Zac Alstin's Email on Confucianism and Taoism
- I enjoyed the link you provided on the subject of Merton and Confucianism. Taoism is often presented as the 'antidote' or cool cousin of uptight, rule-based Confucianism, and this interpretation seems to be affirmed in the Zhuangzi where Confucius is presented in a subordinate position.
My appreciation for Confucius grew as I studied Natural Law theory, and began to see that transcendent truth has an order, as well as a mystery.
It's all very well for ahistoric modern 'beatniks' to be inspired by 'the tao that can be spoken is not the eternal tao...' and so forth,
but there's a great distance between our daily life and the genuine limits of ordered knowledge.
To me, Confucius himself seems like an unusual man whose knowledge and principles were grounded in an awareness of the tao, the logos. Yet his ideas and sayings fall mostly on the side of expounding his insights. My point is that the idea of Confucius as some dry but reliable thinker does not make sense to me. There is life behind his words...
Nevertheless, the taoists such as lao zi speak as though they have gone more deeply into the tao than Confucius did. As a consequence they are mostly trying to elucidate the mystery itself, whereas Confucius makes use of its action or virtue. The criticism leveled at Confucius through the Zhuangzi reflects this idea: Don't preach virtue to the people, as virtue is only secondary to the tao and cannot be achieved on its own. Preach the tao instead, and virtue will follow.
In Christian terms, I see it as the conflict between the law and the spirit. Even Natural Law theory, or other great and subtle elucidations of theology, are not the logos itself. On the one hand, the wisdom demonstrated in such theories is most certainly a gift of the spirit. Yet without the spirit, these theories will quickly degrade.
So, my extremely amateur conclusion is that we should take Confucius as an excellent guide, but at a certain point we will have to leave Confucius and proceed with Lao Zi.
Incidentally, I have read strange criticisms of Zhuangzi in comparison to Laozi. I have read that Zhuangzi promoted 'the way of heaven' over 'the way of earth', whereas Laozi reconciled the two. I do catch a hint of this, when Zhuangzi goes off into seemingly relativist ideas, or gets lost in the insignificance of human life. It may be a danger all of its own.
The beauty of the Christian revelation (I should say one of many beauties) is that Heaven comes to Earth, and the two are reconciled in fact, not just in thought. How hard it might be to interpret the Chinese sages correctly if we did not have the great advantage of this revelation?