Saturday, August 22, 2009

Readings: Natural Tao

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I have been reading the book Five lost Classics: Tao, Huang-Lao and Yin-Yang in Han China; translated, with an Introduction and Commentary, by Robin D. S. Yates. It is an interesting study based on a cache of 2000-year-old Chinese philosophical-religious writings found in 1973.

I have also, elsewhere, become involved in an argument against the Aristotelian concept of ‘Natural Law,” as imported into Christianity, primarily via Thomism. I therefore took special interest in the following passages, found on pp. 22-23 of the volume cited above:

The Dao produces law. Law is what draws the line between gain and loss, and makes clear the curved and the straight. He who grasps the Dao, therefore, produces law and does not venture to oppose it. …is able to draw himself with the line, only then may he be not confused when he sees and knows the world. [from Dao and the Law]

R.P. Peerenboom (1993) writes that this passage contradicts Joseph Needham’s (1956) assertion, now well-accepted in the West, that China produced no theory of natural law (law derived from the divine or the processes of nature) and that for the Chinese, law was always contingent upon the whims and fancies of human lawgivers, most particularly the Chinese emperors.

A bit further down the page we read that Peerenboom’s assessment of the relationship between the ruler and the Tao (or Dao) entails that “the ruler is a kind of conduit for the Dao in practice; by legislating, he accords with the natural, normative order.”

In another of the treatises dealt with in this book (Canon Law, “Assessments”) is found the following:

Tao [Dao] is the beginning of the myriad things, the standard of right and wrong. That being so, the intelligent ruler, by holding to the beginning, knows the source of everything, and, by keeping to the standard, knows the origin of good and evil. Therefore, by virtue of resting empty and reposed, he waits for the course of nature to enforce itself so that all names will be defined of themselves and all affairs will be settled of themselves. Empty, he knows the essence of fullness; reposed, he becomes the corrector of motion. Who utters a word creates himself a name; who has an affair creates himself a form. Compare forms and names and see if they are identical. Then the ruler will find nothing to worry about as everything is reduced to its reality.

This “resting empty and reposed” seems to me to be very different from the proactive pursuit of ‘natural law’ through the tireless exercise of painstaking logical discourse and calculation which characterizes the Aristotelian-Thomistic method.

But I could be wrong.
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