Explaining Conjunctions

Graham’s begins his translation of the last chapter ofThe Book of Leih-Tzu, called “Explaining Conjunctions,” with:

Explaining Conjunctions is the most heterogeneous of the eight chapters. More than half of it is taken from known sources of the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., not all Taoist, and it is likely that much of the rest is from sources no longer extant. Nevertheless, there is a single theme guiding the selection, the effect of chance conjunctions of events. The chance combinations which make each situation unique decide both whether an action is right and how others interpret its motives. The moral is that we should discard fixed standards, and follow the external situation as the shadow follows the body. ‘Whether we should be active or passive depends on other things and not on ourselves.’

While I’ve never been particularly fond of “situational ethics,” I certainly believe that it’s dangerous to rush to judgement, especially since much of what we believe is based on other’s observations, not our own.

This seemed like a particularly good example of misjudging someone:

Duke Mu of Ch’in said to Po-lo:

‘You are getting on in years. Is there anyone in your family whom I can send to find me horses?’ ‘A good horse can be identified by its shape and look, its bone and muscle. But the great horses of the world might be extinct, vanished, perished, lost; such horses raise no dust and leave no tracks. My sons all have lesser talent, they can pick a good horse but not a great one. But there is a man I know who carries and hauls, and collects firewood for me, Chiu-fang Kao As a judge of horses he is my equal. I suggest that you see him.’

Duke Mu saw the man and sent him away to find horses. After three months he returned and reported to the Duke.

‘I have got one. It is in Sha-ch’iu.’

‘What kind of horse?’

‘A mare, yellow.’

The Duke sent someone to fetch it; it turned out to be a stallion, and black. The Duke, displeased, summoned Po-lo.

‘He’s no good, the fellow you sent to find me horses. He cannot even tell one colour from another, or a mare from a stallion. What can he know about horses?’

Po-lo breathed a long sigh of wonder.

‘So now he has risen to this! It is just this that shows that he is worth a thousand, ten thousand, any number of people like me. What such a man as Kao observes is the innermost native impulse behind the horse’s movements. He grasps the essence and forgets the dross, goes right inside it and forgets the outside. He looks for and sees what he needs to see, ignores what he does not need to see. In the judgement of horses of a man like Kao, there is something more important than horses.’

When the horse arrived, it did prove to be a great horse.

Of course, the reason I really loved this story is because I would probably have jumped to the same conclusion that the Duke did. It’s far too easy to get caught up in small details and overlook more important points.

2 thoughts on “Explaining Conjunctions

  1. “When the horse arrived, it did prove to be a great horse.”

    I love this story.

    “He looks for and sees what he needs to see, ignores what he does not need to see. In the judgement of horses of a man like Kao, there is something more important than horses.”

What do you think?