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  • 1. Taoism and Nietzsche Renee Dale
  • 2. Although one might not expect it, the ancient Chinese philosophy Taoism (6thcentury B.C.), and the philosopher Nietzsche (1844-1900), did share some key tenets.These are their basic analysis of the origins of ‘good’, how the masses ought to begoverned, the acquisition of knowledge, the superiority of the philosopher, and thatmorality is subjective. However, they also have some large differences, including theirviews on action, and the common view of the individual. Nietzsche placed strongemphasis on his master and slave class distinction, and based his entire psychologicalanalysis of mankind off of it. The master is the man of action, who has the ability to getwhatever he wants; the slave is powerless, and, labeling his enemy as evil, comfortshimself that he will get his revenge in the afterlife. Taoism taught ‘wu-wei’ – that is,‘action through inaction’. The ideal is to become one with nature, with the cosmos; tohave a conscious will would be unnatural. Therefore the Taoist cannot have any desiresor conscious actions. What Nietzsche considers to be characteristic of his ‘new’ philosopher, hisrevolutionary free spirit, is actually quite similar to the Taoism – and that is the idea thatgood and evil came about necessarily, because of the other. Good necessitates evil,and vice versa. As Laozi, the author of the Tao Te Ching and the creator of thephilosophy, said, “All in the world recognize the beautiful as beautiful. Herein liesugliness. All recognize the good as good. Herein lies evil.”1 If you define something asgood, you must also define its opposite. In fact, ‘good’ can only be understood in termsof ‘evil’. Laozi doesn’t care who defines good and bad; he thinks the very definition isunnatural, and therefore against the Tao (the natural way). Since any word used todescribe an action is somewhat subjective, as not everyone is going to agree onwhether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, Laozi says, they are just words: “they are not sufficient…See the origin and keep the non-differentiated state.”2 Using words which differentiatebetween two things which do not actually exist except as words merely causes them toexist. He suggests that, for example, creating competition in wealth causes some tobecome rich, and others to become thieves. Calling something ‘truth’ and another thing‘false’ makes some honest and others liars. If there were no such distinction, then wewould be what we were. “The Tao follows the way things are.”3 Thus it follows that any moral system is manmade, as is the case with anydefinition; and therefore it will be faulty, as opinions will necessarily differ. This willcause unneeded dissention. It would make no sense to act to destroy the ‘evil’ nor topromote the ‘good’, as one makes the other come about; rather, the Taoist sage willpractice wu-wei and let things be as they are. The follower of the Tao does not work foranything tangible; in accomplishing ‘good’, he would be creating ‘evil’, necessarily. Bycreating a class of rulers, you create a class of the ruled; and so by calling somethinggood, you must make something else bad.
  • 3. Nietzsche has the same basic view of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, that they are theantitheses of each other and necessitate each other. “…The value of those good andhonored things consists precisely in the fact… that they are related to those bad,seemingly opposite things… even identical perhaps.”4 However, he by no means cameto the same conclusions regarding his ideal man and his action, or lack thereof.Nietzsche said that the masters, taking power by their pure ability and talents, defined‘good’ by having what it took to get what they wanted. ‘Bad’ was anything incompetentand weak. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ came about when the masses, the slaves, labeled theirmasters as ‘evil’ in their resentment and then themselves as the ‘good’. “According tothe slave morality… the ‘evil’ person evokes fear; according to the master morality, it isexactly the ‘good’ person who evokes fear and wants to evoke it, while the ‘bad’ personis felt to be despicable.”5 Nietzsche believed that, because the master was relatively ‘good’, he thereforeought to do whatever he liked, simply because he could. The masters were men ofaction, whereas the slaves were merely reactionaries, weaklings who were incapable ofdoing anything for themselves. Taoism’s argument against Nietzsche’s ‘man of action’has already been seen; if good necessitates evil, then working towards good will meanthat someone else will have to work the antithesis as well. “I do not force my way andthe people transform themselves.”6 This would directly conflict with Nietzsche’s masterstaking whatever they wanted. However, this suggests some sort of respect or care forthe people, which Nietzsche obviously didn’t believe in. However, Laozi says, “Beunconcerned and you will have the world.”7 He is suggesting that it is by notantagonizing the people that the masters could get all the power they wanted. Nietzsche’s disagreement with Taoism is with their idea of nature and the naturalway. He agrees with Taoism on morality: “Every moral code is a tyranny againstnature… and reason.”8 This is exactly like Laozi’s belief that any moral code is artificialand bound to cause only dissention. He also believed that the masters acted inaccordance with nature. He says that the slaves wanted to believe that “…the strongman is free to be weak and the bird of prey to be a lamb,”9 as if the bird of prey could bea lamb, or a strong man act contrary to his nature. The masters were masters by theirvery nature; they could no more ‘help’ it than can an animal stop hunting its prey. Hepoints out many times that a great many logics and moral codes are reasoned with apredetermined end in sight. “Much… spirit had to be suppressed… and spoiled in theprocess… For thousands of years European thinkers thought only in order to provesomething.”10 This is not dissimilar from the Taoist idea of acting without predeterminedend, without desire; that is, to follow the natural way. Nietzsche’s argument against the Taoist ‘natural way’ would be that living‘according to nature’ would really mean to live according to ‘life’ – which is, of course,redundant. Besides, he says, “Doesn’t life mean… wanting to be Different?”11 Living
  • 4. according to nature would take all the individuality out of man. He also asks, what is thelaw of nature? Is it tyranny or equality? Herein, however, he just so happens to agreewith Taoism – it by no means states that men are naturally equal, nor does it discludeindividuality. The language of the Tao Te Ching on how the ruler ought to rule the commonpeople clearly implies some distinctions between the ruler and the common classes. Infact, Laozi even says, “Heaven and Earth are not humane, and regard the people asstraw dogs.”12 However, the characteristics of the follower of the Tao and Nietzsche’smaster are still quite different in many respects. The Taoist sage is humble and withoutcontrivance: “… it is in absence that there is usefulness.13” Like the traditional Chineseimage of a useful vessel that can be filled, it is the simple, honest, and ignorant thatfollow the Tao; those without prejudices, agendas, or selfish intentions. This concept iscentral to the Taoist philosophy – the concept of letting things be, taking things as theycome; half action, half inaction. Excess is unknown in nature . Doubtless this would goagainst everything Nietzsche stood for, so to speak; Taoism did not teach theacquisition of knowledge. Indeed, Laozi believed that the more you sought aftersomething, the less you would know about it. The more you go in search of an answerthe less you will understand. Perhaps another argument that Nietzsche would bring up against the Tao as atruly ‘natural’ philosophy is that it might not be natural at all. “A living being wants aboveall else to release its strength.”14 Would it really be natural not to have any desires atall? If our reason and consciousness are what makes us unique and human, wouldn’tTaoism be denying that? Then knowledge would be somewhat necessary. However, ifone had no desires, and especially no preconceptions, like the agendas that Nietzschespeaks of the philosophers having when setting out to rationalize, then maybe it is themost natural acquisition of knowledge after all. Despite the object of the sage being oneness with nature, there is stillindividuality within Taoism. “We are each unique, and therefore valuable.” 15 The self isalso present in Taoism: “If I have no self, how could I experience misfortune?”16 Humilityis an important aspect in Taoism, and thus any sort of experience would be a ‘surprise’,as Laozi says; both good things and bad things would come as a shock to the truefollower of the way. The sage would value suffering just as highly as happiness.Suffering allows the intellectual to more fully come to consciousness and knowledge ofthe self. This is important to both Taoism and Nietzsche. Solitude is very important tothe Taoist. The Taoist values nature, and the grand scenes of mountains and seaswould inspire him to become more one with nature. Even Nietzsche had some beliefthat the individual might seek out solitude – “…self-directed spirituality, a will to solitude,even greater powers of reason.”17 These things would be sought out by the masters on
  • 5. account of their independence and great strength of individuality; but the slaves wouldfear such things and call them evil. Nietzsche holds a similar view to that of Taoism in regards the government. Hebelieved that the masters, being more capable in their own right, were the rulers of themasses. They put laws in place, of their own invention, to keep those they ruled incontrol. Otherwise they did as they liked in respect to the slaves; they were the “raped,the oppressed, the suffering, the shackled, the weary”18. Taoism holds the follower ofthe Tao distinct from the masses in that the common people are to be treated assomewhat lesser men, incapable of understanding higher concepts. No such treatmentwould be accorded them, however, as Nietzsche’s masters would treat their subjects.Taoism taught that if you try to control the masses, they will rebel, of necessity.Everyone wants everything his own way. To create a hierarchy is to create ambition andjealousy. It creates competition and disharmony. Throughout many of his books, Nietzsche wonders about the fall of the RomanEmpire, and the French Revolution. He wonders how the petty and powerless slavesmanaged to overcome the masters. Laozi would say it is because of the hierarchy andthe disharmony caused thereby. A more subtle approach would have worked better,and that is what Taoism advocates. If you know how to manage the people, then theywon’t revolt against you. “Govern as you would cook small fish.” 19 The reference is torural Chinese culture, and it means, don’t stir them or they will break apart. Let them be,and they will follow your rule absolutely. Taoism doesn’t proclaim the equality of man, orthe raising up of the populace; it rather advises a sneaky approach to manipulating, soto speak, the common man to obedience and submission. Thus the Taoist concept of mountain representing long life and waterrepresenting persistence and tranquility, and the idea of retreating in solitude to achieveoneness with them, would not be all that alien to Nietzsche’s masters; although thehumility and passive attitudes that the Taoist sage would demonstrate would be. Thetwo philosophies hold much the same in regards to the origins of good; that is, they bothagree in that good necessitates evil. But what they do with that knowledge differsgreatly. Nietzsche believes one ought to use one’s will to acquire power . Taoismadvises oneness with nature, and a taking of power by letting things go their naturalcourse. Power is the primary end for Nietzsche, and but a secondary end in Taoism,oneness with nature being the first; and their means for getting these ends aredrastically different. Both of their arguments for their philosophies can contradict eachother, which for me only proves the truth of the statement, “Truth seemscontradictory.”20
  • 6. References.1. Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching.” Chapter 2. Translated by Cha rles Muller. Barnes andNoble Classics, pub. 2005.2. Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching.” Chapter 19. Translated by Charles Muller. Barnes andNoble Classics, pub. 2005.3. Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching.” Chapter 25. Translated by Charles Muller. Barnes andNoble Classics, pub. 20054. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil.” p. 6. Translated by Marion Faber.Oxford University Press, pub. 19985. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil.” p. 156. Translated by MarionFaber. Oxford University Press, pub. 19986. Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching.” Chapter 57. Translated by Charles Muller. Barnes andNoble Classics, pub. 20057. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil.” p. 76. Translated by Marion Faber.Oxford University Press, pub. 19988. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Genealogy of Morals.” p. 134. Basic Writings ofExistentialism. Gordon Marino. Modern Library Classics, pub. 2004.9. http://www.personaltao.com/tao/YinYang.htm10. "The Writings of Chuang-tzu", Book XXIII, Part III, Section I. Translation byJames Legge. http://www.taopage.org/abstract2.html11. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Birth of Tragedy.” p. 17. Translated by Shaun Whiteside.Penguin Books, pub. 199312. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Birth of Tragedy.” p. 26. Translated by Shaun Whiteside.Penguin Books, pub. 199313. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Birth of Tragedy.” p. 26. Translated by Shaun Whiteside.Penguin Books, pub. 199314. Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching.” Chapter 12. Translated by Charles Muller. Barnes andNoble Classics, pub. 200515. Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching.” Chapter 57. Translated b y Charles Muller. Barnes andNoble Classics, pub. 200516. Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching.” Chapter 57. Translated by Charles Muller. Barnes andNoble Classics, pub. 200517. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil.” p. 77. Translated by Marion Faber.Oxford University Press, pub. 1998
  • 7. 18. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil.” p. 10. Translated by Marion Faber.Oxford University Press, pub. 199819. Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching.” Chapter 5. Translated by Charles Muller. Barnes andNoble Classics, pub. 200520. Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching.” Chapter 11. Translated by Charles Muller. Barnes andNoble Classics, pub. 2005.21. Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching.” Chapter 47. Translated by Charles Muller. Barnes andNoble Classics, pub. 200522. Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching.” Chapter 70. Translated by Peter A. Merel.www.zenguide.com23. Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching.” Chapter 13. Translated by Charles Muller. Barnes andNoble Classics, pub. 2005.24. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil.” p. 88. Translated by Marion Faber.Oxford University Press, pub. 199825. Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching.” Chapter 60.26. Lao Tzu, “Tao Te Ching.” Chapter 78. Translated by Charles Muller. Barnes andNoble Classics, pub. 2005.