The following comments are based on A. C. Graham’s The Book of Lieh-tzŭ. Rather than alter all the names and untranslated terms, in a confusing and monstrous hybrid of usage, my essay follows Graham in using the Wade-Giles system of transliteration, though my title uses the current pin-yin for the convenience of web searches by contemporary students. Thus I shall refer to Taoism rather than Daoism, Lao Tzu rather than Laozi, etc., though I am well aware of the current convention.
Perhaps in this way I feel closer to the excitement I felt when reading this text for the first time fifty years ago when this version was new, and, in my suburban home, I ordered a copy from Blackwell’s which arrived from the U.K. bearing fascinating stamps and postal markings. Those Blackwell’s catalogues were an enchanted land in which an American high school student with a taste for words could wander without end, no less magical than the fabulous lands described by Liezi.
Apart from sentiment I use this edition as I do not know of a newer complete translation. I have not seen the book of commentary Riding the Wind with Liezi: New Perspectives on the Daoist Classic edited by Ronnie Littlejohn and Jeffrey Dippmann.
Lieh-tzŭ is the third text of philosophical Daoism. Something of an anthology, while attributed to a “Hundred Schools of Thought” sage of the fifth century BCE, it was probably assembled seven or eight hundred years later, though using some much older materials including passages from both the Tao te ching and the Chuangtzu. Less gnomic than Lao Tzu, less unified and structured than Chuang, never venturing into the alchemical or magical bypaths that came to use the name of the Tao, consistently amusing and engaging, the book may be the best brief introduction to philosophical Taoism. Taoism can seem remote and abstruse, yet its sages sought like Socrates a way to live a satisfying life that might be useful to everyone. Many conceive of life as a battle and thus make Sun Tzu our modern American ancient Chinese best-seller, but readers will find more in which to delight as well as more challenging mental moves in the relatively neglected Lieh-tzŭ.
The paradoxes of the book begin on the first page when it opens (as does the Lao Tzu) by insisting on the inadequacy of words. This figure of speech is familiar throughout Western literature in versions both religious (“the divine is ineffable”) or secular (“words cannot describe my beloved”) versions. For Lieh-tzŭ, however, this opening announces a book on the theme not merely of the failure of words, but of effective will, of the senses, and of logic as well. The author (or editor) elaborates a system of utter skepticism which, for all its merciless rejection of knowledge, buoys the spirit. Without values he manages to portray exemplars. Lacking a mythological structure, his imagination knows no bounds. Though he claims that endeavor is useless, he describes super-adepts in every sort of human activity. Advocating doing nothing and knowing nothing, he prescribes a regimen of psychic focus and living in the moment so demanding that few can adhere to it. Not only is (almost) every anecdote entertaining and provocative, the reader may well find immediate confirmation and application in lived experience.
The point of the celebrated story of Chuang Tzu dreaming he is a butterfly is not that he is either human or insect or something different yet. The point is that one cannot tell, will never be able to tell. Whereas the Hindu devotee seeks to peer behind the veil of maya, for Taoists the apparent is as real as the fantastic, the fraudulent as the authentic. The third book of the Lieh-tzŭ, called King Mu of Chu, expounds this inevitable uncertainty. Mr. Yin, the rich man who dreams of being a slave, and his servant, the poor one who dreams he’s rich are said to have identical lives. (68) Even the honest emotion of the nostalgic man made to believe he is reentering his home town is only a joke played by his companions. (73) One cannot tell what is normal and what abnormal. (72) A judge even with all the facts cannot decide the case of a deer’s disputed ownership. (69) All in all, reality is probably best avoided. A certain Hua-tzu lost his memory and objected when he was cured saying “Formerly, when I forgot, I was boundless.” (70) Taoism in its extravagance goes beyond skepticism to privilege what seems to be fancy and to cultivate amazing tales like people trapped in a dark cave, passing the time in imagined visions.
If one cannot necessarily accept one’s sense impressions, emotions, or judgments, one might yet, like Descartes, proceed through purely rational means to reclaim God and reconstruct the world. Yet for Lieh-tzŭ, this option is also fruitless. Much of his Book IV is devoted to an attack on logic. The notoriously reasonable figure of Confucius is made willy-nilly to accord with the Tao. Finding that his life’s work has been in vain, Confucius reaches a point where he returns to history and poetry without expectations, not as before with the goal of making people into good citizens, but simply because the subjects appeal to him. He follows his nature without attachment to results. (76) The writer amuses himself with the paradoxes of Kung-sun Lung (86) (which resemble those associated with the name of Zeno), but more to show the absurdity of seeking truth with words than for any other reason. The true sage here is Keng-sang-tzu who has reached virtual omniscience through self-knowledge. (77) Lieh-tzŭ sounds very like a Buddhist when he says “Whoever gets the idea says nothing, whoever knows it all also says nothing. Whether you think that saying nothing is saying or not saying, whether you think that knowing nothing is knowing or not knowing, you are still saying still knowing. But there is nothing that he either does not say or says, nothing that he either does not know or knows. This is all there is to it.” (80) The wise traveler pays no attention to where he is going. (81) The correct answer to any question is “I do not know.” (94) Everything is relative, everything subjective. Because of this cavalier attitude toward logic, what has been taken by many as evidence of multiple authorship is very likely simply the author’s willingness to contain contraries without concern and to accept mystery, contradiction, and ambivalence.
Lieh-tzŭ certainly sounds like a proponent of Sanlun Buddhism, the Chinese form of Madyamika. He propagates paradox and balances opposites in the tradition of Nagarjuna: “There is no limit, but neither is there anything limitless; there is no exhausting, but neither is there anything inexhaustible. That is why I know that they are limitless and inexhaustible, yet I do not know whether they may be limited and exhaustible.” (95) But for the Taoist there is a significant difference in affect. Lieh-tzŭ finds the world’s unknowability exhilarating. As Confucius is made to conclude, “Rejoicing in nothing and knowing nothing are the true rejoicing and the true knowledge.” (76)
Lacking faith in sense impressions or in rationality, one has no way to make decisions. The individual has no dependable basis for action. One cannot out-maneuver destiny. As the 6th book Endeavour and Destiny insists, the individual cannot control the world. A course of action that might work one time will fail the next. It is rank superstition to believe that one’s striving is effective. To Lieh-tzŭ most people are like Johnson’s madman in Rasselas who had come to believe that his astronomical observations maintained the sun in its path. Another example is the neurotic man of Ch’i who worries like Chicken Little that the sky is falling. (26) With our anxieties and stress, do we differ from him only in degree?
Even moral virtue is illusory – people do what they must. Duke Huan employed his enemy not through superior insight and ethics, but because “he could not do otherwise.” (126) If all destiny is inexplicable, all attitudes are equally “right.” (130) The best doctor is the one who does nothing. (129) Realizing that effort is useless, Pei-tung-tzu is wholly content (124), while Duke Ching decides to drink. (133)
Whatever one tries to pursue, one can only encounter the alternation of contraries. “All things come about of themselves.” (122) Because of his intoxication, a drunk man is wiser than a sober one and less likely to be injured when he falls. (30) The craftsman who worked for years to create a precisely accurate sculpture of a mulberry leaf was daft since the most perfect models hang from trees. (161) A robot is an adequate facsimile of a human. (110) The Taoist term is tzu-jan, meaning self-so-ness, spontaneity, or naturalness. Fatalism need not result in resignation or passivity. Taoism counsels rather that one imitate the cosmos and cultivate tzu-jan. “There are ways in which earth excels heaven, and ways in which each thing is more intelligent than the sage.” (19) A clear and focused mind can produce unreflecting action which is sustained by a mysterious jouissance, the result of being in tune with everything else.
The stylistic corollary of this high state of mind is the playful mythologizing with which the author ornaments his pages. To balance the fact that the book’s philosophy is an almost nihilistic skepticism, it expresses at the same time a deep engagement with things of this world and beyond that exhibit the most fascinating and unpredictable variety. Florid legends and semi-supernatural beings ornament the margins of the vision as though to entertain, illustrate, and assure the individual that one can never be certain of the truth. Jung Ch’i-ch’i strums a lute from excess of joy (24) and the centenarian Lin Lei sings as he gleans, happy since he never “learned to behave” or “strove to make his mark.” Without moral or ego goals, he is a free man. “You travel without knowing where you go, stay without knowing what you cling to, are fed without knowing how, You are the breath of heaven and earth which goes to and fro; how can you ever possess it?” (30)
Yang Chu, Book VI of the Lieh-tzŭ, is generally called an anomalous interpolation as it advocates a straightforward hedonism of a simple and physical sort, more like that of Ecclesiastes than the sublime (or sublimated) version of the Epicureans. In contrast to Confucian shame culture, what most call virtue is condemned as valueless (146); “reputation is nothing but pretence” (138), and ritual, including offerings to deceased ancestors is absurd, nothing but useless self-deception. (142) One must obey every spontaneous desire (140) just as Blake prescribed. As life is suffering (139), any amelioration that one can find is reasonable. Po Yi who claimed to be desireless was a monster of pride. The same is true of Chan Ch’in who claimed to be moral. Selfish as everone else, they differ only in their hypocrisy. (141)
Though both the Yellow Emperor and King Mu are said to have rejected the pursuit of pleasure, it seems an option consistent with the rejection of all values. Just as Confucius resumed his studies after recognizing their emptiness because such activities suited his nature, another individual might follow a different inclination into dissolute days.
For most of the volume, though, the exemplar is a Taoist adept. Lieh-tzŭ exhibits an wondrously successful archer, a water-forder, a lion-tamer, a swimmer, a fisherman, a musician. In every field, excellence comes from the mental poise and detachment than congruence with the Tao affords. (The attitude reminds me ironically of the stories of scientists and athletes during the Cultural Revolution who gained a similar single-mindedness from study of Mao’s little red book.) In Lieh-tzŭ, though, there can be no striving. When the friend of all gulls became self-conscious, the birds shunned him. (45)
As Lieh-tzŭ was about to move from Cheng, his disciples asked what his master Hu-tzŭ had taught him. His first reply was “What did Hu-tzŭ ever say?” (17) But he then proceeds, saying, “I did once overhear him talking to Po-hun Wu-jen” [whose latter name means no-man]. He goes on to expound the “Unborn” and the “Unchanging” with rhetoric whose dramatic lofty flights and dark shadows, for me at least, better account for the world I experience daily than would-be intellectual rigor or positivist statements of any kind. Like the mystics of the via negativa, like the poets who know their words can never wholly correspond to their intention, like the lover who admits his inability to express his heart’s full feeling, Lieh-tzŭ knows he communicates only in the most imperfect manner, and, in this way, all his cards on the table, he addresses my own mind as a brother.