Freedom from desire

An interesting theme in my current studies is the boundary between self and other, and how this boundary shifts as a consequence of different theories of free will.

For example, a simple theory of free will might hold that one acts voluntarily except when one’s actions are the result of physical coercion or ignorance.  Non-coerced actions can be considered the product of free will.

But a more complex theory of free will would recognise that sometimes we act in ways that are difficult to own as fully voluntary, such as eating dessert when you’ve sworn you want to lose weight.  No one has physically coerced you to eat the dessert, yet in the broader context of your wishes, intentions, and subsequent regrets, it doesn’t seem quite right to say that eating the dessert is representative of your free will.

Accordingly some have suggested that we are not free when we act in accordance with our lower appetites.  In the same vein, others have said that ‘free’ actions are those which arise from truly rational considerations. To exercise free will is to act in accordance with rational desire; anything less is a kind of slavery.

But in accepting this more nuanced view of the will, we implicitly redraw the boundary between self and other; the coercive forces we face are no longer external, physical agents but internal appetites and desires.  What is the ‘self’ that is the subject of these appetites, the self that might somehow will instead to follow reason?

This internalisation of the self is not a necessary outcome of a more complex view of free will, but it does make such a perspective easier to adopt.  We start viewing ourselves a little like a homunculus positioned somewhere back behind our eyes, controlling our body and attempting to reason and make choices while assailed by powerful appetites and desires.

The internalised self may be a promising line of inquiry for when I start examining Chinese philosophical texts on the topic of free will. Take, for example, this extract from the QingJing Jing or ‘Classic of Purity and Rest’, a Daoist text developed supposedly in response to the emerging Buddhist theme of ’emptiness’ typified by the Heart Sutra.

Now the spirit of man loves Purity, but his mind disturbs it. The mind of man loves stillness, but his desires draw it away. If he could always send his desires away, his mind would of itself become still. Let his mind be made clean, and his spirit will of itself become pure.

As a matter of course the six desires won’t arise, and the three poisons will be taken away and disappear.

The reason why men are not able to attain to this, is because their minds have not been cleansed, and their desires have not been sent away.

If one is able to send the desires away, when he then looks in at his mind, it is no longer his; when he looks out at his body, it is no longer his; and when he looks farther off at external things, they are things which he has nothing to do with.

Sending the desires away may imply a similarly internalised view of the will, such that one is able to control or manipulate mental faculties as though they were external objects.

The end point in this Daoist context is achieving a state of purity and stillness concomitant with the Dao itself:

In that condition of rest independently of place how can any desire arise? And when no desire any longer arises, there is the True stillness and rest.

That True (stillness) becomes (a) constant quality, and responds to external things (without error); yea, that True and Constant quality holds possession of the nature.


He who has this absolute purity enters gradually into the (inspiration of the) True Dao. And having entered thereinto, he is styled Possessor of the Dao.


It is intriguing that the Daoist text portrays desires as an intrinsically disturbing force that should be ‘put away’.  This presents another opportunity for fruitful comparison with Stoicism, where such desires are viewed as the product of our assent to false beliefs.  This is, in turn, reminiscent of the Buddhist assertion that the unsatisfactory nature of existence can be traced back to ignorant desire.

If we put aside desires, our mind and spirit will revert to their natural purity and stillness, bringing us back to the influence of the Dao.  This is consistent with Wang Bi’s much earlier commentary on the Dao De Jing, the heart of the Daoist Canon, in which he depicts the goal of the sage as embracing ’emptiness’ through renunciation of private interests and desires.

I think this critical attitude toward desire is a crucial part of serious religious practice universally.  We should not be surprised to find it emerging in the context of Daoism, Buddhism, and even Stoicism, as part of a broader attempt to discover the root of humanity’s failing and misery, and the path towards a renovation of the human spirit.

What it means to be free


In my reading of the early free will debate it became apparent that our modern notion of ‘free’ is quite different from that of the Greek philosophers.

For us the freedom of a ‘free will’ implies an unbounded capacity, the absence of limitations, the ability to pick and choose according to our own desires.

But for earlier thinkers, those who laid the foundations of the ‘free will’ concept, to be free meant to be rational, wise, and virtuous.  Free did mean the absence of limitations, but only the kinds of limitations that stop us from acting and being as we ought.  The apparent paradox is that wise and virtuous people have no freedom in the modern sense: an honest person is not free to tell a lie. We might even say that virtuous people are ‘enslaved’ by virtue, and the wise have no choice but to act according to wisdom.

The ancient understanding of freedom was built around a normative sense of human potential and human virtue, just as a doctor’s understanding of health is built around a study of the correct functioning of the human organism.  ‘Free’ was defined in that context, not in a modern context of existential doubt and an overarching relativism.

Freedom for them was like the free movement of a joint. In a state of health your shoulder should be free to move within its proper range.  If you dislocate your shoulder you may be able to extend it beyond its proper range, but this would not be considered ‘free movement’.

Ultimately, this ancient idea of freedom is grounded in an equally deep understanding of what is good for us, such that being free means having an unrestricted opportunity to pursue and enjoy these goods.

It certainly casts a different light on our contemporary sense of freedom and individual autonomy, which is less about the content of our choices and more about our sense of power and sufficiency in the face of obstacles and limitations.  The modern idea of freedom and autonomy puts an emphasis on overcoming and avoiding obstacles at a cost to our understanding of wisdom and virtue.  It’s why so many people apparently choose to have Sinatra’s “My Way” sung at their funerals.  In the end we take comfort not from diligently pursuing something greater than ourselves, but from what is essentially an egoists self-justification set to an uplifting melody.

I think on some level we know that virtue is a kind of limitation, which is probably why we fear it. Not only is virtue difficult to achieve, but it means giving up attitudes and actions that, for most of us, are the substance of our lives.  To be free of our attachments and desires is indeed an intimidating thought.



The Dao of Parenting

A fence in a Japanese Buddhist temple. Nothing Daoist about it!

Raising a child is admittedly very frustrating, and I worry that I am not doing it right, that I am not a good influence on my child, that he might turn out like a more deficient version of me.

For example, our son loves the computer and wants to play with it constantly.  I worry that this is not a healthy pastime, that it may be inculcating an excessive reliance on the high artifice of technology, maybe even harming his neurological development.

But its not simply that computers and smartphones are attractive to him – he also sees that his parents spend an inordinate amount of time working, communicating, and playing on them.

So immediately we encounter the parental double-standard: I want him to “do as I say, not as I do”; I want him to behave contrary to the model I am providing.  If it’s unhealthy for him, isn’t it unhealthy for me? Or if it’s okay for me, shouldn’t it be okay for him as well?

I think this example reflects a deeper awareness that our lives are not as they should be.  We do not live in a paradisiacal state, yet this is what my idealism pushes me towards.  So when my son starts to throw a tantrum because I won’t let him play with the computer while I try to work on my PhD, I cannot shake the sense that something is going wrong.

Ideally he would not be throwing tantrums, but I’m not sure that the problem lies in him. He is, after all, an innocent child, and the real cause of the tantrum is that he’s presented with an enticing object (the computer) to which his parents are clearly devoted, yet he is not allowed to join in the very interesting activities of hitting buttons and moving the mouse and making the screen do interesting things.

As a parent, I wouldn’t show my child enticing food if I didn’t intend to feed it to him. Yet showing him the computer but not letting him play is akin to showing him food and not letting him eat it.  His behaviour is quite natural; is mine?

The Daoist approach – indeed much of Chinese thought in general – is preoccupied with the idea of the natural.  Natural is generally superior to the artificial, since it is in our nature as human beings that we find our virtue, our power.

From the Daoist point of view an innocent child exemplifies nature.  He is uncontrived, he does not plot and plan, he does not act according to elaborate schemes. He eats when he is hungry and (largely) sleeps when he is tired.  He doesn’t harm himself by pursuing strange and inordinate desires contrary to his nature. The child is reminiscent of the sage.

Or at least he is until he starts throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get his own way; and in this we find an example in miniature of the broader Daoist perspective on human life.

Our instinctive response to a child throwing a tantrum is to make him stop, raise our voices, tell him off, or distract him.  We would institute rules and discipline to teach the child not to play with the computer.  We would erect artificial boundaries to stop the child from doing what comes naturally: emulating his parents.

A more ‘natural’ response might be to examine the causes of his behaviour, but this would require an uncomfortable degree of self-scrutiny, since the primary cause of his behaviour is my behaviour. As the ancient Chinese text The Classic of Change puts it:

If someone is not as he should be,
He has misfortune,
And it does not further him
To undertake anything.

– Yi Jing, 25: Innocence

It is I, rather than my son, who “is not as he should be”, and all my undertakings – my efforts to impose discipline and better behaviour in him – will not improve the situation.  After all, if I am not addressing the root of the problem, I can only add to the dysfunction.  He is already responding naturally to an unnatural situation; my attempts to change his behaviour directly can only result in him responding unnaturally to an unnatural situation.

I think the better solution is to be open to rethinking our way of life right to the core.  Giving up employment has been a good first step, but our lives are still unbalanced and far from what they should be.  The Daoist ideal is to put things right, which means putting things back in accord with our underlying nature, removing the obstacles and impediments, the desires and schemes which constitute our departure from the way.

This is, however, a long and difficult process, and the raising of a child cannot be put on hold until things are perfect.  What are we to do in the meantime? How are we to act, when all our actions might betray some unwitting error or insufficiency in ourselves? Again the Yi Jing provides an answer:

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

– Yi Jing, 54: The Marrying Maiden

As the commentary explains:

Every relationship between individuals bears within it the danger that wrong turns may be taken, leading to endless misunderstandings and disagreements. Therefore it is necessary constantly to remain mindful of the end.If we permit ourselves to drift along, we come together and are parted again as the day may determine. If on the other hand a man fixes his mind on an end that endures, he will succeed in avoiding the reefs that confront the closer relationships of people.

What this signifies is that our interactions as parents with our children must be coloured and shaped by ‘the end’, which in this instance can be none other than the development of a strong and secure bond of affection.  If we lose sight of this end, we will be lost amidst worries and concerns, doubts and uncertainties.  But if instead we are always mindful of the end, though we may not know how things will ultimately turn out, we can at least be sure of the affection we have nurtured and developed.

I think this has to be the way forward: I will surely make mistakes, but so long as I am mindful of the ideal – a loving, enduring relationship with my son – I will have done at least one thing right.

A man of many parts-time

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m balancing freelance writing with PhD studies and an eighteen-month-old son.  That’s three part-time activities which, I suspect, potentially add up to more than one full-time life.  It’s all held together at present in a state of delicate balance, easily thrown out by the slightest change.

If, for example, my wife gets an extra day of work one week, I pick up an extra day of caring for our son – an activity that dominates and drives out all other thoughts.  This past week I’ve effectively had three days of child-care.

My studies are likewise susceptible to dramatic challenges and change: for the past six months or so I’ve been reading and commenting on a history of free will from Aristotle to Augustine.

It’s an excellent book. The author delves into the origins of the ‘free will’ notion, overturning in the process some long established conventions.  He shows that Aristotle did not have a notion of the free will, the idea instead originating in Stoicism and subsequently read back into Aristotle by later generations.

Frede challenges the received wisdom that St Augustine was the original source of a ‘new’ free will concept, showing instead that Augustine’s view is largely derivative of the contemporary Stoic perspective.  For example, Augustine’s strong dichotomy of the free versus the enslaved; the idea that though we are still responsible for our exercise of will we are nonetheless no longer free; the view that God has the ability to arrange things such that He can direct our unfree will; all of these are present in the Stoicism that pervaded the Roman world in Augustine’s time.

I’m still not clear on the context and implications of all this, but it is startling to recognise how deep an influence Stoicism has had on the development of Christian thought.  It is not unusual to see Western Civilisation as a Judeo-Christian-Hellenic composite, but it was not clear to me how influential Stoicism in particular had been.  One might almost wonder whether Christianity took on board Stoicism, or Stoicism took up Christianity.

Frede’s text is scholarly and not light reading, but I’ve learned a great deal from it and will undoubtedly continue to refer back to his work as I progress.

But having recently reached the end of the book, I now have to progress on my own through the continued free will debate.  Instead of having that path clearly marked by such a prestigious scholar as Frede, I’m now proceeding one step at a time, testing the ground as I go.

This stage is far more challenging, mostly because this entire PhD project is full of uncertainty.  As a student, one is in the position of not knowing the final outcome, what one’s final work will look like, or even the direction in which it will turn.  It’s particularly hard for me, I believe, as a melancholic to determine the ‘ideal’ level of detail or amount of effort to dedicate to any particular step.

So as I move on to Thomas Aquinas’ theory of free will, I’m learning the limitations of my own knowledge, but also the limits of intellectual habits: second-guessing myself is an unacceptable delay when there is so much work still to be done.  Likewise, my desire to get right to the very heart, or to the roots of each question is impossibly idealistic.  I do not have time to learn ancient Greek and master Aristotle; I must learn to rely on the work of other scholars, even if this leaves me with a sense of doubt.

Ultimately, as my supervisor reassured me, it isn’t my job to master all these topics, but to gain a working knowledge of the Western free will debate, in order to apply its lessons to the less familiar context of the Chinese philosophers.

Juggling these three part-time occupations will always provide a challenge, and I have to prioritise the duties of a stay-at-home dad over the responsibilities of a PhD student, over the opportunities of a freelance writer.  But even in this order of priorities new challenges and possibilities emerge.  I can’t get my son to help me with my PhD, and I can’t turn my PhD into a study of child development, but I can write more about my PhD and my experiences as a stay-at-home dad on this blog and in my articles.


A richer life on a lower income

Step 1: My home-roasted coffee

I’ve often thought about becoming a professional freelance writer, but never thought I could earn enough to replace or even approach my previous income.

But what if I didn’t need to replace my previous income? What if I was to reject the financial imperative that says “make as much money as you can for as long as you can regardless of the cost”?

Because the cost has been pretty high. My experience of business has shown it to be a surprisingly shallow, unaccountable, egotistical and dysfunctional place, with an ethos inimical to the values and ideals I’ve cultivated for much of my life. Anecdotal evidence suggests my experience has not been unusual.

The cost of finding a similar role, of enduring further wasting of my skills and my time, makes the higher income look like a pretty bad deal. By contrast, the freedom and integrity of being a writer makes my much diminished income seem much more attractive.

I’m currently a part-time Phd Student, a part-time writer, and a part-time stay-at-home dad; and I’m adding to the mix a theme I’m calling ‘Richer on a lower income’: an idea that encompasses not only the sheer relief in transitioning from a pointless office job – one of David Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs‘ – to a far more meaningful career, but also the various ways in which a lower income lifestyle turns out to be far richer than a higher income one that is constrained by the limitations of working life and the ultimately unsatisfying distractions of consumer culture.

In practice it means pushing back against a strictly consumerist way of life, producing more and consuming less. It means learning to live on a significantly smaller income, but being open to different streams of income rather than being tied to a single wage.

As time goes on I’ll be updating you on the experiences and data, the sacrifices and the achievements as we see what life can look like when we step away from pointless conventions and follow our ideals.

What makes an endeavour shallow?

Due to relatively popular demand (1 counts as popular here; besides ‘popular’ simple means ‘of the people’, and I happen to know that the commenter in question is people).

As I was saying: people have demanded that I expand on my previous post, in which I created a dichotomy of shallowness and depth which though clearly insightful left some questions unanswered.

What is it, specifically, that makes an endeavour shallow?

While it might at first seem that the shallow/deep dichotomy is entirely relative, there are objective limitations to the relativism in human terms.  For example, as our commenter pointed out:

Even the ocean is both deep and shallow depending on your perspective.

However, we are all bound by a particular perspective – that of a human being. And despite the diversity in the normal range of human height, we are not so different that the question of depth of water is completely relative.  Depending on the context, if someone asks whether the water is deep or shallow, we tend to discern their meaning and arrive at the correct response quite easily.  It is only when the context is lacking that we are unable to offer a meaningful response.

People often take clauses such as ‘depending on your perspective’ to imply such a variety of perspectives that objective assessment becomes meaningless.  ‘Depending on your perspective’ starts, somewhat paradoxically, to imply a kind of ‘view from nowhere’, such that we begin to feel as though deep and shallow can have no real meaning since there is no truly objective perspective from which to make a valid assessment.

But ultimately, the fact that the terms are relative is not a new phenomenon, the fact that people have been meaningfully asking and answering questions about depth, makes the relativist critique somewhat redundant.  It’s a little like pointing out that units of measurement such as the gram or the ounce are in fact arbitrary, as though this should have some practical implication on the practice of weighing things.

In light of this brief analysis, we can return to the more difficult question of what makes an endeavour (metaphorically) shallow?

In my experience, the metaphor of depth and shallowness applied to human affairs is likewise relative, in that it amounts to a criticism or observation dependent on the insight or experience of another person.  For example, if I describe my thesis topic to my PhD supervisor, he may quite justifiably recognise that my knowledge of the field is not as deep as it ought to be in order to complete my thesis successfully.  This is analogous to pointing out that the water at the end of the jetty is too shallow for swimmers to dive into safely.

But my supervisor can only critique my knowledge as shallow because his knowledge is deeper, by which we mean his knowledge is more detailed, thorough, and far-reaching.  My supervisor in turn represents a standard of scholarship that is established and maintained across the whole academic discipline.  So even without my supervisor telling me my knowledge is shallow, there would still be an objective standard of knowledge against which my knowledge could be measured.

The epitome of a ‘shallow endeavour’ then, is one in which the efforts, knowledge, everything that makes up the endeavour itself, are insufficient for the stated goal.  Which is not to say that shallow endeavours are completely useless. No, they meet the goal to a shallow degree.  A little reflection should bring to mind suitable examples.  Take, for example, an online poll presented by a media organisation on some topical issue.  Here’s one I just found on the important question of whether the readers tend to recline their seats while on airplane flights:

Regardless of what the results say, the poll is almost worthless.  Not only is there no way of knowing if the participants are representative of the general population, but the poll is also likely to suffer from self-selection bias; that is, people who feel strongly about the issue are more likely to respond to the poll than those who don’t care.  All we can really conclude from the poll is the apparent reclining preferences of those readers of the website who feel strongly enough to click on the poll in the first place.

The second poll provides an even clearer example of the problems: the poll asks whether Obama is vacationing too much, and it turns out that an overwhelming 66% believe that he is, and he ought instead to be working.  Even the poll question itself states that ‘The President’s leisure time doesn’t sit well with his detractors’, which, one might think, would imply that his detractors would be more motivated to respond to online polls on the issue.  Again, all this result can tell us is that 66% of those who clicked on the poll after seeing it on the website believe, or profess to believe, that Obama is having too many holidays.  It doesn’t tell us how representative of the general population this is, though it may be possible for the owners of the website to work out what percentage of page views included a response to the poll.  Even then, the result would not tell them what their readers opinions are, but merely the opinions of those of their readers who care enough to click on a worthless poll.  In that sense, the real value of the poll is for the owners of the website to determine the level of interest in any given topic among their readers, assuming a correlation between level of interest and level of motivation to click on the poll.

In terms of shallow endeavours, these kinds of worthless polls are most egregious when people attempt, either wittingly or unwittingly, to use them as evidence of broader public opinion on an issue.  As marketing tools and gauges of reader interest, they may be more valuable; but rarely are they presented as such.  What makes this such an excellent example of a shallow endeavour is the failure to think or ask questions beyond the superficial appearance of valuable data.  On a shallow level, such polls appear to have the same merit as legitimate polls.  It is only by going deeper, by asking questions and seeking to understand in more detail, that a person may begin to tell the difference between shallowness and depth, value and farce.

Lost in the Process

In a previous post on the challenge of communicating ideals, we noted that:

It is counter-intuitive for someone in the midst of their philosophical journey to turn to others and say “You see how much I have gained? You see the skills I have developed and the rewards those skills have brought me? You see how satisfied I am in my pursuit of philosophy?”
Instead the philosopher is intent on the horizon, on the limits of his understanding. It is hard for someone always focusing on his limits to start telling others about his strengths.

This is what we might call being lost in the process, except that ‘lost’ conveys a negative impression, and ‘process’ a far too neutral one. It would be much better to say that what began as a minor interest or limited pursuit with clear motives or distinct goals will, given sufficient time and attention, become ingrained in your life without clear limits, motives, or goals. Years later, you may have forgotten why you started; you may have no idea why you continue; you don’t know where it will end.

But if you turn your mind to it, you might find the right perspective once you put aside the usual justifications or utilitarian rationalisations. I realised, for example, that I could not to my own satisfaction communicate the value of philosophy under the guise of a ‘search for answers’, since it appears that one’s readiness to proclaim answers diminishes in proportion to the duration of one’s search. Nor could I defend philosophy as a means of developing one’s critical capacity, since this would imply I had some other important field of work for which philosophy was merely preparatory.

To be honest, the most appreciable value of philosophy is that it has become for me a source of deep and unparalleled enjoyment. The search for answers is part of it, as is critical thinking, imagination, history, insight, perspective, struggle, and accomplishment. In short, it is an adventure, one more thrilling than any work of fiction and more real than the superficialities of daily life. It costs next-to-nothing in financial terms, nor can it be purchased and enjoyed except through the serious commitment of one’s own time and intellectual resources.

It may be a little hyperbolic, but the next time someone asks me why I study philosophy I can tell them sincerely: it’s an adventure; I love it.

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.

The Natural Appeal of Stoicism

“Suppose you cut yourself badly with a rusty knife. Given your beliefs, the thought might occur to you that you got infected. And the further thought might occur to you that you might die from this infection. At this point this is a mere impression or thought which you find yourself with. It is a disagreeable, perhaps even disconcerting, thought; that is to say, the mere thought in itself is disconcerting. The question then arises: “What is the source and nature of this disquieting character of the impression?”

According to the Stoics, there are two possibilities. The first is this: you wrongly believe that death is an evil, perhaps even a terrible evil. No wonder, then, that the mere impression that you might die is very disturbing. The second is this: you rightly believe, not that death is an evil but that it is natural to try to avoid death, and that nature means you, other things being equal, to try to avoid death. So the impression that you might die has an alarming character; it puts you on alert. This has a teleological function. It alerts you to the need to be on your guard. And, by a natural mechanism, your whole body will go into a state of alert, ready to move as needed. But the impression, though alarming, is not deeply disturbing. For, after all, you have a clear mind, and you know that there are many false alarms; and even if there is reason for alarm, you as a Stoic know that all you have to do is try to do what you can to avoid death. This is what you are meant to do. You do not actually have to avoid death. That is a matter of divine providence. So the question of whether you are going to die or not in this sense does not affect you at all. This is God’s problem, as it were.

But in the case of the person who believes that death is a terrible evil, the alarming character of the impression, which teleologically is just a signal to be on one’s guard, turns into a deeply disturbing experience, and as a consequence the whole body goes into a disturbed, perturbed, or excited state, which might affect the operation of reason.

We have to firmly remember, though this might not be so clear to the person in a deeply disturbed state, that so far we are dealing with a mere impression or thought. Naturally, as the thought may occur to you, it may also be false. After all, we have not yet found out, or made up our mind, as to whether we actually got infected. And we have not yet considered whether we should believe that one may die from this infection. So far we have just the mere thought. Now, one cannot be afraid that one might die from this infection unless one believes that one got infected and that one could die from this infection. We clearly have to distinguish between concern and fear, on the one hand, and the alarming or disturbing character of the impression, on the other hand. The wise person will be concerned, but the foolish person who believes that death is an evil will be afraid. Thus fear, according to the Stoics, is nothing but the false belief that an evil is coming, or might come, one’s way — a belief generated by assent to an impression which is deeply disturbing because one wrongly takes the situation to be an evil.

Michael Frede, A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought