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« This Just In: Chuang Tzu Is Right! | Main | Sun Tzu on the Failure of the Generals »

August 26, 2007


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Confucian (and even moreso Taoist) "environmentalism" is healthier than its Western counterpart because it sees Man as part of Nature, not in opposition to her.

In The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry, the "Sage of Kentucky" draws our attention to Chinese landscapes, and notes that in every painting amongst the magestic mountains and streams there is invariably a man or men or a little house. Man is in harmony with Nature. The great error of "conservationism" in our civilization is to see Nature as something to be set aside, and kept "pure" from human contact.

Here's the great man in his own words:

"Old Chinese landscapes reveal, among towering mountains, the frail outline of a roof or a tiny human figure passing along a road on foot or horseback. These landscapes are almost always populated. There is no implication of dehumanized interest in a nature for 'its own sake.' What is represented is a world in which human beings belong, but which does not belong to human beings in any tidy economic sense; the Creation provides a place for humans, but it is even greater than humanity and within it even great men are small. Such humility is the consequence of accurate insight, ecological in its bearing, not a pious deference to 'spiritual' value."

The above quotation is very insightful. I feel it confirms for me even more the commonality amongst the diverse ancient peoples, because I'm just about to read the Golden Chain of Homer. As some of you may know, the ancient Platonists and Aristelians viewed man as a link in the great chain of beings, which begins from minerals, then ascends through vegetables, animals, humans, up to gods and finally the supreme Good.

This also reminds me of the Jain theory that plants which accumulate merit reincarnate as animals, which then reincarnate as humans, until they are liberated. Reincarnation, of course, is always a big problem, because Pythagoras disputed the possibility of reincarnating as animals. And of course some people say that there are multiple souls, all of which go to a different place.

The above ideas were applied in practice by European alchemists, who sought to transmute the various forms of the mineral, vegetable, and animal worlds. The basic idea is that they assist nature's processes (for the diverse creations to perfect themselves), rather than enforcing human will.

The affects of greenhouse gas ozone, which has been increasing near Earth's surface since 1850, could seriously cut into crop yields and spur global warming this century, scientists reported on Wednesday. For more information

I recently read Straw Dogs by John Gray. As suggested by the title, it is full of Taoist references.

One key theme of this book is that there is no fundamental difference between humans and animals, that all artifices (technology, politics, economics) merely enable humans' rapacious nature. While artifices accumulate, true wisdom cannot be passed on. Ignorance of this fact produces the various religious and secular myths of progress. While the Christian myth left salvation in the murky water of theology, secular quests for social progress lead to unpredented catastrophes. John Gray suggests that we shed the illusion that we can somehow master our future, and instead take our cues from animals, who know how to live better than us.

We cannot contain our current proliferation of artifices (genetic engineering, nuclear weaponry), because the world consists of many warring nations. All advances in artifices will fall into the hands of criminal gangs, corporate interests, and secretive government programs. Neither can we, as a whole, check our continuing exploitation of nature - because humans are by nature rapacious. Therefore, the only plausible end in our engagement with nature is a Malthusian backlash, where nature rebalances herself through climate change.

John Gray is critical of all secular traditions, including neoconservatism, neoliberalism, capitalism, fascism, socialism, communism, interventionism, humanism, atheism. He also criticises many religious traditions, except Taoism. It appears that many Amazon reviewers, as well as literary critics, don't get the Taoist references. Nevertheless, this book has received high praises from many critics.

I highly recommend this book. I don't agree with everything John Gray says. In fact, I dispute his interpretation of most religions. Nevertheless, this is the most exciting book I've read this year. It was so exciting I finished this book at my local Chapters in one setting. It is written in aphorisms, in the style of Nietzsche and Eric Hoffer.

Thanks for the comments. I agree that ancient Chinese, and perhaps ancient people more generally, had much greater humility in the face of nature than do modern people, Chinese included. But that did not stop ancient Chinese, even very early on, from working hard to transform nature for their own purposes. Think of the ancient water works near Chengu (Dujiangyan) or, of course, the Grand Canal. In a way all of the various walls of the Great Wall are an example of man shaping nature (in this case the mountains) to serve certain human ends. So, yes, I agree that there is a strong environmental sensibility, especially in Taoism but also in Confucianism. Yet this runs parallel to, and never fully overwhelms a powerful strain of human control and domination over nature in Chinese historical experience.
And Zoomzan, thanks for the book recommendation.

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