The ancient Chinese sage Confucius taught that a life worth living consists of tireless cultivation of virtue and self-discipline. The ideal life is structured and well-ordered, guided by rituals and propriety. The self, like a gemstone, requires cutting, filing, and polishing:
Tsze-kung said, “What do you think of the poor man who does not flatter, and the rich man who is not proud?” The Master replied, “They will do; but they are not equal to him, who, though poor, is yet cheerful [happy with the Way], and to him, who, though rich, loves the rules of propriety (li).”
Tsze-kung replied, “It is said in the Book of Poetry, ‘As you cut and then file, as you carve and then polish.’—The meaning is the same, I apprehend, as that which you have just expressed.”
The Master said, “With one like Ts’ze, I can begin to talk about the odes. I told him one point, and he knew its proper sequence.” The Analects, 1:15
This powerful metaphor of self-cultivation is subverted in the Tao Te Ching which celebrates simplicity, softness, and fluidity of existence. The self is not a hard substance to be cut and carved; it begins in harmony with the Way (Tao) as “uncarved wood” or flowing water. Nothing needs to be done to it.
Both the Confucian and the Taoist traditions speak of wu-wei, translated either as “effortless action” or “non-action” respectively. It can be applied to anything, even to the Bullet Hell Games For the Confucians, wu-wei — the grace and wisdom of a virtuoso — is always the result of a life-long conscious practice. For the Taoists, wu-wei is manifested in “letting things take their course” (TTC, 19), in our primordial spontaneity beyond words, concepts, striving, and struggle.
Those who know don’t talk.
Those who talk don’t know.
Close your mouth,
block off your senses,
blunt your sharpness, untie your knots,
soften your glare, settle your dust.
This is the primal identity.
Be like the Tao.
It can’t be approached or withdrawn from,
benefitted or harmed,
honored or brought into disgrace.
It gives itself up continually.
That is why it endures.
Tao Te Ching, 56
Posted in Key texts
Is active pursuit of happiness self-defeating? What is the relationship between happiness and a meaningful life? A recent article notes that “nearly a quarter of Americans do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful.” According to Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, the loss of meaning is one of the most serious psychological ailments of our age.
Posted in Key texts
The Old Testament’s jewel, Ecclesiastes, is a series of prophetic reflections on the fleeting character of life. Ecclesiastes’ somber yet beautiful aphorisms speak eloquently about time and chance, wisdom and folly, power and injustice, the futility of human ambitions and accomplishments, the inevitability of suffering and death, and the relationship between the human and the divine.
This book introduces the core issues of the “Meaning of Life” course. Are some ways of life intrinsically better than others? If so, why? What is the value of pleasure, wealth, fame, and power if all are transient? Does knowledge in fact “increase sorrow”? Is resignation the only adequate answer to life’s tragedies and injustices? How are we to understand Ecclesiastes’ verdict that “all is vanity and vexation of spirit”?
- Alter, Robert. The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary. Trans. Robert Alter. W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.
- Bartholomew, Craig G. Ecclesiastes. Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms. Ed. Tremper Longman III. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2009.
- Christianson, Eric S., ed. Ecclesiastes Through the Centuries. Blackwell Bible Commentaries. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.