Taoist Writings & Primitivist Ideals Pt. 3: The Primitivist Chapters

The Primitivist chapters come from the works of Chuang Tzu, though scholars have concluded that they were written by a later author and were then tacked on to the original Chuang Tzu manuscripts.  These later works are known collectively as the Outer Chapters, the first four of which are attributed to the Primitivist.  From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“[The Primitivist] espouses a viewpoint similar to that found in the Taode jing differing principally in that it is not addressed to the ruler…  Because of their advocacy of a return to a government and social organization [sic] similar to that found in primitive tribal Utopias, [A.C.] Graham has labeled these chapters as ‘Primitivist.’”

The Primitivist Chapters address familiar anarchist themes, such as the abolition of government, laws, and religion (especially attacking Confucian claims of high virtue and sageliness which became the cultural backbone of the Chinese empire; see the first part of this series).  But he goes a step further in clearly identifying domestication as a crime against nature, and always weighing values against their measure of harmony with the natural Way (or the Tao as he would have it).  This firmly fixes the Primitivist in the realm of anti-civilization theory, and my hope is that his writings will hearten us with the knowledge that some have come before us on our rugged trail.

Note, I have taken liberties certain liberties with the translation.  My sparse commentary is presented in italics.

8.  Webbbed Toes

Webbed toes and extra fingers seem to come from nature, yet, functionally speaking, they are superfluous. Goiters and tumors seem to come from the body, yet in their nature, they are superfluous. And (similarly), to have many extraneous doctrines of charity and duty and regard them in practice as parts of a man’s natural sentiments is not the true way of Tao. For just as joined toes are but useless lumps of flesh, and extra fingers but useless growths, so are the many artificial developments of the natural sentiments of men and the extravagances of charitable and dutiful conduct but so many superfluous uses of intelligence.

People who abnormally develop charity, exalt virtue, and suppress nature in order to gain a reputation, make the world noisy with their discussions and cause it to follow impractical doctrines. Is this not so? Of such were Tseng and Shih (disciples of Confucius).  Those who commit excesses in arguments, like piling up bricks and making knots, analyzing and inquiring into the distinctions of hard and white, identities and differences, wear themselves out over mere vain, useless terms. Is this not so? Of such were Yang and Mo. All these are superfluous and devious growths of knowledge and are not the correct guide for the world.

He who would be the ultimate guide never loses sight of the inner nature of life. Therefore with him, the united is not like joined toes, the separated is not like extra fingers, what is long is not considered as excess, and what is short is not regarded as wanting. For duck’s legs, though short, cannot be lengthened without dismay to the duck, and a crane’s legs, though long, cannot be shortened without misery to the crane. That which is long in nature must not be cut off, and that which is short in nature must not be lengthened. Thus will all sorrow be avoided.

Charity and duty are surely not included in human nature. You see how many worries and dismays the charitable man has! Besides, divide your joined toes and you will howl; bite off your extra finger and you will scream. In the one case, there is too much, and in the other too little; but the worries and dismays are the same.

Now the charitable men of the present age go about with a look of concern sorrowing over the ills of the age, while the non-charitable let loose the desire of their nature in their greed after position and wealth. Therefore I suppose charity and duty are not included in human nature. Yet from the time of the Three Dynasties onwards what a commotion has been raised about them!

Moreover, those who rely upon the arc, the line, compasses, and the square to make correct forms injure the natural constitution of things.  Those who use cords to bind and glue to piece together interfere with the natural character of things. Those who seek to satisfy the mind of man by hampering it with ceremonies and music and affecting charity and devotion have lost their original nature.

There is an original nature in things. Things in their original nature are curved without the help of arcs, straight without lines, round without compasses, and rectangular without squares; they are joined together without glue and hold together without cords. Why then should the doctrines of charity and duty continue to remain like so much glue or cords, in the domain of Tao and virtue, to give rise to confusion and doubt among mankind?

Ever since the time when Shun made a bid for charity and duty and threw the world into confusion, men have run about and exhausted themselves in the pursuit thereof. Is it not then charity and duty which have changed the nature of man? Therefore I have tried to show that from the time of the Three Dynasties onwards, there is not one who has not changed his nature through certain external things. If a common man, he will die for gain. If a scholar, he will die for fame. If a ruler of a township, he will die for his ancestral honors. If a Sage, he will die for the world. The pursuits and ambitions of these men differ, but the injury to their nature resulting in the sacrifice of their lives is the same . . . .

All men die for something, and yet if a man dies for charity and duty the world calls him a gentleman; but if he dies for gain, the world calls him a low fellow. The dying being the same, one is nevertheless called a gentleman and the other called a low character. But in point of injury to their lives and nature, of what use is the distinction of “gentleman” and “low fellow” between them?

Besides, were a man to apply himself to charity and duty until he were the equal of Tseng or Shih, I would not call it good. Or to flavors, until he were the equal of Shu Erh (famous cook), I would not call it good. Or to sound, until he were the equal of Shih Kuang, I would not call it good. Or to colors, until he were the equal of Li Chu, I would not call it good. What I call good is not what is meant by charity and duty, but taking good care of [natural] virtue.  What I call good at hearing is not hearing others but hearing oneself. What I call good at vision is not seeing others but seeing oneself. For a man who sees not himself but others, or takes possession not of himself but of others, possessing only what others possess and possessing not his own self, does what pleases others instead of pleasing his own nature. Now one who pleases others, instead of pleasing one’s own nature, is just another one gone astray.

In our bleak modern landscape, the various causes and projects of the Left present themselves as a clear parallel to the Primtivist’s critique of charity and duty.  As Kaczynski essentially surmised in his writing on over-socialization and the left, charity is not only a half-hearted attempt to resolve inequality, it is also a direct result of that inequality and an attempt to resolve it in terms of upper-class values.

Nietzsche wrote in his Natural History of Morals that, “Every morality is—in contrast to laisser aller [letting go]—a part of tyranny against ‘nature.’”  Ah, and the Taoists would agree.  The concept of wu wei, literally non-action, is the fundamental cornerstone of Taoist morality (as we’ll talk about when we get to the Tao te Ching).  Wu wei is not a moral pacifism, nor is it a nihilistic denial of personal power.  What it refers to is a return to the organic state of things, to life itself without the superfluous attachments of praise and shame, profit and loss, or duty and charity.  This Taoist ideal is akin to Emerson’s roses when he wrote, “These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are.”

Only when abiding in non-action can the “Great Work”—the spontaneous, unobstructed nourishment of life, by which the pine tree grows in seamless unity with the elements—be accomplished.

9.  Horses’ Hooves

[Taming a Horse]

Horses have hooves to carry them over frost and snow, and hair to protect them from wind and cold. They eat grass and drink water, and fling up their tails and gallop. Such is the real nature of horses. Ceremonial halls and big dwellings are of no use to them.

One day Polo (a famous horse-trainer) appeared, saying, “I am good at managing horses.” So he burned their hair and clipped them, and pared their hooves and branded them. He put halters around their necks and shackles around their legs and numbered them according to their stables. The result was that two or three in every ten died. Then he kept them hungry and thirsty, trotting them and galloping them, and taught them to run in formations, with the misery of the tasseled bridle in front and the fear of the knotted whip behind, until more than half of them died.

The potter says, “I am good at managing clay. If I want it round, I use compasses; if rectangular, a square.” The carpenter says, “I am good at managing wood. If I want it curved, I use an arc; if straight, a line.” But on what grounds can we think that the nature of clay and wood desires this application of compasses and square, and arc and line? Nevertheless, every age extols Polo for his skill in training horses, and potters and carpenters for their skill with clay and wood.

[Governing an Empire]

Those who manage (govern) the affairs of the empire make the same mistake [as the horse-trainer, the potter, and the carpenter]. I think one who knows how to govern the empire should not [make that mistake]. For the people have certain natural instincts — to weave and clothe themselves, to till the fields and feed themselves. This is their common character, in which all share. Such instincts may be called “Heaven born.” So in the days of perfect nature, men were quiet in their movements and serene in their looks. At that time, there were no paths over mountains, no boats or bridges over waters. All things were produced each in its natural district. Birds and beasts multiplied; trees and shrubs thrived. Thus it was that birds and beasts could be led by the hand, and one could climb up and peep into the magpie’s nest. For in the days of perfect nature, man lived together with birds and beasts, and there was no distinction of their kind. Who could know of the distinctions between gentlemen and common people? Being all equally without knowledge, their virtue could not go astray. Being all equally without desires, they were in a state of natural integrity. In this state of natural integrity, the people did not lose their (original) nature.

[The Error of the Sages]

And then when Sages [philosophers of various schools] appeared, crawling for charity and limping with duty, doubt and confusion entered men’s minds. They said they must make merry by means of music and enforce distinctions by means of ceremony, and the empire became divided against itself. Were the uncarved wood not cut up, who could make sacrificial vessels? Were white jade left uncut, who could make the regalia of courts? Were Tao and virtue not destroyed, what use would there be for charity and duty? Were men’s natural instincts not lost, what need would there be for music and ceremonies? Were the five colors not confused, who would need decorations? Were the five notes not confused, who would adopt the six pitch-pipes?

Destruction of the natural integrity of things for the production of articles of various kinds — this is the fault of the artisan. Destruction of Tao and virtue in order to introduce charity and duty — this is the error of the Sages.

Horses live on dry land, eat grass, and drink water. When pleased, they rub their necks together. When angry, they turn round and kick up their heels at each other. Thus far only do their natural instincts carry them. But bridled and bitted, with a moon-shaped metal plate on their foreheads, they learn to cast vicious looks, to turn their heads to bite, to nudge at the yoke, to cheat the bit out of their mouths or steal the bridle off their heads. Thus their minds and gestures become like those of thieves. This is the fault of Polo.

In the days of Ho Hsu (a mythical ruler) the people did nothing in particular at their homes and went nowhere in particular in their walks. Having food, they rejoiced; tapping their bellies, they wandered about. Thus far the natural capacities of the people carried them. The Sages came then to make them bow and bend with ceremonies and music, in order to regulate the external forms of intercourse, and dangled charity and duty before them, in order to keep their minds in submission. Then the people began to labor and develop a taste for knowledge, and to struggle with one another in their desire for gain, to which there is no end. This is the error of the Sages.

The Primtivist makes an obvious contradiction in [Governing an Empire] when he cites the human instinct “to till the fields” as a natural one, and we might wonder how this is any different from cutting up the “uncarved wood” and carving up the “white jade.”  Nonetheless, he levels many of the same criticisms that anarcho-primitivists have against domestication, labor, ceremony, and art.

This chapter has special significance for me, because there is nothing I love more than wild horses.  How about I put a bridal on Polo and see how he likes it?

When the Primitivist observes that the “minds and gestures,” of domesticated horses, in trying to escape their bridles and bites, “become like those of thieves,” and that “this is the fault of Polo,” he leads us smoothly into the next chapter which deals with the morality of a famous robber named Cheh, and his not-so-innocent victims.

10.  Rifling Trunks


[Stimulating Thievery]

The precautions taken against thieves who open trunks, search bags, or ransack tills, consist in securing with cords and fastening with bolts and locks. This is what the world calls wit. But a strong thief comes and carries off the till on his shoulders, with box and bag, and runs away with them. His only fear is that the cords and locks should not be strong enough and the loot will fall out!  Therefore, does not what the world used to call wit simply amount to saving up for the strong thief? And I venture to state that nothing of that which the world calls wit is otherwise than saving up for strong thieves; and nothing of that which the world calls sage wisdom is other than hoarding up for strong thieves.

[The Tao among Thieves and the Work of the Sages]

An apprentice to Robber Cheh asked him saying, “Is there then Tao (moral principles) among thieves?”

“Tell me if there is anything in which there is not Tao,” Cheh replied.

“There is the sage character of thieves by which booty is located, the courage to go in first, and the chivalry of coming out last. There is the wisdom of calculating success, and kindness in the equal division of the spoil. There has never yet been a great robber who was not possessed of these five qualities.”

It is seen therefore that without the teachings of the Sages, good men could not keep their position, and without the teachings of the Sages, Robber Cheh could not accomplish his ends. Since good men are scarce and bad men are the majority, the good the Sages do to the world is little and the evil great . . . .

When the Sages arose, gangsters appeared. Overthrow the Sages and set the gangsters free, and then will the empire be in order. When the stream ceases, the gully dries up, and when the hill is leveled, the chasm is filled. When the Sages are dead, gangsters will not show up, but the empire will rest in peace. On the other hand, if the Sages do not pop off, neither will the gangsters drop off. Nor if you double the number of Sages wherewith to govern the empire will you do more than double the profits of Robber Cheh.

[Down with Wisdom, Knowledge, Charity, and Duty!]

Banish wisdom, discard knowledge, and gangsters will stop! Fling away jade and destroy pearls, and petty thieves will cease. Burn tallies and break signets, and the people will revert to their uncouth integrity. Split measures and smash scales, and the people will not fight over quantities. Trample down all the institutions of Sages, and the people will begin to be fit for discussing (Tao). Confuse the six pitch-pipes, confine lutes and stringed instruments to the flames, stuff up the ears of Blind Shih Kuang, and each man will keep his own sense of hearing. Put an end to decorations, confuse the five colors, glue up the eyes of Li Chu, and each man will keep his own sense of sight. Destroy arcs and lines, fling away squares and compasses, snap off the fingers of Chui the Artisan, and each man will use his own natural skill. Wherefore the saying, “Great skill appears like clumsiness.” Cut down the activities of Tseng and Shih pinch the mouths of Yang Chu and Mo Tzu, discard charity and duty, and the virtue of the people will arrive at Mystic Unity.

If each man keeps his own sense of sight, the world will escape being burned up. If each man keeps his own sense of hearing, the world will escape entanglements. If each man keeps his intelligence, the world will escape confusion. If each man keeps his own virtue, the world will avoid deviation from the true path. Tseng, Shih, Yang, Mo, Shih Kuang, Chui, and Li Chu were all persons who developed their external character and involved the world in the present confusion so that the laws and statutes are of no avail.

[The Age of Perfect Nature]

Have you never heard of the Age of Perfect Nature? In the days of Yung-cheng, Tat-ing, Pohuang, Chungyang, Lilu, Lihsu, Hsienyu-an, Hohsu, Tsunlu, Chuyung, Fuhsi, and Shennung (all legendary ancient rulers), the people tied knots for reckoning. They enjoyed their food, beautified their clothing, were satisfied with their homes, and delighted in their customs. Neighboring settlements overlooked one another, so that they could hear the barking of dogs and crowing of cocks of their neighbors, and the people till the end of their days had never been outside their own country. In those days there was indeed perfect peace.

[Love of Knowledge as a Source of Chaos]

But nowadays any one can make the people strain their necks and stand on tiptoes by saying, “In such and such a place there is a Sage.” Immediately they put together a few provisions and hurry off, neglecting their parents at home and their masters’ business abroad, going on foot through the territories of the Princes, and riding to hundreds of miles away. Such is the evil effect of the rulers’ desire for knowledge. When the rulers desire knowledge and neglect Tao, the empire is overwhelmed with confusion.

How can this be shown? When the knowledge of bows and cross-bows and hand-nets and tailed arrows increases, then they carry confusion among the birds of the air. When the knowledge of hooks and bait and nets and traps increases, then they carry confusion among the fishes of the deep. When the knowledge of fences and nets and snares increases, then they carry confusion among the beasts of the field. When cunning and deceit and flippancy and the sophistries of the hard and white and identities and differences increase in number and variety, then they overwhelm the world with logic.

Therefore it is that there is often chaos in the world, and the love of knowledge is ever at the bottom of it. For all men strive to grasp what they do not know, while none strive to grasp what they already know; and all strive to discredit what they do not excel in, while none strive to discredit what they do excel in. That is why there is chaos. Thus, above, the splendor of the heavenly bodies is dimmed; below, the power of land and water is burned up, while in between the influence of the four seasons is upset.  There is not one tiny worm that moves on earth or insect that flies in the air that has lost its original nature. Such indeed is the world chaos caused by the desire for knowledge!

Check out that last paragraph!  Can you believe this stuff was written over a thousand years ago?  Pert near prophetic.  Even before the sickly glow of streetlights flooded out the stars, even before the world faced the widespread depletion of soil and water sources (of all things), even before Al Gore turned us all on to global warming, the Primitivist was on it!  Shows what a sharp mind attuned to nature can pick up on.

Anywho, this chapter demonstrates in various ways how humanity mucks things up by meddling with the nature of the Tao.  Whether meddling with the hearts by creating virtue and piling up treasures, meddling with the ears by creating music, or meddling with nature through the vanity and delusion of knowledge, the Primitivist is clearly not a fan of meddling.  This chapter borrows various themes from the Tao De Ching, such as from chapter 57 (“The more laws are created, the more criminals there will be”) and chapter 80, of which [The Age of Perfect Nature] is nearly a verbatim recreation.  The Primitivist’s distain for “knowledge” sheds some light on the Christian myth of the fall from grace (see Genesis 3), and echoes the sentiment of Chuang Tzu on technology (see section 5 of the previous article in this series).

In case you’re curious about what the Primitivist has against “the hard and white,” which he keeps railing on, “hard and white” are yang attributes, the contemplation and distinction of which were a favorite pursuit of the learned sages who did so much to disrupt the Tao.  Endless mouthfulls of discriminations and discernments surely accompanied any discussion of the yang and yin, cornerstones of Chinese philosophy, among highly educated, supposedly wise men.  Not to mention the hours of tedious contemplation these sages indulged in to arrive at their conclusions (which are, of course, of trivial consequence).  The Primitivist, rather, prefers uncontrived simplicity and a natural clarity of mind, states that serve life and nature rather than the vanity of scholars and sages.

11.  Letting it Be

[Leaving People Alone versus Government]

There has been such a thing as letting mankind alone and tolerance; there has never been such a thing as governing mankind. Letting alone springs from the fear that men’s natural dispositions will be perverted, and tolerance springs from the fear that their character will be corrupted. But if their natural dispositions be not perverted, nor their character corrupted, what need is there left for government?

Of old, when Yao governed the empire, he made the people live happily; consequently the people struggled to be happy and became restless. When Chieh governed the empire he made the people live miserably; consequently the people regarded life as a burden and were discontented. Restlessness and discontent are subversive of virtue; and without virtue there has never been such a thing as stability.

When man rejoices greatly, he gravitates towards yang (the positive pole). When he is in great anger, he gravitates towards yin (the negative pole). If the equilibrium of positive and negative is disturbed, the four seasons are upset, and the balance of heat and cold is destroyed, man himself suffers physically thereby. It causes men to rejoice and sorrow inordinately, to live disorderly lives, to be vexed in their thoughts, and to lose their balance and form of conduct. When that happens, then the whole world seethes with revolt and discontent, and we have such men as Robber Cheh, Tseng, and Shih. Offer the entire world as rewards for the good or threaten the wicked with the dire punishments of the entire world, and it is still insufficient (to reform them). Consequently, with the entire world, one cannot furnish sufficient inducements or deterrents to action. From the Three Dynasties downwards, the world has lived in a helter-skelter of promotions and punishments. What chance have the people left for living the even tenor of their lives?

Therefore, when a gentleman is unavoidably compelled to take charge of the government of the empire, there is nothing better than inaction (letting alone). By means of inaction only can he allow the people to live out the even tenor of their lives. Therefore if the gentleman can refrain from disturbing the internal economy of man, and from glorifying the powers of sight and hearing, he can sit still like a corpse or spring into action like a dragon, be silent as the deep or talk with the voice of thunder, and the movements of his spirit call forth the natural mechanism of Heaven. He can remain calm and leisurely doing nothing, while all things are brought to maturity and thrive. What need then would one have to set about governing the world?

[Government and Virtue]

Tsui Chu asked Lao Tan [Lao Tzu], saying, “If the empire is not to be governed, how are men’s hearts to be kept good?”

“Be careful,” replied Lao Tan, “not to interfere with the natural goodness of the heart of man. Man’s heart may be forced down or stirred up. In each case the issue is fatal. By gentleness, the hardest heart may be softened. But try to cut and polish it, and it will glow like fire or freeze like ice. In the twinkling of an eye it will pass beyond the limits of the Four Seas. In repose, it is profoundly still; in motion, it flies up to the sky. Like an unruly horse, it cannot be held in check. Such is the human heart.

[The Decline of Natural Virtue]

Of old, the Yellow Emperor first interfered with the natural goodness of the heart of man, by means of charity and duty. In consequence, Yao and Shun wore the hair off their legs and the flesh off their arms in endeavoring to feed their people’s bodies. They tortured the people’s internal economy in order to conform to charity and duty. They exhausted the people’s energies to live in accordance with the laws and statutes. Even then they did not succeed. Thereupon, Yao (had to) confine Huantou on Mount Tsung, exile the chiefs of the Three Miaos and their people into the Three Weis, and banish the Minister of Works to Yutu, which shows he had not succeeded. When it came to the times of the Three Kings (the founders of the three dynasties, Hsia, Shang, and Chou [2205-222 BC]), the empire was in a state of foment. Among the bad men were Chieh and Cheh; among the good were Tseng and Shih. By and by, the Confucianists and the [Mohists] arose; and then came confusion between joy and anger, fraud between the simple and the cunning, recrimination between the virtuous and the evil-minded, slander between the honest and the liars, and the world order collapsed. Then the great virtue lost its unity, men’s lives were frustrated. When there was a general rush for knowledge, the people’s desires ever went beyond their possessions. The next thing was then to invent axes and saws, to kill by laws and statutes, to disfigure by chisels and awls. The empire seethed with discontent, the blame for which rests upon those who would interfere with the natural goodness of the heart of man.

In consequence, virtuous men sought refuge in mountain caves, while rulers of great states sat trembling in their ancestral halls. Then, when dead men lay about pillowed on each other’s corpses, when yoked prisoners jostled each other in crowds and condemned criminals were seen everywhere, then the Confucianists and the Mohists bustled about and rolled up their sleeves in the midst of shackles and fetters! Alas, they know not shame, nor what it is to blush! Therefore it is said, “Abandon wisdom and discard knowledge, and the empire will be at peace.”

The distinctly anarchist tone of this chapter should be self-evident.  Though the last sentence ironically uses the words empire and peace in the same breath, the contradition probably is a result of translation, as it is common for the blunt minded to conflate the territorythe land itselfand the state which claims it.  But we will do well to remember that the lines which divide countries on a map are purely fictional, functions of the kind of “knowledge” which the Primitivist would do away with in order to restore peace.

Buddhists have a very illustrative term for this type of knowledge: māyā, which essentially means illusion, or more specifically the kind of thinking which imposes artificial human concepts upon the world, afterwards forgetting that they are not latent therein (think agriculture, racism, land boundaries, etc).  The foremost and most fundamental of these illusions is considered the misunderstanding of one’s own nature, resulting in the perception of one being an ego separate from the cosmos, when, of course, we are the Tao.

The writings of the Primitivist provide a salient look at the tension that arises when a nature-based spirituality faces the devastating force of civilization, and gives us some useful insights into the nature of the beast, both within and beyond, out yonder.  He reminds us that there was a way of life before alienation, before our faith in nature was lost, a Way of peace and plenty, which is the source and destiny of all life.  The Tao.

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