Living in Accordance with Nature as a Guide to Living Virtuously
Sometime during the 6th century BCE, China was in turmoil after the disintegration of the ruling Zhou Dynasty, finding itself in a state of warfare. During this time, the change bred a new social class of magistrates and administrators, all of whom concerned themselves with political philosophy and developing strategies on how to effectively rule.
Elsewhere in the Western part of the world, the prominence of philosophy in Ancient Greece was so strong that it carried over to the East. Inspired by Greek philosophy, Chinese philosophy took on a more encompassing role, one that not only engaged itself with the political, but also matters concerning the nature of the universe and the attainment of stability in an ever-changing world. This eventually paved the rise of discussions about morality and ethics, as we will see Daoism bridging the gap between what exists, and how we ought to act.
Daoism in a Nutshell
Although Daoism doesn’t name its tradition from a founding thinker like many schools that come after it, the philosopher Laozi is Daoism’s best-known proponent along with his work, the Daodejing (in English, ‘The Way and its Power’). The text is one of the first attempts to propose how we can rule justly through virtuous living, which we attain by following dao (The ‘Way’). Here we’re able to see how the ancient Chinese applied their views of an ever-changing world to dao. Their philosophy goes something like this: we see the world as harbouring things with many different states, like weather and temperature, tall and short. All these different states that exist are the collective manifestations that make up the world, and we as human beings are a part of the collection.
However, human beings are a particular case. Because we have desires and free will, we can stray away from the dao and disturb the harmonious balance of the world. Thus, Laozi proposes that we can only maintain dao through wu wei (in English, ‘non-action’). By this, Laozi doesn’t mean ‘not doing’, but rather letting the chips fall where they may, living not in accordance with our desires, but with nature—that is, living spontaneously and intuitively. Maintaining dao here means respecting the way things are naturally, and thus to Laozi, living in accordance with nature is virtuous. In other words, given the ever-changing nature of the world, to live virtuously means to harmonize ourselves with everything else in the world: we ought to act without desire or ambition, or even to any recourse to social conventions. Living like this, Laozi says, leads to a simple yet peaceful, tranquil life.
No doubt Laozi’s dao is thought-provoking and questions our sense of virtue and living well. By studying the Daodejing we can think critically about the world we find ourselves in and how we can act as agents within it. We will see many philosophers after his time (especially in the West) agree that we ought to live a life in accordance with rationality, but such a life doesn’t always mean living without desire. After all, throughout history we see a development of philosophies on how to live well, an indication that Laozi’s dao is not the only Way to a virtuous and well-lived life.
Ron Buenaventura is a graduating student from the University of Toronto, majoring in Philosophy with a concentration in Ancient Greek Philosophy, as well as minoring in Politics. His favourite subjects are the Presocratics and Hellenistic schools, particularly the Eleatic school and Epicureanism.
After the summer, Ron will study at Ryerson University for his master’s degree, working with others in academia who share his passion for philosophy. Aside from academics, Ron also likes to sing and has made a few covers for his favourite bands like Imagine Dragons and the Lumineers. He is also an avid chess player and Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast, playing both with friends from time to time.