Greek Tragedy and the Watercourse Way of Taoist Thinking

 ( From A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy, Chapter 15 by  You-Sheng Li)

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Humans have long realized the tragic nature of civilized life on earth. Hindu-Buddhist traditions teach that life itself is suffering, and the only way to stop suffering is to give up all desires and extricate oneself from the secular world. According to the Judaic-Christian Bible, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and God drove them out of the Garden of Eden. There is no death but only happiness inside the Garden while death and suffering are the rule outside. “In pain you will eat its produce all the days of your life,” God said. The early Chinese Taoist philosophers saw the same tragic nature of humans but they took a different approach, admiring primary society and condemning secondary society, and regarding the secondary society as the cause of human suffering. Under the influence of Taoist philosophy, Chinese culture is often called optimistic culture by Western scholars.

The Bible story tells us that the suffering resides in our own nature, since God has pointed out, human suffering is inseparable part of knowledge. In other words the nature of civilized life on earth is tragic.

 Now psychologists all agree that humans are born with exploratory desire to seek new knowledge, and self-conscious to know good from bad. The traditional Western tragedy from ancient Greece, Shakespeare to the present time carries forward from one generation to another in the form of timeless art is the most touching cry from the bottom of the deeply traumatised human heart. It dramatizes the nature of human experience in this civilized world.

Apart from more recent so-called domestic tragedy, classic tragedy usually describes a noble born protagonist, prompted by will or circumstance, ignorance or some binding obligation to confront an inexorable fate that ensures a tragic outcome. Shakespeare’s King Lear and Hamlet are typical examples. Tragedy was well developed in ancient Greece. As a form of drama, there is little difference between ancient Greek tragedy and Shakespeare’s and even modern ones. Greet tragedies were performed in honour of the god Dionysus. The term tragedy means “goat song”, and possibly refers to the sacrifice of a goat in harvest and fertility rituals. Some fifteen thousand Athenians would attend and watch these performances. The government issued free tickets to the poor to encourage them to go.

Tragedy was also an important theme in other art forms such as sculpture. Laocoon and his two sons are depicted struggling to breathe while coiled by two huge serpents. All those familiar with Greek sculpture tremble to their hearts at this image. In the mythology of the Trojan war Laocoon and his two sons are minor characters of no importance. Laocoon, as a priest, only warned his citizens of the risk of allowing the Greek wooden horse inside the city because of the natural sympathy of a human heart. Such innate kindness led to such tragic deaths, and Greeks chose to cement in art this moment of their suffering. It must have helped ancient Athenians to relieve their troubled feelings about the tragic side of their life. (Figure 17)

Ancient Greek drama and sculpture were by far the best in their contemporary world, and are surpassed by none in the succeeding two thousand and five hundred years. Their deep understanding of the human condition, reached such a profound level that many modern commentators claim that all the philosophy subsequently developed in the western world is only a footnote to Plato.

As members of our human race we are all proud of the remarkable achievements of ancient Greek people, and so were the Greeks themselves but only they who felt the vulnerability and fragility of their highly civilized life surrounded by cruel barbarians. In his famous speech to honour the dead who fell to defend their city, Pericles compared his Athenians with the cruel Spartans, speaking highly of their freedom, democracy, and cultural achievements. Athenians were eventually conquered by the Spartans and subsequently by the Macedonians, and the Romans. Aristotle was particularly hated by his citizens because he tutored Alexander the Great.  This too illustrates the tragic nature of human civilized life.

In comparison to this ancient tragic tradition, Western scholars often call the Chinese an optimistic culture, lacking the tragic feeling of the Western world. These scholars point out other distinctively Chinese issues such as ancestor worship, bureaucratic organization, a much longer continuity of history, a collective and highly symbolic way of thinking, different ancient hero models and myths, different epistemology, etc. All those issues may be important to understand tragic/optimistic difference between the West and the East but the fundamental reason lies in the Taoist tradition which goes back to the Yellow Emperor and Great Yu’s time.

Lao Tzu often elucidated the Taoist view by comparing it to the quality of water. Water is clear and quiet but has a direction once in the river. The river meanders in the mountainous landscape but eventually reaches the sea by following to wherever is lower. Some Western scholars call Taoist philosophy the watercourse way of thinking.

Taoists had long understood the tragic nature of the secondary society and prescribed the pristine simplicity of the primary society as the fundamental remedy to correct the problem. Although Taoism was not successful politically and only became a major religion in the late Han dynasty, it remained a major influencing factor in shaping Chinese society and cultural life in Chinese history. Thus it was a major force to mitigate the tragic effects of secondary societies.

Lao Tzu says, “The social world is sacred, not something to grab and meddle with. Those who try to change it will end in failure. Those who try to possess it will lose it.” (Chapter 29)

Lao Tzu here emphasises the impossibility of transforming the primary society into a secondary one. Any attempts will end in failure or lead to tragedy. But Taoists do not oppose the secondary society if it does not interfere with the primary society and ruin it.

The Duke of Yeh told Confucius, “There are some righteous men in my land: If the father steals a sheep, the son will testify against him.” Confucius said, “The righteous men in my land are different: The father conceals the wrongs of his son, and the son conceals the wrongs of his father. This is the righteousness.” (Analects: 13.18)

Similar comments can be found in other Confucian classics. Meng Tzu even suggested that a king should run away with his father to hide if his father committed a murder. In other words, the law of a secondary society should not penetrate into the family. In subsequent Chinese history the law penetrated the barrier of families to punish individuals but far less than in the West. Even today in the vast Chinese countryside, local authorities tend to leave minor offences to the clan and the family to handle. The negative side of this is collective punishment: A whole family might be executed because of the crime of an individual. Human sacrifice was much more prevalent in ancient China where family members and servicemen would kill themselves to accompany the king or a lord into the next world.

Ancient Chinese cities were more like administration sites with government offices or palaces as the main feature of the cityscape. In contrast even the ancient Mesopotamian cities had smashed the kinship network to mix people of all sorts together to form a large secondary society. Scientists have observed that apes such as chimpanzees are very careful when approaching strangers and usually chase them away or attack them. In the family and primary society, people know each other by face and deal with each other on relatively equal terms. In a secondary society people have to learn to deal with strangers and with the complex hierarchy. A citizen living in an ancient city state among strangers might be attacked any time without warning.

Ancient Athenians constantly interacted with strangers but not the Chinese since their families and clans were relatively intact to serve as a protective barrier. The Greek created many legendary heroes for protection in their mythology while there was no such hero in Chinese mythology. Today with so many detailed national and international laws and with modernized armies and police and lawyers, we still feel insecurity.

Lao Tzu and other early Taoist thinkers saw the impossibility of stopping the emergence of the secondary society, and kept a reasonable distance from it. Taoist classics can be regarded as transcending religious or artistic texts. They offer the reader a vantage point to view the secular world as if seen from an airplane. 

It is most interesting to compare the visual arts of the West and the Chinese. Except for very recent work, Western visual art almost always concerned itself with showing the human body or images of people, especially when they were naked. Clothes do not only function as fig leaves to shield the private parts but also offer some protection. Do you feel particularly vulnerable the moment you take your clothes off in front of others? If you do, you are not alone. Under the influence of Taoist philosophy, Chinese artists painted mostly flowers, birds, animals and trees. Landscape was their favourite theme with detailed renderings of mountains and rivers. If you look carefully you will notice there is often a tiny figure that stands under a tree beside the river with a book in his hand. He is chanting some poetry. You will also notice his robe is large and loose, and his sleeves are broad. Western art offers us a focused intimate view while Chinese art features a poetic, idealized view of life.

Both ancient Chinese and Greek peoples practiced divination to tell the future. It was easy to find out those divinations were not accurate except by chance. God became irrelevant after the Renaissance in the West but God was also irrelevant in late Axial China, especially in the literate circles such as Taoists. The godless view of Taoism allowed them to study their tragic life seriously and find a psychological way to overcome it.

Western scholars often criticize a lack of understanding of individual psychology in Chinese literature. In fact Taoism was based on the full understanding of the individual’s psychology. Westerners saw it as the unfolding of fate as in some Greek tragedy or as God’s will in the Bible. Out of this conviction of entrapment, they produced the best tragedies. On the other hand, Taoism is the way for the Chinese to transcend similar fate.

A typical Greek tragedy is Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, which marks the summit of Greek achievement in drama. Oedipus killed the king by mistake but became the next king, and married the first king’s wife. To his horror, he found the king he killed was his father and the wife he married was his mother. His mother hanged herself in shame and Oedipus blinded himself with needles and left the throne.

 Sigmund Freud noticed in the psychological development of children between the ages three and five there were the fantasies of incest with the parent of the opposite sex and feelings of jealousy and rage toward the parent of the same sex. He called this the Oedipus complex. In fact children under five know nothing about the adult world, their psychological complex should not be mixed up with the tragic nature of our civilization. More recent studies show that members inside a family are not suitable for marriage, and such marriage give birth to more children with genetic defect and also tend to cause family and social problems. 

Similar stories of incest perhaps happened in ancient times though the creation of the myth of Oedipus marked the ethical development of a taboo against incest. Much later Alexander the Great was suspected to have killed his father to gain access to the throne. It was not uncommon in Chinese history that the son of an emperor would marry his father’s concubine.

In Greek mythology, numerous gods from Zeus and Dionysus to Apollo may have been partially based on historical facts. They are not gods in the religious sense but legendary heroes. There is still a room for God in Greek mythology and perhaps that is the part played by an unavoidable, unbreakable fate in these stories.

Oedipus as a young man was deeply troubled by fateful prediction that he would kill his father and marry his mother. To avoid such a fate, he left his luxury palace and started a wandering life. He did not know the parents he left were only his adoptive ones. In wandering to flee from his fate, he rushed headlong to meet it.


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You-Sheng Li, Ph.D.
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