August Thalheimer: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism


15 - Ancient Chinese Philosophy II

Now that we have discussed Confucius and Lao-tse, I will turn to Mo'-ti'. Mo'-ti' lived after Confucius and Lao-tse, probably from 500 to 420 B.C. The instability of the period, the collapse of feudalism and the increasing oppression of the people provided the impetus for his philosophy also. To the main currents in Chinese philosophy represented by Lao-tse and Confucius, Mo'-ti' added a third. For Lao-tse the fundamental concept is, as I have already explained, Wu-wei or inaction, passive resistance against the encroachments of the feudal authority of the state, self-government of the tribal village. Confucius is the reformer, the reformer within the bounds of feudal relationships. In contrast to Confucius, Mo'-ti' is a revolutionary. He may be described as a utopian agrarian socialist or agrarian communist. He preached the return to agrarian communism. As a means of achieving this end he urged mutual love, universal human love. He was autopian socialist or communist because he did not expect salvation to come through a revolution from below, but through the discernment of the ruling class, through wise lawgivers. With these ideas Mo'-ti obtained a powerful contemporary following among the people. Mong-tse, a disciple of Confucius and contemporary of Mo'-ti', says: ", Mo'-ti' and Yang-tse are the two who have the ear of the people; they are the two to whom the people listen." Mo'-ti' is the only one who can be called a revolutionary in the sense mentioned. Not, of course, a revolutionary in the modern sense. He led a passionate denunciation of the feudal class. He fought against the luxury and dissipation of the feudal lords, against the music which at that time was a courtly luxury. He opposed the ceremonies of mourning which imposed great expense upon individuals and kept them away from work for long periods of time. His disciples led an ascetic life. They formed a sort of religious community.

The fourth main current is represented by the sophists, or, as they are called, the dialecticians, the Mingkua. They stressed the subjective nature of knowledge. Stimulated by Mo'-ti', they introduced the first investigation of mental processes. Their historical role is quite obvious. Historically viewed, they were agents who hastened the disintegration of feudalism and prepared the way for the monarchy of Shi Hoang-ti. In this regard Hsun-tse was of particular importance. The connection was indeed very close and would even have been openly avowed. If ideas are subjective or conventional, he claimed, then it becomes the concern of the monarch to establish the right ideas. The overthrow of feudalism by Shi Hoang-ti (246-210 B.C.)was ideologically prepared and justified by the sophists or dialecticians. In this connection I have something further to say about Yang-tse, the contemporary of Mo'-ti'. I have already mentioned that Mo'-ti' and Yang-tse had the largest number of followers among the people. Not a single letter of Yang-tse's own writing is preserved; he is known only through citations in Meng-tse. Confucianist orthodoxy took the trouble to suppress the doctrine of Yang-tse. According to the meager accounts which we have from his opponents he was a materialist and an Epicurean. He preached individualism and egoism. In him can he seen the expression of commodity production rearing its head within feudalism, as well as the expression of commercial and finance-capital.

I will now turn to the third point of view from which we may consider Chinese philosophy. The first point of view was its relation to religion, the second its relation to the class relationships of the time. The third point of view considers its relation to style='letter-spacing:.2pt'>the fundamental trends of philosophy. First I will very briefly consider Confucius. Characteristic of Confucius is the demand for the "rectification of names." By names (ming) he means concepts. Social relationships, moral conduct, should conform to previously instilled ideas or names. Confucius says: "If names are not right, judgements will not be appropriate, and if judgements are not right, actions will not fulfil their purpose." Reality (especially social reality) ought to be determined by the idea, material life by the ideal life. To Confucius, therefore, we can justly attribute a fundamental idealistic philosophic trend. This is supported further by his attitude towards popular and official religion, which was certainly not critical and hostile.

Lao-tse also belongs to the idealistic trend. He can be designated as an objective or absolute idealist. The highest principle which he propounded, Tao, is a transcendental spiritual principle. As you know, the name is taken from a word which originally meant way or direction, or the right way. In modern physics the technical term vector is used in the sense of a directed magnitude. Originally the way or course of the constellations was designated by Tao. Later it was applied to earthly things. Its meaning is transcendental or spiritual world-law, world-order. Like other peoples the Chinese first derived the concept of lawfulness from the movements of the constellations. In Lao-tse we have far deeper penetration than in Confucius, but he was handicapped by the difficulties inherent in a language which expresses abstract ideas with words having perceptive reference. This explains his extraordinary obscurity, an obscurity signifying not only the depth of his thought but the inadequacy of his means of expression as well. I will give a few examples of how he tries to express the non-materiality or spirituality of Tao in perceptive language. At one place he says: "Mind activates things. Invisible, inconceivable. Inconceivable, invisible, are the images therein. " Or another very simple figure in the fourteenth chapter: "Meeting it one does not see its visage. Following it one does not see its back." Of course, these figures are intended to express merely the simple idea that Tao is not to be apprehended through the senses. The comparison of Tao with water is very frequent. As water permeates all, so does Tao permeate the world; it is the cosmic principle. He undoubtedly had a definite notion that water was somewhat less corporeal than a solid, and was therefore more akin to the abstract, the transcendental. I will cite one more sentence from the Tao-te-king, where he says: "Without going beyond the door, one can explain the world; without looking out of the window, one can explain the meaning of heaven." Here is indicated the possibility of knowledge without sensory experience, knowledge a priori, as Kant calls it. This is also a typically idealistic position. At another place he says: "In Tao there are images. They are the seeds of things. " This is a doctrine that bears a most striking similarity to that of the Greek philosopher, Plato, the doctrine of ideas or mental prototypes of material things.

I will now speak of the elements or presentiments of dialectics in Lao-tse. These elements of dialectics we find in two persistent ideas. The first is the idea of the eternal variability or fluctuation of things, of the flux of all things. The second, expressed in various concrete examples, is what you already know as the first principle of dialectics, namely, the permeation of opposites. But before I turn to what Lao-tse himself says, I might first mention that Lao-tse is not the first in China to have such ideas. We already find the elements of these concepts in the oldest book of China, in the philosophical ideas contained in the Yih-king. The symbol Yi means change, fluctuation; it consists of the sign of the sun placed opposite that of the moon. The Yih-king is much older than Lao-tse and Confucius. It dates from 1143B.C. Its author or compiler is thought to be the King, Wan, the founder of the Tshau dynasty. The Yih-king was originally believed to be a prophetic book. Men used to seek clues to determine which positions of the constellations were favorable for a proposed undertaking and which not. For this purpose diagrams were drawn of single or broken lines. What interests us here is that these diagrams were based on the idea of the permeation of opposites, of the polarity of concepts. Examples of such polar concepts are Yang and Ying, heaven and earth, male and female, light and dark, strong and weak, father and mother, etc. These are only a few examples of the polar opposites which are listed in the Yih-king, and through whose development changes in heaven and on earth were to be explained. When one examines the symbol Yih-king and its meanings more closely, one comes to the conclusion that they originated in the thoughts and conjectures of peasants about constellar positions favorable for agricultural undertakings. The main concepts are heaven, earth, mountains, water, etc. Similar notions are to be found among the ancient Greeks and Romans. Among the Greeks, for example, a work of the poet Hesiod is very reminiscent of the way good and bad days are determined in the Yih-king. Hesiod's book is called Works and Days, its main purpose is to determine for the peasants which days are favorable and which unfavorable for certain agricultural tasks. The Romans, too, had similar techniques. The Yih-king very early became an oracle book for princes and states-men. The link between the Yih-king and Lao-tse was created by the philosopher Kuan-tse (7th century) I have already told you that Kuan-tse was likewise a great business man, having introduced the salt and iron monopoly.

I will now cite a few examples from Lao-tse of the permeation of opposites. In the very first chapter of the Tao-te-king we have the following: "When everyone on earth declares beauty beautiful, ugliness is thereby postulated. When everyone on earth recognizes the good in goodness, thereby is evil postulated. Being and non-being produce each other. Heavy and light complete each other. Long and short compose each other. High and low invert each other. Voice and tone wed each other. Before and after follow each other." This idea in Lao-tse attains abstract expression because he states his position on the oppositive relation of being and non-being, even making the point that each is transformed into the other. He says that all things come from being; that being, however, comes from non-being. Things revert to non-being. This reminds one strikingly of what Hegel developed in the dialectics of origin. In the following sayings of Lao-tse one can find elements analogous to the Hegelian thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, where he says, for example: "Mind creates unity. Unity generates duality; duality generates trinity. Trinity generates all things." The symbol of unity is the unbroken line, of duality the broken line (negation), and the sign of trinity the broken and straight line placed one under the other. Another very profound conception of Lao-tse which reminds one of Hegel is that the impulse in things comes from non-being. In Hegel's view the moving force of things is ascribed to negation. For this Lao-tse uses various metaphorical expressions, as when he says that the usefulness of the jar depends upon non-being, upon empty space, or when he says that the wagon-hub is useful only by virtue of its hollowness.

If we can designate Confucius and Lao-tse as idealists, then we can find in Mo'-ti' the third main current of Chinese philosophy, a straightforward even though primitive and undeveloped materialism. Besides this Mo'-ti' performed another service. He initiated the independent development of logic in China. In order to indicate the type and nature of his materialism, I cite the following statement by him concerning the characteristics of truth. He says in chapter 29: "My view of being and non-being rests on what the actual experience of the eyes or ears of the people accept as existent or non-existent, that is, on what is seen and heard. Thus, that which is seen and heard I call being; that which has never been seen or heard I call non-being." In contrast to Confucius, therefore, he does not consider conception to be the characteristic of truth, but rather perceptual experience, that which is seen or heard. Moreover, he means general perceptual experience, not individual but universal; or, as he himself expressed it, "that which the entire people sees and hears." As further marks of truth he includes the testimony of ancient sages and the actual operation of things. Yet how primitive his concept of materialism still was is proved by some of his conclusions. He says: "I acknowledge the spirits of ancestors as well as the spirits of nature, for the people acknowledge them, and I acknowledge no destiny contrary to theirs." On the other hand, it was characteristic of his materialist conception that he rejected Confucius' principle of the rectification of concepts. He says (and this is an objection in line with historical materialism) that it is not the ideas, the concepts of men that determine their behavior, but something that lies behind these ideas. He means the material causes, the impulsions of will. One cannot on this account call him a dialectical materialist, but he did have presentiments in this direction. An utterance ascribed to Kao-tse, a student of Mo'-ti', points the same way. It is the sentence cited in Mong-tse: "Whatever words cannot grasp is not in the interests of the spirit, and whatever the spirit cannot grasp is not in the interests of life." In other words, only that which has reference to the interests of life can be an object of knowledge, and only that which is within the sphere of knowledge can be a subject of speech, of verbal communication. Another saying by Mo'-ti' runs: "Only when one makes use of conformities and distinctions at the same time is one in a position to know what is and what is not."

In conclusion, I will mention the fourth main current, the sophists. They can be classed with the subjective idealists. The sophists were especially adept at pointing out contradictions in concepts, just as the Greek sophists were. In this pursuit they fell upon all sorts of interesting phenomena in the dialectics of ideas and turned up many things quite similar to the findings of the Greeks, especially the Eleatics. There is the instance of the arrow at rest. It was said that an arrow in flight could at any given moment be considered at rest. This is a statement which we have already found among the Greeks. Another statement of a different sort runs as follows in the Chinese: "When I break a staff in two parts, and each of these parts into two parts, and so on, I will never reach an end of breaking." Here we have the contradiction between the finite and the infinite. One example of the great contributions of the sophists is their discovery of the contradiction hidden in every statement, the contradiction, for example, that a white horse is not a horse. The sense of the matter is that a white horse is a particular horse. The predicate horse is the general horse. In the sentence the particular and the general are equated.

Most of these sophists were, as I have said, subjective idealists. Some, however, were materialists. Characteristic of their type of subjective idealism are such savings as: "Fire is not hot. . . . The eye does not see. "That is to say: the nature of temperature and vision is not objective but subjective.

I will now conclude. Can the modern world-view, by which I mean dialectical materialism, he squared with this ancient philosophy? Today adherence to the doctrines of Confucius and Lao-tse would be positively reactionary. The support of the doctrine of Confucius has today a counter-revolutionary, reactionary significance. It would mean the defense of patriarchal authority in the state. Likewise one cannot adhere to Lao-tse, for we cannot brook a doctrine which today would have to appear as a form of anarchism. The doctrine of Lao-tse, if revived, would at best result in a passive tolerance of the reactionary forces in the state and society, or it would result in individual escape from the world. But the revolution now in process in China demands not individual but collective behavior from the masses of the people, not passivity and contemplation, but the greatest activity. I wish, moreover, to mention that China offers practical proof how anarchism at a certain point is transformed into counter-revolution, in the same way as has already been demonstrated in Russia. We can no more adhere to Lao-tse than to Confucius because both are idealistic, because both stand in opposition to materialism. No more can we hold to the subjective idealism of the sophists.

Mo'-ti' comes closest to dialectical materialism. His doctrine is a primitive materialism. And Mo'-ti' assumes a revolutionary position towards the ruling classes of his time. Nevertheless, one cannot recommend reviving Mo'-ti's doctrine as such. It is socially impossible today to return to the primitive communism of the village community. It is possible only to advance to socialism on the basis of the achievements of capitalist technology. Obviously, Mo'-ti' could not have had such a perspective, living as he did at a time which had no inkling of capitalism. Dialectical materialism is on a much higher level than the primitive materialism of Mo'-ti'. It has incorporated and developed the results of two thousand years of natural and social science. We cannot turn back; our prospect must be ahead.