Change & Flow

The Daoist idea of wu wei is such that when people try to control situations in ways that disrupt the harmony of the world, unnecessary problems arise. They think that if we understand the nature of things and not try to apply restraints to them then we will lessen our worries and flow easier in the natural world.

Change, for the Daoists, is in accord with nature. When we act contrary to nature with intentions of controlling it, we disrupt the accordance of nature. This is no means of problem-solving from the Daoist perspective. In The Zhuangzi it is stated, “Death, life, survival, loss, failure, success, poverty, wealth, worth, depravity, slander, praise, hunger, thirst, winter, summer – their change is the process of destiny” (233). Change is something that is necessary and to try to control it is to try to control the process of destiny; it is utterly uncontrollable and can be attempted to be controlled but strenuous results will follow. Zhuangzi also related change to that of the natural process of changing seasons. “Day and night, without a break, make a springtime with things. As you greet each new circumstance, generate the season in your mind” (234). This is saying that the nature will continue to keep moving through its process of transformation. Likewise, we should continue moving with it and when we approach new circumstances we should not try to control them, but rather stay aware of the natural process of change and flow with this change and not against it. Just as winter ends and springtime begins, nature does not try to prolong winter in hopes of avoiding spring; it flows right into spring gloriously.

Daoists are also concerned with the limited amount of knowledge we can know. I believe this relates to our understanding that we should not try to control that which is utterly uncontrollable. “One who dreams of drinking wine may weep in the morning. One who dreams of weeping may go for a a hunt the next day. In the dream, you don’t know it’s a dream. In the middle of a dream, you may interpret a dream within it. Only after waking do you know it was a dream. Still, there may be an even greater awakening after which you know that this, too, was just a greater dream” (Zhunagzi, p. 233). I believe this closely relates to Socrates saying that the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. Like Daoism, this is saying that there is only a limited amount of knowledge attainable by us. The limitations of human categories is such that we should allow the spontaneity of wu wei to become a part of our actions. When we become more self-conscious about something, according to Daoists, we do worse. In that case, meddling too far into knowledge of things when knowledge is something that is limited would go against wu wei in that it would complicate matters and leave no room for the spontaneity of change, because it causes our minds to be ‘one-tracked’ and worrisome about things that are in a state of constant flux. Daoists think that we should accept the impermanence of things and their ability to change at any time, and not get too caught up in the change-itself, nor in the situations at hand.

Zhuangzi and the Daoists continuously speak of getting back to the natural way. They think that hen we act in a wu wei manner, we are acting naturally in the world. One concern that this belief arises for the Daoists is the problem of socialization, which they say moves us away from our natural state. Essentially we are natural and good, like unhewn wood, we are uncarved. “The Way is forever nameless…When unhewn wood is carved up, then there are names. Now that there are names, know enough to stop!” (The Daodejing, p. 178). When we try to control our natural selves, our control becomes the knife that whittles the natural wood of our lives. As a result, when we, as a society, work towards controlling the flow and flexibility of natural changes, the wood shavings of worry from whittling away at what is natural and good blocks the flow of wu wei in the rivers of our lives. Instead, we should find our way back to our natural unhewn state and flow with the river. Only then, in the Daoist view, will we free ourselves from control and live musically in harmony with one another.

The Daoists’ beliefs have shown to be true for me in life. When I moved to Oregon after spending the first eighteen-years of my life in Texas, I adopted a method of readjusting that was similar to the Daoists’ easy-going approach to change. Although I moved to Oregon because I am generally spontaneous and open to change, I was in for a big surprise and, in turn, a lesson to be learned: even invited change can give birth to many unexpected change ‘babies’ born through causal relations. Basically, I went to Oregon with the naïve thought that the act of moving to a new state was the only real change I would have to endure and everything else would fall into place somehow. My high expectations resulted in despair when I learned of all the changes I would be going through: being away from my family, friends, boyfriend, home and birthplace, all of the familiarity that once was my life as I knew it, making new friends, starting college, well,  the constant rain of the Pacific Northwest versus the sun of Texas. At first, upon realizing everything in front of me, I had a hard time digesting it all. I then opted to try to control my portion intake, so to speak. After growing weary from trying to manage certain things, I would then opt to work on controlling other things, which resulted in me growing tired and discontent with my life through trying to control what I fundamentally could not. Then, in a way, I stopped and let wu wei flow through me; I became compliant and flexible with things. This adoption of having no worries and releasing my firm grip on life resulted in a much more easy-going mood and situations, thus, became simpler. Even though Oregon’s considerably different weather insisted on testing my inner wu wei, I am aware that accepting what nature decides to send my way is essentially up to me.

The Daoists believe that in accepting the changes of things with utter calmness and imperturbability, we detach our minds from an enslaved state of dependent and worrisome feelings that tend always to make matters worse the more our minds restrictively obsess over them. I feel that in recognizing and allowing our minds to become aware of the necessity of perennial transformation that takes place in our lives, we will better learn to more easily flow with this continuous pattern of events harmoniously.

The Examined Life as ‘Good’

The nature of the “good” for both Socrates and Epictetus lies in the examination of one’s own life. Although the good may be something that is unobtainable, they both propose that the process towards a life of virtue, a good life, constitutes a worthy life.

Socrates seeks to know the criteria of the “good” that Euthyphro is basing his accusations off of. For Euthyphro, the good is piety (that which pleases the gods) and the bad is impiety (that which displeases the gods). However, Socrates finds ambiguity in Euthyphro’s account of the good and the bad, and asks Euthyphro to clarify what the pious is and what the
impious is. Socrates reveals Euthyphro’s explanation of the good and the bad as being frivolous and unsound since the gods are always in conflict with each other and a universal “good” cannot, thus, be claimed. “…the gods are in a state of discord that they are at odds with each other, Euthyphro, and that they are at enmity with each other” (Euthyphro, 8). What I gathered from this is that piety cannot possibly be, according to Socrates, a reasonable account of the good, not only because there cannot be (as Euthyphro showed through his unsound arguments) any universal “good” amongst gods who are in a state of constant conflict with each other, but also because to leave the matter of the “good” up to terms of piety would be to take one’s own opinions on morality out of the question and to blindly go along with someone (or something) else’s opinions or claims. For Socrates, I believe, this would not be the way to go about an account of the good. Socrates thinks that we should, instead of submitting our thoughts over to be decided by some gods (or people in general), examine our own lives for virtue. Although he does not know what “good” is, he believes that the process of examining our lives and seeking out the good (or virtue) is what really matters. Similarly, he thinks that some things we cannot find the answers to and that it is in the pursuit of that which is unattainable which makes life worth living for him.

Likewise, in Plato’s Apology, Socrates elaborates more on his beliefs that the examination of one’s life, not necessarily the finding of answers, makes it worthwhile. He shows this by speaking with the people of Athens who were regarded by the Athenians as wise and knowledgeable. They all claimed to have known more about matters than they actually did. Socrates states after talking to one of the ‘wise’ men of Athens, “I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do now know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know” (Apology, 26). This same statement is found in Socrate’s discussion with Euthyphro on the nature of the good. Euthyphro claims to know what he does not, without finding useful the essence of the process of questioning the ‘good’.

“Some things are up to us, other are not” (Discourses, Epictetus, 287). For Epictetus, what is “up to us,” or what we can control, is worthy for a Stoic life. The things like our “opinions, impulses, desires, aversion” (Discourses, 287) constitute our Self and give us divine, God-like attributes. These things can be found internally, namely in our minds. Like Socrates’ claim, Epictetus believes that our ability to form opinions, experience emotions and ultimately examine our lives make life worthwhile. Contrary to this, the life of an animal is the life that is not worthy, according to Epictetus. This also includes some of the things he states as being “not up to us,” or the things we cannot control. External things such as one’s “body, property, reputation, office” (Discourses, 287) are more ‘mortal’ and subject to corruption. As opposed to the things that are “up to us.” these things are only apparently real, impermanent even. Epictetus feels like we should control those things that are “not up to us” and then, by doing so, we will not be subject to hindrance. By attaining a serene state of mind and allowing ourselves to remain unaffected by the things that are “not up to us” (the external objects) then our minds will no longer be enslaved by them. In Epictetus’ Encheiridion he states, “It is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgments about these things” (The Handbook of Epictetus, p. 289, #5). I believe Epictetus is saying that things themselves, the things that are uncontrollably “not up to us,” should be of no negative effect to us, we should just allow them to be so through our judgments, through our minds which are controllable. He continues by giving an example of this using death, “…the terror lies in our own judgment about death, that death is terrible” (The Handbook of Epictetus, p. 289, #5). Death itself, for example, is only but part of what is “not up to us.” If we allow ourselves to be enslaved by the things that are out of our control then, for Epictetus, we will never find freedom (the realm of choice) or happiness.

One similarity I noticed between Epictetus and Socrates is their beliefs that the pursuit of the good, or virtue, is an important and worthwhile process. In Epictetus Discourses he says, “3. Now if virtue promises happiness, an untroubled mind and serenity, then progress toward virtue is certainly progress towards each of these. 4. For whatever is the definitive end
to which the perfection of a thing leads, progress is always an approach towards it” (Discourses, Epictetus, Ch. 4 “On Progress”, p. 12). Epictetus believes that failing to live up to our moral, mental capacity is “shameful.” He says, “20. It is therefore shameful that man should begin and end where irrational creatures do. He ought rather to begin there, but to end
where nature itself has fixed our end; 21. and that is in contemplation and understanding a way of life in harmony with nature. 22. Take care, then, not to die without ever being spectators of these things” (Discourses, Ch. 6, “On Providence”, p. 17). Since we are capable of thought and controlling it, for Epictetus, we are more divine than that of the nature of animals. As a result of our capability to control our minds, we should choose to examine and seek to understand our lives. Just as Socrates thinks that leaving our lives unexamined does not make them worth living. Epictetus shows that the nature of animals differs from the nature of humans in that the former is not worthy and the latter is worthy. The nature of humans is worthy, for him, because we are capable of choice, of mental thought. He thinks that there is a good and we should choose it.

Overall, the inquisition and investigation into our own lives establishes, for both Socrates and Epictetus, a good, virtuous and worthy life. Socrates shows through his inquiries with Euthyphro that the “good” is not something that can be found through any means of piety, instead we need to question and examine our own lives. Although, for Socrates, we will never attain the “good,” the process of inquiry and examination is, alone, what makes life worthy. Similarly, Socrates shows that (through questioning the “wise” men of Athens) acting like we know something when we do not, does not make us good or worthwhile. He says that it is better to know nothing and realize this than to pretend you know more than you actually
do or pretend to know when you do not. Epictetus parallels Socrates’ arguments by stating that a worthy Stoic life constitutes our ability to choose the things that are “up to us” and to control our reactions towards the things that are “not up to us” by taking them with a grain of salt, so to speak. His notion of choice is one that leads us to examine our own lives instead of simply letting the external, uncontrollable things in our lives enslave us. In both accounts of Socrates and Epictetus, the good (whether reached or not) is a life of examination and our choosing to examine.

Collective Good & Intellectual Inquiry

According to John Dewey in his book The Public And Its Problems, recognizing the consequences of social action and creating the means to control those consequences so as to bring about better ones and avoid bad ones is an important obligation of what he sees a public’s goal to be.

He defines a public to be, “[…] all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions such to an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for” (15-16). In this way, a public determines whether consequences are desirable or not, and organizes to develop means for producing more desirable consequences. Dewey argues that this effort to recognize serious indirect consequences and to create means for controlling them is important for political function so that officials can organize effective agencies to produce more positive, pacifying results. Thus, Dewey believed political action, or political function, to be based on intelligent social action. Individuals coming into association with one another help develop the means for intelligently recognizing consequences that should be controlled to affect the future outcomes, just as officials should help control ends through purely intelligible means. Since individuals may not be directly engaged in producing negative consequences, Dewey suggests, “[…] special agencies and measures must be formed if they are to be attended to; or else some existing group must take on new functions” (27). Dewey calls for officials to be the organizers of a public or a state. When individuals come together as a public and intelligently recognize any negative consequences, officials come together to organize means to act on behalf of the public’s interests to produce more desirable consequences. The state is, then, for Dewey, “[…] the organization of the public effected through officials for the protection of the interests shared by its members” (33). Citizens, however, should not assume the state to be inherently good and useful. They should, as Dewey expresses, constantly watch and criticize the public officials to maintain a state’s integrity and usefulness (69). Getting the public involved to identify consequences and not merely relying on officials to do so will develop the means to change ends.

Communication is a key factor in change because only in it will a public collectively find itself. Thus communication is important in forming what Dewey calls a “Great Community”. He says, “We have the physical tools of communication as never before. The thoughts and aspirations congruous with them are not communicated, and hence are not common. Without such communication the public will remain shadowy and formless […] Till the Great Society is converted into a Great Community, the Public will remain in eclipse. Communication can alone create a great community” (142).

A great community, for Dewey, is an end goal for a public. A public should, once again, have an awareness of what consequences are, tie them to their source and be able to determine means by which they attempt to control them. As a whole, a public should realize that consequences are our problems, suffered by us. Dewey says that citizens in this great
community will tend toward participation and shared results. A public should be dependent on each other through collective action, and see collective action as ours and become conscious of consequences; a public realizes individual good through collective good. In this way, Dewey states, “The clear consciousness of a communal life, in all its implications, constitutes the idea of democracy” (149).

Democracy, in one way, means for Dewey that citizens vote to express interests, as opposed to an dictator (or “expert”) who imposes interests upon a public.   In a democracy, conflicts that are treated with inquiry lead to liberation of individuals. Inquiry produces means to better consequences. He proposes that we use intelligence and inquiry to develop better means to inquire into collective behavior of what a common interest is; democracy is an effort for us to do this communally. Dewey’s problem is that we need to find a way of intelligently directing our behavior to produce these better consequences.

However, Americans today seem more interested in the individual instead of the collective good. There is no real collective public; there is no real inquiry into, for example, the War in Iraq or the fact that we continue to screw up the environment. Like Dewey suggests, we have a tendency to just want to keep doing what we are doing out of our purely habituated interests. An example of this in today’s society I see is in consumerism. We have grown so accustomed to consuming ungodly amounts of goods that we do not think twice about the labor and the resources that go into producing those goods. Although Dewey argues that habits are positive because, “They relieve the mind from thought of means, thus freeing thought to deal with new conditions and purposes” (61), I feel that habits are not totally good but instead they dumb down our awareness of negative consequences, thus making it difficult to recognize when inquiry is necessary.

I believe that our current situation is such that we could benefit from Dewey’s proposals. However, our problem is one of a lack of awareness in regard to political matters. Individuals’ consciousness should be gained collectively as a public in order to intelligently recognize the negative externalities that are affecting them. Dewey identified technology to be the main culprit affecting society in the late 1920s when he was writing. He also showed technology to be a means to improve communication within a society. As a problem, according to Dewey, technology distracts people from political issues and directs their interests toward more superfluous endeavors, such as watching movies. He feels that if we use technology to improve communication (rather than to satisfy our superficial desires), then there will be a public interest in political matters.

The interests of our modern society along with massive amounts of technology today forms habits among individuals that further distracts us from political and social inquiry. We seek our ends not in pre-recognized and controlled consequences, but in the fastest, easiest ways of enhancing individual good. Just as Dewey was concerned about during his day, I feel
that our modern society as well as technology today is driving people away from any recognition of striving toward a collective good, or a great community, and inquiry into such to produce better consequences for all. People today—especially the youth that are so caught up in the glitz and glamour of all technology has to offer—seem more interested in the
newest movies coming out and the latest celebrity gossip than they are in any political issues or societal problems. Yet we have come to feel subjected to technology and do not see ourselves as collectively experiencing these consequences.

Dewey does not necessarily see technology as being an enemy. He says, “But without passage through a machine age, mankind’s hold upon what is needful as the preconditions of a free, flexible and many-colored life is so precarious and inequitable that competitive scramble for acquisition and frenzied use of the results of acquisition for purposes of excitation and display will be perpetuated” (217). I agree with him in that we can use technology to relieve us of doing certain things ourselves by rendering it as a means toward ends instead of merely ends in-itself (such as wanting that big TV to watch sports games or movies for pure, mindless entertainment). According to Dewey, in a fully developed technological age we will create the means to control and develop ends, not by simply doing more research for technology, but making use of the abundant amounts of technology we have available now. I agree fully with Dewey in that this could be a means to human liberation if we stop using technology to just get more of things. We are working harder despite the technological means we have available to work less. As Karl Marx says, “Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity and does so in the proportion in which it produces commodities generally” (Reader in Marxist Philosophy, Ch. 5 “Alienation”).

Overall, I agree with Dewey in that inquiry should be used in order to identify consequences. In this way, I feel that inquiry will pull people out of their hypnotic attachments to technological ends in-themselves and get the public involved in social and political actions, thus developing an interest in the collective good and a striving toward a “Great Community”. The realization of individual good, as Dewey suggests, will then be found through collective good.