The Tao according to Confucius and Chuang Tzu

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Sophomore (College 2nd year) ・Philosophy ・Chicago ・6 Sources

Confucius and Chuang Tzu are widely regarded as two of the most famous Chinese thinkers of all time. These two thinkers both existed through a chaotic period of history, but they had very different perspectives on the universe and life in general. Confucius was regarded as more of a transmitter and classicist than a philosopher, while Chuang Zhu was regarded as a great prose writer. They both contributed to the Chinese way of life and taught lessons, some of which are still practiced in Chinese society today. However, these two greatest philosophers differed regarding various concepts of the Tao (the way).
For instance, Chuang Zhu was categorized as a “Taoist” by the Chinese traditions for he supported Taoism and borrowed some of his ideologies from it. He also opposed some of Confucius’s teachings. For example, Confucius believed that the most significant aspect of life was upholding government and personal morality. He also stressed on the correctness of sincerity, justice, and social relationships. On the other hand, Chuang Zhu believed that how individuals pursue life is directly related to their separate pasts or “paths.” Confucius and Chuang Zhu’s concepts of the Tao bear some similarities at some points but mostly differ greatly, and as a result, there are various implications based on their understanding of Tao.
The two Chinese philosophers have some similarities in their understanding of the Tao. Confucius and Chuang Zhu’s concepts of the Tao are similar in that they both agree to the idea of self-transformation and view Tao as a proper guide for human beings. However, their approaches regarding how an individual should transform themselves varies. Chuang Zhu supported the Tao’s principle that life is dynamic and ever-changing and therefore advocated in people’s self-transformation accordingly.
Both Confucius and Chuang Zhu also emphasized the importance of Tao. For instance, Confucius argued that a great man concentrates upon the Tao before poverty, before prosperity, and before earning a living meaning that an individual should focus on the Tao first. He also stated that it was important for any leader to follow the Tao in order to inspire his followers to do the same. He also went further and argued that if a certain state does not follow the Tao, then there is no need of serving it. Therefore, he called various peoples’ attention towards the Tao. Furthermore, the two philosophers also focus on enhancement of the inner power of human or personal cultivation.
Chuang Zhu’s concept of the Tao is more nature bound whereas Confucius’s is more socially oriented. Confucius’s philosophy is established upon the basic social relationships and responsibilities that are necessary to a human life and those when undertaken appropriately help individuals build their relationship with others. He also stated that the commands of nature, particularly the commands of love, assist human beings in establishing their inner potential for love, wisdom, reverence and understanding. Such people become “Noble-minded men” or “superior men” according to him and are in full harmony with their fellow men, parents, children, their sovereign, heaven and earth due to their obedience to the Tao. Moreover, he emphasized on the need for social relationships between wives and husbands as well as children and parents. However, he required the subordinate members, that is the wives and children, to be obedient.
In contrast, Chuang Zhu believes in the goodness of the human nature and the innate purity. Therefore, he argues that it is important for human beings to live according to the nature of the evolution of Tao to take place. He also stated that the Tao was responsible for controlling the evolution of individuals as well as the society and for a person to receive the highest blessings of Tao, they ought not to place any artificial obstructions in the way of its unfoldment. As a result, his arguments are against the imposition of political, social and moral obligations to human beings. Therefore, he advocates for letting humankind alone so that the Tao can be their only guide and it will lead them to perfection.
Chuang Zhu’s concept of the Tao was built on anarchism whereas Confucius’s was developed in order. Chuang Zhu believed that the world did not require governing. As a matter of fact, he argued that the world ought not to be governed at all. His arguments in support of this concept were that good order emerges when things are let alone. He also claims that what can be deemed useful and good to politicians and sages, cannot be useful and good to other individuals. He also views having a governance in place as an artificial barrier to the unfoldment of the Tao’s blessings, and hence he argues against political activities (Zhuangzi. and Watson 2002). He also compared people under a government to an imprisoned bird in a cage. Such a bird does not get to realize true happiness according to him. He goes further and explains that humankind under the artificial restrictions of governments and kings as imprisoned and not living according to the Tao (Merton 2010).
On the contrary, Confucius emphasized on political teachings through handling the subject in the art of governance and the proper relationship between the ruled and the ruler. He also advised the rulers on how their appearance ought to be to gain the trust of their people. He also pushed for compassion and true justice on the part of the ruled and the ruler (Legge and Ford 2011). He also stated that the secret to good governance laid in every individual undertaking their duties as stated by their positions within the hierarchy. He also saw the need for the ruler to possess virtue for it would enable them to retain their positions. Furthermore, he also taught that the rulers should not have to settle for threatening to punish people or force them to maintain their power (Legge and Ford 2011).
The two philosophers also differed regarding their understanding of goodness and evil. Confucius argued that all things are naturally good. He also stated that it is only if an individual has not pursued that they can turn out evil. Furthermore, he also believed that the most significant element of a person’s personality is built by how they treat others. On the other hand, Chuang Zhu differed with Confucius’s concept that all things are naturally good. He argued that things are classified as either evil or good. He also stated that everything is at seems and that human beings are responsible for creating their opinions regarding the amount of evil or the level of goodness of certain things (Zhuangzi. and Watson 2002).
Confucius’s and Chuang Zhu’s understandings of the Tao regarding learning also varied widely. Chuang Zhu perceived people’s lives to be limited and the number of things that can be learned to be unlimited. Based on this ideology, Chuang Zhu claimed that using the limited in the persuasion of the unlimited was simply foolish (Zhuangzi. and Watson 2002). Therefore, Chuang Zhu did not advocate for learning. On the contrary, Confucius stated that the only way to the attainment of a meaningful and successful life was through learning. Therefore, he advocated for the idea of people learning as much as possible. He also argued that through studying everything in the surroundings as well as learning as much as possible, people could find the way.
Confucius advocated for keeping of one’s place in the society whereas Chuang Zhu emphasized on valuing of personal life. Confucius understandings of the Tao was that creation of harmony in the society was an important aspect of people’s lives (Kim Yong-Jae 2009). His teachings also leaned towards the development of a perfect society with uniformity and therefore he was perceived to possess a heart for the society. On the other hand, Chuang Zhu believed that an individual’s life was more critical than the society’s issues. Therefore, some of his philosophies were perceived to be sending the message that the ideal of life requires people to draw back from the society but rather return to nature and possess free spirits.
Confucius also argued that happiness could be found by utilitarianism whereas Chuang Zhu disagrees with this concept. He argued that the life of pleasure, ambition, and riches, in reality, was an extreme seclusion in which an individual lives for what is out of reach. He also perceives living such a life as an endless thirst for survival in the future and therefore, according to him, such individuals were incapable of living in the present (Zhuangzi. and Watson 2002). Therefore, his opinion is based on the concept that the motive of pleasure or profit is unworthy of a true human being. He also viewed the pursuit of material things such as wealth as a distraction from understanding and seeing the world. As a result, he attempted to view nature with new eyes.
Implications of Chuang Zhu’s and Confucius’s understanding of the Tao also differed based on their individual perception of the Tao. For instance, due to Chuang Zhu’s concept of the Tao as more nature bound, he lived a free life and viewed the world through new eyes. As a result, he asked himself questions regarding nature such as “Do the heavens revolve?” Furthermore, through observing the nature, he saw the works of the Tao unfold.
Implications of Confucius’s understanding of the Tao have had great impacts on the development of the Chinese political system. According to him, the rulers’ main functions are to transform and educate the people. They were also guided by his belief in perfectibility and innate goodness. As a result, the political system was not established on coercion and legal regulation but rather on mediation, serving as good examples and personal rule. The philosopher also advocated for conflict resolution through the use of mediation instead of the use of abstract rules for the establishment of wrong and right for the attainment of social harmony (Riegel 2013). His emphasis on the moral qualities was also visible in various institutions in the Chinese society. For instance, the officials were selected based on their moral qualities. These moral qualities would not only enable them to govern the people but also to transform the society.
His understanding of the Tao also showed the importance of education. Consequently, he became a teacher and was recognized as a great teacher during the Han dynasty. During this period, his teachings became the foundation of the Chinese educational system. His teachings were also used in the selection of the Chinese government officials throughout the nation’s history up to the twentieth century. Furthermore, his ideas, as well as those from his followers, also became the core of the lives of many Chinese people. They also became the guiding values of the Chinese life for they gave focus and structure to the Chinese sense of what being human means.

Conclusion

Both Chuang Zhu and Confucius have remained as one of the greatest philosophers in the history of China. These two philosophers are said to have perceived the world in a different way than the other people did. Despite that they both believed in the Tao, some of their ideologies differed greatly. For instance, Chuang Zhu’s concept of the Tao was more based on living a more nature bound life. He was also an anarchist who did not believe in the importance of a government. Instead, he argued that according to Tao, people ought to live without artificial barriers such as political systems, and in so doing, they would receive blessings from the Tao.
On the other hand, Confucius understanding of the Tao was more socially and politically oriented. He argued on the importance of harmony in the society as well as the need for governance. He went further and explained the obligations of both the ruled and the ruler as well as those of members of social relationships such as between children and parents. His teachings became a foundation for the Chinese political and education systems for such a long time and affected the people’s choices of life to to-date. Therefore, despite using the same term Tao to mean the way, the two philosophers’ concepts regarding the same differed on various subjects.

Works cited

Kim Yong-Jae. 2009. "Analytical Understanding of The Confucian Scripture, 『The Analects of Confucius』, Through Old Annotations Of 『The Analects of Confucius』". Journal of Eastern Philosophy null (59): 7-58. doi:10.17299/tsep.59.200908.7.
Legge, James, and James H Ford. 2011. The Teachings of Confucius. 1st ed. El Paso, TX: El Paso Norte Press.
Merton, Thomas. 2010. The Way of Chuang Tzu. 1st ed. New York: New Directions Books.
Riegel, Jeffrey. 2013. "Confucius". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.
Waley, Arthur. 2012. The Analects of Confucius. 1st ed. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.
Zhuangzi., and Burton Watson. 2002. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. 1st ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

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