Being whole in power: feeling good in Chinese philosophy

Feeling good consistently reminds me of the image of water depicted in the Yi Jing:

Water sets the example for the right conduct…It flows on and on, and merely fills up all the places through which it flows; it does not shrink from any dangerous spot nor from any plunge, and nothing can make it lose its own essential nature. It remains true to itself under all conditions.

Thus likewise, if one is sincere when confronted with difficulties, the heart can penetrate the meaning of the situation. And once we have gained inner mastery of a problem, it will come about naturally that the action we take will succeed.

Water reaches its goal by flowing continually. It fills up every depression before it flows on. The superior man follows its example; he is concerned that goodness should be an established attribute of character rather than an accidental and isolated occurrence.

We tend to think of “goodness” in a modern moralistic sense, but the Chinese idea of virtue – like the premodern Western idea – is much more holistic than that.

To be a good person is to be more fully human. Virtue in Chinese thought is equated with the “power” that flows to all things from the Dao.

Daoist and Confucian depictions of virtue therefore tend to the more mysterious and metaphysical than the legalistic or judicial contexts found in the Abrahamic religions.

Here’s an example from the Zhuangzi, where Confucius is depicted describing mysterious power:

What do you mean when you say his powers are whole?” asked Duke Ai.

Confucius said, “Life, death, preservation, loss, failure, success, poverty, riches, worthiness, unworthiness, slander, fame, hunger, thirst, cold, heat – these are the alternations of the world, the workings of fate. Day and night they change place before us and wisdom cannot spy out their source. Therefore, they should not be enough to destroy your harmony; they should not be allowed to enter the Spirit Storehouse.

If you can harmonize and delight in them, master them and never be at a loss for joy, if you can do this day and night without break and make it be spring with everything, mingling with all and creating the moment within your own mind – this is what I call being whole in power.”

I used to interpret this text as a statement of detachment and dispassion. But now I see in it the clear references to happiness, joy, harmony and delight.

This is not a cold and empty sage who feels nothing. It is a person who dwells in joy and happiness independent of external circumstances and thus masters them all.

Creating the moment within your own mind means actively choosing to focus on what feels good rather than letting circumstances dictate how you feel.

It is our worry and concern about external circumstances that disturb our spirit, harm our virtue, and interfere in the harmony and guidance of the Dao.

Desire and the Dao

It appears that many Westerners become interested in Daoism because it is not overtly moralistic. To me, Daoist themes offer a spiritual method that outwardly corresponds to a moral system, yet does so according to its own internal logic. In other words, a Daoist’s conduct ought to correspond to the moral order, but not because he is trying to make his conduct correspond to the moral order.

Western morality is often depicted as moralistic, depending on fear of rule-breaking and in many cases supported by a divine-command metaethic.  If you break the rules, God will condemn you; you are a bad person because you broke the rules; humanity is pathetic and miserable because collectively we broke some long-forgotten rule.

This is not the definitive or most satisfying interpretation from the Western tradition, in fact it appears to be the simplest, lowest-common-denominator interpretation.  I find Daoism refreshing because it is as far away as one might get from a moralistic position while still recognising an objective metaphysical and metaethical reality.

That which was the beginning of all things under heaven
We may speak of as the “mother” of all things.
He who apprehends the mother
Thereby knows the sons.
And he who has known the sons,
Will hold all the tighter to the mother,
And to the end of his days suffer no harm;
“Block the passages, shut the doors,
And till the end your strength shall not fail.
Open up the passages, increase your doings,
And till your last day no help shall come to you.”
As good sight means seeing what is very small
So strength means holding on to what is weak.
He who having used the outer-light can return to the innerlight
Is thereby preserved from all harm.
This is called resorting to the always-so.

Daodejing 52

Wang Bi, the 3rd Century AD Neo-Daoist commentator identifies explains “Block the passages, shut the doors” in terms of desire, specifically the desires for things that pull us away from the “mother” or “root” and toward the “sons” or “branches”.

In other words, desire for things takes us away from the Dao and we cannot help but deteriorate morally, spiritually, and even physically as a result.

To put it in a Christian context, keeping the Ten Commandments is important, but underlying the Ten Commandments is a deeper reality of human desire. That’s why in the New Testament Jesus lifts the bar dramatically by stating that being angry with someone or looking lustfully at someone is tantamount to murder or adultery in one’s heart.

If we are only interested in not breaking the rules, then this internalisation of moral laws sets the bar impossibly high. But if we look at it in terms of actually wanting to be close to God, then it becomes clear that a “rules” mentality is insufficient, and that we must look at the deeper question of desire.

A serious athlete doesn’t regard his coach’s comments and instructions as punishments or arbitrary rules, but as valuable advice and correction. He understands that the coach is there to help him advance and achieve a greater performance.

I think that in the spiritual life moralism must likewise give way to the understanding that our interior orientation is vital to our relationship with God, and that the things which detract from our relationship are the seeds of what we know of as vices and eventually the breach of moral laws.

In Daoist terms, desire pulls us from the way, it depletes our virtue (de), and robs us of the profound peace that is ours in the Dao. Put simply, the cultivation of desire is obviously an inferior and self-defeating path.

 

The safeguard of virtue

My latest piece on MercatorNet looks briefly at the Germanwings disaster, and the problem of negative morality without any corresponding moral or spiritual ideal:

The British writer and journalist G.K. Chesterton identified this morbidity within modern ethics as far back as the 19th Century:

“A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization.  All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours.”

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/the-ultimate-safeguard

Violence and the masculine ideal

In the previous post I linked to a column on violence and gender at the New Statesman by a columnist named Glosswitch – “a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.”

I’m not qualified to comment on the intricacies of feminist theory, but as a father and a man I hope I’m not remiss in taking issue with Glosswitch’s claim that:

Rarely is it argued that since men are particularly vulnerable, they should not go out alone at night or drink above a certain limit. Since men are, potentially, both victim and perpetrator, it seems we’ve resolved to let them fight it out amongst themselves.

As a parent of boys, I find this disturbing. While those raising girls might be faced with the awful yet relatively straightforward paradigm of vulnerable girl/evil world, for those of us with sons it’s more complex. If I attempt to protect my son from his own aggression and that of others, aren’t I pushing him towards “girl” status – the status of a victim? But if I toughen him up and prepare him to fight, am I not just creating another aggressor in a world where over 90 per cent of them are male? As long as masculinity remains powerful, it seems there will never be an in-between.

As a powerfully masculine man myself, it appears the author has fallen into a false dichotomy. It is not the case that men must either be a victim or a perpetrator of violence, because we also have the option of self-defense.

Self-defense is a perfectly legitimate and well established use of force with both legal and moral precedent. Furthermore, defense of self and others is traditionally regarded as an ennobling and virtuous application of masculine power.

The author is right to worry that promoting non-violence will leave her sons vulnerable in a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world. But her false dichotomy of victim/perpetrator pushes her towards a gender-based critique of violence that pins individual security on the hope of an ideologically transformed society.

Do you want your son to kick or be kicked? As long as we maintain our obsession with gender, the choice has to be between aggression or victimhood, masculinity and femininity stripped bare.

Anyone familiar with the theory and practice of self-defense will know that there are alternatives to ‘kick or be kicked’ – alternatives that begin with making informed choices about one’s environment. People interested in self-defense will indeed point out the dangers of being overly intoxicated in the wrong venues at the wrong time. A cursory inspection of violence statistics will demonstrate the increased risk of assault that comes from being out drinking in the early hours of the morning.

For people interested in self-defense, violence is genuinely an unwanted escalation, yet something we ought to be prepared for. I’ve met a number of men involved in martial arts over the years, and their unanimous opinion after years of ‘toughening up’ and learning how to hurt people, is that we should avoid it as far as possible: run away, apologise, humble ourselves, call for help, in order to avoid a fight.

None of these people wish to become victims, and many of them are well prepared and capable of using force to defend themselves. But nor are they remotely inclined to become aggressors, using violence to victimise others.

It is a concern when people promote a view of ‘violence’ that ignores the moral distinction between aggression and self-defense. A man can be tough without being callous, powerful without being violent. Perhaps there are ideological reasons for ignoring such options, but I for one will have no qualms in teaching my son the how’s and why’s of the legitimate use of force. And if I had a daughter I would teach her exactly the same thing.

Reason and reality – a talk

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to give a talk at the local Guild of St Luke, an association of Catholic Health Professionals. I was asked to speak as an ethicist, and it gave me the opportunity to revisit some of the most intriguing themes from my bioethics days.

For those who don’t know, Catholic health professionals work in a difficult environment these days. There is a growing push to remove conscientious objection rights from the medical profession, presenting people with an all-or-nothing dichotomy: violate your conscience or give up being a doctor. It’s good that such associations exist to give support and encouragement not only in a Catholic context, but in the broader domain of ethics and ‘best practice’.

Here’s the basic text of my 15 minute presentation:

At university I wasn’t impressed by ethics. I was more interested in mysticism: reading John of the Cross, Zen Buddhism and everything in between.

What I learned from studying ethics at uni was that we couldn’t rationally defend our moral beliefs because of the is-ought problem; the fact value distinction. You can prove a fact, an ‘is’, but you can’t prove an ‘ought’. As Nietzsche wrote: “there is no such thing as moral phenomena but only moral interpretation of phenomena.”

There might be no way to rationally demonstrate that I should do something, or should want to do something. But I still had a sense of the difference between good and evil. Even if I couldn’t prove it, or convince others, I could choose to follow this intuition. It wasn’t until after university, through my work at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, that I came across a system of ethics which resolved the is-ought problem. It was through the work of a neo-Aristotelian named David Oderberg, that I learned it was in fact possible to rationally demonstrate and elucidate moral principles.

The key is the observation that human beings all desire happiness, though they may never agree on what happiness is. This desire for happiness is a fact, an ‘is’. We are hard-wired to pursue what we believe will make us happy. This observation is the bridge from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. It is a fact all human beings share, from which we can derive the kinds of moral statements that are otherwise philosophically so contentious. Given that you want happiness you ought to do the things that will bring about true happiness, and avoid things that undermine it. How do we identify these things? Through logic, observation, and experience. This is the substance of ethics.

Along the way I picked up other principles and approaches that complement this ethical system: most significantly, the philosophical method of argument from first principles.

You see, in university I was struck by scepticism [an attitude of doubt, or a belief that true knowledge is impossible] and solipsism [the idea that only my own mind can be sure to exist, from solus ipse ‘self alone’]: two approaches that emphasise the limitations of our knowledge. How can we be sure of anything? How do we know the world is not a dream or illusion? Can we trust our senses? Is experience reliable? If you take on board too much scepticism, there is very little you can say. Scepticism can lend itself to a kind of relativism – an approach where the standard of truth are hard to pin down and the boundaries of knowledge and speculation disappear.

Modern philosophers are, if nothing else, very good at analytical coherence. They may not know if you are right or wrong, they may not agree on what right and wrong even mean, or if they even exist; but they can at least tell if you are being consistent and coherent. In a world of philosophical disagreement, you must at least agree with yourself.

As with the fact-value distinction, it can be hard to nail even the most coherent philosophising to the ground. Hard to bridge the gap between complex theorising and simple reality. This is where first principles become so important, especially in the practical approach to ethics – the difficult task of working out what I ought to be doing.

The first principles include:

1) An object cannot both be and not be, at the same time and in the same way.

2) Every effect has a cause, and every cause has an effect.

3) A thing is what it is.

These are basic observations of reality, and form also the basic principles of reason.

1) The principle of non-contradiction: a statement cannot be true and false at the same time, and in the same way.

2) The principal of sufficient reason: everything must have a reason or cause.

3) The principle of identity: A is A, every thing is what it is.

Knowledge of these first principles in reason and reality shows that reason and reality are connected. Our reason, logic, is derived from and a reflection of the logic of reality itself.

This is truly profound. And the more I reflected on these principles the more coherent and dynamic and integral they became. In order to speak and think rationally, we must respect these principles. If we don’t then not only are we being irrational, we are being unrealistic.

Reality – coming from the Latin res – simply means ‘all things’; the rules of reality are the rules all things obey. Not the physical rules but the deeper ontological rules. Things do not simply come into and out of existence for no reason. Objects are not both square and round, or both big and small, in the same way and at the same time. All things obey these rules, and these are the same rules or principles we acknowledge is the basis of reason – our reason.

Is it a coincidence that Christian Scripture and the early Church chose the Greek term logos – the principle of order, the active reason pervading and animating the universe, the anima mundi – to describe the son of God, through whom all things were made, and whose life is the light of men?

For me this was the point at which philosophy and Christianity first intersected, a coming together of natural and revealed theology. In practical terms, and remembering ethics as practical reasoning, this understanding of the logos at work in reality and in our own minds is one of the most reassuring, comforting, and inspiring things one could hope to learn.

It means that no matter how difficult life may become, this universe, reality itself, is not absurd. The stones themselves cry out in the language of reason, declaring the first principles and thereby telling us something of the nature of our maker.

Reason is some part of the life and nature of God, the ipsum esse subsistens; and in our participation in reason, I think we are more truly taking part in the life our creator intended for us. Any philosopher will, I hope, attest to the joy and delight of elevated reason.

China’s Virtuous President

My latest article on MercatorNet examines Chinese President Xi Jinping’s penchant for quoting Chinese philosophers.  China has come a long way since the Cultural Revolution, when Confucius and other great thinkers were derided and contemned.  What does the changing regime have in store for the great tradition of the sages?

Does Xi truly believe with Confucius that “He who rules by virtue is like the North Star. It maintains its place, and the multitude of stars pay homage”? Or is he just looking for a pragmatic new facade for the much more recent ‘tradition’ of unchallenged Communist Party rule?