What is Taoist Philosophy for the 21st Century? (By You-Sheng Li)

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(1) General View

Modern secondary society is fundamentally different from ancient primitive society, tribes and bands, which are here called primary society. The primary society has usually 150 members or so, and it has a headman as the leader. The headman has no forcible power but leads the society by persuasion and mutual understanding. The principle of social interaction is mutual benefit or reciprocity, which lead to an egalitarian society.

Secondary society is any society which is either built on the top to many primary societies or is much larger than primary society of a few hundreds. The primary society is genetically coded society, and therefore instinct or human nature is enough to keep it in harmony and functioning. Secondary society has nothing to do with genetics, and therefore, has limitless possibilities and usually has its own purpose on which the society is organized and oriented. Inequality is always necessary to keep members oriented toward the purpose. A complex ranking, and rewarding/punishing systems is always set up. In contrast, primary society is resticted by human nature and there is only one type of primary society.

A traditional belief is that states were built on food surplus which supported the government staff. Therefore, food surplus was the prerequisite for state. In fact, primitive people like other members of the animal kingdom did not normally produce surplus food but would always do whenever a forcible power like state forced them to do so. Here we define culture as how to spend spare time, which is the time left when basic biological desire is fulfilled. Animals as well as primitive people in primary society relax and enjoy themselves in spare time. Secondary society organizes people to exploit spare time to pursue some goals outside of the human life provided by primary society.

Secondary society also forces us to explore our peripheral potentials. Our behaviour is shaped by our genetic make-up, human nature and the environment including our culture. Human nature can be defined by a list of natural desires/abilities and peripheral potentials. The peripheral potentials are overextension of the natural desire/abilities within the capacity of human body and mind. A man may walk or run but will not normally run at a speed that causes him distress. But if he runs for his life, he will exceed the normal speed limit, ignoring his own physical and mental distress. We say this man is using his periphery potentials. Similarly a man may stand on his head and walk on his hands by using his peripheral potentials. Periphery potentials are not essential to our life but a secondary society can force its members live on their periphery potentials.

The purpose of the so-called money-oriented modern society is building wealth. The wealth-building society is good at economy, science and technology, and it is also good at war. But it is not good at making its people happy. On contrary, such society puts tremendous pressure to make people work hard for money in the expense of happiness. Even what is happiness is also oriented toward wealth-building. We feel happy if we make more money than our neighbours. The frequencies of five major disorders, namely cancer, stroke, heart attack, psychosis, suicide are all related to unhappiness. If the high-rocketing accumulation of wealth has little effect on our happiness, it would be enough to reduce those disorders significantly. The result is quite different, for example, the suicide rate was doubled in USA and Canada during the twentieth century.

The worse part of this wealth-building culture its consumption of resource and production of waste. According to the recently released WWF (World Wildlife Fund for Nature) report shows, we are already moving forward at a speed the earth cannot cope. It will need two earths to support us by 2050, and the world will need five earths if everyone of the world live their lives as Americans do today. It is urgent to consider alternative way to live our life especially happiness resides in satisfaction with simple life.

One ready answer to this seemingly impasse humans are facing today is the ancient wisdom of Chinese Taoist philosophy. Chinese Taoist philosophy, is a philosophy, a religion, and also a way of life. Chinese Taoist philosophy was founded by Lao Tzu (?604-484 BC) and Chuang Tzu (?369-286 BC) between the sixth and third century BC and developed into a major religion of China in the second and the third century AD.  We believe that the ideal way of life for the 21st century can be found in Chinese Taoist philosophy: naturalness and simplicity, and it is based on primary society.

The modern world with a powerless United Nations as a platform for countries to work out their difference at various levels is pretty much like the political situation of China from 2100 BC to 475 BC when human nature was highly respected in politics and in life, which eventually gave birth to Chinese Taoist philosophy.

Humans, like any other high animals, forget themselves and are ready to exploit their peripheral potentials when their physical survival is threatened.  Wars, uncertain political situations, unfamiliar atmospheres in secondary society can all make people feel their survival is at stake. Only when our basic biological desires are fulfilled and we are facing no immediate danger, we can be ourselves allowing human nature to fully express. That is why early Taoist philosophers stressed the peaceful nature of humans and the tranquil nature of human life.

We believe that the relatively peaceful world allows us to care ourselves more than before, and allows more people to realize that modern secondary society has engaged us into an unnecessary battle with ourselves. If they do, they will eventually find out that their lives are closer to the ideal of Taoist Philosophy.

(2) The Multiple Level Operation of Our World

We also believe in multiple operation of our world. The world is organized into many levels but it is impossible for someone living at one level to completely understand what is going on at the other level. Our physical world is organized at the following levels:

1. Elementary particles
2. Atoms and electrons
3. Molecules and the three phases of matter, gas, liquid, and solid mass
4. Objects such as mountains and rivers, buildings and cars.
5. Planets and stars
6. Galaxies
7. Universe

Our language works at different levels too:

1. Letters: 26 letters in English alphabet
2. Words: A few letters form a word defining a concept, and there are tens of thousand of words
3. Sentences: A few words to form a sentence expressing an idea
4. Paragraphs or Talks: Superficial understanding
5. Books on Certain Topics: Deep understanding

I list here the seven levels in the biological world and human civilization:

1. Level one, DNA or deoxyribonucleic acids;
2. Level two, cells;
3. Level three, tissues;
4. Level four, Organs and functional body parts such as limbs, eyes;
5. Level five, individuals or a person in human society;
6. Primary society;
7. Secondary society.

We believe that secondary society is fundamentally different from primary society, and the difference is similar to those between letters and words, and between cells and organs. Our happiness and meaning of life reside in primary society, and present secondary society is only at its early stage in developing into its final forms like organs to cells and paragraphs to letters. Present secondary society does not harbour any meaning for individuals except a few. Secondary society was created by man for a high level purpose or meaning not for the well-being of people whose life, genetically determined, resides in primary society.

(3) Quotations From Classics

The following is quoted from Taoist classics to show their ideal life is the life inside a primary society:

Let the state remains small with a few people. Tools and other artefacts are numbered in tens and hundreds yet people won’t use them. Life is valued high, and nobody ventures far to risk it. There are boats and chariots yet people have no desire to ride on them; there are arms and weapons yet people have no reason to marshal them. Let us revert to the knot-string method for recording. Enjoy the tastiness of your food, admire the beauty of your clothing, delight yourself with your home and its environment, and be happy with your culture. The neighbour states are so near that people can see each other and hear each other’s chickens and dogs yet people reach old age and death without interaction. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 80)

I have only heard of letting nature take its course but I have never heard the world can be governed by men. Self-containment and self-enjoyment prevent our nature from becoming interruptive. Accepting and liking ourselves prevents the loss of our natural virtue. If people do not change their nature and do not lose their virtue, why do we need any human administration? When the ancient sage Yao ruled, everyone enjoyed themselves but lost their serenity. When the tyrant Chieh ruled, everyone saddened their heart but lost their enjoyment. If there is no serenity and enjoyment, the Tao cannot present its virtue. If there is no virtue any rule or order cannot last. (Chuang Tzu, Chapter 11)

When the utmost man rules, heart and soul are united; body and nature are in harmony. To study the virtue when one is quiet, and to follow the flow when one is active, let nature guide and chart the natural trend. Effortlessness leaves the world in harmony and no-desire makes the people simple and honest. No prayer leaves the people without superstition. No competition leaves everyone enough to live on. The country reaches far and the benefits last for many generations ( Huainan Tzu, Chapter 8)

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A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy
An Anthropological/Psychological View
Paper back with references and index, 243 pages

You-Sheng Li, Ph.D.
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