work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Heinrich Blücher on Laozi (Mystic Weber)

02.05.2015 · Posted in Uncategorized

There is a strange and largely unnoticed return of Orientalism into the social-scientific debate. The anti-rationalist turn against what often is perceived to be a continued stranglehold of Cartesian mind-body dualism now often seeks to ally itself with ‘Eastern thought’. The most startling precedent of poststructuralist Orientalism of course is to be found in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus early on when they confront the abhorred tree that is to stand in for all that’s wrong in Western civilisation (ossified rationalistic structures of states, sciences, culture) with the indeterminate, freely associating and dissembling rhizome at the heart of the aspired poststructuralist nomadism:

‘It is odd how the tree has dominated Western reality and all of Western thought, from botany to biology and anatomy, but also gnosiology, theology, ontology, all of philosophy … : the root-foundation, Grund, racine, fondement. The West has a special relation to the forest, and deforestation; the fields carved from the forest are populated with seed plants produced by cultivation based on species lineages of the arborescent type; animal raising, carried out on fallow fields, selects lineages forming an entire animal arborescence. The East presents a different figure: a relation to the steppe and the garden (or in some cases, the desert and the oasis), rather than forest and field; cultivation of tubers by fragmentation of the individual; a casting aside or bracketing of animal raising, which is confined to closed spaces or pushed out onto the steppes of the nomads.’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1984: 20)

I am not challenging their condemnation of the dominance of arborescent thinking (e.g. when classifying populations in a racialised lineage of descent – which finds its parallel in the way that religions and languages are grouped in a way that glosses over the rhizomatic hybridity of important languages like Ottoman Turkish or, for that matter, English). But is it not fascinating how one of the holy scriptures of poststructuralism manages to engage in an openly Orientalist assignment of everything that is ‘rational’ and rigid and organised (masculine?) to the ‘West’ and everything that is fluid, dissolving, undirected (‘feminine’?) to the ‘East’ – and gets away with it. That they were told off (severely) by Gayatri Spivak did not cause much of a dent in their popularity with the various post-isms (with the exception, maybe, of post-colonialism).

Even if you don’t agree with Christopher L. Miller’s (1993) devastating analysis of their use of ethnographies and take a benign view; at best it is a positive revaluation of Orientalist tropes (including, as Miller emphasises, gendering the ‘East’). After an amateurish but loving embrace of the ‘East’ by post-1960s Western audiences – Colin Campbell (2007) diagnoses an outright Easternisation of the West – the projection of desires for a less masculine, less rational, less structured, less self-ish self onto ‘Eastern’ religions, philosophies, medicines, meditation techniques, martial arts etc. has become widespread. What is adopted are often caricatures of the original philosophies – the vaguer, the more mysterious, the more holistic and the less rational, the better. Of particular attraction are notions like the Sufi fena – misinterpreted as ‘self-annihilation’ ­in order to achieve unity with the One. “Misinterpreted” since the “self” annihilated here is a lesser ego which is to make room for the authentic self – as the greatest Sufi poet of Turkish language Yunus Emre put it:

Beni bende demem, bende değilim – Bir ben var bende, benden içeri.

(Don’t say I am in Me, that’s not where I am. – There is an I in Me, much deeper than Me)


İbrahim Agah Çubukçu (1982: 84) interprets the difference between the two egos referred to here as that between the individual I (kişisel ben) and the transcendent I (aşkın ben). The former is the unreflective self which is operational in everyday activity whereas the latter is the self that knows of itself and is self-conscious and sets itself apart from the objects of the world. It is not permanently absorbed in the godhead but lovingly longing for it – and it is painfully aware of the fact that it is at once a spiritual/divine and a corporeal thing. Georg Simmel (1910: 384) pointed out that, paradoxically, even the purest ambition to achieve aunio mystica has to affirm the personhood of the mystic:

‘The religious man feels himself completely encompassed by the divine being, as though he were merely a pulse-beat of the divine life; his own substance is unreservedly, and even in mystical identity, merged in that of the Absolute. And yet, in order to give this intermelting any meaning at all, the devotee must retain some sort of self existence, some sort of personal reaction, a detached ego, to which the resolution into the divine All-Being is an endless task, a process only, which would be neither metaphysically possible nor religiously feelable if it did not proceed from a self-being on the part of the person: the being one with God is conditional in its significance upon the being other than God.’ (Simmel 1910: 384, emphasis added by me – also see here)

As I formulated a suspicion that Sufism (often understood – not quite correctly – as ‘Islamic mysticism’) might have been much more conducive to a modern capitalist development than Max Weber allowed for (Turner 1974), this perspective is intriguing. It should equally hold for Weber’s view on Daoism, which Simmel seems to have pre-emptively commented on:

,„Tao“ ist an sich ein orthodox konfuzianischer Begriff: | die ewige Ordnung des Kosmos und zugleich dieser Ablauf selbst: eine in aller nicht dialektisch durchgeformten Mystik häufige Identifikation. Bei Laotse ist es in Beziehung zur typischen Gottsuche des Mystikers gesetzt: es ist das allein Unveränderliche und deshalb absolut Wertvolle, sowohl Ordnung wie zeugender Realgrund, wi Inbegriff der ewigen Urbilder alles Seins, kurz  das göttliche Alleine, dessen Teilhaftigkeit man – ganz wie in aller kontemplativen Mystik – durch absolute Entleerung des eigenen Ich von Weltinteressen und Leidenschaften bis zu völliger Nichttätigkeit (Wu-Wei) sich aneignet.‘ (Weber 1920: 467f.) ‚“Tao“ per se is an orthodox Confucian concept. It means the eternal order of the cosmos and at the same time its course, an identification frequently found in a metaphysics which lacks a thorough dialectical structure. With Lao-tzu, Tao was brought into relationship with the typical god-seeking of the mystic. Tao is the one unchangeable element and therefore it is the absolute value; it means the order as well as the god-head of matter an the all inclusive idea of the eternal arch-symbols of all being. In | short, it is the divine All-One which cann partake – as in all contemplative mysticism – by rendering one’s self absolutely void of worldly interests and passionate desires until release from all activity is attained (wu-wei).’ (Weber 1951: 181f.)

Equipped with Simmelian suspicions about assertions of “mysticism” that claim that the self is to be dissolved while seeking unification with the One, I was more than ready to absorb what the philosopher Heinrich Blücher had to say on Laozi in his recently rediscovered introductory philosophy lectures at Bard College in the late 1950s. His talk ‘The Meaning of Being: Laozi and Buddha’ (available as mp3 here) is a refreshingly non-Orientalist counter-reading that treats non-European philosophical traditions as equal contributors and does not do so by simply revaluing the stereotypes of fatalism and reduced or absent selfhood. However, I remained sceptic since what little I had read about Laozi implied that he advocates aiming for happiness through a quietist acceptance of fate. Blücher was not a sinologist – he was an autodidactic philosopher who never published a single book and who most will, if at all, only know as the husband to whom Hannah Arendt dedicated her Origins of Totalitarianism – for a biography see here. His lectures are fascinating documents of inquisitive, wise and engaged philosophical thought – but being lectures they do not come with footnotes and bibliographies.

However, reading Jack Barbalet’s (2014) recent article on Daoism and how Weber was wrong about it, I realised that may be a strong case here. Citing Weber’s own sources back at him alongside newer literature, Barbalet (2014: 286) shows that Daoism is much less, if at all, a form of ‘mysticism’ than Weber claimed. He points out, for example, that the prominent concept of wu-wei is not adequately rendered by the common translation as ‘doing nothing’. In fact, Joel Krueger (2009) shows some interesting parallels between wu-wei and the pragmatist understanding of embodied knowledge in Dewey’s notion of knowing-how as contrasted with knowing-that. Markedly different from what Weber called ‘purposive-rational action’ (zweckrationales Handeln) it is nonetheless practically oriented while responding to the fact that under conditions of unpredictable outcomes, purposive action cannot deliver the desired outcomes (and desiring specific outcomes is undesirable) – which in itself is neither irrational nor mystical.

Blücher’s attitude to reconstructing Laozi’s contribution to philosophy is intriguing: He tries to transpose himself into the ontological position from which one would write a work like the Daodejing. It does not matter here whether or not the Daodejing was actually written by the historical Laozi or whether by someone else or whether it is actually a compilation of pre-existing wise sayings from a variety of sources – what is important to present an interpretation that makes sense and here Blücher’s role-taking exercise as an early philosopher who delivers a text that establishes interpretations of the world and of what it means to be a human being in it which is independent of the mythical tradition. And the result is that Blücher’s Laozi stands in stark contrast to Weber’s. He sees Laozi as parallel figure to other pioneers of philosophical enquiry, such as Socrates and Buddha, for whom the acknowledgement that the Truth is unfathomable is not a reason to capitulate but to escape the stranglehold of Being, step out of it and look back on it:

‘They move all exactly with this negative to say: “We do not know and cannot know, but as soon as we know that we do not know we can start to judge; we can start to reason. And then we are on the way. We cannot have the truth but we can have the direction towards truth by knowing constantly that we do and will not have truth itself.” This knowledge of non-knowledge as it has been called in modern philosophy is the start of free philosophising, is common to all of them. Laozi’s turn was that he for the first time asked the question – nobody as far as we know has ever asked before – namely: is there any meaning to being? It has always been taken for granted – taken for granted in mythical thinking that meaning is identical with being. The idea that there could be beings, let alone Being itself, without meaning is absolutely inconceivable to the mythical mind. To break the myth was exactly the asking of this question. This question sets Man apart from Being. As soon as he asked this question he arrogates himself a position outside of Being. Or above Being. He thinks he is entitled to give his judgement of Being.’ (Blücher n.d.)

Blücher interprets the undertaking of the Daodejing with its statements on the confusing and mysterious way Being works not as a submission to it which can only result in mystic yearning for gnosis through absorption – for him it is clear that what Laozi has done here is to gain an outside position, a perspective on Being from which it can be recognised as dazzlingly unknowable in the first place. Seen like that, Laozi’s stance is not one of humility but may even be read as turning the inevitable frustration of the search for absolute truth into a triumph:

‘He does not pretend to know Being itself. He does not pretend to know a cosmos or a universe that amounts to being a cosmos. He only sees different forces at work; and of those forces he starts to sympathise with one. This force is the life-sustaining force of Being. He says that Man is able to identify, by recognising this force, himself with this force, that Man is transcendent. He is free to add something to the world, something that without his acting would not come into the world, something that is so to speak not foreseen by Being.’

This collides with the perception wu-wei as giving in to the flow, letting oneself drift rather than act. But not only (as Barbalet points out) is this reading no longer acceptable – across the various translations of the Daodejing Blücher’s re-enactment can be confirmed with stunning plausibility. Certainly, at first most of the Daodejing in fact does read like a discouragement from acting since it is more or less an extended poem on how what Merton (1936) has termed the ‘unanticipated consequences of purposive social action’ (also see Barbalet 2011: 345) keep perverting the course of all our plans and designs. Chapter 50 for example starts with an emphatic memento mori indicating that the pursuit of life leads to death

‘Men come forth and live; they enter (again) and die.’ (Legge 1891: 92) ‘He who aims at life achieves death’ (Waley 1997: 53)

The Daodejing is largely a book on how to succeed under such conditions, how to constantly adapt to changing circumstances, channelling them to one’s own advantage (while taking good care not to have any preconceptions of what that advantage may be). The advice may be paradoxical – often you should do the opposite of what appears to lead to the intended outcome, and you should not even do that deliberately but wisdom will mean that you unknowingly know that this counterintuitive action (as highlighted in Chapter 36) is what you need to do. And by performing those acts you make a difference. As Blücher has put it – the universe is then different from what it would have been without that action, and more recent philosophical reflections do underline the aspect of Laozi’s philosophy of being one ofaction.

‘By conforming to the basic principle of the Way – in other words, by exhibiting a perpetual naturalness – human beings can exert a causal efficacy that has cosmological resonance.’ (Krueger 2009: 41)

After all the very notion of dao is a semantic extension of a word that was once restricted to human fate and agency. As Fung Yu-Lan points out:

‘The word tao 道, one of the most important terms in Chinese philosophy, has a primary meaning of “road” or “way.” Beginning with this primary meaning, it assumed already in ancient times a metaphorical significance, as the “Way of man,” that is, human morality, conduct or truth. During this time, its meaning was always restricted to human affairs, whereas when we come to the Lao-tzŭ, we find the wordtao being given a metaphysical meaning. That is to say, the assumption is made that for the universe to have come into being, there must exist an all-embracing first principle, which is called Tao.’ (Yu-Lan 1952: 177)

But does that not also imply that the self, now that the attention has been shifted from the way of humans to the way of the universe and being as such, indeed has to be dissolved into that all-embracing principle? In a different way from what the Sufi does, but with a similar outcome, Laozi recommends selflessness – which results in the success of the Self, e.g. in chapter seven:

‘Heaven is long lasting; / Earth endures. / Heaven is able to be long lasting and Earth is able to endure, because they do not live for themselves. / And so, they are able to be long lasting and to endure. / This is why sages put themselves last and yet come first; / Treat themselves as unimportant and yet are preserved. / Is it not because they have no thought of themselves, that they are able to perfect themselves.’ (Ivanhoe 2003: 7)

John Heider, rendering the Daodejing for the late 20th century managerial classes, emphasises precisely the irony of the selfless self enhancement in that chapter:

‘True self-interest teaches selfnessness. / Heaven and earth endure because they are not simply selfish but exist in behalf of all creation. / The wise leader, knowing this, keeps egocentricity in check and by doing so becomes even more effective. / Enlightened leadership is service, not selfishness. The leader grows more and lasts longer by placing the well-being of all above the well-being of self alone. / Paradox: By being selfless, the leader enhances self.’  (Heider 1985)

Both the sinological and the managerial interpretation seem to support Blücher’s intuition that far from dissolving subjectivity into a rhizomatic tangle of flows the Self that emerges from self-denial is a more robust one:

 ‘Here we have an early concept […] of a thing that only in modern times and by the development of modern psychology has become clearer to us, namely the difference between the individual and the person. What is to be destroyed […] is the individual. What is to be built up is the person. If we put it in terms of selfhood we could say: You are yourself. You have to abolish yourself in order to become a self. As long as we are ourselves we are not selves. In modern terminology: As long we are mere individuals we are not persons.’ (Blücher, n.d.) The ‘individual was at that time in mythical thinking (and mythical thinking still prevailed when they taught and thought) absolutely identical with society. The unity of the individual and society was perfect.’ (Blücher, n.d.) A perfect unity that ‘we only recently could see again, namely in the totalitarian societies and in the development of modern mass democracy: that the individual is really nothing but a function of society.’ (Blücher, n.d.)

What Blücher emphasises here is the Meadian (and Durkheimian) insight that the self is born out of society – and not the other way round, society assembled out of selves. But this means that in the first instance the individual self is nothing but a mere reflection of social expectations – a mere ‘individual’ in Blücher’s terminology – which is engulfed in social relations and has no autonomy. But Mead does not stop with the social self as mere imprint of society on the individual (and neither does Durkheim). He tells the story of how the self gains autonomy from its social origins and becomes a constituting factor of social life. As Heather Keith (2009: 74) observes, for both Laozi and Mead the fact that humans are unthinkable without a social and natural context

‘… does not, however, mean that the individual is lost in the social and natural context. On the contrary, the environment that gives birth to the self also gives it substantial power to transform that very world, as the individual grows beyond the circle of her immediate environment and begins to relate to the wider universe. Such is the nature of evolution, both physical and social.’ (Keith 2009:74)

The Daodejing was directed at the ruling classes, advice for good governance, and as Barbalet points out, is taken as such not only historically, but also in contemporary reflections on economic policy (Barbalet 2011: 336, 345). Even if, as Slingerland (2000: 296f.) asserts, the concept of wu-wei (which is so central to the Daodejing) is first and foremost a ‘personal spiritual ideal’ and not, as often claimed, an ideal of government (similar to some interpretations of Plato’s Republic as a mere metaphor on the Soul) – the regular reference to practices of governing must then be significant for that personal spirituality. And this again gives some weight to Blücher’s reading, since the ruler is the one person who has the best chance to go beyond a self which is completely socially determined. The Daodejing seems to suggest otherwise, one could think, when the sage is said not to rule others by his own heart, his own mind or intentions but deny their own for the sake of those they lead – as in chapter 49:

‘Sages do not have constant hearts of their own; The take the people’s hearts as their hearts.’ (Ivanhoe 2003: 52) ‘The sage has no invariable mind of his own; he makes the mind of the people his mind.’ (Legge 1891: 91)

And of course for the managerial reader, this is a great find:

’The wise leader does not impose a personal agenda or value system on the group. The leader follows the group’s lead and is open to whatever emerges.’ (Heider 1985)

That this passage is not so much about the wise leader merging into one with the led group, and that it is also not necessarily empowering already becomes clear in the last lines of chapter 49. While Heider (1985) bends this, from the point of view of the enlightened New Age manager uncomfortable, passage to say:

‘Perhaps the leader seems naive and childlike in this uncritical openness to whatever emerges’ (probably based on Waley’s 1997: 52 translation:) ‘The Sage all the time sees and hears no more than an infant sees or hears.’

… the more literal translations are clear about the attitude of the wise leader towards the people:

‘The people all have something to occupy their eyes and ears, and the sage treats them all like children’ (Lau 2009: 54) ‘The people all keep their eyes and ears directed to him, and he deals with them all as his children’ (Legge 1891: 91)

One could assume that the childlike state of the people and the indulgence of the wise leader are means of facilitating their maturation so that they, too, achieve autonomy and self-mastery as the sage already possesses. But this is not the case. The sage does not value the people for their own sake. Just as he is aware that in the greater scheme of things, in the flow of dao he counts for nothing, can expect no favours, and therefore must find a way of muddling through (and  the Daodejing is a guidebook for this), his people cannot expect any favours from him. They are dispensible.

‘Heaven and Earth are not benevolent; They treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs. Sages are not benevolent; They treat the people as straw dogs.’ (Ivanhoe 2003: 5)

Here all the translations seem in unison (with exception of Heider, for whom this passage apparently is to brutal for the enlightened manager – so he only goes so far to say that ‘the wise leader does not try to protect the people from themselves’). Ivanhoe comments on the metaphor:

‘“Straw dogs” were used as ceremonial offerings. Before and during the ceremony, they were protected and cherished, but as soon as the ceremony ended, they were discarded and defiled. Others interpret the characters in this expression as “straw and dogs”. The point is the same.’ (Ivanhoe 2003: 86)

The wise leader, the sage, steers his people by giving them freedom and acting using their minds and hearts rather than imposing a preconceived programme (as Heider must have sensed – an ideal guide for the post-Fordist business leader). And he does so by promoting naivety – both in his people and in himself. But the ignorance that secures the happy and stable society (and the longevity of all and the continuity of the sage’s rule) is different in the ruler and the ruled. The ruled remain ignorant as they are accommodated in their pristine immersion in nature and community, but the ruler achieves ignorance and his ignorance therefore is a knowledgeable one, as Fung Yu-Lan (1952: 190) points out:

‘The ignorance of the Sage is the result of a conscious process of cultivation. It is the sort of ignorance described as “great knowledge is like ignorance,” a synthesis resulting from knowledge and ignorance; hence it differs from primeval ignorance. Of such primeval ignorance, the Lao-tzŭ speaks when it says: “Therefore the Sage rules the people by emptying their minds, filling their bellies, weakening their sinews, ever making the people without knowledge and without desire.” (ch.3). By so doing he causes the people to rest content in their original and primeval state of ignorance. It is such primeval ignorance, as opposed to the conscious cult of ignorance, which is the distinguishing feature between the common people and the Sage.’

Krueger visualises this through the example of wu-wei unfolding in the practice of a seasoned teacher who does not follow through with a preconceived script but reacts, without having to reflect, spontaneously to students’ questions, changes the course of the lesson without having to think it through. Clearly this sagaciously unthinking (ignorant) praxis is different from the ignorance of the happy ignoramus. Rather, it is one which relies on long studies and practice – it is ignorance in which knowledge has found its Aufhebung – assuming a Hegelian aside is permitted given that Fung Yu-Lan makes the occasional reference. And if we think in terms of European philosophies we could say that the peasants are to follow a misinterpretation of Rousseau and remain in a happy stage before the corrosive effects of civilisation (although, as Yu-Lan points out – they are allowed some comforts to avoid discontent) while the sage follows Hegel’s yearning for the Absolute which recognises that the only true union can come from a painful process that starts with alienation and ends in reconciliation (in which both the separate identity and the union are realised and the particular and the general exist in one, rather than the particular being annihilated in the general). By presenting sage and people as living two types of ignorance the Daodejing indeed does seem to give us two modes of selfhood as Blücher presented them (which is the more surprising as I suspect he has used Blakney’s translation which is not only poetic but also apparently inspired by Western mysticism, i.e. should encourage readings along the unio mystica line)[1] His empathic reconstruction led him to one further insight in which he de-heideggerises the meaning of nothingness

‘Man judging Being finds by this act alone that he cannot be possibly contained in Being. Because if he were contained in Being entirely he could not judge Being.’ ‘Is there a possible experience in Man that entitles him to set a negative term against Being? This negative term is Nothingness. […] The difference that Man himself feels from Being, that he can set himself different  to Being, this enables him to conceive a concept of Nothingness in order to contradict Being. It is the root of our logical capacity.’ (Blücher, n.d.)

Again in terms of European philosophies Blücher here goes back to and anthropologises Hegel rather than using ‘Eastern’ philosophy to back up the anti-humanist existentialist tradition. The Daoist concept of nothingness is closer to the experience of the world than Heidegger’s precisely because it contains a tension between cosmogony and ontology which is absent in Heidegger’s absolute commitment to Being. It is closer to human experience (just as Blücher was closer to human experience than the would-be peasant recluse Heidegger).

‘In my view, the failure of classical Chinese philosophers, such as Lao Zi, to distinguish ontology from cosmology or cosmogony contributes to this tension. The admixture of cosmogonical and ontological approaches that dominates classical Chinese philosophy probably owes its existence to the centrality of sheng (生) (begetting, generating, giving rise to) in Daoist and Confucian metaphysics. Exactly for the same reason, original nothing in Lao Zi and Daoist philosophy is realized in its more complete “original” form than in the works of Western philosophers such as Heidegger, who only stress its ontological dimension.’ (Yao 2010: 83)

All this to indicate that it has taken some time for me to convince myself – taking the detour via Blücher’s spirited celebration of Laozi as founding figure in the universal history of philosophy and reading up on a field I have no expertise in whatsoever – that Barbalet’s strong rejection of Weber’s take on Daoism as mysticist, quietist, and self-dissolving is fully justified (by which I am not suggesting that he does not present enough evidence himself).

Barbalet finishes on a highly interesting suggestion. By rejecting Weber’s interpretation of Daoism he opens up the possibility of applying a Weberian logic to find influences of non-Protestant religious traditions on

‘The data of Weber’s well known argument concerning the elective affinity of Protestantism and capitalism can be inserted into a different understanding of the relationship between ideas and outcomes than the one he proposes. It can be held that Protestantism contains or implies a particular cognitive apparatus in the sense that religious dissenters, as critics of an established order, may possess novel cognitive orientations and capacities. If such persons are business-orientated, then as a result of such cognitive dispositions they may perceive opportunities for profit-making that might not otherwise be apparent. The difference between this argument and Weber’s is that it is not principally that Protestantism leads to a capitalist ethic, but that should a Protestant be capitalistically involved, then their religion, not as a set of values but as an organizationally formed cognitive framework, may generate a perception of opportunity for profit irrespective of whatever motive may direct them to profit-making.’ (Barbalet 2014: 296)

While I still think that motivation should be taken into account and that for Calvinists economic activity was one possible field in which hints for election could be chased,[2]Barbalet is right to point out that Weber did not pay enough attention to the skills that religious practices develop in the faithful. He does not, for example, ask what Calvinist experience could have contributed to the creative side of entrepreneurial activity (Jens Beckert [2013] recovered the importance of this aspect of capitalist dynamics – and one could argue that if there is a Protestant/Romantic legacy in consumerism, as argues Colin Campbell [1987], then there may also be such a legacy in the innovation of products and processes).

Barbalet is able to connect his suggestion to Weberian thinking because he is among the few commentators who takes the selection argument in Weber seriously. (Runciman [2001], of course, is to be credited to be the first to highlight the centrality of this argument – also see my preliminary attempt to reconnect Weber and Marx through the Darwin here)

What Weber got wrong in this application of a Darwinian point is that he goes on to suggest that the Puritans were indispensable in creating the very conditions that then are favourable – to an extent this might have been the case (e.g. in North America), while he knew as well as anybody that the institutional embedding for a capitalist development had many sources (the most convincing account now is that by Ellen Meiskins Wood [1991] on the agricultural-aristocratic roots of English capitalism).

There is one parallel between the worlds Laozi and Calvin put their followers in – both exclude the appeal to mercy and goodwill from the universe, both emphasise probation (Bewährung) in an unpredictable universe whose regularity cannot be relied upon. And it is not (as seen) only an oddity of Calvinism that predestination does not lead to fatalism – the uncontrollable nature of the ways of the universe also do not lead to a call to inaction in Laozi. The Daodejing does not, as Weber rightly observes, create a soteriological expectancy (Heilserwartung) as does Calvinist theology. All it does is advise on how to achieve longevity– and if that’s all one can hope for, should it not be pursued with as much anxiety as the confirmation of the state of election? And focusing on longevity, the Daodejing is a survival guide based on what little is actually under our control. Blücher reads it that way:

‘… Laozi tried in his mild way […] to find one point where he could stand. He denies all knowledge about the cosmos, about universal laws. They are too high for the human mind. We have no real insight into them – why pretend? What we know we know only by inner knowledge. Inner knowledge means hear: our own experience with our own activities and results. That is the only thing he considers.’ ‘So Laozi analyses two kinds of human doing. Senseless doings, namely this busy-bodyness he condemns so much and where he always recommends: don’t do so much! Don’t act so much! And on the other hand this quiet activity of creativeness that human beings have. Raising children. Raising trees. Helping the other to come into his own. Being concerned with the other personality. Those little creative tasks – those are the ones that interest him.’

I am  not so sure about the latter part of this – it does not chime in with the emulation of Heaven’s and Earth’s ruthlessness in considering others as straw dogs. (However, one may go along with Krueger’s (2009: 44f.) observation that the intuitive foregrounding of ‘other-directed care’ may lead to an intuitive morality, to moral expertise or ‘moral maturity’ which would, I assume, make it rather difficult to discard those straw dogs.)

Both the Calvinist and the Daoist cannot hope to achieve their goals by rational rule-following. For the Calvinist the congruence of behaviour and rules results from the fact that, as elect, his behaviour is of course godly (i.e. like in Aristotle’s ethics, rules are only a description of what the virtuous do, not a guide to being virtuous). And the follower of Laozi also cannot hope to achieve longevity by following prescriptions as the rule book sets out to create anomie after anomie. Again, it is the inner self (which needs to be cultivated) that spontaneously does the right thing.  Both seek probation in a ‘natural’ world which does not work consistently according to natural laws as they are assumed in, say, Newtonian science, but (as they bear the imprint of divine agency which inevitably is inspired by human agency) resemble much more the movements of society and, in particular, the market. That is, they combine the regularities of routines and calculability of rational choices with sudden unexpected twists and turns, recurrent but unpredictable crises. Etzrodt (2008) points out that Smith’s Invisible Hand and Calvin’s provide for similar environments in which a Darwinian selection process plays out, so that we coiuld say that the elective affinity between Calvinism and Capitalism refers to the parallel between the selective conditions under which probation is sought as posed by the theological teaching and the experience in the market. And the fact that the concept of wu-wei was an inspiration, as Barbalet (2011: 336) reminds us, for the principle of laissez-faire indicates that for the Daoist the environment is not to be tampered with and that it is the actor who needs to fit in to it, while not being able to hope that the pursuit of clearly defined goals would be anything but futile:

 ‘In Laozi’s view it is the rise of Confucian morality and values that ruined the original purity of the ancients and brought about the fall from wu-wei. Once people come to value something (to “hold it in regard”), they are motivated to act in pursuit of that object, and this marks the “beginnings of disorder.” By setting up wu-wei embodiment in the virtues of benevolence and righteousness as explicit goals to be consciously sought – and by establishing ritual practice and study as the means to this end – Confucius hopelessly confused the true Way and condemned the world to disorder and hypocrisy.’ (Slingerland 2000: 306)

Different as they are in nearly every aspect, in both Calvin’s and Laozi’s teaching there is the problem of a requirement to adapt in a search of probation of self and the impossibility to do so by following a prescribed way. In the case of Calvinism consciously following the rules is discounted as outward obedience without true faith and God (acting through the market – for those who seek probation there) will strike the sinner down (let him go bankrupt). In the case of Daoism there simply are no rules to follow and the advice is to rely on the inner self’s ability to spontaneously do the right thing in the flow of being (and here, too, we can imagine that the market may take the role of the environment that either confirms or otherwise whether the action taken was an case of wu-wei or a failed attempt at it.). The catch22 within which probation is sought through action for something that one cannot really learn is one that applies both in Calvinism (as a radicalisation of Augustinianism) as well as in the philosophy of wu-wei, as Edward Slingerland expounds:

 ‘The tensions produced by the paradox of wu-wei are to be found not only in Aristotle’s claim that “to become just we must first do just actions” but also in Plato’s belief that to be taught one must recognize the thing taught as something to be learned – the so-called “Meno problem.”’ (Slingerland 2000: 320) Then goes on to say that according to Alasdair MacIntyre Augustine presents the same dilemma… ‘Augustine’s proposed “solution” to the paradox – faith in one’s teacher – are also quite Xunzian but arguably also fail in the end to resolve the initial tension in an entirely satisfactory or consistent manner. It seems that something resembling the paradox of wu-wei will plague the thought of any thinker who can be characterized as a virtue ethicist – that is, anyone who sees ethical life in terms of the perfection of normative dispositions. [footnote: In this context it is revealing that the significance of Aristotle’s paradox and Plato’s Meno problem have been “rediscovered” by MacIntyre in the course of his retrieval of our own lost virtue ethical tradition.]’ (Slingerland 2000: 321)



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[1] the reason I suspect he used Blakney is because Bard College has a copy from the estate of Hannah Arendt – which of course does not preclude the possibility of Blücher using other translations as well

[2] This is because I give more credit to the plausibility of Weber’s psychological evaluation of the situation Calvin’s theology put believers in.


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