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CAO FENG: Taoism’s humility offers antidote to complex modern world

| 2018-07-19
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

With its holistic perspective and unique insight into the universe, society and life, Taoist philosophy articulates the fundamental essence of human thought.

The rapid development of industrial society has brought with it a plethora of commodities and new technologies as well as an explosion of information and accelerating interpersonal communication.

Humans are reaping the ever-growing dividends of civilization, but this comes at a high price: the depletion of the earth’s resources and the deterioration of the living environment.

This has prompted reflection on potential problems with the way people live and produce the things they need. As such, Taoist philosophy provides rich guidance to humanity about how to live in a rational, wholesome way. These insights are invaluable to our lives today and also point a way forward for the future—not just for China, but for the world as well.

Humility is one of the most essential ethical concepts in Taoism with far-reaching influence on humanity. Though there were a plenty of words that described “humility” in ancient China, Taoism elaborates on the concept in a profound way, adding to the theoretical depth and scope of humility. The understanding of humility in Taoism is systematic instead of random or fragmented.

In Taoism, humility is considered a virtue, but it is not limited to interpersonal relationships nor is it considered simply a moral characteristic. Viewed from a broad perspective, humility is placed within a holistic context and considered the quintessential manifestation of the role of the Tao.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tzu formulates the concept wu-wei, which means “non-action” or “effortless action.” Lao-Tzu describes modes of behavior such as remaining gentle and humble while pursuing a state of nothingness and not taking or contending. He repeatedly stresses that the dominant side should exercise self-restraint and compromise when negotiating the relationship between the eternal Tao and the “10,000 things”—referring to the material world—as well as that between the sage and the populace.

In Taoism, though all things differ from each other in various ways, they all flow from the Tao, or the “Way.” In this sense, everything follows a rationality of being, and thus all are born equal—neither high nor low, humble nor noble. Though humans are the quintessential form of beings among all things, they are a portion of the whole in the utmost sense. Therefore, as things, they cannot be free from the limitations of nature.

In understanding the natural world and human society, and engaging in all kinds of fact judgement and value judgement, people may be restricted by time and space or particular positions. Consequently, they hold particular stances and maintain certain biases. The inevitable result is the narrow vision of self-conceit and mutual exclusion.

Chuang-Tzu was sober about such limitations of humans. He warned that people should not impose their own values and aesthetic views on all things, and there is no absolutely right way to live, eat or appreciate beauty. To him, the individuals should always come to realize their limitations and the triviality of their existence, and with equal attitudes, show enough understanding of and respect for others and for all things. Isn’t that what humility is about?

Taoists believe that things do not develop independently of one another. The process must take the form of interactions and interrelations with other things, especially the opposite forces. Compared to the I Ching which stresses both yin and yang, but places emphasis on the latter, Taoism pays more attention to yin, which is characterized by the negative, passive and disintegrated nature of things.

Based on the bipolar interaction between two opposing cosmic forces, Lao-Tzu draws the conclusion that things will inevitably turn for the worse after reaching their zenith. He is a consummate philosopher who excels in thinking in reverse. To him, “The sage does not store up. Helping others as best as he can; he is helped even more. Giving others as much as he can; he becomes richer and richer still.” A man giving to other people has greater abundance himself.

In addition, there is no eternal perfection in the world. Complete perfection is in fact imperfect because reaching the apex signals a coming recession. Conversely, coming close to perfection without reaching it is the real dynamic and attainable perfection. Such exposition about the interrelations between things is reflective of the best way of living and behaving as well as the philosophy of life. Not a word of “humility” is used here, but which one does not point to humility?

Among the opposing forces—hard and soft, attack or retreat, strong and weak, offense and defense, expansion and contraction—the latter have offer a more advantageous position because they represent growth, creativity, peace and stability. According to the law that things will inevitably turn for the worse after reaching the zenith, the aggressive sides will head for doom in advance.

Therefore, for a sensible ruler, the most important thing is to constantly adjust his stance, and remain with humility, which is the real invincible position. This is the ever-new wisdom that Taoism contributes to all humanity.


Cao Feng is a professor from the School of Philosophy at Renmin University of China.

(edited by BAI LE)