Western conservatives should broaden their historical gaze, and look to Eastern as well as Western thinkers for direction and inspiration in our confusing world…
Anyone who has ever been misled by a mistaken weather forecast knows that the world is full of chaos. Weather systems are influenced by the complex interactions of particles too numerous to count, intricate topographical features of the Earth, and even astronomical phenomena millions of miles away. Even after decades of study, number crunching by powerful supercomputers, and considerable financial incentives, the chaos of nature gives us great difficulty in predicting something apparently simple such as whether and how much it will rain tomorrow.
Chaos is not limited to the weather. The political scientist Samuel Huntington predicted that the post-Cold War world would be dominated by a “clash of civilizations,” and even the most sanguine observer will admit that recent years have seen more than a few chaotic civilizational clashes. The shifting and fragile alliances between the scores of nations and organizations active in the Middle East, for example, show chaos at its “best” (or worst). War has brought its own chaos and, by displacing millions, has brought the chaos of a refugee crisis to even the most comfortable and complacent nations of the West. Nor is the rest of world immune from international chaos, which seems to constantly take on new forms and create new problems.
Chaos exists not only on the large scale of civilizational clashes, but all the way down to the smallest scales as well. Domestic politics in any country contains corruption, unscrupulousness, and folly, and the chaos that flows from these problems. Communities are frequently in some level of disarray, and families suffer from fights, betrayal, death, and abandonment, besides other challenges. The most harrowing chaos of all is the inner, individual chaos of the troubled mind, the sick heart, the conflicted emotions, and the wounded soul.
The most important chaos afflicting the West today is spiritual rather than physical. In the United States, movements on both Right and Left advocating radical authoritarianism have gained surprising popularity, especially among the young. These shocking authoritarian ideas are rarely discussed with any seriousness in the media. Instead, politics seems to have devolved into name-calling and gossip appealing to the lowest common denominator, without shedding any of the nepotism and graft of the corrupt rich. The wickedness of some of our political leaders bespeaks not only the disorder of their own minds and souls, but also the chaos of a society unmoored from tradition and decency, uncertain of itself and collectively longing for a leviathan state to forcefully impose order—even if it is the order of tyranny.
Our spiritual ills are not confined to politics. Families continue to fall apart, and children are left with single or divorced parents, or are raised by hired help as their own parents prioritize spectral career goals over their families. Pornography is widespread, and, more troubling still, is increasingly accepted and even celebrated in polite society. Material prosperity is the highest good for many. Increasing consumption of marijuana and other drugs is a sure sign of spiritually sick people seeking an escape from their unhappy reality. Even many teetotalers today have screen addictions, and must constantly look at their phones, their computers, or their televisions to distract from their personal pain. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s lament that men have forgotten God is truer today than it ever was, and this forgetfulness constitutes an instance of great moral chaos in our world.
What is the proper reaction to all of this public and private chaos? I am not the first to ask or answer this question. During a remarkable and highly chaotic part of Chinese history called the Warring States period, dozens of philosophers grappled with the questions of how to bring order to individuals and societies amidst the tumult of constant war and personal strife. The intellectual response to the disorder of the warring states was so vigorous and varied that the philosophies that began and flourished during this time are still famously known as the Hundred Schools of Thought. These schools of thought are still worth examining closely for their creative and satisfying answers to the problem of chaos.
The most prominent of the Hundred Schools was Confucianism. Confucianism, as might be expected of a philosophy that arose in a time of chaos, is obsessed with order. The order begins with small, inner concerns: among the first things to do, for example, is to ensure that things are called by their correct names. Other important tasks for an aspiring Confucian are to discipline the appetites, to study the classics assiduously, and to learn the proper hierarchy of human affections, radiating from the close family, to more distant relations, and finally to the world at large. Confucianism advocates tireless efforts in achieving this personal order and harmony, and asserts that when disciplined individuals are arranged in correct hierarchies, the effect will be an ordered and harmonious society and universe.
Philosophical Taoism was another of the Hundred Schools, one that contrasted sharply with Confucianism. Where Confucianism advocated energetic attempts to control the self, Taoism maintained that rigid self-control was unnatural and inevitably futile, and that one ought to act in accordance with nature instead. Where Confucianism pushed for the proper naming of things, Taoists argued that the most important things in the universe could never be properly named without confusion, and that it may be better not even to try. Confucianism produced scholars who dwelt in cities and strived for productivity; Taoism produced recluses who retreated to mountains and longed for alignment with nature and escape from mankind’s artifices.
Confucianism and Taoism represent two opposite paradigms of responses to personal and social chaos. Confucius saw chaos and tried to approach it, to master and control it, to tame and pacify it. Laozi (the founder of Taoism) saw chaos and tried to avoid it, to flee from and ignore it, and even sometimes to surrender to its inevitability. Psychologists and physiologists who have studied behavioral responses to threats would identify the well-known “fight or flight” reactions embodied in these philosophical traditions. Confucianism is the philosophy of fighting chaos, and Taoism is the philosophy of flight from chaos.
Each of us can surely think of acquaintances who are more Confucian, concerned with control, social rectitude, and order. Probably we could also think of acquaintances who are Taoist, retreaters from society who are willing to let life flow around them like a river. Further, we can identify both of these opposite impulses within ourselves. One common idea in ancient China was to be a Confucian during one’s working life and a Taoist after retirement. For me, on some days I am a Confucian at breakfast and I’ve already metamorphosed into a Taoist by lunchtime. The extremes of control and mastery over chaos on the one hand, and release and surrender to chaos on the other, are each tempting at different times and in different contexts, and of course have different attractiveness to different temperaments.
Today, we see many examples of both Confucian and Taoist approaches to the chaos of American politics. America’s latent Taoists are the people who frequently announce their intention to move to Canada if their least favorite candidate is elected. Many conservatives, who already feel ill-at-ease in the modern world, feel the salutary temptation of this kind of retreat very strongly. The latent Confucians are the ones entering the fray, supporting third-party candidates and laboring diligently to expose and eliminate wickedness in high places. It is worthwhile to study the Hundred Schools of Thought seriously to decide which of them is the best to apply to our situation today.
The ideas embodied in these Chinese philosophies have some rough counterparts in Western philosophy. The Taoist notion or retreating from and ignoring the evils of the world sound like the injunction in the New Testament to “Love not the world… the lust of the flesh… and the pride of life,” as well as St. Augustine’s idea of building the City of God rather than trusting any earthly city. More recently and less philosophically serious, one can hear echoes of Taoism in the libertarian pundit P.J. O’Rourke’s book entitled Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards. The Confucian concern for an ordered society has rough parallels in Plato’s description of a properly-ordered republic, as well as in later philosophers like Nietzsche who advocated human mastery over nature and the world through focused efforts.
Though the main ideas of Confucianism and Taoism are scattered throughout the Western philosophical canon, I think that the Chinese tradition contains some unique and irreplaceable insights that would be interesting to any thinker in East or West. The conservative movement has a well-earned reputation for asserting the enduring value of the Western humanistic canon of philosophy and art. I suggest that Western conservatives broaden their historical gaze, and look to Eastern as well as Western thinkers for direction and inspiration in our confusing world. Though Confucius and his contemporaries may not be direct forebears of the Western tradition, they are our forebears in a broader human sense, and anyone who believes in the brotherhood of man should believe that there are important human truths possessed by each age and by each civilization. I believe that conservative thinkers can gain much by increasing their philosophical cosmopolitanism, without needing to compromise their conservatism in the process.
From a less abstract and more political perspective, adding more cosmopolitanism to the conservative movement could increase its popular appeal. Progressives and other detractors of conservatism are quick to point out a supposed lack of diversity among conservatism’s heroes—the term “dead white males” frequently comes up. There are plenty of good rejoinders to this criticism, including the point that diversity of ideas is more important than the superficial diversity of race, sex, or chronology. I suggest that even though we are inheritors and proponents of traditional Western culture, we should push ourselves to be actively open to good ideas outside the West and outside the traditional canon. We should even be open to the occasional potential for truth in the ideas of our most implacable ideological “enemies.” Being open to truth regardless of its source could not only increase the diversity of the ideas powering conservatism, but could also extinguish criticisms of conservatism by including more non-dead-white-males in the conservative canon.
It can be comforting to know that the moral chaos of our civilization is not without precedent. Like Boethius, I find consolation in philosophy; Confucianism and Taoism can provide solace to those who feel sick about the state of our politics and culture. My final thought is that there is abundant cause for optimism. The dark Warring States Period in China did not last forever. Not only did the turmoil cease and peace break out, but that unpleasant time gave humanity the Hundred Schools of Thought and thereby contributed many great ideas to our shared philosophical tradition. The fall of Rome gave us the hope of Augustine, the oppression of Pharaoh brought out the heroism of Moses, and the political missteps of King George called forth the genius of Madison, Jefferson, and Franklin. There is hope yet that the spiritual chaos of our time will end soon. If it does not, there is a great chance that it will bring out some wonderful and unanticipated thing: a contribution to philosophy, a hero to deliver us, or even a new and great nation. In the meantime, we can use ancient Chinese philosophy as another tool to help us face our chaotic time more bravely and more wisely.
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