Some people believe, erroneously, that they can find moral truths and ethical precepts in brain waves.
Others prefer to examine the work of the great moral philosophers. In the West, we cite Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kant et al. In the East we look to Confucius and Lao Tse (author of the Tao Te Ching.)
Confucius saw humans as social beings. His philosophy aimed at showing people how to get along with others while living in groups. Yet, it also shows how to develop good habits.
Taoism is more about personal self-interest.
Thus, Confucius and Lao Tse were not of one mind.
According to Prof. Edward Slingerland, the difference revolves around the concept of wu wei, which means effortless trying. It’s easily confused with what we call being oneself.
One arrives at effortless trying by expending a great deal of effort. One might say that it takes an enormous amount of work to make anything look effortless.
John Tierney reports:
Dr. Slingerland, a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia, argues that the quest for wu wei has been going on ever since humans began living in groups larger than hunter-gathering clans. Unable to rely on the bonds of kinship, the first urban settlements survived by developing shared values, typically through religion, that enabled people to trust one another’s virtue and to cooperate for the common good.
But there was always the danger that someone was faking it and would make a perfectly rational decision to put his own interest first if he had a chance to shirk his duty. To be trusted, it wasn’t enough just to be a sensible, law-abiding citizen, and it wasn’t even enough to dutifully strive to be virtuous. You had to demonstrate that your virtue was so intrinsic that it came to you effortlessly.
It’s one thing to follow the rules. Effortless trying involves following the rules and meaning it.
A faked apology is better than no apology, but you ought to aim toward making sincere apologies.
Some Western thinkers would say that the difference lies in the state of mind and that one should reconfigure one’s beliefs in order to make the rule-following more meaningful. To these minds, adding some understanding will make the gesture meaningful.
Such was not the Confucian way. As Tierney explained, the key for the Sage was that following the rules consistently, regardless of the effort required, will show you that they are the right rules and will make them feel natural, thus, second nature.
As it happens, anyone who gets it right without appearing to be straining himself will exude confidence and will attract people to him.
However wu wei is attained, there’s no debate about the charismatic effect it creates. It conveys an authenticity that makes you attractive, whether you’re addressing a crowd or talking to one person. The way to impress someone on a first date is to not seem too desperate to impress.
If you appear to be acting out of desperation, people will feel that you are pushing them away. They will feel that you are so self-absorbed that you are refusing to connect with them.
If you are treating depression, this philosophy recommends that you identify the behaviors that signify desperation and replace them with behaviors that signify confidence.
For Confucius, a right action that becomes second nature will become sincere.
Sincerity is not a state of mind except in the sense that the more natural it feels to follow the rules the more you will be able to do so effortlessly.
If you are making an effort to practice virtue, others will suspect that you are going through the motions, not really meaning what you are doing.
Through willpower and the rigorous adherence to rules, traditions and rituals, the Confucian “gentleman” was supposed to learn proper behavior so thoroughly that it would eventually become second nature to him. He would behave virtuously and gracefully without any conscious effort, like an orator who knows his speech so well that it seems extemporaneous.
He reports on how the concept of wu wei was defined two centuries after Confucius:
Hence the preoccupation with wu wei, whose ancient significance has become clearer to scholars since the discovery in 1993 of bamboo strips in a tomb in the village of Guodian in central China. The texts on the bamboo, composed more than three centuries before Christ, emphasize that following rules and fulfilling obligations are not enough to maintain social order.
These texts tell aspiring politicians that they must have an instinctive sense of their duties to their superiors: “If you try to be filial, this not true filiality; if you try to be obedient, this is not true obedience. You cannot try, but you also cannot not try.”
Taoists, Tierney adds, had a different idea:
Taoists did not strive. Instead of following the rigid training and rituals required by Confucius, they sought to liberate the natural virtue within. They went with the flow. They disdained traditional music in favor of a funkier new style with a beat. They emphasized personal meditation instead of formal scholarship.
Rejecting materialistic ambitions and the technology of their age, they fled to the countryside and practiced a primitive form of agriculture, pulling the plow themselves instead of using oxen. Dr. Slingerland calls them “the original hippies, dropping out, turning on, and stickin’ it to the Man more than 2,000 years before the invention of tie-dye and the Grateful Dead.”
Hopefully, this sounds somewhat familiar. Taoists were more introspective. They sought to liberate their impulses and instincts. They believed that they could do so without working very hard. Some of them even believed that hard work would prevent them from accessing their inner selves.
It is reasonable to ask how well the Taoist life plan worked out. How well did they do when they retired to the countryside to get in touch with their more primitive instincts? As well as the hippies?