Monday, March 3, 2014

Graham on Confucius III: Wu Wei

Scott Bradley


In his discussion of de in Confucius, Graham points out that he "even" uses the term wu wei, "not-doing": "One who put in order by doing nothing, would that not be Shun? What is there that he did? Just assumed a respectful posture and faced south." (Analects 15:5)

Here we begin to see how these two terms complement each other. De, according to Graham, meant for Confucius "the power . . . to move others without exerting physical force." "Doing through not-doing" is thus the exercise of de.

Here, as elsewhere generally, we see that these things are thought to be important because of their political effectiveness. The point was made earlier, but it bears repeating: Classical Chinese philosophy always had the central political aim of the improvement of society. This is because humanity is always understood as social and communal. Even with the 'corrective' introduction of the individualism of Zhuangzi, this orientation is never lost. Indeed, if, as Confucius believed, de and wu wei are necessary requirements for good governance, then their further development by 'Laozi' and Zhuangzi are a re-iteration and deepening of that understanding.

Only for Zhuangzi, it is taken to a new level; if it is true of our communal experience that things change for the better when given the space to do so, so also in our own personal pilgrimages. Once again, we are reminded of his exhortation to "just be empty". Emptiness is never understood outside the context of fullness, however, but as the pre-condition of fullness. The point of wu wei, not-doing, is to get things done. Space is given for things to happen.

Put in the context of current political thought, de/wu wei equate to: "Be change." What is assumed in such an exhortation is that being different makes a difference. This making a difference implies much more than just 'doing one's part', but also implies bringing change to others. How? Through de.

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