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Taoism and Confucianism


René Guénon

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 6, No. 4. (Autumn, 1972) © World Wisdom, Inc.

Ancient peoples for the most part bothered little about arrang­ing their history according to a strict chronological order; some even only made use of symbolic numbers (at any rate for the most distant epochs) which we would be seriously mistaken in accepting as dates in the ordinary and literal sense of that word. In this matter, however, the Chinese are a remarkable exception; they are perhaps the only people which has constantly, since the very origin of their tradition, taken care to date their annals by means of precise astro­nomical observations, giving the description of the state of the heavens at the moment when the events recorded took place. We can then be more definite in what concerns China and her ancient history than in many other cases; we know in this way that the origin of what may be called the Chinese tradition goes back to about 3700 years before the Christian era. By a rather strange coincidence this same epoch is also the beginning of the Jewish era, but in the latter case it would be difficult to say what event really marks this starting-point.

However remote such an origin may appear when one compares it with that of the Greco-Roman civilisation and with the dates of so-called "classical" antiquity, it is, in fact, still fairly recent; what was the state of the yellow race, which then probably inhabited certain regions of central Asia, before that time? In the absence of sufficiently explicit data, it is impossible to say exactly; but it would seem that this race had been going through a period of obscurity, whose length we cannot estimate, and that it was roused from this sleep at a time which is also notable for important changes affecting other parts of mankind. Thus it is that what appears as a beginning was really the revival of a much earlier tradition which had to be put in another form so as to fit new conditions. However, that may have been, the history of China, or of what is today so named, only begins with Fu-Hsi, who is regarded as its first emperor; and it must be added at once that the name of Fu-Hsi—to which is attributed the whole body of sciences that make up the very essence of the Chinese tradition—is used in reality to designate a whole period extending over several centuries.

To fix the principles of the tradition, Fu-Hsi made use of linear symbols, both as simple and as synthetic as possible—the continuous line and the broken line, signs of yang and yin respectively, that is, of the two principles, active and passive, which proceed from a sort of polarisation of the supreme metaphysical Unity and give birth to the whole of universal manifestation. From the combinations of these two signs, in all their possible arrangements, are formed the eight kua or trigrams which have always remained the fundamental symbols of the Far Eastern tradition, It is said that "before tracing the trigrams, Fu-Hsi looked at the Heavens, then lowered his eyes to the Earth, noticed their particulars, and considered the character of the human body and of all external things."[1] This text is especially interesting in that it contains the formal expression of the Great Triad: Heaven and Earth, or the two complementary principles from which all beings spring, and man who, partaking by his nature of both, is the middle term of the triad, the mediator between Heaven and Earth. It is perhaps necessary to explain that the "true man" is here referred to, that is he who, having reached the full development of his higher faculties, "can help Heaven and Earth in the maintenance and transformation of all beings and, by means of this, form a third power with Heaven and Earth."[2] It is also said that Fu-Hsi saw a dragon come out of the river, uniting in itself the powers of Heaven and Earth, with the trigrams inscribed on its back, which is another way of expressing the same thing symbolically.

The whole tradition was thus at first enveloped essentially, em­bryonically as it were, in the trigrams, these symbols containing in themselves all sorts of possible meanings; it only remained to make all the necessary developments, God in the realm of pure metaphysical knowledge itself and in that of its different applications to this world and to humanity. To this end Fu-Hsi wrote three books, of which only the last I Ching or "Book of Changes", has survived to our day; and the text of this book is still so synthetic that it can be understood in many senses—all in perfect agreement one with another—according to whether one keeps strictly to the principles themselves or applies them to this or that definite order. Thus, besides the metaphysical sense, there are a multitude of contingent applications, not all of the same importance, which make up so many traditional sciences; in this way it can be applied to logic, mathematics, astronomy, physiology, social organisation and so on; it can even be applied to divination which, as a matter of fact, is looked upon as one of the lowest, and the use of which is left to wandering jugglers. Moreover, it is character­istic of all traditional doctrines that they contain in themselves from the very beginning the possibilities of all conceivable developments, including those of an untold variety of sciences which the modern West has not the slightest idea of, and also the possibilities of all the adaptations which might be required by later circumstances. There is thus no reason to be surprised that the teachings which were contained in the I Ching, and which according to Fu-Hsi himself were drawn from a past so remote that it is very difficult to date it; should have become in their turn the common basis of the two doctrines by means of which the Chinese tradition has continued down to our times and which at first sight, on account of the wholly different realms which they refer to, seem to have no point of contact, namely Taoism and Confucianism.

What were the circumstances which after about 3000 years made a readaptation of the traditional doctrine necessary, not as regards the basis which always remains strictly the same but the forms in which this doctrine is as it were embodied? This again is another point which it would no doubt be difficult to unravel fully, for such things in China, as well as elsewhere, leave hardly any traces in written history where external results are much more apparent than deep-rooted causes. In any case what seems certain is that the doctrine such as it had been formulated in the period of Fu-Hsi had ceased to be generally understood in its essentials; and doubtless also the applications of it which had been made in the past, notably from the social standpoint, no longer corresponded to the living conditions of the race, since these must have been greatly altered in the interval.

It was then the 6th century before the Christian era; and it is to be noticed that considerable changes took place among almost all peoples in that century; so it would seem that what happened at that time in China ought to be attributed to a cause which, hard to define though it maybe none the less affected the whole of mankind. What is strange is that this 6th century can be considered, in a very general way, as the beginning of the so-called "historical" period; when one wishes to go farther back, it is impossible to fix an even approximate chronology save in a few exceptional cases as, for instance, that of China; starting from this epoch, on the other hand, the dates of events are fairly exactly known everywhere; this is assuredly a fact worth considering. Moreover the changes which then took place presented different characteristics according to the different countries; India, for instance, saw the birth of Buddhism, that is the beginning of a new tradition, though it must be borne in mind that the mission of the Buddha was clearly not intended to replace Hinduism; in China, on the contrary, it was strictly in the line of the old tradition that the two new doctrinal forms which are named Taoism and Confucianism were constituted.

The founders of these two doctrines, Lao-tzu and Kung-tzu (whom the West has called Confucius) were, as a matter of fact, contemporaries, and history informs us that they met one day. "Hast thou discovered Tao" asked Laotzu. "I have sought it 27 years" replied Kungtzu "and I have not yet found it". Whereupon Laotzu gave his visitor these few precepts. "The sage loves obscurity; he does not throw himself at every comer; he studies times and circumstances. If the moment is propitious, he speaks; otherwise, he keeps silent. Whoever possesses a treasure does not display it before the whole world; in the same way, one who is truly a sage does not unveil his wisdom to the whole world. That is all I have to say to thee; make what profit thou canst out of it!" On returning from this interview Kungtzu said, "I have seen Laotzu; he is like the dragon. As for the dragon, I know not how it can be borne by winds and clouds and raise itself to Heaven".

This anecdote, related by the historian Sse-Ma Ch'ien, perfectly states the respective positions of the two doctrines or rather of the two branches of doctrine into which the far-eastern tradition was to be divided from that time onwards, the one containing, essentially, pure metaphysics to which are added all the traditional sciences whose scope is strictly speaking speculative or rather "cognitive", the other being confined to the practical domain and keeping exclusively to the realm of social applications. Kungtzu himself admitted that he was "not born to Knowledge", that is, that he had not attained to meta-physical and supra-rational knowledge which alone can be called transcendent; he knew the traditional symbols, but he had not fath­omed their deepest meaning. That is why his work was necessarily limited to a particular contingent domain, the only one within his reach, but at least he was careful not to deny what lay beyond his under-standing. In this his later disciples did not always imitate him and some of them, by a defect which is not uncommon among all kinds of "specialists", proved themselves narrowly exclusive; and this brought on their heads retorts of a biting irony from the great Taoist com­mentators of the 4th century B.C., Liehtzu and more especially Ch'uangtzu. It must not be inferred however from such disputes that Taoism and Confucianism are rival schools, which never was the case and never can be, since each has its own realm, entirely distinct from the other’s. Their existence side by side is thus perfectly normal and regular and, in some respects, their difference corresponds fairly exactly to what in other civilisations would be the difference between spiritual authority and temporal power.

We have, moreover, already said that the two doctrines have a common root, namely the earlier tradition; Kungtzu never intended to expound conceptions of his own invention any more than Laotzu did, since, for this very reason, they would have been stripped of all authority and all real import. "I am", said Kungtzu, "a man who has loved the ancients and who has bent all his efforts towards acquiring their sciences;"[3] and this attitude, which is the very opposite of the individualism of modern Westerners and their pretentions to be original at all costs, is the only one compatible with the constitution of a traditional civilisation. The word "readaptation" which we have used before is certainly the one which fits here; and the social institutions which resulted from it were endowed with a remarkable stability, since they have lasted 25 Centuries and survived all the troubles that China has gone through until recently. I have no wish to speak further about these institutions which are fairly well-known in outline; I shall only mention that their essential characteristic is to take the family as a foundation and to consider in much the same way the race itself which is the whole body of families belonging to one and the same stem of origin; in fact one of the special characteristics of the Chinese civilization is that it is based on the idea of race and the solidarity which unites its members one with another, whereas other civilizations, which consist usually of men belonging to various races or to not clearly defined ones, rest on quite different principles of unity.

Usually in the West, when one talks of China and its doctrines, one thinks almost exclusively of Confucianism. Moreover this does not mean that it is always correctly interpreted, since some people claim to make a kind of eastern "positivism" out of it, when in reality it is something quite different, firstly by reason of its tradi­tional character and also because, as we have said, it is an application of higher principles, whereas "positivism" implies, on the contrary, a negation of such principles. As for Taoism, it is usually passed by in silence; and many seem even to ignore its existence or at any rate to believe that it has disappeared long ago and that its only interest is historical or archaeological; we shall see the reason for this mistake in what follows.

Laotzu only wrote one treatise, and an extremely concise one at that, the Tao-Te-Ching or "Book of the Way and of Righteousness;" all the other Taoist texts are either commentaries of this fundamental book or more or less late editions of certain complementary teachings which had at first been purely oral. Tao which is translated literally by way and which gave its name to the doctrine itself, is the Supreme Principle, viewed from a strictly metaphysical standpoint; it is at once the origin and the end of all beings, as the ideographic character which represents it clearly indicates. Te we prefer to translate by Righteousness rather than Virtue as it is sometimes rendered in order not to seem to give it a "moral" meaning which is in no sense to be found in the outlook of Taoism. This Virtue is what one might call a "specification" of Tao with respect to a definite being, such as for instance the human being; it is the direction which that being must follow in order that his existence, in the state in which he at present finds himself, may be according to the Way, or, in other words, in conformity with the Principle. Thus Laotzu starts in the universal order and then descends to an application; but this application, though made particularly to the case of man, is never made from a social or moral standpoint; what it has in view is never anything other than the connection between the individual and the Supreme Principle, and thus we never leave the realm of metaphysic.

Moreover, it is not outer action that Taoism deems important; this in itself it looks upon as immaterial indeed and it expressly teaches the doctrine of "non-action" whose real meaning Westerners as a whole have some difficulty in grasping. It is true that they might have been helped in this by the Aristotelian theory of the "motor immobilis", which is fundamentally the same in meaning, but they never seem to have considered all that is implied in it. "Non-action" is not inertia; on the contrary, it is the fullness of activity; but it is transcendent and purely inward activity, unmanifested, in union with the Principle and therefore above all the distinctions and appearances which are commonly mistaken for reality itself, although they are only more or less distant reflections of it. One should also note that Confucianism itself, though its standpoint is that of action, nevertheless talks of the "unchanging middle", that is, of the state of perfect equilibrium, withdrawn from the incessant changes of the outward world. But in the case of Confucianism it can only be the expression of a purely theoretic ideal, and in its contingent realm it can grasp no more than a mere reflection of true "non-action", whereas Taoism is concerned with something quite different, namely with a fully, effective realization of this transcendent state. Placed in the centre of the Cosmic Wheel, the perfect sage moves it invisibly by his presence alone without taking part in its motion and untroubled by the need for any action whatsoever; his absolute detachment makes him master of all things, because he can no longer be affected by any. "He hath attained such perfect impassibility; for him life and death are alike indifferent, and the upheaval of the world would move him not at all. By penetration he hath reached the Immutable Truth, the Knowledge of the One Universal Principle. He letteth all the beings roll on according to their destinies, while himself he keepeth to the Immobile Centre of all destinies ... The outward sign of this inner state is imperturbability, not that of the warrior who for love of glory swoopeth down upon an army ranged in battle, but that of the spirit, superior to Heaven, to Earth and, to all beings, who dwelleth in a body for which he careth not, taking no account of the images perceived by his senses and knowing all, in his immobile unity, by a knowledge all-embracing. This absolutely independent spirit is the master of men; if it pleased him to summon them all together, all would run to his bidding on the day appointed; but he careth not to be served."[4] "If a true sage, much despite himself, had had to take charge of an empire, still keeping himself to non-action, he would make use of the leisures of his non-intervention by giving free rein to his natural bents. The empire would prosper for having been put in the hands of this man. Without bringing his faculties into play, without using his bodily senses, seated motionless, he would behold all with his transcendent eye; absorbed in contemplation, he would shake all like thunder; the sky would conform obediently to the motions of his spirit; all beings would follow the impulse of his non-intervention, as dust follows the wind. Why should this man seek to guide the empire, when letting it go on is enough?"[5]

We have insisted especially on this doctrine of "non-action", for besides the fact that it is one of the most important and most characteristic aspects of Taoism, there are more particular reasons which will be better understood from what follows. One question, however, arises is how can one attain to the state of the perfect sage thus described? Here as in all analogous doctrines which are to be found in other civilisations, the answer is very plain; one attains to it by knowledge exclusively, but this knowledge, the very one Kungtzu admitted not having obtained, is of an order quite different from that of ordinary or "profane" knowledge and has no connection whatso­ever with the outer learning of the "litterati" and even less so with science as it is understood by modern Westerners. These different kinds of knowledge are not incompatible, though ordinary science, by reason of the limitations which it imposes and of the mental habits which it leads to, may often be a hindrance to the acquiring of true knowledge; but whoever possesses the latter will, of course, count as negligible the relative and contingent speculations in which the majority of mankind delight, the detailed analyses and researches in which they involve themselves and the many divergent opinions which are the inevitable consequence. "Philosophers lose themselves in their speculations, sophists in their distinctions; investigators in their researches. All these men are caught within the limits of space and blinded by particular beings."[6] The sage, on the other hand, has passed beyond all the distinctions inherent in the more outward point of view; in the central point where he keeps himself all opposition has disappeared, having been resolved into perfect equilibrium. "In the primordial state, oppositions existed not. They all came from the diversity of beings and from their contacts caused by the universal gyration. They would cease, if difference and motion ceased. They cease at once to affect the being that hath reduced his distinct in­dividuality and his particular motion to almost nothing. This being entereth no longer into conflict with any being else, for he is established in the infinite, withdrawn in the indefinite. He hath reached the point from which start all transformations, wherein are no conflicts, and there he abideth. By concentrating his nature, by nourishing his vital spirit, by bringing together all his powers, he is united to the Principle of all births. In as much as his nature is whole, and his vital spirit intact, no being can harm him". [7]

It is for this reason, and not from any kind of scepticism which is obviously excluded by the degree of knowledge he has attained, that the sage keeps himself wholly outside all discussions which agitate the common man; for him, in fact, all contrary opinions are alike worthless, because, by very reason of their opposition, they are all equally relative. "His own standpoint is a point where this and that, yes and no, seem still to be undistinguished. This point is the hinge of the universal law; it is the immobile centre of a circumference on whose contours all contingencies, distinctions and individualities roll; whence one sees only one infinity which is neither this nor that, neither yes nor no. To see everything in as yet undifferentiated primordial unity, or from such a distance that all dissolves into one, is true intelligence. Let us not busy ourselves with distinguishing, but let us see everything in the unity of the law. Let us not argue in order to get the better, but let us use, towards others, the method of the monkey-trainer. This man said to the monkeys he was training: "I will give you three taros in the morning and four in the evening." But not one of the monkeys was satisfied. "So be it," said he, "I will give you four in the morning and three in the evening." All the monkeys were satisfied. Thus not only did he satisfy them, but also he gave them only the seven taros a day which he had intended for them in the first place. Thus doth the sage; he saith Yes and No, for the sake of peace, and remaineth quiet at the centre of the Universal Wheel, indifferent as to the direction of its turning. [8]

We need scarcely say that the state of the perfect sage with all that it implies (on which we cannot dwell here) is not attainable all at once and that even degrees lower than it which are, as it were, so many preliminary stages, are only accessible at the cost of efforts which few men are capable of. Moreover the methods used to this end by Taoism are particularly difficult to follow and the help which they give is much more restricted than what is found in the traditional teachings of other civilisations, such as, for example, that of India; at any rate, they are almost impracticable for men belonging to races other than the one that they are specially adapted for. Even in China itself Taoism has never been very wide-spread, nor has it ever sought to be, having always abstained from propaganda; its very nature imposes this reserve on it; it is a very closed and essentially initiatory doctrine, which, as such, is only destined for an elect and which cannot concern everybody without discrimination, for not all are fit for understanding it and still less for "realizing" it. It is said that Laotzu committed his teaching to two disciples only, who themselves made ten others; after having written the Tao-Te-Ching, he disappeared towards the West; doubtless he took refuge in some almost inaccessible retreat in Tibet or the Himalayas and, says the historian Sse Ma Ch'ien, "No one knows how or where he finished his days."

The doctrine which is common to all and which all must study and put into practice according to their capacity is Confucianism, which includes all that has to do with social relations, and is therefore quite sufficient for the needs of everyday life. However, as Taoism stands for the principial knowledge from which all the rest is derived, Con­fucianism is only an application of it to a contingent order, being thus by its very nature, subordinate to it; but this is something which the masses have not to bother themselves about and which they may not even suspect, since only the practical application comes within their intellectual scope, and in these masses we must here include the vast majority of Confucianist "litterati" as well. This actual separation between Taoism and Confucianism, that is, between the inner and the outer doctrines, is one of the great differences—those of form not being here taken into account—which exist between the Chinese and Indian civilisations; in the latter case, there is only one body of doctrine, namely Brahmanism, including at the same time the principle and all its applications; and from the lowest to the highest degrees there is as it were nowhere a break in the continuity. This difference can be accounted for in large part by the mental conditions of the two peoples; however, it is probable that the continuity, which has been maintained in India and doubtless in India only, did exist in former times in China, from the epoch of Fu-Hsi till that of Laotzu and Kungtzu.

One sees now why Taoism is so little known to Westerners; it is not on the surface like Confucianism, whose influence is noticeable in all the circumstances of social life; it is the exclusive heritage of an elect, perhaps fewer in number today than it has ever been which does not in any way seek to communicate to outsiders the doctrine whose guardian it is; lastly, its very standpoint, its mode of expression and its methods of teaching are as remote as possible from the outlook of the modern West. Some, while knowing of the existence of Taoism and admitting that it is still alive, imagine that because of its closed character its influence on the Chinese civilisation is almost negligible, if not non-existent; this again is a grave mistake, and it remains for us now to explain, as far as possible, what is the truth of the matter.

If we look back to the few texts which we have quoted in reference to "non-action", we shall understand without too much difficulty, at least in principle, if not in all the modalities of its application, what the role of Taoism is; it is one of an invisible direction, dominating events instead of taking direct part in them and in this way it is all the more effective in dealing with outward movements for not having visibly shared in them. Taoism fulfills, as we have said, the function of the "motor immobilis"; it does not seek to meddle with action; in fact it is utterly unconcerned with it, in so far as it only sees in it a merely momentary and transitory modification, an infinitesimal element of the "current of forms", a point on the circumference of the cosmic wheel; it may rather be considered as the nave around which that wheel turns, the law by which its motion is regulated, without ever having purposely to interfere in it in any way. All that is involved in the revolutions of the wheel changes and passes; alone remains what, being united to the Principle, keeps invariably to the centre, immovable like the Principle itself; and the centre which nothing can effect in its undifferentiated unity, is the starting point of the indefinite multitude of modifications which go to make up universal manifestation.

Since the perfect sage is the only being who has actually reached the centre, what we have just been saying, in all that it implies about this state and function only concerns the supreme grade of the Taoist hierarchy; the other degrees are as it were intermediary between the centre and the outside world; and as the spokes of a wheel start from the nave, and join it to the circumference, so, without any discontinuity, they assure the transmission of the influence emanating from the unchanging point where the "actionless activity" resides. The word influence, not action, is the correct one here; one might also speak of an "action of presence"; and even the lower degrees, though very distant from the fullness of "non-action", nevertheless, partake of it in a certain way. Besides, the means by which this influence is communicated necessarily escapes those who only see the outside of things; they would be as unintelligible to the Western mind, and for the same reasons, as are the methods by which admittance is gained to the various degrees of the hierarchy. It would thus be quite useless to insist on what are called "temples without doors" and "colleges where no one teaches", or on the constitution of organisa­tions which have none of the characteristics of a "society" in the European sense of the word and which have no definite outward form and sometimes not even a name, yet which nevertheless make bonds between their members, at once the most effective and the most indis­soluble that can exist; all this would mean nothing to the imagination of a Westerner, since nothing that he is familiar with can give him any real term for comparison.

It is true that as it were on the fringe of Taoism there do exist organ­izations which seem less incomprehensible since they are engaged in the domain of action, though they are far more secret than all the Western associations which lay any claim, whether justified or not, to possessing such a character. These organisations have generally only a temporary existence; they are formed with a special end in view and they usually disappear without leaving any traces as soon as their mission has been accomplished. They are, in fact, only emanations of other higher and more permanent organizations from which they obtain their true guidance, even when their apparent leaders are entirely outside the Taoist hierarchy. Some of these which have played a considerable role in the fairly distant past have left memories in the mind of the people and these are expressed in legendary form; thus we have heard it narrated that formerly the masters of such and such a secret organisation would take a handful of pins and throw them on the ground and that as many armed soldiers sprang up as there were pins. It is exactly the same story as Cadmus and the serpent's teeth; and these stories which the common people are only wrong in taking literally, have a very real symbolic value under their engenuous outside.

It can even happen that in many cases the associations in question, or at least the most outward of them, are in opposition or even fighting one against another; on this account superficial observers will be sure to object to what we have said and to conclude that in such conditions unity of guidance cannot exist. These persons will have forgotten only one thing and that is that the guidance in question is above the opposition which they point to and not in the realm where this opposition takes place and where alone it can have any weight. If we had to reply to such objections, we would merely quote the Taoist teaching of the equivalence of "yes" and "no" in the primordial indistinction; and as for putting this teaching into practice, we would refer them to the fable of the monkey-trainer.

We think we have said enough to show that the real influence of Taoism can be extremely important, while always remaining hidden and invisible. It is not only in China that things of this sort exist, but they seem to be more constantly made use of there than anywhere else. Thus it is that those who have any knowledge of the part played by this traditional organization are necessarily suspicious of appearances and extremely reserved in sizing up events such as those which are actually taking place in the Far East and which one too often judges as one might judge similar events in the Western world, thus putting them under a completely false light: The Chinese civilization has weathered many other crises in the past and it has always finally found its balance again; in fact there is nothing to indicate that the present crisis is any more serious than preceding ones and, even admitting this, that would still be no reason for supposing that it must necessarily penetrate to that which is deepest and most essential in the tradition of the race and which a very small number of men would be enough to preserve intact in a period of trouble, because things of this kind do not rely on the brute force of the many. Con­fucianism, which only represents the outside of the tradition, might well disappear if social conditions so changed as to require the con­stitution of an entirely new form, but Taoism is beyond such contin­gencies. Let us not forget that the sage, according to the Taoist teachings which we have recorded, "remaineth at rest in the centre of the Cosmic Wheel" whatever may be the circumstances and that "even the upheaval of the universe would cause him no emotion".


[1] The Book of the Rites of the Kingdom of Chou.

[2] Ch'ung Yung, ch. xxii.

[3] Liun-Yu, ch. vii.

[4] Ch' uang Tzu, ch. v.

[5] Ibid, ch. xi.

[6] Ch` uang Tzu, ch. xxiv.

[7] Ibid, ch. xix.

[8] Ibid., ch. ii.