Taoism and Confucianism disagree on several points on their understanding of how the world functions and the best role for a person to play in that world. It is difficult to say that one is a criticism of another, but there are comparable issues in which Taoist writings can be interpreted as directly addressing the more troubling aspects of Confucianism.
Confucianism tends to despise nature. Writings of Confucian scholars show nature to be cruel and symbolize all the negative in the world. They fear it and hide from it. In his poetry, the Confucian Tu Fu uses the most frightening aspects of nature to show his discomfort in being out in the wild, "I feared wild beasts would hear her cries." (Tu Fu 1384) Civilization is a place from where nature can be excluded. "Oh, to own a mighty mansion of a hundred thousand rooms, A great roof for the poorest gentlemen of all this world, a place to make them smile, A building unshaken by wind or rain, as solid as a mountain, Oh, when shall I see before my eyes a towering roof such as this?" (1388) He is desiring to take all the people, or at least his chosen gentlemen, of the world out of nature and hide them behind protective walls and roof.
Taoism enjoys the beauty in nature. The writings of Taoists seek to live in harmony with nature. The Taoist Paradise of The Peach Blossom Spring is a place where people live as a part of nature, not sequestered from it, "after a few dozen steps it suddenly opened out onto a broad and level plain where well-built houses were surrounded by rich fields and pretty ponds. Mulberry, bamboo and other trees and plants grew there, and criss-cross paths skirted the fields." (T'ao Ch'ien 1360)
There is a contrast between Confucianism and Taoism in how they view the role of a person in the world around him. Confucianism, while rebelling against the dictatorial role of Legalism, still takes a far more aggressive position than Taoism.
Confucians desire to impose their will upon their world. They are burdened by the troubles of the world and take to task modeling things into a civilized system where all things are put into a proper place. The Confucian ruler would favor leading by example over coercion, but the desire for controlling behavior is present none the less. There is a certain arrogance in the notion of always judging people to be good or evil. While the Confucian measure of goodness is in actions towards other people, it is also measured in a distinct lack of kindness to those the Confucian judges to be evil, "Those in his village who are good like him and those who are bad dislike him." (Analects 829-30)
Taoists believe in a Natural Law where the world should be allowed to go on unobstructed. "Do not be disturbed, do not be frightened; all things will clarify themselves. Do not be upset, do not be startled; all things will order themselves." (Cleary 39) Rather than disturbing the balance of nature, or being themselves disturbed by things beyond their control, they allow nature to take on its own order and find peace in that setting.
When Confucius is questioned about the role of government, he first lists three things important to rule in society as being providing food, arms, and cultivating trust. When questioned on the relative importance, he first lists arms as the least important. But when further questioned, he spells out trust as being paramount among the three, "Give up food. Death has been with us since the beginning of time, but when there is no trust, the common people will have nothing to stand on." (Analects 828) This implies that it is more important for a ruling class to maintain control, and retain their status as a ruling class, than it is for the basic needs of the people governed to be provided for.
Taoism gives a very different view on how to govern, "The Sage's way of governing begins by Emptying the heart of desires, Filling the belly with food, Weakening the ambitions, Toughening the bones." (Lao Tzu 7) Rather than the Confucian priority of maintaining social structure, the Taoists would forgo the hierarchal structure altogether in favor of providing for the basic needs of the populace. Here is a sharp criticism of more discriminating and dogmatic philosophies, that favor a ruling class, such as Confucianism and the more extreme Legalism. Where Confucianism seeks an absolute solution, Taoism purports the concept of wu-wei, that is 'non purposeful action'.
The ultimate difference between Confucianism and Taoism is their respective views on what is knowledge.
Confucius had no use for concerns outside ordering society. Upon spending a day in meditation, "I [Confucius] found that I gained nothing from it. It would have been better for me to have spent the time in learning." (Analects 830) Confucius also sees no point in spending time away from society, "One cannot associate with birds and beasts. Am I not a member of this human race?" (831) Rather, the Confucian scholar would spend a lifetime in learning to judge good from bad and how to promote his notion of virtue in society.
Taoism, on the other hand, seeks to appreciate that there is more to the world than can be readily studied. Human judgements and interpritations are inherently flawed by a lack of understanding the whole picture from its limited perspective and the limitations of language, the tool with which a person thinks. As expressed in the opening of the Tao Teh Ching, "Tao can be talked about, but not the Eternal Tao. Names can be named, but not the Eternal Name." (Lao Tzu 3) The Tao Teh Ching directly comments on the common concept of knowledge, "To realize that our knowledge is ignorance, This is a noble insight. To regard our ignorance as knowledge, This is a mental sickness." (145) Here, if anywhere, is where Confucian ideals are directly refuted by Taoism. Taoism sees the most virtuous state of a person to be as a child with his mind unclouded by the very knowledge and judgements that Confucianism would regard as virtuous.
Confucius was concerned with matters of human relationships. His philosophy inspires scholars to take up civil service with the goal of building a society based upon their discernment of good and bad and to desire that which is judged to be good. Lao Tzu rejects such worldly concerns, limited knowledge and flawed judgements as creating an imbalance in the nature of things. The way of Confucius is to forge a moral society protected from the world, while the way of Lao Tzu is to allow man and nature to come into a harmonic coexistence.
Ch'ien, T'ao. "The Peach Blossom Spring". James R. Hightower, Trans. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Sarah Lawall, Ed. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York. 2002
Cleary, Thomas, Trans. Wen-Tzu: Understanding the Mysteries. Shambhala Publications, Inc.: Boston. 1992
Fu, Tu. "My Thatched Roof Is Ruined by the Autumn Wind". D. C. Lau, Trans. he Norton Anthology of World Literature. Sarah Lawall, Ed. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York. 2002
Fu, Tu. "Song of P'eng-ya". D. C. Lau, Trans. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Sarah Lawall, Ed. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York. 2002
Fu, Tu. "Spending the Night in a Tower by the River". D. C. Lau, Trans. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Sarah Lawall, Ed. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York. 2002
Lau, D. C., Trans. "Analects". The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Sarah Lawall, Ed. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York. 2002
Tzu, Lao. Tao Teh Ching. John C. H. Wu, Trans. Shambhala Publications, Inc.: Boston. 1989
© 2003, by Luigi Kapaj
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last updated on April 10, 2005