July 19, 2009

How About an Actual Yangist Musing?

You wouldn't guess it from the title, but for however long I've bothered to bother the public with my philosophy, I really have yet to give any full, decisive view on my take on Yangist philosophy, and with good reason.

In the first, I take Yangism to be the most definitively correct string of proposals on human ethics in the history of the study, both Occidental and Oriental. Having explored my contemporaries in ethics, though, it appears that outside of a few stray supportive, truly considerate and deliberative egoists (i.e. non-Randians), most either have no background in Chinese philosophy (much less Yangism) or have their interests lying elsewhere (most of them being fascinated by explorations in Moism, Daoism, Confucianism, and Neo-Confucianism). For my generation of Yangism, it seems, I'm alone. I'm a Yangist apologist against virtually a whole planet of ignorance, apathy, or dissent, the third being largely built on the former two. That pressures my interpretations and commentary to be more pristine than I would normally demand of myself.

In the second, Yangism is a sort of odd cult out in the majority of ancient and contemporary Chinese philosophy. Reaching its height of popularity in the lifetime of Yangzi (楊子) (others calling him just Yang Zhu [楊朱]) and a century or so thereafter, it was violently obliterated by the end of the Qin Dynasty. This followed with some "creative" handling of the Yangist material, leading to some original Yangist inclusions in Daoist texts being meshed with Moist (a rival school's) appendages and what seem to be efforts to make the Yangist view contiguous with the authors' works in which the fragments of Yangist doctrine were smuggled rather than imported. This knowledge is problematic in that it makes some of the plainer inconsistencies to Yangzi's school of thought just as easily dismissed as unfairly dismissed. If Yangism is made incoherent by perversions from opposing schools, they deserve to be exposed and discarded, but if Yangism's own words lead are tainted in their own right, then those deserve either revision or clarification. In that sense, I'm not just an apologist, but also a coherentist guide who takes it upon himself to see what he must sacrifice (which, luckily, isn't much by proportion) to remain on rational footing.

In the third, Yangism has the argumentatively least fair philosophical rivals, and much of the commentary on Yangzi is more of a crass dismissal than actual address to the depth of his work. These rival schools outlasted Yangzi's assertions for millennia. While Confucians, for instance, have had plenty of time to hone their positions and make centuries' worth of clarification, revision, and adaptation, Yangism is pretty much stuck in antiquity. An apologist like myself has to make up for lost time. It will take modern devices to make him modernly relevant, but his voice can't thrive if lost to modern language (English or Chinese) or if hastily wedged into the various contemporary philosophical projects to which his words are relevant.

I have a long-term, manuscript-level project to submit a collection of translational and philosophical commentaries on the areas where Yang's work is still alive, namely the dedicated chapter of the Liezi (列子), "Yangist chapters" (26-31) of the Zhuangzi (莊子), and initial segments from the Lushi Chunqiu (呂氏春秋), to make open defense of Yangzi's ethics and approach to the study of "human nature." However, that requires generation of public awareness and interest, which, for Yangism, is in plain old short supply.

Perhaps, then, I should start with a defense of yet another unjustified vilification of egoism more generally, and Yangism particularly. This gem came from my rather unfruitful interactions with one Jeff Klooger (we have entirely opposed views on the meaningfulness of Heidegger). Klooger, a social theorist and philosopher turned poet, huffed more of the sort of ignorant dissent I had previously mentioned about Yangism, I suppose to tell me that he not only disagrees, but doesn't like me personally. He writes:
"You yourself admitted that your attitude to ethics was influenced most by Yang Zhu and Stirner, which is like saying that you learned how to treat women from Jack the Ripper."
I really wanted to hear more about his discontentment with their views via these armchair attacks. I'm a bit sharp-tongued, myself, so this response followed:
"...I would wager that you have not the slightest background in Chinese philosophy. What exactly could you assert of Yangist or Stirner-ian ethics that makes it like Jack the Ripper's serial stalking and killing of women? Really, go ahead."
Give an opponent the benefit of a disjunction. Maybe he really dislikes Stirner, alone, and would leave Yangzi's work where it lay. This, apparently, was not to be the case.
"There are no Yangist or Stirnerian ethics. You have to feel some responsibility towards others in order to have an ethics at all."
While to my account that is ignorant dissent against the proposals of both Stirner and Yangzi, I should focus on the Yangist error most.

Interestingly, Klooger's premature ejaculation is very much like the unfair caricature of Yangism present in the Mengzi (孟子), perhaps the most famous prejudicial smear against Yangzi's thought in strings of such smears from Yang's contemporaries:
"Yangzi opts for [the doctrine of] acting for the self, so if his pulling out one hair were to to benefit everything under the heavens, he would not act."
-- Mengzi, 13:26 (trans. Joshua Harwood)
My kneejerk reaction is to completely disregard this kind of prejudicial foolishness by quoting right from the very start of the Liezi's (列子) Yangist material.
曰:“為死 ”。
“凡為名者必廉廉斯 ;為名者必讓,讓斯賤。”
曰:“管仲之相齊也,君淫亦淫,君奢亦奢,志合言從,道行國霸,死之後,管氏而已。田氏之相齊也,君盈則己降,君斂則己施,民 皆歸之,因有齊國;子孫享之,至今不絕。”
曰:“實無名,名無實;名者,偽而已矣。昔堯舜偽以天下讓許由、善卷,而不失天下,郭祚 百年。伯夷、叔齊實以孤竹君讓,終亡其國,餓死于首陽之山。實偽之辯,如此其省也。”」

"Yang Zhu travelled in Lu, lodging with the Zhen. Meng [Sunyang] asked him: 'We are men, alone. For what use does name serve?'
Yang said: 'Using our names serves to our wealth.'
Meng said: 'Once wealthy, why would we not cease?'
Yang said: 'To serve to our honor.'
Meng said: 'Once honored, why would we not cease?'
Yang said: 'To serve to our deaths.'
Meng said: 'Once dead, to what is there to serve?'
Yang said: 'To serve to our posterity.'
Meng said: 'What benefit will our names be to our posterity?'
Yang said: 'A name embitters our bodies and scorches our hearts. Won't we, taking advantage of our names, bring fertility to our generations [to come], benefit our village's court, and more yet our posterity?'
Meng said: 'All service to a name requires humility; serving to his namesake, we must concede, concede to meagerness.'
Yang said: 'When Guan Zhong was the chief minister of Qi, when the lord was lewd, he was lewd; when the lord was extravagant, he was extravagant. His will and speech so submitted [to the ruler], his Way moved him to his country's hegemony. After he [the lord] died, the Guan line was nothing more [than the Guan line]. When Tian [Heng] was the chief minister of Qi, when the lord was being too much, he lowered himself; when the lord went collecting [taxes], he gave [money] away. The people all flocked to him, and thence he acquired Qi; his posterity relish in it [the power of Qi], which to this day remains unbroken.'
Meng said: '[So] being true to our names, we will be poor; being in pretense to our names, we will be rich.'
Yang said: 'Truth lacks a name, and a name lacks truth; namesakes are a pretense. Formerly, Yao and Shun faked their concession of everything under the heavens to Xu Yu and Shan Juan, yet never [really] conceded it, and retained the throne for one hundred years. Po Yi and Shu Qi truly conceded to Prince Gu Zhu, and in the end perished in their own country, starving on Shouyang Mountain. Only here is the distinction between truth and pretense made so concisely.'"
-- Liezi, 7:1 (trans. Joshua Harwood)
Herein lies a direct and immediate refutation of Klooger's biased and baseless assertion that the Yangist does not "feel some responsibility towards others." Even worse, it challenges precisely the sort of preconception that somehow "the feeling of responsibility towards others" is needed in order to have a very workable, effective ethics, maintain a peaceful society, and so forth.

To the first bit of Klooger's opposition to Yangism, it's clear that Yangzi's lines address the needs of two groups: those within one's own immediate line and those outside of it. Yangzi, unlike the more "idealistic" political strategists and moral philosophers of his time, is quite clearly disinterested in the state as providing anything more than a means to a meal ticket for him and those he would presume some level of emotional attachment -- family members and his clan. For Yangzi, fame (a "name") is just a coinage made in pretense to secure wealth, and the grandiose distraction of virtuosity behind one's actions is merely (co-?)incidental to those who most effectively pursue their own ends for long-term gain. Yangzi isn't cynical about human relationships as they carry import to the individual. Yangzi is rather utterly cynical toward the ruler's claim that his actions are done in service of the wants of the citizen, that somehow a strategist's "correctional intervention" on the rulers would be more than a contrivance, and that there is even the hint of the sort of "humanity" (仁) that was not simply a means to some self-serving end, among other things. It's a clashed American/Chinese idiom: "Work the system, and then retire!"

The seed of the prior paragraph undoes Klooger's second incomprehension that there somehow has to be a "feeling of responsibility towards others" in order for an ethics to be correct. Yangzi demonstrates through his parable contrasting Guan Zhong and Tian Heng that "responsibility towards others" need only be a strategy of winning the hedonistic reciprocation of others, the easiest strategy being to appeal to and entice the innate egoistic and hedonistic tendencies of the people toward oneself. It's not simply that Tian Heng did the opposite of his ruler, but that he made himself look ashamed of his lord's excesses and abuses (i.e. he looked to hate what the citizens were likely to hate), and that he gave his citizens money! That's enough to get one Qi lay generation to love Tian over his lord (thus securing his throne) and more than enough to get future generations in Qi to pay in (blind) gratitude for and in sustained prospects of continued "benevolence" through Tian's family line. There is no such "feeling of responsibility" in this model, only the strategy for personal welfare and satisfaction. In fact, Yang's passage points out that it's not the "feelings of responsibility," but the real actions in a populace's interest that wins support and grants power: "The people all flocked to him, and thence he acquired Qi." The regard for other people, the "responsibility toward" them, so claim Yangists, is an illusion. It's a profitable illusion, but an illusion all the same.

I'm sure this all leaves a rotten taste in Klooger's mouth. Yangism isn't designed to comfort the want of some "other-regarding" explanation for social behaviors that secure happiness for a majority. What it ignores is the very elementary needs for ethics to be a meaningful study at all (My impression is that Klooger doesn't mind inconsistencies, I gather, as long as they "speak" to him in some peculiar way). Normative ethics is understood as a study of "model behavior," or "ideal action," or "the best life," which is really only one level of explanation conjuncted with yet other mysteries that, without clarification, leave the term normative ethics too loosely defined to be an approachable study of anything. Interesting to note that a thorough list of the things we idealize for our own lives match in virtual parallel with the things that would bring us senses of security, pleasure, ease, or entertainment. The self-contained parasympathetic network and reward cycle guides our social interaction. The more enduring question of how to perpetuate our contentment for our own lifetimes and have the rest spill over to the next on our deaths is not one of "morality," but intelligence. Given the misinformed or uninformed remark of one Jeff Klooger, I could imagine his frustration.