Issue #59 February 2023

Daoxue: The Virtue of Being

Qu Ding - "Summer Mountains" - (ca 1050) (Detail)

“The successive movement of yin and yang constitutes the Way (Tao). What issues from the Way is good, and that which realizes it is the individual nature.”


There is much written on Neo-Confucianism’s (Daoxue1placeholder) views of ethical life, and this in fact constitutes the large share of its voluminous productions as a school of thought. The Daoxue is the systematic understanding and expression of the Way as a total comprehension of reality.  Besides the five relationships between father and son, ruler and minister, old and young, husband and wife, and friends, there is an immense amount on jurisprudence, the meticulous ordering of the administrative bureaucracy of the state, and social ritual or ethical propriety. The greatest difference with the West is certainly that in the Western tradition the view of natural right and those of Christian doxa became intermixed, whereas in Chinese thought there is a more ontologically informed ethics of virtue and duties in a way that functions as a kind of religion, but which is not religious in the same way. The view of the state is also different, or rather, there simply is no conception of the state proper. The concept of politics is not in classical Chinese thought, and therefore what exists in its theory is only a theory of administration or bureaucracy. Certainly there is a conception of polity, of an individual’s role in the social organism, but this is not the conception of the citizen, nor is there a conception of independent civil society. The focus of the Daoxue and prior Confucianism is to cultivate individuals into sages, and the purpose of sages is to be rulers who not only are an exemplar to the people, but in being an exemplar set the whole world right with the Way. Chinese philosophy, that being the home-grown thinking of Taoism and Confucianism which eventually synthesized into Daoxue, is ethical by way of ontology despite its clear distaste for metaphysics as such.

Now, Confucianism in general, which includes the Daoxue, as an explicit philosophy and systematic worldview has lost favor in China and Southeast Asia (SEA) in the last two centuries. The reasons are quite understandable. Becoming intertwined with the administrative state, and being nominally appealed to as the formal justification for a lot of the strict traditionalist laws and ethical norms, it is quite reasonable that as soon as people found themselves escaping the yolk of such institutions under the tectonic historical upheavals of Western colonizations abroad, and the industrial revolution’s unleashing of productive material forces, there simply was no going back to it under any circumstances insofar as its expression is tied to such formal state power and rigid traditionalism which is incoherent with the massive labor devouring titan of capital. The Daoxue was in part blamed for the undeveloped potential of science and technology in East Asia, and thus for the shame and pain which China and other SEA countries suffered under Western colonization. Most importantly, Confucianism in general is tied in cultural memory as purely dogmatic traditionalism, ancient rules of life we ought to follow because that’s how it has been for a long time, and no other reason. Nonetheless, though Confucianism as an explicit philosophy is generally less known and adhered to than it once was, the Confucianism popularized by the Daoxue remains as a bedrock understanding of what the proper life is, and has remained entrenched in the deep structure of East Asian social life in China, in Korea, and Japan. The lineage of thought which is the Daoxue has never died, and in fact continues on in the modern day under the programs of what is called New Confucianism, which are revitalizations of its spirit in light of the Western Enlightenment and Marxism’s communist ideas.

I would like only to give an outline example of the thinking behind what at face appears to the uncharitable and superficial reader as mere doctrines of tradition without reason. Take, for example, the ethics of filial piety. The conception of nature as that which a thing essentially is, its pattern, being identical to goodness is a significant part of what leads to the doctrines of filial piety. There is an ambiguity between this nature and Nature (the spatio-temporal) such that one may rightly think that this conception falls dangerously into the possibility of essentializing what is in fact a merely contingent appearance. This worry is what lays behind the attacks against Confucianism as a rigid and arbitrary position when it comes to the doctrine of filial piety. The notion that the older one is, the more experience one has, the more knowledge one has, and therefore that the younger should submit themselves to the judgments of their elders is easily contradicted by the empirical fact that being older hardly has any connection to being wiser, and that things being traditional due to their repetition over long times does not establish their correctness. However, mere tradition is not what completely motivates these doctrines, and there is an amazingly intuitive rational core running through the ethical doctrines of the Daoxue. In order to show this rational core, however, a basic ontology must be presented so that the culminating explication of filial piety, and humanity (jen or ren) itself make sense.


Good and Evil, Original Nature

“Good and evil in the world are both the pattern of Nature, What is called evil is not original evil. It becomes evil only because of deviation from the Mean.” —Cheng Hao

“There is no nature that is not good. Evil is due to capacity.” —Cheng I

“The universe has never separated itself from man. Man separates himself from the universe.” —Lu Shiang-Shan

“Original mind is pattern in itself, unmoved, and perfectly good, while physical nature,

on the other hand, is pattern mixed with material force; it is the aroused state, involving both good and evil.” —Zhu Xi

“It is true that original nature is an all-pervading perfection not contrasted with evil. This is true of what Heaven has endowed in the self. But when it operates in man, there is the differentiation between good and evil. When man acts in accord with it, there is goodness. When man acts out of accord with it, there is evil. How can it be said that the good is not the original nature? It is in its operation in man that the distinction between good and evil arises, but conduct in accord with the original nature is due to the original nature.” —Zhu Xi


Good as such

That nature is good is nothing other than to say that being is good. Being, however, is not immediate empirical being. Being is essence, nature, or pattern which when determined in qi (material force or simple matter) may be more or less perfect. Being, however, is more truly becoming or change, and is referred to as the Way in its indeterminateness, and as the Taiji (Great Ultimate) in its determinateness as the system of change from yin to yang and vice versa. The Taiji is also pattern itself, the One which is one with the many, and thus whose pattern is the patterning of pattern. Though pattern and qi are distinct, one must not misunderstand these as independent things, but rather that they are expressions of one and the same, the Taiji, i.e. the concrete Way.

The Daoxue makes important distinctions between the absolute and relative level of the Good. At the absolute level of the Way and the Taiji, there is the unqualified Good against which no thing is opposed, and thus no evil exists. Nature—as in the nature of a thing, what it essentially is, its pattern—is harmonious as a unity in difference, living and productive, and self-regenerating through change. In this way the nature of things is their living self-production and reproduction. The Taiji is absolute or universal production and self-production. It is the universal stream of being which moves hither and thither within itself, where finite things are like eddies in that stream, a turbulence resulting of its own natural flow in relation to itself, and which can be seen to form as inflows of that great flow, and which in their currents downward only return the waters of the stream back to the greater stream. This great unity of being is one harmonious flow not to nowhere, but to itself as a whole—a living force that of its own inner being lives more and more, creates endlessly out of itself, and whose creations are mirrors of itself in specific standpoints. From these temporary mirrors, these water droplets springing out of this natural flow, the energy which was imbued in them such that they jumped momentarily out of this great stream passes out of them just as it moved into them, and so the droplets fall back down by their own exhaustion of their nature to the great stream in which that life force passes on to another portion and jumps forth again endlessly. This is the eternal, inexhaustible Good which abides with itself and is its own purpose.

That which contingently and arbitrarily arises, yet which has no true nature itself, quickly passes away in the flow of existence. The true is that which eternally endures through change itself, and which as a finite instance is at one with change itself, i.e. at one with its generation and disintegration as a self-perpetuating cycle—in letting go of itself, a finite thing finds its own affirmative being in passing over into its other, for that other is itself, it is one with change, it is one with its way, and its way itself is a way from, for, and to the Way. Abstractly and indeterminately, truth is the Way; concretely and determinately it is the Taiji, pattern or the mind itself. Though the ten thousand things change, the mind changes along with them as its own way, and thus does not change in changing, but endures as self-same in difference. The nature of the Way or Taiji is harmonious change, balanced unity in difference, the self-production of itself as this endless system of change, and the production of all finite things as the activity of the system of change which changes itself as the One into the many and back again. But to say that the One changes as if it were temporal would be a mistake. The One is one as many, it is in truth not first this and then the other, but both at once, and so in its change it is changeless.


Evil as such

If being or nature as patterned qi is good, then one would think that what destroys nature is evil, or one may perhaps consider that evil is non-being itself. The Way, the Taiji, nature, or pattern are productive or generative, i.e. life, but they are also the unity and cycle of opposites in and through change. Death is the destruction of life, so one might think it must be evil. This is not so. Death is not evil itself, for the degeneration of life after its peak of generation is itself natural, an immanent determination of life and part of it. To exist is to be finite, to have a beginning and end, and life emerges from non-life and returns to it, but non-life emerges from life and returns to it as well—it is one system of ontological and physical ebb and flow. Life as such is itself the mean not between, but containing and above life and death; it is a concrete determination of change itself. What would be evil is the death that destroys this mean itself, this self-perpetuating self-generating being. Evil would be for the part of death to take itself as absolute and break away from life to overcome life, for this would destroy the harmonious regeneration of life as such and it would cease to be both as life and death for the dead is only that which once was alive or could be alive. It would also be evil for the part of life to tear itself from death, to hold itself as absolute and infinite as this finite part over the system of change that is life itself, for this too would destroy life and death alike just as we see when animal populations boom beyond their means and destroy themselves in their own success. Such events of total self-destruction would reduce the world to nothing, for these parts which attempt to usurp the whole would thereby not only destroy their other, but the whole from which they themselves emerge and exist in. On the more abstract level, one can speak of evil as a self-dissonant harmony, a contradiction both of meaning and being, such that it would state that the pattern of being is to be unpatterned noise which could never cohere to anything.

Were such one-sidedness and finitude the ought of being, it would be akin to stating the abstract contradictory belief that the purpose of being is to be nothing, to destroy itself, for the only true being that endures is empty nothingness, and only nothingness is good. In immediacy this is ridiculous, and in fact only makes sense as an immediacy concerning the being of the immediate as such. The world, as can be seen, is not immediacy as such, it has not collapsed immediately into nothing, and indeed all things seem to spontaneously and to some extent harmoniously strive to persist in their own way within the great universality of the Way. Evil is therefore deviation from the mean, from the nature, the pattern, the way of a thing—it is one-sidedness that not only corrupts the system of the way, but also destroys both sides in destroying the whole. Unthinking things, which is everything but human beings, are not properly evil. If they come into imbalance, it is not a universalizable imbalance and goes no further than a particular self-destruction in the world, but not of the world. Imbalances of this kind happen, but Nature as a whole continues unabated and the Way itself is undisturbed. It is not the way of anything unthinking that it strive for realizing the Way as such, such beings only actualize the way which is their own particularity and which is endowed by Heaven. Only the human has the way of the Way as such, the mind being a seeking of universal pattern and its realization. Only human imbalance, therefore, is evil in the proper and full sense since the human alone fails to live up to what they are capable of by choice of not striving to clarify one’s qi, one’s substantive power to penetrate into the nature of things and oneself, to not follow the way of being through self-rectification, and thus to opt instead for destruction which is ultimately self-destruction.

Li Tang - "Wind in Pines Among a Myriad Valleys" - (1124)

Good and evil as a relative distinction

“The spirit of life of Heaven and Earth is the same in flowers and weeds. Where have they the distinction of good and evil? When you want to enjoy flowers, you will consider flowers good and weeds evil. But when you want to use weeds, you will then consider them good. Such good and evil are all products of the mind’s likes and dislikes.” —Wang Yangming

On the relative level, good and evil are opposed by degree, not by kind, and by the opposition of specific ends rather than inherent ends. Thus, examples like that of weeds in a flower garden are given. Regarding the absolute level, both weeds and flowers are endowed with being in their own way such that in their inherent pattern and function they are good. Regarding the relative level in relation to the Way as such, finite things may be more or less good in being clearer or more turbid in their qi, with human consciousness and thought being the peak of the clarity of qi and the perfection of the way as humanity (jen or ren). This is itself not a measure of evil as such; rather, it is simply a measure of goodness by degree. There is nothing wrong with weeds being weeds, and nothing wrong with humans being humans, but it is better to be a human than to be a weed in that the human has clearer qi and a higher realization of the Way. For a human to be forced by external conditions to realize their nature only to the extent of the nature of a weed would be evil, for such a life would be a one-sided realization of the human way and would thereby destroy that human as a human. From the standpoint of higher goodness, i.e. a closer realization of the universality of the Way, it would be evil to step down on the ontological order by choice even if that choice is ignorant of its ultimate consequences, but there is nothing evil about beings which are by nature less capable than humans in realizing the Way.  Evil is a deviation from the balanced mean of yin and yang, i.e. one-sidedness. On the relative level it may be said that weeds are bad for a flower garden, but this is merely a perspective of our external imposition of an end. In the way of the fields, the weeds and flowers form a harmony with each other and the many things which together constitute the ecological cycle of the field. It is now an understood science that ecologies have a succession of plants, a pattern of species which develop soil minerals and structure so that other species may have the conditions for development and growth. Weeds are now understood to have a reason for their stubbornness and difficulty of removal, since their nature’s pattern is to dig deep into the soil and draw out minerals to the surface. As years pass, the accumulation of these minerals in the top soil make way for milder plants to grow and eventually crowd out the weeds as they themselves develop further conditions for more plants. Thus are life and death related in the empirical world. In Nature it allows for the path of evolution and succession, of the species as a whole to shape itself in response to its environment when the environment cannot be shaped by it. Without the succession of generations of life, life as a whole could hardly keep up with its environments. Without the ignorance at birth which intelligent beings begin with, culture would be forever stuck and unquestioned as fresh eyes could not see it anew every generation.



It is frankly impressive that the Chinese came upon a theory of the Good and its relation to evil that basically developed the exact same solution to theodicy which Western philosophy did in various strands of Neoplatonism and Christian theology. The theory of evil had the development of its conception as mere lack without positive being, that it is one-sidedness as opposed to the two-sidedness of the mean, that it is a perspective of degree in which evil is relative to specific ends, and also that it is a lack of completion regarding the final end (Way or Taiji) in the theory of turbid and clear qi. These are not mutually excluding conceptions, in fact they are logical consequences of each other and form one conception of evil via a proper conception of the Good. What is lacking in this is merely an explicit explanation of why the imbalanced allotment and turbidity of qi exist given the absolute Goodness of the Way and Taiji, and this would amount to an explanation for why finitude exists and why contingency is necessary. Otherwise, the theory of Good and evil achieves a genuine overcoming of the finite conception of the opposition of good and evil, revealing the Good itself to be truly beyond good and evil in the layman’s understanding, and thus why the Daoxue could affirm that both good and evil were necessary in the the highest Good. That a theodicy should be developed in what seems to be a purely atheistic philosophy is surprising only on the assumption that ethics and Being are not immanently related in the absolute pattern. Given the absolute unity of the Taiji, deviation, difference, and lack must be explained against the seemingly original perfection, and thus the existence of evil or dissonance must be explained.


Life and Development

The Daoxue affirm change not only in its specification of change, but also with the essentiality of an ultimate universal purpose. In this they were like the Westerns who had also developed views of the cosmos as having inherent purpose. The Greeks and the Chinese happened to converge on the notion of an organic cosmology, a living universe. What the Chinese did not arrive at, however, was the conclusion that the cosmos as cosmos could be considered as an actual individual which itself is not merely the pattern of life, and therefore life itself, but itself one eternal living being. There was a time in which there was a notion of a Lord of Heaven, but the pragmatic and humanistic focus of Confucian ethical life as well as the objective focus of Taoist metaphysics, which was not a doctrine revealed by a self-proclaimed absolute deity, led to the naturalization of reality as a consummate objective process. The Way or Taiji are the rhythm of life as the whole of reality, but itself has no desire and demands nothing. The mandate of Heaven was not external, but immanent. Those who were given a mandate knew so because their way took hold of the greater way of existence and society as a rudder steers a boat without violence on the waters or the boat itself, and this was the proof of their virtue in achieving the Way as leaders. Those who have such a mandate are called not by an external booming voice from beyond, but from the necessity of circumstance and their resulting rise to the occasion of their own internal nature and historical moment. Greatness is conferred by Heaven, and given to those whose nature rises up to it, not those who in their desire seek power and fame for their own sake.

The reason to discuss life prior to discussing ethical life is because there can be no talk of concrete development without talk of life. Purpose as external telos can be considered in light of dead objects whose reality is their indifferent relation to each other, a relation which ignores what each internally is, one that does not take into account their different natures. Internal telos, however, has the inescapable form and content of life. That which has a telos or end in itself, one not given from outside, gives itself this end. That which is an end, however, is an end only in having a beginning and a movement toward the end. Purposes likewise are only purposes insofar as there is a gap between the purpose in potential and a purpose in actuality. There is therefore a movement from the unrealized to the realized purpose, and the end unified with its means is life. Life is itself its own end as the process of actualizing itself, and thus the very activities of life are not opposed or outside the end. The absoluteness of life as a self-productive rhythm enduring through change is also the proof of its goodness, of its self-justification and judgment as the truth against the falsehood of the pure nothingness that never was and never will be.

“It is the function of nature to combine. In so doing it unites the two. It is the function of destiny to receive. In receiving it follows specific patterns. If the fundamental pattern of combining (the highest good) is not applied to the utmost, the lot received cannot be perfectly understood. . . There is the pattern of assisting [Heaven] in its task of production and bringing things to perfection. That depends on me.” —Zhang Zai

“Change means production and reproduction.” This is how Heaven becomes the Way. To Heaven, the Way is merely to give life. What follows from this pattern of life-giving is good. Goodness involves the idea of origination (yüan), for origination is the chief quality of goodness. All things have the impulses of spring (spirit of growth) and this is goodness resulting from the pattern of life. “That which realizes it is the individual nature.” Realization is possible only when the myriad things fully realize their own nature.” —Cheng Hao

It is the position of the Daoxue that the Way is life as the pattern of production, and that humanity (jen/ren) is itself the mediating pattern of consciously aiding the realization of the production of things, i.e. to bring them to completion. This distinction is ultimately spurious and an empty duplication which is abandoned by some in the Daoxue, concluding in the acknowledgement that humanity, mind, and pattern are simply the consciousness of the Pattern, the Way or Taiji, and as such are these themselves. The mind is pattern is nature or essence is the Way is the Taiji. The human being is acknowledged to essentially be mind or pure patterning pattern, naturing nature, that this is its definitive function and substance of humanity. The intuition behind this is truly outstanding and simply amazing. The identity of thought and activity was a rare insight in the West and Indian philosophy as it is, however, the realization and recognition that this activity is productive and living as a (self)generative actuality is a rational development one spies mainly in the very late Idealist speculative philosophy of the West, but which was strongly latent in Aristotle’s theology of God as eternally living self-thinking thought.

The Way is production or genesis itself. The Daoxue, unsurprisingly, had no account of how or why this is, only the recognition that it is so. From it the generation of a dyad from the monad, usually yin and yang, follows, their interpenetration and change into each other, the realization of Change or Becoming as such. From this follows the distinction of change and qi, and from this the generation of the ten thousand things. Of these, the distinctions arise between the endowment of nature or pattern on qi, and the clarity and turbidity of qi. Among all beings, human beings are ones allotted the clearest qi, that of mind which is the embodiment of the Way itself as patterning pattern. While the human animal has its own way of being, a particular way, its mind is capable of grasping and reflecting the Way itself and all its particular manifestations. The pattern of the mind is to pattern itself after any pattern. This patterning itself is its inescapable nature, it is compelled by its own life to produce itself as patterning pattern, and thus human beings think with the ease with which a fish breathes in water. Thinking is the production of patterns as patterns, conceptualization which grasps differentiated unities, harmonies of seemingly independent opposites. Not only is thought the pure operation of patterning patterns, but the social being of humanity itself has already fated them to the actual possibility of not only cognizing pattern universally, but of intuiting pattern in their feelings or emotions. Love, the free unity of seemingly independent differences, is the beginning of humanity. We are all born lovers who crave and need the loving touch and interaction of our parents. What is love, ultimately? Love is the existence and exercise of the Taiji as the extending of unity across all differences in the harmony of their distinctions, a recognition of oneself in otherness.

The Daoxue has no theory of recognition as such, the closest is the doctrine and theory that pattern is one and its manifestations are many. Wang Yangming perhaps expounds the most extensive theory of this which is closest to recognition in his arguments providing reasons for the doctrine that all individuals form one body with Heaven and Earth through the examples that in our sentiments toward things and other people is implicit the existential presupposition that things and ourselves are somehow one and the same, and thus our feelings betray the appearance of disconnection we seem to experience in the physical senses. This argument is ontologically and epistemically charged with the driving conception of the Taiji as the absolute pattern of patterning.


“At the time of tranquility, to know that there is no thought in the mind is the fasting of the mind, to realize that originally there is no thought in the mind and that it is completely free from tranquility and activity, and to be in the state of absolute quiet and inactivity—that is absolute sincerity. The Doctrine of the Mean says, “Given sincerity, there will be enlightenment.” —Li Ao

“The way of ch’ien is to change and transform so that everything will obtain its correct nature and destiny.” In this way sincerity is established. It is pure and perfectly good.” —Zhou Dunyi

“Sagehood is nothing but sincerity. . . When tranquil, it is in the state of non-being, and when active, it is in the state of being. . . Therefore with sincerity very little effort is needed [to achieve the Mean].” —Zhou Dunyi

“Perfect sincerity leads to activity. Activity leads to change. And change leads to transformation. Hence it is said, “One will consider before he speaks and deliberate before he acts. By such consideration and deliberations he undertakes to complete all changes and transformations.” —Zhou Dunyi

“In the study of prior existence sincerity is basic. Perfect sincerity can penetrate all spirits. Without sincerity, the Way cannot be attained.” —Zhou Dunyi

“Sincerity is the controlling factor in one’s nature. It is beyond space and time.” —Zhou Dunyi

“When the Way of Heaven [or pattern] and the nature of man [or desires] function separately, there cannot be sincerity.” —Zhang Zai

“Sincerity is the way according to which heaven can last for long and be unceasing.” —Zhang Zai

“Sincerity implies reality.” —Zhang Zai

Sincerity is a technical term quite close to common use, but it is also quite different for good reasons. It is peculiarly closer to the intuitive use of authenticity, but even closer to ontological meanings of it like Heidegger’s. To be sincere is not an outward personal attitude in relation to our actual inner attitude, such as our being sincerely thankful to someone, sincerely mourning, or sincerely happy for someone. What this common notion holds in accord with the Daoxue concept of sincerity is that it is a concept of truth. In the common concept sincerity is the accord of our inner attitude with our external expressions of those attitudes, but in the Daoxue one is not sincere in relation to someone or something else, one is instead sincere in relation to one’s own being, one’s way. Sincerity is my ontological being itself, not my empirical or psychological being.

Sincerity is ontological, it is being true to the Way, particularly one’s own way. The identity is truly much stronger: sincerity is being, it is truth, it is the Way itself. To be sincere is to be true to truth, to be being. This may seem to reduce to an abstract tautology, which tells is nothing but pure abstract identity of A=A, but it is in fact a concrete tautology. Sincerity is in particular the true being of the mind or humanity as humaneness, which being true to itself is true to the Way. The details of the doctrine of humanity are already dealt elsewhere.

Unlike the discourse of authenticity which has come to dominate the public perception of the philosophical discourse which began with supposedly existentialist philosophies and phenomenology, a public perception which is almost entirely false in its representation of this original discourse, sincerity denies that our immediate empirical self can be taken to be true without investigation. Sincerity is not a merely conscious attitude or disposition to be true, it is itself a total and complete life-toward-truth which involves the true investigation of truth itself, the true engagement of the consequences of true knowledge, and the natural enactment of this living-toward-truth. The only way to be sincere is to engage the way of humanity which is the nature of humanity: the way of love, the way of knowing, the way of learning, the way of understanding, the way of producing and completing, the way of harmonizing difference in unity, and the way of changing in context to the current ways or actualities. One cannot thereby merely profess to wish to be sincere and say one shall try, but can only be sincere in this professing in that a true profession of such a desire is already sincere and the consequence of sincerity itself; thus, it is no trying but a concrete doing and full functioning of humanity in this respect. Thus, it is said:

“Without sincerity, there will be nothing.” —Zisi, Doctrine of the Mean

Generalized beyond human consciousness and intent, sincerity as ontological is the true being of things. Were the Way not sincere, it simply would not be at all.


Humanity (Jen/Ren)

“The extension of knowledge consists in the investigation of things.  As things approach, knowledge will arise. Leave things as they are and do not labor your knowledge of them. Then you will be sincere and not disturbed. As the will is sincere, it will naturally be calm and the mind will be rectified. This is the task of beginning to learn.” —Ch’eng I

“When things are investigated, knowledge is extended; when knowledge is extended, the will becomes sincere; when the will is sincere, the mind is rectified; when the mind is rectified, the personal life is cultivated; when the personal life is cultivated, the family will be regulated; when the family is regulated, the state will be in order; and when the state is in order, there will be peace throughout the world. From the Son of Heaven down to the common people, all must regard cultivation of the personal life as the root or foundation. There is never a case when the root is in disorder and yet the branches are in order.” —The Great Learning

At last we come to one of the concrete pillars, if not the pillar of Daoxue as a Confucian philosophy: humanity or humaneness. There is not much else to say of it than what has already been developed, for humanity collects these patterns and their realization in one. As the Way is determined into the Taiji, and it is further determined as the Good, life, and sincerity, humanity takes up these and further determines them. What stands out about humanity as an ontological kind is mind, and mind is pattern. As Shao Yung says, “The mind is the Taiji,” and as Zhu Xi says, “The Taiji is nothing other than pattern.” The human being is therefore the walking incarnation of the Way in the world itself, the emissary of the mandate of Heaven which proclaims that the Way should be realized to its utmost, and where it lacks, there humanity aids its realization and rectifies things. Thus to be humane is to be a superior person, it is to be sincere to the way of mind, and in this it is to extend knowledge to its fullest, to grasp the pattern of the world, and to act in that knowledge. It is to love one’s family, to extend that love to one’s community, one’s society, and the world. It is to be tranquil and calm, to maintain the mean at all times, to feel with proper measure to the events of life. It is to not be one-sided and abstractly selfish, but to realize we are one whose being is tied to the many. It is to be aware of and to rectify oneself whether alone or in the presence of others, and so it is to understand and follow ritual and rules of propriety which realize the way of humanity. In being sincere, the human achieves the Way.


Filial Piety

Take the family as an example. Why should we think that not only is there a right way for father and son to relate, but that this very relation ought to exist? Well, first, it seems like a rather clear observation that regardless of what one thinks, the father and son relation necessarily exists by force of nature. Nature itself seems to spontaneously produce with no observable external master forcing any command. Just as spontaneously, humans desire the opposite sex and are led to procreate. That sex is pleasurable is in accord with nature as an intuitive confirmation and affirmation of the truth of the Way. A man impregnates a woman, a child is born, and it is his child, his son, and he is the father by fact of deed and consequence. In the conception of a child, humanity realizes the way of its biological life, and a child is itself a joy to its parents not merely as a hopeful instrument of future labor, but as the concrete existent expression of their own unity as a family. That humanity is led by its own instincts to procreate, and that this founds the basic unit of the family of parents and children as the basis of the reproduction of the species not only as a biological body, but also a social body, makes clear the pattern of the family as a part of the way of humanity. The Way is the self-production of reality, and family is the self-production of humanity.

A parent naturally loves their child, and a child naturally loves their parent. The parent who loves their child properly knows not to spoil them, not to satisfy their immediate desires because they know the necessity of self-control and restraint, of discipline. Such a parent, however, brings discipline not as a punishing rod to break a child into shape, but like a supporting stick which guides a plant to grow straight when it is malleable and receptive to shaping by its own nature. As the child’s physical and mental growth are nourished and guided, the child naturally perceives the goodness of the parental figures and develops the corresponding love and admiration for them in the existential recognition that the parents are a nourishing agent to their own being and growth. The child first intuits love as the caring touch and sound of the parent, as the nourishing breast of the mother, then connects the image of the parent to these when its eyes open. As its physical and emotional needs are met, the child mind’s faculties quickly develop such that the distinctive mental character of the human being flowers, and a child begins the path to independence in learning the basics of signs, of symbols, and general spoken language. In the dynamic relationship of parent and child begins the foundation of the entire human world, for there is where the fundamental faith of reality begins: the fundamental comportment toward the world as bad and dangerous, or good and friendly; the attitude of projecting fear, or the projection of courage; the love of developing learning, or the indolence of immediate satisfaction. When all things are done in the proper way, when a parent is proper, a child experiences the world as a safe place, people as potential friends, learning as a joy, and looks up to the parents with the adoration towards a hero, the respect and deference due to a teacher who means them well though they do not fully understand the reasons for what the teacher instructs.

Jing Hao - "Mount Kuanglu" - (ca. 900)

The sayings, “Like father, like son,” and,  “Like mother, like daughter,” are true to the common and long confirmed belief that all things being equal, a parent is the most determining factor of a child’s development into who they are. When someone is a bad person, it is a high certainty that behind them is a bad parent. That there are empirically unhappy parents with unwanted children is not an argument against the conception of the family, nor is the empirical existence of dysfunctional families an argument against it. Just a bad pencil is does not negate that pencils exist for the ends of communication in writing or images, or an infertile apple does not negate that the nature of apples is to reproduce the species by providing a way for seeds to travel far when animals carry the fruit away, so too do these objections provide no reason to ignore the general pattern of empirical life and draw from its careful observation that humanity is social, that an important part of its sociality concerns its sexual desire and the conception of children, and that under proper circumstances the family would be a place of love and development, not of hatred, fear, and stunted growth.

The logic is not airtight. It partly functions on the conflation of empirical nature and nature as pattern, but this conflation is not baseless, and its intuitions are powerfully not far from the truth. Today we know that there are natural functions of chemicals that generate and strengthen personal bonds, that holding a child skin to skin is necessary for the newborn’s survival, and while this is at first seemingly only empirical and haphazard nature, it is logically coherent with the functions of the human species such that if this did not generally happen, it would not make sense that we are the kind of being we are. What the Daoxue arrive at is only seemingly via an empirical abstraction, one that increasingly has been proven to be correct in many ways, but which ultimately is logical. Social beings must have parental instincts, offspring likewise must have the instinct of imprinting and learning. Were this not so, the real conditions of our own being would be destroyed, and we as a species along with them. No society can survive without children to be the next generation, no child survives with parents who feel nothing for it and leave it to fend for itself, likewise no child survives that does not imprint on parents and wanders aimlessly following any thing that arouses its ignorant fancy. No parent that does not love their children, and no child that does not love their parent, will maintain a relationship beyond instrumental necessity. No society grounded in mere selfish instrumentality can view the world for what it is, and treat it for what it is, in having no appreciation for an existence beyond themselves, and thus no such society would be rational, i.e. able to maintain a totality through internally differentiated parts, and therefore could neither maintain its own way nor realize the way of anything greater. The same logical dynamics that justify the family also justify all the social relations. The foundation is not the empirical, but the metaphysical essence of existence itself: the Way or Taiji is one as many, a harmony of differences that do not destroy each other, but mutually support and reinforce each other. The five relations are concrete particular instances which we all individually live, and which when not functioning in their way only lead to ignorance and self-destruction as the objective organic unity of social beings falls apart. The good order of being, the Way of things, is their harmonious self-generation and subsistence. In the realm of human action and relation, this good order is ethical life.

Just as the Taiji is one manifest as many, and whose many finite patterns are not others to its one pattern of patterning patterns, so too is all of Nature in which we see an astonishing harmony of seemingly independent and external parts that find their existence in greater and greater unities, greater and greater flows in which their spatio-temporal eddies of qi arise, reside, and pass away from. Humanity arises from this way of Nature, endowed with the clear qi of mind which can penetrate all other qi and ascertain the patterns forming and flowing through things. A rock remains only a rock, and goes no further than itself as a mere rock, but the Way gives rise to it, sustains it, and moves on. Mind thinks, its qi quickens and penetrates all things, returns to itself, and obtains the knowledge of all ends for the purpose of raising itself above them not as a lord, but as a caretaker. Thus a child is born with a mind ready to learn, already patterned to seek patterns. The proper family will nurture this intellectual human way along with its intuitional way, the feeling of it which is love or commiseration. The Daoxue therefore strengthens the Confucian conception that humanity begins in the family and from there spreads to the whole world, for knowledge and love begin in the family whether it is nuclear, extended, communal, or otherwise. The way of humanity is the Way itself in stretching ever wider and penetrating ever deeper, taking pleasure in the realization of every way in its proper place, time, and measure. Just as there is a proper way of the family and its members, so too there is a proper way of public offices and relations. The nature of these relations, and thus the measure of their propriety, is in their developmental and consequential patterns, not in their empirical relation and formal rules.

The historical tragedy of Confucianism and its high development in the Daoxue is that it became so successful in the wrong ways that it created a backlash connected only to a superficial form of it that became entrenched in state power. It is not to say that the Daoxue themselves are not to blame for such a misunderstanding, for quite a few took positions of public power, advised emperors, and wrote voluminously on rules of propriety, but if one reads their works there is a clear tendency against formalism of the likes which came to be under its imperial uptake. Thus we see that some great members of the Daoxue like Wang Yangming themselves reacted against this formalism and attacked it as inimical to the spirit of the doctrines, a spirit which they read as being about the cultivation of individual virtue, the teaching of the way of the sage so that those who could rise to such a way would come and rise to the occasion of their need when it arose. Just as Confucius was an itinerant sage who was unrecognized in his time, so too were sages in most times before and after, and no shortage of them came into conflict with the states and rulers of their time. Filial piety and the respect of public officials is to be lived and arise from one’s nature and the nature of the relation itself, not to be decreed from a state law. To be sure, the Daoxue did not thereby state that one should not proceed as if there are no rules or propriety, and as if such rules are not themselves useful for one’s development, but ethical development is not something accomplished merely through formal rules. With Zhu Xi we see the notion that through knowledge, the intuitive disposition of piety would naturally arise in concert with genuine knowledge. With Wang Yangming we see the notion that through sincere practice the intuitive disposition could arise, and with it would arise the genuine knowledge that was not merely formal. There is ultimately a place for a formality to ethical cultivation, but likewise there is a limit to this formality in that its purpose is to germinate virtue in people themselves. The essential truth of the Daoxue, however, continues in Chinese philosophy today with the thinkers of New Confucianism who accept the limits of classical and Song-Ming Confucianism while upholding its still relevant value as a worldview that retains vitality.

When the ruler is a ruler, they enact the way of the ruler, and the enactment of that way is the realization of the relations of rulership over ministers, officials, and the people. In realizing the way, the state prospers, skill which merits reward is rewarded, and the people see the goodness of the social organism such that they respect the laws, the officials, the ministers, and the king. When the state realizes the way of the state, the people’s material and cultural welfare is realized, and so they are virtuous. As a farmer gets honey by creating a home for the bees and inviting them in, letting them follow their own nature, and letting them be, so too is the way of all things. The Daoxue of today cannot be that of yesterday, and this is why New Confucianism finds within the tradition of Chinese thought no great problem in dropping the antiquated rules and values which are not fit for today. The Way or Taiji is self-contextualizing, and each instance has its specific determinations. As the way of a form of life has changed, the way of the people has changed, and the way of humanity is increasingly revealed not as an abstract formal harmony, but a concrete one in which freedom increasingly shines as the Way itself.

Antonio Wolf is a former philosophy student, and continuing autodidact. Currently he’s focusing on Hegel. He authors a blog, the Empyrean Trail, which tries to expound Hegel’s philosophy to make it accessible without watering it down.


From here on I shall refer to Neo-Confucianism as the Daoxue, which means “learning of the Way.” I do this for the reason that it is a more fitting name for what the school of thought expresses as a culminating synthesis of Confucian ethics, Legalist politics, Taoist metaphysics, and Buddhist psychology as a systematic determination of the universal Way reaching down to the individual human being.


February 2023


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