A.C. Graham’s The Book of Lieh-Tzu

I’ve started reading A.C. Graham’s translation of The Book of Lieh-tzu: A Classic of Tao. I’ve only read the Preface, Introduction, and the First Chapter so far, but I’ve already found much of interest. Of course, considering how little I still know about Taoism, that might not be saying very much.

Still, Graham’s introductory notes build on what I’ve learned from my earlier readings of the Taoteching, Chuang Tzu, and Klodt’s The Tao of Abundance, allowing me to see the Taoists a little more clearly. One bit of information cleared up an earlier question I’d had about Taoism, with Graham referring to this form of Taoism as “philosophical Taoism; but as a way of life for the tired of office it remained largely dissociated from Taoist alchemy and magic, and had an offshoot in Chinese Buddhism as Ch’an or Zen.”

Graham cleverly distinguishes between Confucianism and Taoism, pointing out that “The Way of Confucianism is primarily a system of government and a moral code, mastered by study, thought and discipline, while:

For Taoists, on the other hand, man occupies the humble position of the tiny figures in Sung landscape paintings, and lives rightly by bringing himself into accord with an inhuman Way which does not favour his ambitions, tastes and moral principles:

Heaven and earth are ruthless;
For them the myriad things are straw dogs.
The sage is ruthless;
For him the people are straw dogs.

One characteristic of this accord with the Way is ‘spontaneity’ (tzü-jan, literally ‘being so of itself’)-a concept, prominent from the beginnings of Taoism, which assumes the central place in the thought of the Lieh-tzü and of philosophers of the same period such as Kuo Hsiang. Heaven and earth operate without thought or purposes through processes which are tza-jan, ‘so of themselves’. Man follows the same course, through the process of growth and decay, without choosing either to be born or to die. Yet alone among the myriad things he tries to base his actions on ought and knowledge, to distinguish between benefit and harm, pose alternative courses of action, form moral and practical principles of conduct. If he wishes to return to the Way he must discard knowledge, cease to make distinctions, refuse to impose his will and his principles on nature, recover the spontaneity of the newborn child, allow his actions to be ‘so of themselves’ like physical processes. He must reflect things like a mirror, respond to them like an echo, without intermediate thought, perfectly concentrated and perfectly relaxed, like the angler or the charioteer whose hand reacts immediately to the give and pull of the line or the reins, or like the swimmer who can find his way through the whirlpool…

I found this image of Taoists in a Sung landscape painting quite compelling, and revealing.

Later, Graham points out that:

The Taoist, it will already be clear, cannot be a ‘philosopher’ in the Western sense, establishing his case by rational argument; he can only guide us in the direction of the Way by aphorisms, poetry and parable. The talents which he needs are those of an artist and not of a thinker, and in fact the three classics of Taoism are all in their different ways remarkable purely as literature (in the original Chinese, I hasten to add).

I hadn’t really thought of Taoism in quite this light before, but I’m sure that this explains a part of its appeal to me. As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions I’ve acquired much of my philosophy, and a good part of my religion, from artists. While I’m not adverse to reading philosophy, I’m more apt to be moved by a poem or a drawing or painting than I am by a philosophical treatise.

2 thoughts on “A.C. Graham’s The Book of Lieh-Tzu

  1. Graham’s translation of Chuang-Tzu (called The Inner Chapters, but really almost all of the book that’s worth keeping) is by far the most philosphically astute of the five English translations I’ve read. I didn’t know he had also translated the Lieh-Tzu, but I’m sure it will be reliable. He was a mentor to D.C. Lau and Roger Ames, whose translations of Yuan Dao and Lao Tzu are also well worth exploring.

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