Kibbitznest Liberal Arts Discussions are a collaboration with The University of Chicago Graham School to host presentations and discussions of original research.
In America today, we usually approach Daoism as a personal practice or outlook that can help us live happier lives. But the Daoist classics were originally written and used by people who were deeply involved in governmental and social projects. What basic approach did these ancient thinkers develop on issues like statecraft, leadership, and public morality? And how can we apply their ideas in our own time and place?
For Daoist thinkers, it’s a mistake to examine human governments and institutions without first understanding the natural world—the basic processes by which living things come to be and pass away. They see the function of government as fostering environments in which people can flourish and enjoy themselves, so they pay keen attention to aspects of the non-human environment that allow humans to survive, reproduce, invent, and play. They conclude that the most valuable leaders are precisely the ones we never think about: people who get out of the way, who let others do great things, and who have no political ambitions themselves.
These writers have no concept of human rights, no ideals of freedom or equality, and no belief in democratic institutions. From our point of view these can seem like serious omissions, and it may be hard to pursue any political project that doesn’t assume those values and expectations. But the Daoist counterpoint would be that modern ideas of freedom, equal rights, and government by vote all encode an unquestioned commitment to force and to cutting people off from each other. If that sounds strange to us, they’d say, it’s likely because we never think about the natural, organic context that gives rise to—and inevitably destroys—every social and cultural regime.
Sponsor: Kibbitznest Books, Brews & Blarney
About Stephen Walker:
STEPHEN WALKER is a PhD candidate at University of Chicago Divinity School studying philosophy and the history of philosophy across multiple traditions. His main research focuses on classical Chinese thought; his dissertation, Boundless Ways: Navigating Norms in the Zhuangzi, examines that text's pragmatic and pluralistic critique of value.
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