Printer Friendly

From metaphysics to ethics: east and west.

AT FIRST BLUSH, it does not look as if metaphysics and ethics are related in either the Eastern or the Western philosophical traditions. Consider the Way (Dao) of the Daoist, Laozi, in his Daodejing, or the mean/equilibrium (zhong) of the Confucian text, the Zhongyong, as the source or cause of everything in pre-Qin Chinese philosophy. In itself, neither of the first principles in these rival Chinese philosophies seems to be determinate or distinct, and hence knowable, let alone offers norms for ethics. For Laozi, there is talk or existence of virtue only when the Way is lost. (1) In the Zhongyong, the mean/equilibrium exists prior to any pleasures or emotions, that is, prior to any human activities, (2) and moreover, is said to be unattainable. (3) Similarly, consider the form of the good for Plato as the first principle of truth and its rival, the primary substance or ousia for Aristotle, in ancient Greek philosophy. Both Plato's and Aristotle's first principles are unlike the sources in Daoism and early Confucianism in being distinct and knowable. But Plato's and Aristotle's first principles, like those of the Chinese, do not seem to be related to their ethics either. For Plato, the form of the good causes truth, reality, and knowledge. However, these belong to the eternal, intelligible realm of theory that is not only removed from the changeable, visible realm of ethics, but is also unreachable by actions. Similarly, Aristotle's primary substance (ousia) is the invariable object of the theoretical scientific (epistemonikon) part of the soul, rather than the variable object of the practical deliberative (logistikon) part. While the theoretical part grasps eternal truths or falsehoods, the practical part deliberates about changeable actions, which are good or bad. In short, theory and practice seem clearly separate for Plato and Aristotle. So rival representatives of both Chinese and Greek traditions seem to agree that the first principle or source is separate from, and unreachable by, human action.

Apparent affinities in these disparate rival traditions regarding the lack of relation between their metaphysics and ethics notwithstanding, I'll show that what these traditions share is the view that there is an intimate relation between metaphysics and ethics. If each of these rival representatives of ancient Chinese and Greek traditions agrees that metaphysics is bound up with ethics, such that reality determines what is ethical, examining their respective accounts of metaphysics and ethics can illuminate their strengths and weaknesses. Such a comparison can reveal how the practical can be a standard by which we assess the strength of one's metaphysics.

Let me make a fresh start by examining more carefully the metaphysics and ethics of each of the representatives of the rival traditions for the Chinese and the Greeks.

For Laozi, a representative of Daoism, the Way (Dao) is the source of all things. He says, "The Dao gives birth [sheng] to the one, the one gives birth to the two, the two gives birth to the three and the three gives birth to the ten thousand things [wanwu]." (4) Again, Laozi says that the Dao is "all pervasive. It can be on the left and the right. It gives birth to the ten thousand things and turns none away. When its work is complete, it does not claim acknowledgement. It clothes and raises them without lording over them, and it is always without desire." (5) Since the Dao exists prior to heaven and earth, Laozi also says that it can be regarded as the mother of heaven and earth. (6) It not only produces all things, but also sustains and nourishes them.

Contrary to the apparent lack of relation between Laozi's metaphysics and ethics, an important hint of their intimate connection lies in the title of Laozi's text, the Daodejing, literally the classic text (jing) of the Dao (Way) and the De (Virtue). Laozi's Dao is not only the source of all things in the cosmos but also the model of goodness for it is said to be "always on the side of the good person." (7) Thus, the actions of the sage are modeled after the Dao. (8) Like the Dao, the sage does not pursue his own desires" or prioritize himself, (10) but rather accords with the people's hearts (11) and supports the ten thousand things in their natural conditions, turning none away. (12)

Since Laozi's Dao is the norm for morality, as exemplified by the kinship between the sage's behavior and the Dao's activity, let us examine if there is a way around his first principle's being too indistinct or indeterminate for knowledge. Unless we can know the Dao, we would not be able to say how it determines ethics, let alone be the norm of moral actions.

Laozi asserts that the Dao's activity (wei) is indistinct (huang) and vague (hu). (13) Moreover, he says, "when the Dao is abandoned there are the virtues of humaneness [ren, sometimes translated as "benevolence"] and appropriateness [yi, sometimes translated as "righteousness"], wisdom and intelligence arise, and there is great hypocrisy. When the six familial relations are no longer harmonious, there is filial piety and compassion; when the country is disorderly, there are loyal ministers." (14) Thus Laozi advises "doing away with sageliness and wisdom," and "abandoning humaneness and appropriateness" to benefit people and "restore their filiality and compassion." (15) Laozi believes that "the appearance of virtue is only from the Dao," and it is through the Dao that he can know the state or condition (zhuang) of the multitude (zhong). (16) If knowledge of the Dao is required for knowing the condition of the multitude, and if the sage's behavior is modeled after it, Laozi cannot mean what he says about getting rid of sages, wisdom, and virtue. Rather, these terms must be equivocal for him. What he is against is the conventional understanding of these terms, espoused by the Confucians.

Confucians hold that the virtues of humaneness, appropriateness, and filial piety are attainable through practicing ritual proprieties, while wisdom is achievable through learning. Thus, one of the most significant tasks of an incoming emperor is the rectification of names (zhengming). Laozi objects to assigning specific meanings to names and insisting on strict adherence to the norms that are bound up with naming. The Daodejing begins, "The Way that can be Wayed, is not the constant Way; the name that can be named is not the constant name." 17 The "constant" (chang, literally, "always") for Laozi, whether it be in a name or the Way, is not fixed. To assign fixed meanings to names or to espouse a Way in the form of fixed rules that can be mechanically followed, would not capture what is constant. For the activity of the Dao is indistinct and vague, (18) hidden and without name. (19) Yet, Laozi holds that the Dao itself is unchanging. The constant Dao is "indistinct and complete, preceding heaven and earth. It is alone and empty, independent and unchanging." (20) Furthermore, there is a constant name for the Dao. He says, "Since ancient times till the present day, its name remains [bu qu, literally, "not leave"] just for reviewing the multitude." (21)

What then is the constant Dao for Laozi that is unchanging yet vague, indistinct and not fixed? Laozi's answer is the natural or spontaneous (ziran). He says,
   There are four great things: the Way [Dao], heaven [tian, literally,
   "sky"], (22) earth [di, and human beings [ren]. And how people live
   is one: The law [fa] of the people is the earth; the law
   of the earth is the heaven; the law of heaven is the Way; and the
   law of the Way is the natural [Daofa ziran]. (23)

Since these four great things are hierarchically ordered and each is dependent on the proximate higher for its law, their dependence is transitive such that the law of the Way, the natural, is also the law of the rest. This is why Laozi can illustrate the natural by talking about something as common as unhewn wood.

Unhewn wood is like the Dao in being natural and not anything in particular. As a result, both the Dao and unhewn wood are nameless. Because they are indistinct, vague, and nameless, no one can control them. Preserving unhewn wood and everything else in their natural conditions is the norm. Laozi says, "No one under heaven can control it. If the princes and kings could preserve it, all things [wanwu] would subject themselves, heaven and earth would unite ... and the people would be just without being commanded." (24) Apart from preserving unhewn wood and everything in their natural conditions, Laozi also advocates that we limit our actions. He continues, "When actions begin, so do names. And when there are already names, man must also have knowledge to stop. Knowing when to stop, he can avoid danger." (25) The analogy with unhewn wood is instructive because no one can say what it is. It is not a wooden bowl, a spoon, or a house. What is the size, shape, or thing that is unhewn wood? We cannot say because it is totally indistinct. Like Laozi's characterization of the Way, we can "look for it but it cannot be seen, listen for it but it cannot be heard." (26) Yet, when we use it, it is inexhaustible. (27) Just as the Dao "gives birth to the ten thousand things [wanwu]," (28) unhewn wood too can become many different objects. But when we act upon this simple unhewn wood and sculpt it into something definite such as a bowl or a spoon, we also limit it and ourselves to this one thing and name. However, this particular bowl cannot be the constant name or way of something for Laozi, because it is an imposed extreme or preconceived idea that holds only temporarily. This imposed name in turn restricts our actions to a certain course instead of realizing that what is natural (ziran) for that thing is not always going to be captured by the distinctions that come with this name. Rather, what is natural to something is often bound up with its opposite and is always a harmony of opposites. Laozi says, "Knowledge of harmony is called constancy [chang]]; knowledge of constancy is called enlightenment [ming]." (29)

More elaborately, for Laozi, nature consists in a constant harmony or balancing of opposite qualities. He asserts,
   Being [you] and nonbeing [wu] give rise to each other, the
   difficult and easy complete each other, the long and the short
   shape each other, the sound and the voice harmonize each other,
   beginning and end follow each other. Thus the sage manages affairs
   according to effortless action [wuwei] and teaches through action
   [xing] without speech [bu yan]. (30)

If what is natural to the Dao and everything that issues from it is a mutual arising from and transformation into opposites instead of one opposite extreme to the exclusion of the other, then right action, as exemplified by the sages, is effortless (wuwei). (31) This is because it is simply to harmonize opposites that naturally arise from each other instead of forcing them to fit one's preconceived purposes (wei). Put otherwise, wei is to act for some preconceived purpose, which limits things to our preconceptions, while wuwei, in contrast, is akin to the natural way of harmony in which we "assist all things [wanwu] in their being natural [ziran] and not dare to act for the sake of some preconceived purpose [wei]." (32) In short, acting for some preconceived purpose interferes with the natural conditions of things by forcing them into one extreme. Such forcefulness is contrary to the way (Dao). (33) Instead of force, Laozi advocates actions without engaging in activities (wushi). (34)

To engage in shi is to try to achieve certain results which hinder the interdependence of opposites in the natural conditions of things. Laozi illustrates the engagement in activities (shi) by the sort of government that rules by imposing laws and prohibitions: "The more taboos and prohibitions there are in the world, the poorer the people. ... The more clear the laws and edicts, the more thieves and robbers." (35) Against such active government, he recommends effortless action or nonaction (wuwei) by supporting things in their natural conditions instead of acting (wei). Ultimately, the sort of activity that supports things in their natural conditions is to be accommodating, for Laozi also says, "knowing constancy is to be accommodating." (36) When someone is accommodating, he is attuned to what is around him instead of pursuing his own desires or imposing them on others. Moreover, being accommodating is to be just or to be for the common (gong) for Laozi. This is akin to the Dao's activity of producing, nourishing and sustaining all things, excluding none, and being always without desire. Hence, Laozi maintains that the knowledge of constancy, also called enlightenment, is ultimately a return to the root, which is the stillness or utmost emptiness, or destiny from which everything arose. (37)

For Laozi, Dao as the source of everything is not only knowable, in knowing the harmony of opposites that governs the natural conditions of all things, but also bound up with his ethics. The norm of ethical action is to support all things in their natural conditions instead of acting according to one's preconceived purposes or desires.

Let's turn now to the rival of Daoism, Confucianism, and examine its account of how metaphysics is related to ethics in the Zhongyong.

The Confucian mean or equilibrium (zhong), is said to be "prior to the arising of pleasure, anger, sorrow and joy ... [and] is the basis of all under heaven." (38) Since the equilibrium is prior to any feelings, it is not a state that human beings can achieve. Instead of achieving the unattainable zhong, (39) ZY, 1.4 says that once feelings have arisen, and when someone acts in accord with zhong, that is, when his actions and feelings are regulated so that they are not inclined toward either of the extremes, his state is called harmony (he). While "zhong is the basis of all under heaven, he is the Way [Dao] of all under heaven." (40) We are also told in ZY, 1.1 that "what heaven has decreed is called nature [xing], according with nature is called Dao, and cultivating Dao is called instruction." As in Laozi, there is a Dao/Way in the ZY. Just as Laozi's first principle is a sort of stillness, which is the source of all things, the ZYs zhong is an unchanging equilibrium that is the source of all things. Even though neither the Dao nor the zhong is achievable, to accord with what the Dao or the zhong prescribes is harmony (he). Just as Laozi's Dao governs everything in the universe, human and non-human, the zhong's reach is also universal and cosmic. This is evident by the name of the text, Zhongyong. While zhong means equilibrium, yong means what is common, ordinary, or the universal. So the Zhong, like Laozi's Dao, is the norm for all things.

The DDJ and the ZY are also akin in their talk of nature. Just as there is a natural condition for all things, that is, ziran for Laozi, which is the norm of the Dao, the ZY also advocates according with our heaven-endowed nature (xing), which is called Dao. In short, our nature for both texts is bound up with the Dao, and acting in accordance with our nature is what the Dao prescribes for each. The two texts also share the view that it is the sage who can accord with nature and achieve harmony. Just as Laozi's sage can harmonize opposites and support all things in their natural conditions, the ZYs sage can not only develop his own nature fully but also develop the nature of other men, animals, and things. (41)

Despite the aforementioned similarities between the DDJ and the ZY regarding their first principles and ethical norms, there are significant differences between them. For instance, whereas the DDJ is about a harmony of opposite qualities, in which it is natural for opposites to transform into each other, the ZYs harmony which accords with the mean/zhong is not a harmony of opposites but an exclusion of opposite extremes. ZY, 10 states: "The junzi [exemplary individual [acts according to] harmony.... He stands in the middle [zhong] and does not incline to either side." In this passage, the middle, which represents courage, means not being inclined toward the meekness of the southerners or the rashness of the northerners. Such exclusion of opposites in the ZY is contrary to Laozi's harmony of opposites, which arise from each other. Moreover, the junzi's action of courage contradicts Laozi's view that being natural (ziran) entails that one does not act for some preconceived purpose. For how persistently the junzi would pursue learning, questioning, reflecting, discriminating, and action, until he is successful, the ZY states: "Study the way broadly, ask about it in detail, reflect on it carefully, analyze it clearly, and advance on it with earnestness." This passage continues by urging one not to stop before one has achieved any of these pursuits, concluding with, "where there is the proper way that one has not yet advanced on or that, having advanced on it, has yet to do so with earnestness, do not stop." (42)

Another difference between the DDJ and the ZY lies in their views of speech and naming to which I have alluded. Whereas the Dao cannot be captured by a constant name, which name limits us to certain distinctions as if they are fixed, naming is the rightful act of ruling and the prerogative of the exemplary ruler. ZY, 28.2 states: "To no one but the Son of Heaven does it belong to order ceremonies, to fix the measures, and to determine the written characters." Apart from fixing the written characters, the ruler is also responsible for ordering the ceremonies, fixing the measures, the size of the wheels of all carriages, and the rules of conduct. (43) Unlike Laozi's sage, who mirrors the Dao's activity without claiming acknowledgement, the sage king of the ZY requires acknowledgement from the people to be effective. ZY, 29.2 states: "Unhonored, he cannot command credence, and not being credited, the people would not follow his rules." (44) Continuing, this passage reads: "The Way of the exemplary ruler is rooted in his own character and conduct, and sufficient attestation of them is given by the people." (45)

The DDJ and the ZY differ too in the realization of human nature that is bound up with the Dao in each. Recall that attaining the natural (ziran) for Laozi, is to support all things in their natural conditions by being accommodating, that is, by effortless actions (wuwei) that do not strive to achieve certain preconceived results. This goes hand in glove with his assertion that "the Way that can be Wayed is not the constant Way," (46) namely, that there are not laws, rituals or practices that we can cultivate to reach the Way. Hence, Laozi's opposition to learning, (47) rituals, (48) and the pursuit of virtues (49) like humaneness, appropriateness, filiality, (50) and conventional wisdom, (51) and advice that one return to being a child. (52)

In contrast, realizing one's nature in the ZY depends on character cultivation that begins by
   according with the Way [Dao], the cultivation of which depends on
   according with the virtue of humaneness. When one is humane, loving
   one's relatives is primary. When one has the virtue of
   appropriateness, respecting the worthy is primary. The extension of
   decreasing love from relatives to others and honoring the worthy
   originate in the ritual proprieties [li]. (53)

Unlike the DDJ, the ZY specifies and emphasizes the rituals for cultivating specific virtues to accord with the Way. (54) In contrast to being natural or spontaneous (ziran), the ZY advocates nine rules for everyone in government. (55) These rules specify how someone should cultivate himself, and behave toward the virtuous, his relatives, ministers, the people, laborers, foreigners, and rulers of other states. Contrary to Laozi's wuwei and being accommodating and spontaneous rather than pursuing a predetermined constancy, the ZY recommends preparation in all things, from one's speech to affairs, actions, and the Way (Dao) for success. (56) The ZY is even explicit about the Way of Heaven, with which the Way of men is identified. (57) Elaborating, it states, "one with sincerity [cheng] completes himself, therefore it is the Way for directing himself' (58) and "sincerity is the beginning and end of all things, without which there are no things." (59) The cosmic effect of sincerity is clear when the ZY states:
   It is only he who is possessed of the most complete sincerity that
   can exist under heaven, who can give its full development to his
   nature. Able to give its full development to his own nature, he can
   do the same to the nature of other men. Able to give its full
   development to the nature of other men, he can give their full
   development to the natures of animals and things. Able to give
   their full development to the natures of creatures and things, he
   can assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and
   Earth. Able to assist the transforming and nourishing powers of
   Heaven and Earth, he may with Heaven and Earth form a ternion. (60)

Since human nature is modeled after Heaven's way of sincerity, only the one with the most complete sincerity can develop his own nature, that of other human and nonhuman things in the whole cosmos. The way of sincerity in the ZY contrasts with the way of supporting all things in their natural conditions in the DDJ. While the DDJs way of wuwei follows the natural conditions of things by accommodating them and harmonizing their opposites instead of trying to achieve some preconceived goal, the ZY insists on trying to achieve a preconceived virtue of sincerity, which in turn is the way to transform and nourish everything in the cosmos.

In the ZY, the completion of oneself is the virtue of humaneness while the completion of all things is the virtue of knowledge. Ultimately, our nature (xing) is to be humane and have knowledge. These two virtues constitute the Way to unite the external with the internal (he wai nei). (61) Although the ZYs Way to realize human nature is like the DDJs Dao by reaching beyond the human realm to all things in nature, it differs in maintaining that there are specific rules of rituals and virtues which pursuits are necessary for harmonizing the individual with the rest of the universe. Contrariwise, the DDJ denies the effectiveness of rituals and the active pursuit of specific virtues when one is according with the norm of the natural (ziran).

In contrast to Laozi's Dao, which is vague, indistinct, and unnamable, and to the ZYs unattainable zhong, which at best human beings can approximate by according to the Dao of harmony and sincerity, Aristotle's primary substance or ousia is most definable, knowable, and independent. Although Aristotle's ousia is like the metaphysical principles of these Chinese philosophers in being prior in time and the first cause of all things, it is different in that it is neither reachable nor approximated by practical actions. So neither the sage's acting with ziran and wuwei in the DDJ, nor sincerity in the ZY, is the way to ousia. Instead, ousia is accessed exclusively by contemplation. Nevertheless, like their views, Aristotle's first principle is also the norm of ethics. As the highest good and the object of happiness, ousia is that for the sake of which all actions are done even if actions can never reach it, and like the first principles in the DDJ and the ZY, it determines human nature.

Aristotle's conception of ousia or essence will reveal what human nature is for him. Essence is the "what it is to be" (to ti en einai) of anything, satisfying the criteria of being definable, knowable, separable, prior in cause and time. (62) Between the form and matter that make up an individual thing, such as a man or a bowl, form is what satisfies the conditions of definability, knowability, and separability, not matter. (63) A crafted object such as a bowl, for instance, has a certain shape or form informing a certain matter, such as clay. Since the form must exist in the craftsman's mind prior to his making the bowl, it is prior in cause and time. That is, the shape of bowl is what causes the clay to be a bowl rather than a plate or some other object. Moreover, the shape also enables the object to perform its function. Given that the function of a bowl is to contain liquid among other materials, it must be made out of a certain type of matter and form. Form follows function, which also limits the sort of matter that can be used for making something. A human being's composite nature is no exception to this rule, as it is his form or soul that organizes his matter or flesh and bones into a united whole which has a specific function. Man's function for Aristotle is to reason, and this is what distinguishes him from plants and animals. (64)

More specifically, the activity of reasoning for human beings is fulfilled, according to Aristotle, when they know the truth, master their desires, and perform good actions. Rational activities such as these, when perfected, result in our possession of the intellectual and moral virtues. (65) Apart from the fact that reasoning is the form that is unique to a human being and is the cause of his nature and function, another reason why form is prioritized as cause stems from Aristotle's view of God as primary ousia/substance.

God is primary substance because he satisfies the priority in definition, knowledge, separability, as well as priority in cause and time (66) that Aristotle requires. God is the first cause of everything because he is immovable but moves everything else. God moves everything else without moving himself because he is immaterial. Something immaterial can neither be moved nor destroyed. In contrast, material things that are combinations of form and matter are destructible because they are not as united as immaterial things. As such, God is also more united than composite things. Given God's unity, unchangeability, immovability, and indestructibility, he is also most stable. Consequently, God can satisfy the conditions of being definable and knowable, unlike composite things which are not as definable and knowable because they can change, move, be destroyed, and moreover lack unity. Insofar as a concrete thing requires matter to exist and someone to make it, it is not as independent as God. God is independent because he must exist to move everything else without being moved himself. For everything else in the universe to move, Aristotle thinks that God must exist as a first complete reality (to proton entelecheia), (67) a principle (archen) which substance (ousia) is an actuality (energeia) that exists eternally to move them. (68) God is not only independent in being an unmoved mover, he is also self-sufficient in his activity. God's self-sufficiency is satisfied by self-thinking thought, for to think about anything else is to rely on it and would prevent him from being independent and self-sufficient.

Aristotle's view of the conditions that God satisfies which make him primary substance in turn informs his view of man's nature, function, and ultimately his perfection. The activity of rationality that defines man's nature comes closest to God's activity of thinking. Unlike God's thinking that is of himself and hence is undivided, man's thinking is divided to accommodate the material objects and immaterial objects he encounters. Specifically, Aristotle divides man's rationality into the speculative part and the deliberative part. The former is directed at immaterial and unchanging things, for example, mathematical objects and God, such that speculation aims at knowing them. The latter is directed at material and changing things like natural and artificial entities such as men and houses, about which man deliberates and then acts. Whereas the speculative part aims at distinguishing the true from the false, the deliberative part aims at distinguishing the right from the wrong. Because a human being is combined with matter, Aristotle includes the nonrational soul to account for the controllable desiring part that is composed of appetites, desires, and emotions. The nonrational, desiring part is united to rationality by adhering to decisions from deliberation. To get the desiring part to abide by deliberation takes correct habituation over time. When perfected, our nonrational soul results in the moral virtues such as temperance, courage, generosity, and justice, among others. These virtues in turn provide the ends toward which our deliberations aim in choosing the means. When perfected, our deliberative part results in the virtue of phronesis or practical wisdom, which leads us always to do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, to the right persons, and so on. In sum, the phronimos has all the virtues of character so that he knows that the ends to be pursued are the virtues: justice, courage, and temperance, and so on. In contrast, when perfected, our speculative part issues in theoria, that is, contemplation of eternal and unchanging objects in scientific demonstration, mathematics, and the highest object, God. In short, these are the objects of wisdom or sophia. Since the objects of sophia are eternal, unchanging, and independent of matter, engaging in theoria is more self-sufficient and united than the activity of phronesis for Aristotle. In keeping with the criteria that make God the primary substance, that is, being independent, separable, and united, Aristotle ranks theoria higher than phronesis, since the former satisfies these criteria more than the latter. Theoria, which grasps eternal objects by the speculative soul, makes one more self-sufficient and united, and hence is a more Godlike activity than phronesis, which relies on material things that change.

Aristotle's emphasis on rationality and his careful distinction of it to accommodate changeable and unchangeable objects are devoid of counterparts in the DDJ and the ZY. Contrary to the priority Aristotle attributes to immaterial form which makes it immovable, indestructible, most united, definable, knowable, and self-sufficient, Laozi would be skeptical about the distinctness and independence of such a principle and doubt the desirability and defensibility of something so unchangeable as the cause of the natural (ziran), which is governed by constant change and harmony of opposites as in the transformations from nonbeing to being and vice versa. Although Aristotle's primary form might be more akin to the ZYs equilibrium in being stable and immune from being affected by other things, they differ inasmuch as Aristotle's God is always active by thinking of himself whereas the zhong is inactive since it is prior to any feelings or emotions and is not inclined toward anything. The effortlessness that characterizes God's thinking about himself might seem to be something Laozi can appreciate. But God's constant activity of thinking only of himself because he is the best object would violate Laozi's opposition to acting for some preconceived purpose and making distinctions between God and other things. Moreover, God's activity as centered on himself alone not only conflicts with Laozi's Dao, the activity of which is that of producing, nourishing, sustaining all things and excluding none, but also with the Confucian Way of sincerity, the transforming and nourishing powers of which develop the natures of men, animals, and all things. The goal of these Chinese first principles is more cosmic than Aristotle's God. Finally, the completeness and self-sufficiency of Aristotle's God contrasts with the emptiness of Laozi's Dao and the ZYs mean. Whereas Aristotle's God has the qualities that make him most united and independent of all things, the first principles of these Chinese are devoid of specific qualities which make each of them less a one but more united and continuous with the rest of the universe.

While Aristotle claims that there are two parts to the rational soul that grasp changeable and unchangeable objects, respectively, so that the perfection of each is different, neither the DDJ nor the ZY separates the form of man from his matter such that there is a rational soul. As we have seen above, Aristotle ranks contemplation higher than practical wisdom because the former better satisfies the same criteria as God, namely, unity, stability self-sufficiency, and knowability rather than practical wisdom. Unlike phronesis that requires external goods, for example, wealth and friends, to help one perform virtuous actions such as generous and just acts, respectively, theoria can be carried out with fewer external goods. Similarly, unlike phronesis, which requires others (either for help or to be helped) in virtuous actions, theoria is self-sufficient for Aristotle. In short, while Aristotle's ousia separates theory from action, neither the DDJ nor the ZY has first principles that separate theory from practice, let alone prioritize theory.

Having compared Aristotle and the DDJ and the ZY with respect to their first principles and implications for ethics, let us turn to Plato. Unlike Aristotle, who clearly separates the rationality for speculative and deliberative objects, Plato does not identify a separate rationality for knowing the forms and deliberating moral acts. (69) In different dialogues, or sometimes different books within the same dialogue, the same rationality performs speculation, deliberation or both. For example, in the Republic's simile of the line, the intelligible section is divided into the state of noesis, the objects of which are the forms, and dianoia, the objects of which are the mathematical and scientific truths. Since both noesis and dianoia correspond to invariable objects, the line's account of rationality is not a counterpart to Aristotle's practical rationality. In contrast, the reasoning part in each of the tripartite accounts of the soul in Republic 4 and Socrates' palinode in the Phaedrus, respectively, seems to be devoted either to practical rationality alone or to both practical rationality and knowledge of forms. (70) Neither of these purposes of one and the same rationality parallels Aristotle's division of the rational soul into speculation and deliberation. Specifically, Republic 4 maintains that the rational soul's function is to reflect and rule the whole soul, which includes the spirited and appetitive parts, stating that it is "wise and exercises forethought in behalf of the whole soul," and that it knows what benefits each part. (71) Thus, the function of reason in Republic 4 is the guidance of actions rather than the contemplation of forms. In contrast, the Phaedrus' simile of the rational soul, as the charioteer/intelligence driving a pair of winged horses, performs the dual function of (1) directing the pair of horses to act correctly and (2) knowing the forms. (72) More elaborately, one of the horses represents an honor-loving, self-controlled, and modest part that listens readily to the charioteer's verbal commands; the other, a wild, desire-driven, and disobedient part that does not listen to verbal commands and requires physical force to be controlled. Thus the charioteer is responsible for commanding the good horse, and with his help, reigning in the bad horse in order to get the whole soul to the outer rim of heaven to view the forms. Whereas Aristotle dedicates a specific rationality to the different types of being, (73) Plato does not provide a different type of rationality for different types of being like the forms and virtuous actions.

In fact, there is a natural continuity between theory and practice for Plato, as the perfection of nous makes possible the practice of genuine virtue. Ultimately, since the form of the good is the cause of truth or being and knowledge, we must have knowledge of the truth or being of something in order to know what its good is. I have argued for the continuity between one's knowledge of the truth of the soul and one's ability to live the good life in both Plato's tripartite account and his divided line account in the Republic. (74) For the continuity between knowledge of the forms and the ability to practice genuine virtues in the Symposium, consider Diotima's assertion that a human being should live a life in which he studies the beautiful itself: "only there with it, when a person sees the beautiful in the only way it can be seen, will he ever be able to give birth, not to imitations of virtue, since he would not be reaching out toward an imitation, but to true virtue, because he would be taking hold of what is true." (75) Similarly, in the Phaedrus, Socrates describes the philosophical life between two lovers as "one of bliss and shared understanding," in which the lovers are "modest and fully in control of themselves now that they have enslaved the part that brought trouble ... and set free the part that gave it virtue." (76) The wings of these lovers' horses will grow after death and they can again lift up the soul to be nourished by the truth. (77) In both passages, the rationality that grasps the forms leads the soul to act virtuously, showing that knowledge of the truth for Plato is bound up with virtuous actions.

In contrast, since Aristotle separates speculation from deliberation, it seems that knowledge of an eternal object's truth does not lead us to knowledge of its good. But this cannot be true without qualification for Aristotle, since for him knowledge of God or primary ousia sets the standards of goodness for human nature. As I have argued above and elsewhere,
   God, for Aristotle, satisfies the criteria for primary substance
   and also the conditions of being complete and self-sufficient.
   Because human beings are most like God in being self-sufficient
   (autarkes) and complete (teleios) when they are using their
   rational soul, the activity of the rational soul is also the human
   goal.... In short, it is our nature that dictates our good. (78)

However, for Aristotle the result of these standards is still that goodness in action is inferior to the goodness of speculative knowledge because he divides the speculative from the deliberative parts of the soul. Contrariwise, there is a natural continuity between theory and practice for Plato as the perfection of nous makes possible the practice of genuine virtue. (79) Thus, we need to know the forms and the truths or beings caused by them to know what their goods are. (80) Let us see how Plato's unity of theory and practice compares with the DDJ and the ZY.

Whereas the DDJ eschews any fixed universals as objects of knowledge and the purposive pursuits of virtues and advocates the accommodation of opposites in the nature of things, it is not clear how Laozi can maintain that the Dao is always on the side of the good person. It seems that he is so anxious to accommodate changes in the ten thousand things that the ethical stance for him is always a stepping back from action and letting the natural or spontaneous take its course. However, such a strategy is feasible only when the world around us is in accord with the Dao. How would such a way remedy or resuscitate a world devoid of the Dao? (81)

Insofar as the ZY differs from the DDJ in endorsing a universal or common zhong as the standard to pursue in harmonizing our actions and feelings, and approximating the zhong involves the exclusion of opposite extremes, it is better positioned to advocate the life of virtue than the DDJ. To the extent that the zhong is prior to being affected by anything in the universe, since it preexists everything, and the ZY proposes virtues like humaneness (ren) and sincerity (cheng) to unite what is internal and external, the ZY fares better than the DDJ in offering a theory and practice in times when the Dao is absent. Moreover, the ZY also seems superior to Aristotle's God as it offers a continuity rather than break between its theoretical first principle and ethical norms. However, despite the continuity between the zhong and harmony, insofar as harmony is the way to accord with the zhong, it is questionable if a harmony which regulates actions and feelings such that they are not inclined toward the opposite extremes suffices for goodness. Specifically, given zhong's vacuity (since it is prior to all things), how can it prescribe the right harmony, as there can be harmonies even of the bad, for example, the harmony among robbers for the sake of robbery? Similarly, sincerity as the way to harmony seems just as open to vice as it is to virtue, since even criminals can pursue criminal activities and the vicious perform vicious actions with sincerity. Finally, given that cultivation of the way in the ZY is said to originate in ritual proprieties, (82) which can vary over time and need not always capture the virtues, the ZYs harmony is again open to corruption.

Plato's form of the good is superior to the Chinese first principles; it is neither vague or indeterminate like the Dao, nor vacuous like the zhong. Unlike the Dao, Plato's good is consistently good such that it is always the standard to be pursued regardless of whether the world is good or corrupt. Similarly, because Plato's good is not vacuous like the zhong, what it prescribes is not like the ZYs harmony or sincerity, which can be either good or bad. Plato's good is also better than Aristotle's God because it does not separate theory from practice. Rather, knowledge of the form of the good for Plato not only informs knowledge of the rest of the forms but is the cause of all truths, beings, and actions in the world by being the principle of goodness that makes possible dianoia of mathematical and scientific truths, pistis of everything in the visible world, and even the eikasia in the imaginative realm. This is because everything beneath the realm of forms is always more or less removed from the forms as causes, and the forms are effective as causes due to their truth and knowledge that issue from the good. Put otherwise, the principle of goodness in Plato gives rise to the truth or reality of the forms, which in turn makes them clear and knowable to us. Our pursuit of scientific and mathematical truths, if successful, leads us to an understanding of the invariable forms that cause the variable things in the visible world. Since things in the visible world are ultimately copies of the forms, they embody natures and shapes that make them what they are, natures and shapes that can be abstracted and made accessible to scientific and mathematical reasoning because of their intelligibility, invariability, and constancy. Given that human beings are part of the visible world, they too have natures that are constant and knowable. (83) But because the nature of the human soul is capable of imagination, belief, scientific reasoning, and noetic understanding, which correspond to their respective objects, depending on which of these states of the soul one regards or values as the highest and takes as normative, one's action and knowledge will be closer to or further from the truth and the good. (84) Thus, someone is more or less good and knowledgeable to the extent that one is more or less removed from the ultimate cause of the form of the good. It is clear then how Plato's metaphysical form of the good is also the norm for ethics.

In conclusion, even though Plato's good is like the other thinkers' first principles I have been considering, in that they all provide norms for morality, Plato's good is superior insofar as it can accomplish what the others are intended to accomplish, that is, it can act as a first source and norm of goodness and also relate metaphysics to ethics. As we have seen, Plato's good can account for Laozi's interest in producing and supporting all things in their natural conditions, and even account for the constant changes and transformations that concern Laozi. Plato would agree with Laozi that things in this world just are and are not because they are not the constant Dao or the eternal forms. He would concur too with the ZY in advocating a harmony of our appetites and emotions that leads to the virtues that would unify what is external and internal to us, except that his harmony can distinguish between the genuine and apparent virtues because his good is sufficiently robust to account for such variations. Finally, even though Plato shares the same criteria as Aristotle for the metaphysical principle--for example, that it must be prior in time and cause, stable so as to be definable and knowable, self-sufficient so as to be unaffected by others--his good is better than Aristotle's God insofar as it offers a continuity between contemplative wisdom and practice.

College of the Holy Cross

(1) See P. J. Ivanhoe, The Daodejing of Laozi (hereafter, DDJ) (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002), 38, 18. Unless otherwise stated, all references to Laozi will be to chapter numbers.

(2) Zhongyong (hereafter, ZY), chap. 1.4. See James Legge, Confucius: Confucian Analects, The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean (1893; Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1971). Unless otherwise stated, all references are to chapter numbers of this translation.

(3) Ibid., 9.

(4) My translation from chap. 42, based on the online Chinese text of the Dao De Jing (hereafter, Laozi 2003, followed by chapter number), available at All references to this text below are my translations or paraphrases.

(5) Ibid., 34.

(6) Ibid., 25.

(7) Ibid., 79.

(8) Just as "the Dao of heaven is to benefit (li) and not harm (hai), the way of the sage is to act (wei) and not fight (zheng)" for Laozi. Ibid., 81.

(9) Ibid, 64.

(10) Ibid, 7, 67.

(11) Ibid, 49.

(12) Ibid, 2, 64.

(13) Ibid, 21.

(14) Ibid, 18.

(15) Ibid, 19.

(16) Ibid, 21.

(17) Ibid., 1.

(18) Ibid., 21.

(19) Ibid., 41.

(20) Ibid., 25.

(21) Ibid., 21.

(22) For a detailed discussion of the meaning of tian in the ZY, see my "A Natural Law Approach to Law: Are the Confucians and the Thomists Commensurable?" in a special issue of Journal of Comparative Law entitled "Natural Law Approaches to Comparative Law" 8, no. 2 (2014): 82-102, esp. 86.

(23) Laozi 2003, 25.

(24) Ibid., 32.

(25) Ibid.

(26) Ibid., 35.

(27) Ibid.

(28) Ibid., 34.

(29) Ibid., 55.

(30) Ibid., 2.

(31) For details of my discussions of Laozi's views of opposites and how my reading of Laozi compares with some commentators, see "Travelling with Laozi and Plato," in Landscape and Travelling East and West: A Philosophical Journey (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 53-70; and "Laozi and Zhu Xi on Knowledge and Virtue," in Oxford Handbook of Chinese Philosophy, ed. Justin Tiwald (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming in 2015).

(32) Laozi 2003, 64. Correspondence to: May Sim, Department of Philosophy, College of the Holy Cross, P.O. Box 148A, One College Street, Worcester, MA 01610.

(33) For Laozi, "using the heart-mind [xin] to enable qi [vital force/energy] is called force [qiang]." Laozi 2003, 55.

(34) Ibid., 63.

(35) DDJ, 57.

(36) Laozi 2003, 16.

(37) Ibid.

(38) ZY, 1.4.

(39) Ibid., 9

(40) Ibid., 1.4.

(41) Ibid., 22.

(42) ZY 20.20. The quotation is from Focusing the Familiar: A Translation and Philosophical Interpretation of the Zhongyong, trans. Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001), 104.

(43) ZP, 28.3.

(44) I discuss the significance of honor and acknowledgement from others for the effectiveness of the ruler in "Rethinking Honor with Aristotle and Confucius," The Review of Metaphysics 66 (December 2012): 263-80.

(45) ZY, 29.3. Legge's translation with my modifications.

(46) Laozi 2003, 1.

(47) Ibid., 20.

(48) Ibid., 38.

(49) Ibid., 38.

(50) Ibid., 18.

(51) Ibid., 3.

(52) Ibid., 28.

(53) ZY, 20.5. My translation.

(54) Ibid., 19.

(55) Ibid., 20.12.

(56) Ibid., 20.16.

(57) Ibid., 20.

(58) Ibid., 25.1.

(59) Ibid., 25.2.

(60) Ibid., 22.

(61) Ibid., 25.3.

(62) Metaphysics 7.1.1028a31 and 1029a28.

(63) Metaphysics 7.10.1036al-2.

(64) Nicomachean Ethics 1.7.

(65) For an elaborate account of how Aristotle's metaphysics is the basis of his ethics/politics, see my Remastering Morals with Aristotle and Confucius (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), chap. 1.

(66) Metaphysics 7.1.1028a31 and 1029a28.

(67) Metaphysics 12.5.1071a37.

(68) Metaphysics 12.6.1071b20-21.

(69) As Charles H. Kahn, "Plato's Theory of Desire," The Review of Metaphysics 41 (1987): 77-103, puts it, the "unity of theory and practice is so fundamental in Plato's thought that he never makes Aristotle's distinction between sophia, the theoretical wisdom exercised in contemplation, and phronesis, the practical wisdom exercised in action and deliberation. This unity of theory and practice has as a consequence or presupposition that the knowledge of truth must also be a knowledge of value, of what is worth pursuing, so that the desire to know the truth will ultimately be a desire to know and to possess the good" (82).

(70) Miles F. Burnyeat, "The Truth of Tripartition," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 106 (2006): 1-23, acknowledges that reason for Plato is directed at seeking both the good and the truth when he maintains that Plato is committed to the thesis that "reason can determine from its own resources how best to live. Plato believes it can do this because he believes that reason is 'programmed' to seek the good as well as the truth" (13). Similarly, Eva M. Buccioni, "The Psychical Forces in Plato's Phaedrus," British Journal for the History of Philosophy 10, no. 3 (2002): 331-57, echoes this unity between the life of practical rationality/virtue and the pursuit of knowledge of the forms when she explains that the philosophical life is to approximate the life of the soul prior to its embodied state which involves both the exercise of virtue and the pursuit of knowledge. She writes, "The goal of philosophy is to come closest to the prenatal state ... to fulfill the essential nature of the soul [which] entails two things, (a) ordering and care [for all things], and (b) apprehension of the Beings" (352). Because of these two tasks that are incompatible with a focus on an individual's own pleasure, Buccioni explains that the philosophical life requires a total abstention from sex.

(71) Plato, The Republic, trans. R. E. Allen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 441e. See also 442c5-7, the soul is "wise by that small part which rules in him and announces this, and also has knowledge within itself of what is for the advantage of the whole community consisting of the three together, and of each."

(72) For example, speaking of the forms lying outside heaven, in a realm which is colorless, shapeless, and immaterial, Plato asserts that reality, "the subject of all true knowledge, [is] visible only to intelligence, the soul's steersman." Phaedrus, trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995), 247c7-9.

(73) Invariable speculative objects and variable deliberative objects, respectively.

(74) "Das Liniengleichnis und die Einheit der Seele in Platons Politeia" ("The Divided Line and the United Psyche in Plato's Republic"), in Grundlagen der Antiken Ethik, ed. Jorg Hardy and George Rudebusch (Vandenhoeck: V & R Unipress, 2011), 109-21.

(75) Plato, Symposium, trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989), 212al-4.

(76) Phaedrus 256a11-b3.

(77) Repeating such a lifestyle three life times in a row will ensure that these souls will achieve immortality (Phaedrus 248c6).

(78) May Sim, Remastering Morals with Aristotle and Confucius (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 35.

(79) I agree with commentators such as Kahn, Santas, Burnyeat, and Muir (all cited in this essay) about how knowledge of the forms for Plato makes possible one's practice of genuine virtues, and hence the unity of metaphysics and ethics. Mexander Nehamas, '"Only in the Contemplation of Beauty is Human Life Worth Living' Plato, Symposium 21 Id," European Journal of Philosophy 15, no. 1 (2007): 1-18, would disagree, saying, "for me beauty, which depends not only on the features of the object of love but also on who it is that loves it, has no essential connection to virtue" (13). Again, Nehamas says, "To find something beautiful, ... involves the sense that life will be more worthwhile if that beautiful object were to become part of it. But I have said nothing about what makes life worthwhile and unlike Plato, who thinks that this is in all cases moral virtue, I don't even think that there is anything both general and informative to say about it" (9-10). To separate the beauty of objects so completely from the moral virtues, as Nehamas has done, is to sever beauty from the form of beauty in such a way that it becomes entirely relative to the individual. Consequently, Nehamas would also fail to see the connection between Plato's metaphysics and ethics and how the degree of one's access to the truth is proportionate to the degree of one's ability to practice virtue for Plato, a connection which enables Plato to justify the life of virtue as our telos. Frisbee Sheffield, "The Symposium and Platonic Ethics: Plato, Vlastos, and a Misguided Debate," Phronesis 57 (2012): 117-41, would agree with Nehamas as she questions the connection between a life led contemplating beauty itself and "generating virtue in other souls" (133). Arguing against the connection between truth and generating virtue, Sheffield asserts, "It will not, after all, be true that life is worth living in contemplation of the Form; there will be some further activity required [that is, to generate virtue]" (133).

(80) See for instance, Gerasimos Santas, "Plato on Goodness and Rationality," Revue Internationale De Philosophic 40 (1986): 97-114, who says that for Plato, "the Form of the Good is at once the formal cause of the knowability of all the other Forms and of their being the best objects of then-kind, the perfect specimens of goodness of kind. And since the Forms are objects of reason, ... the paradigms of goodness are objects of reason, and the cause of their goodness as pure an object of reason as one could possibly be" (106). Again, Santas says, "since only reason can know the Forms, only reason can direct the fashioning of cities and souls, through social reform and education, so that this human good can best be realized" (107-08). See also Samuel C. Wheeler, III, "Plato's Enlightenment: The Good as the Sun," History of Philosophy Quarterly 14, no. 2 (1997): 171-88, who says, '"rational understanding' is always a matter of seeing what is good" for Plato (181).

(81) I argue for more shortcomings in Laozi's metaphysics and ethics in "Laozi and Zhu Xi on Knowledge and Virtue," in Oxford Handbook of Chinese Philosophy, ed. Justin Tiwald (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming in 2015).

(82) ZY, 20.5.

(83) For details of my interpretation of Plato's divided line simile, see "Das Liniengleichnis und die Einheit der Seele in Platons Politeia," 109-21.

(84) D. P. E. Muir, "Friendship in Education and the Desire for the Good: An Interpretation of Plato's Phaedrus," Educational Philosophy and Theory 32, no. 2 (2000): 233-47, acknowledges the multiple ways different souls can pursue the good for Plato, and yet it is the philosophical soul's way that surpasses them all when he says, "Socrates recognizes the various manifestations of eros [sic] in different types of souls in the myth, but describes educational, and ultimately, philosophical, friendship (i.e., non-sexual) as not only the best, but the ideal toward which all other types of relationships strive with varying success" (240).

Alexander Nehamas, "'Only in the Contemplation of Beauty is Human Life Worth Living' Plato, Symposium 21 Id," would also agree that different souls can love different objects because he holds that even though the form of beauty is the most beautiful object of eros, Plato doesn't deny that there is beauty too in the lower objects of eros since they too reflect the form's light (see p. 9).

* Presidential Address of the Metaphysical Society of America, delivered on 12 April 2013 at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA.
COPYRIGHT 2015 Philosophy Education Society, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sim, May
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2015
Previous Article:Subjectivity and the encounter with being.
Next Article:Bailey, Janies P.: Rethinking Poverty: Income, Assets, and the Catholic Social Justice Tradition.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |