De Jing explains, he who pursues a deeper understanding finds himself at odds with the rest of humanity:

How joyous the mass of people are, as if banqueting on the sacrificed ox, as if mounting a tower in spring –
I alone am still, without visible sign, like a new born baby yet to smile, all listless, like one with no home.
The mass of people have more than enough –
I alone appear bereft; I, with the mind of a dolt, so slow.
Ordinary men are brilliant –
I am dim.
Ordinary men are perceptive –
I am closed.
Sudden, like the sea, like a tempest, as though endless, the mass of people all have their means –
I alone am obstinate, uncouth.
I alone wish to be different from others, and value feeding from the mother.

translated by Robert Eno


The pursuit of depth separates us from the majority of people.  It brings with it different priorities, different concerns, a different way of perceiving the world.  But for us it is self-evidently the better part of life.  And if the better part of life is ridiculed by others, then as the Dao De Jing states:

When the man of highest capacities hears Tao
He does his best to put it into practice.
When the man of middling capacity hears Tao
He is in two minds about it.
When the man of low capacity hears Tao
He laughs loudly at it.
If he did not laugh, it would not be worth the name of Tao.
Therefore the proverb has it:
“The way out into the light often looks dark,
The way that goes ahead often looks as if it went back.”
The way that is least hilly often looks as if it went up and down,
The “power” that is really loftiest looks like an abyss,
What is sheerest white looks blurred.
The “power” that is most sufficing looks inadequate,
The “power” that stands firmest looks flimsy.
What is in its natural, pure state looks faded;
The largest square has no corners,
The greatest vessel takes the longest to finish,
Great music has the faintest notes,
The Great From is without shape.
For Tao is hidden and nameless.
Yet Tao alone supports all things and brings them to fulfillment.

translated by Arthur Waley


Stoicism and the Dao

More from Frede:

This focus on our internal life is sharpened by the fact that, according to the Stoics, wisdom is the only good, that a wise life is a good life, and that nothing else matters. So long as one acts wisely, one lives a life of (for us) unimaginable satisfaction and bliss, whatever may happen to one, whether one gets tortured or maimed or killed. The wise person will normally be concerned to avoid such things, but, if they do happen, they will make no difference to him, as he is just concerned to act wisely, by giving assent when appropriate and refusing assent when inappropriate. So the whole focus of one’s life now is on one’s inner life. And there is a further factor which reinforces this focus, namely, the assumption that the course of the world outside is predetermined. All the wise person can do is try to avoid death, but if he does not manage that, he takes this as a sure sign that nature in her wisdom means him to die and that therefore it is a good thing for him to die. All he has to do, having failed in his attempts to avoid impending death, is to give assent to the thought that it must be a good thing that he is going to die.

There are certain parallels to the Zhuangzi:

Before long Tsze-lâi fell ill, and lay gasping at the point of death, while his wife and children stood around him wailing. Tsze-lî went to ask for him, and said to them, ‘Hush! Get out of the way! Do not disturb him as he is passing through his change.’ Then, leaning against the door, he said (to the dying man), ‘Great indeed is the Creator! What will He now make you to become? Where will He take you to? Will He make you the liver of a rat, or the arm of an insect? Tsze-lâi replied, ‘Wherever a parent tells a son to go, east, west, south, or north, he simply follows the command. The Yin and Yang are more to a man than his parents are. If they are hastening my death, and I do not quietly submit to them, I shall be obstinate and rebellious. There is the great Mass (of nature);– I find the support of my body in it; my life is spent in toil on it; my old age seeks ease on it; at death I find rest on it:– what has made my life a good will make my death also a good.

‘Here now is a great founder, casting his metal. If the metal were to leap up (in the pot), and say, “I must be made into a (sword like the) Mo-yeh,” the great founder would be sure to regard it as uncanny. So, again, when a form is being fashioned in the mould of the womb, if it were to say, “I must become a man; I must become a man,” the Creator would be sure to regard it as uncanny. When we once understand that heaven and earth are a great melting-pot, and the Creator a great founder, where can we have to go to that shall not be right for us? We are born as from a quiet sleep, and we die to a calm awaking.’

To be honest, I really dislike these sections of the Zhuangzi. Guo Xiang, the fourth century Neo-Daoist interpreter and compiler of the Zhuangzi, argued that beings were ‘self-generated’. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Guo takes issue with the view that the key to unlocking the mystery of Dao lies in the concept of wu, nothingness. This is because nothingness remains an abstraction, a negation signifying “nonbeing” or what being is not in Wang Bi’s interpretation, and as such cannot bring about creation. So defined, wu and the category of beings (you) are mutually exclusive; as Guo plainly states, “It is not only that wu cannot change into being but also that being cannot change into nonbeing [in this abstract sense] (commentary to Zhuangzi 22). The appeal to a divine creator should indeed be rejected, but this does not entail a nihilistic absence. Having disposed of these options, what does Guo Xiang have to offer in their place? He writes, “Because wu [by definition] is not being, it cannot produce being. Prior to the coming to be of being, it cannot produce other beings. In that case, then, who or what brought about the birth of being? [The answer can only be that] beings are spontaneously self-generated”


At the most basic ontological level, prior to the birth of the myriad beings, being is “so of itself,” which implies that being exists eternally. In Guo’s own words, “Generally, we may know the causes of certain things and affairs near to us. But tracing their origin to the ultimate end, we find that without any cause, they of themselves come to be what they are. Being so of themselves, we can no longer question the reason or cause of their being, but should accept them as they are”

This is in contrast to Wang Bi, who developed a form of ‘First Cause’ argument:

Like He Yan, Wang Bi focuses on the concept of “nothingness” (wu) in his explication of Dao. Indeed, as Wang states explicitly, “Dao” is but “the designation of wu,” a symbol of the basis of all beings and functions (commentary to Lunyu 7.6). Contrary to He Yan, however, Wang Bi does not regard the argument from Dao’s completeness to be able to explain fully the mystery of Dao. This is because it fails to resolve the problem of infinite regress. If the chain of beings were to be traced to a specific agent or entity, the origin of the latter must itself be questioned. What gives rise to the category of beings thus cannot be a being, no matter how powerful or fecund, with or without differentiated features. This does not necessarily invalidate the yin-yang cosmological theory, which does yield important insight into the workings of nature and society. Nevertheless, it cannot lay bare the highest Daoist truth, with which the sages of old were principally concerned. To bring to light the mysterious and profound, reflection must venture beyond what may be called the ontology of substance to discern the logic of wu.

‘Wu’ is not simply ‘nothing’, since it is designated by ‘Dao’, everything that is said of Dao must apply to wu. Rather, ‘nothingness’ in dichotomy with ‘you’ as ‘being’, encompasses the ontological distinction between the ‘ten thousand things’ or created beings including humans, and the invisible, intangible, mysterious ‘thing’ that we can hardly call a ‘thing’ since it differs so substantially. Wang Bi admits that in its apparent emptiness, we could pretend the Dao does not exist at all…were it not for the evidence of its effects.

One wishes to say that it does not exist? [The fact still remains] that the entities are based on it for their completion. One wants to say it exists? [The fact still remains] that it does not show its form. That is why [the text] says: “shape of the shapeless, appearance of the no-thing.”
– Rudolf Wagner, A Chinese Reading of the Daodejing

For Wang Bi, the ’emptiness’ of the Dao is its power. To follow the Dao is to embody its emptiness in our lives. This is achieved by getting rid of desires and private interests, including the desire for virtue, which turns out to be a fruitless chasing after the appearance, rather than the source, of virtue. Being free from desires and aversions based in private interests allows one, like water, to adopt the lowliest position without contention.

That the supple overcomes the hard and the soft the violently rigid is known to everyone in All Under Heaven, but no one is able to put [this] to practice. That is why in the statements of the Sage, “[Only] he who takes on himself the humiliation of the state I call the lord of the altars of the nation; [only] he who takes upon himself the misfortune of the state I call the king of All Under Heaven” straight words seem paradoxical.