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LIEZI - Chapter 6 - Effort and Destiny

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LIEZI - Chapter 6 - Effort and Destiny




The Chinese word for destiny is tien-ming, 'the decree of heaven', often reduced to ming alone, the decree behind it is the image of heaven ruling events as the Emperor, the son of heaven',
rules men. But heaven is only vaguely personal even for Confucians, and quite impersonal for Taoists. In the Lieh-tzu the ' decree ’ is a pure metaphor; events either happen' of themselves,
spontaneously, or are the effects of human endeavour, and are 'decreed if they belong to the former class.

Where to place the dividing line between heaven and man, the decree of heaven’ and human action, is one of the constant problems of Chinese thought. According to Confucianism,
whether we act rightly or wrongly depends on ourselves, but whether our actions lead to wealth or poverty, long life or early death, is decreed by heaven. The Mohist school rejected this
limited fatalism, claiming that wealth and long life also depend on ourselves, since they are heaven's reward's for righteous conduct. Both these theories of destiny are designed to  encourage moral endeavour. Mohism, like the great Western and West Asiatic religions, promises rewards for the good. Confucianism, recognising that good is not always rewarded in practice, argues from a different direction, claiming that it is a mistake to let selfish considerations distract us from acting morally, since wealth and long life are the gifts of destiny, and no endeavour can bring them nearer.

Taoists are less interested in the problem of destiny, and it is interesting to find in the Lieh-tzu a complete theory which can stand beside those of the other schools. Its central point is that all
endeavour is powerless against destiny. It is useless to weigh benefit and harm, right and wrong; the result will be the same whatever you do. If you fall ill, don t bother to call a doctor;
you will recover if you are destined to recover. This extreme fatalism is something quite unusual in Chinese philosophy, although the sceptic Wang Chung (born a .d . 27), an independent thinker who criticised all the schools, held a very similar position. Lu Ch ung-hsiian, who wrote a commentary on the Lieh-tzu for the Taoist Emperor Ming-huang 3 755) found the fatalism of this chapter as detestable as the hedonism of the next. At first sight such an extreme fatalism, like the Taoist principle o f Doing Nothing', seems to be an invitation to complete inertia. On closer inspection we see that it is designed to encourage spontaneity in the same way that the Confucian and Mohist theories are designed to encourage moral endeavour.


Fatalism disturbs us because it undermines our faith in the value of the moral choice. However, we do not mind hearing that actions are destined, if they are of a kind outside the range of conscious decision; the claim that a man may be destined to commit a murder no doubt alarms us, the suggestion that he may be fated to fall in love with a particular woman on the contrary has a romantic charm. But the Lieh-tzu directly repudiates conscious choice; it advises us to develop the capacity to respond without conceiving alternatives, and activities which are spontaneous in the sense of being unpremeditated are just those which we do not
mind admitting are predictable. 


If we ought to train ourselves to allow our actions to be so of themselves', destined instead of forced by conscious endeavour, then pure fatalism is healthy instead of baleful, precisely because it undermines our faith in the utility of conscious choice. Chinese theories of destiny seldom touch the problem of free will. They assume the capacity to choose; the question is whether the success or failure of the chosen course of action is due to heaven or to man. But the Lieh-tzu comes near to crossing the line which separates fatalism from predestination and determinism. This chapter ends with the pronouncement that aims as well as achievements are outside our control, since they depend on our situation; a man's situation makes him aim at profit if he is a merchant, at power if he is an official. A series of anecdotes illustrates the claim that certain famous men who are praised for making the right choice in fact had no choice. However, in the last resort the author does not deny that we can choose if we make the mistake of supposing that it will benefit us to do so.


His point is rather that we ought not to choose. The true Taoist empties his mind of all subjective principles, attends to the external situation with perfect concentration, and responds to itwithout conceiving alternatives. It is usual to praise Duke Huan of Ch'i ( 6 8 5 - 6 4 3 b .c .) for his lack of prejudice when he made his enemy Kuan Chung chief minister. But he wanted to become master of the Empire, and only Kuan Chung could achieve this for him. No doubt he could have acted differently, if he had let subjective preferences distort his vision; but if his mind accurately mirrored the objective situation, what choice had he? 

The highest man at rest is as though dead, in movement is like a machine. The comparison with a machine recalls the story of the robot which performed before King Mu, and Chang Chan's comment that some of his contemporaries believed that the human organism is a mechanism without a spirit inside it. It is at first sight surprising to find such a conception in a mystical philosophy. In the West this is an idea forced on us by science, very offensive to moral, religious and aesthetic prejudices. Taoists, on the contrary, believe that there ought not to be any will preventing our actions from according with the Way like the movements o f inanimate objects; the comparison with a mindless machine occurs naturally to them, even without the
scientific basis which could give it plausibility.





Effort said to Destiny:

I have purposely avoided the familiar modern terms, Fate and Free will, which might seem to furnish the best equivalent to li and mingLi is the ordinary word for 'strength' or 'force,' and here indicates human effort exerted in some definite direction (the German 'streben') as opposed to the blind and unconscious workings of Nature or Tao.


'Your achievements are not equal to mine.' 'Pray what do you achieve in the working of things,' replied Destiny, 'that you would compare yourself With me? 'Why,' said Effort, 'the length of man's life, his measure of success, his rank, and his wealth, are all things which I have the power to determine.' To this, Destiny made reply: 'P'êng Tsu's wisdom did not exceed that of Yao and Shun, yet he lived to the age of eight hundred. Yen Yüan's ability was not inferior to that of the average man, yet he died at the early age of thirty-two. The virtue of Confucius was not less than that of the feudal princes, yet he was reduced to sore straits between Ch'ên and Ts'ai.


The conduct of Chou, of the Yin dynasty, did not surpass that of the Three Men of Virtue, yet he occupied a kingly throne. Wei Tzu, Chi Tzu and Pi Kan were all relatives of Chou Hsin, by whose orders the last-named was disembowelled. Chi Cha would not accept the overlordship of Wu, while T'ien Hêng usurped sole power in Ch'i. Po I and Shu. Ch'i starved to death at Shou-yang, while Chi Shih waxed rich at Chan-ch'in. If these results were compassed by your efforts, how is it that you allotted long life to P'êng Tsu and an untimely death to Yen Yüan; that you awarded discomfiture to the sage and success to the impious, humiliation to the wise man and high honours to the fool, poverty to the good and wealth to the wicked? 'If, as you say,' rejoined Effort, 'I have really no control over events, is it not, then, owing to your management that things turn out as they do?


Destiny replied: 'The very name "Destiny"

Something already immutably fixed.  Shows that there can be no question of management in the case. When the way is straight, I push on; when it is crooked, I put up with it. Old age and early death, failure and success, high rank and humble station, riches and poverty--all these come naturally and of themselves. How can I know anything about them? 'Being what it is, without knowing why--that is the meaning of Destiny. What room is there for management here?



Yang Chu had a friend called Chi Liang, who fell ill. In seven days' time his illness had become very grave; medical aid was summoned, and his sons stood weeping round his bed. Chi Liang said to Yang Chu: 'Such excess of emotion shows my children to be degenerate. Will you kindly sing them something which will enlighten their minds? Yang Chu then chanted the following words:

'How can men be aware of things outside God's ken? Over misfortune man has no control, and can look for no help from God. Have doctors and wizards this knowledge that you and I have not?

The sons, however, did not understand, and finally called in three physicians, Dr Chiao, Dr Yü and Dr Lu. They all diagnosed his complaint; and Dr Chiao delivered his opinion first: 'The hot and cold elements of your body,' he said to Chi Liang, 'are not in harmonious accord, and the impermeable and infundibular parts are mutually disproportionate. The origin of your malady is traceable to disordered appetites, and to the dissipation of your vital essence through worry and care. Neither God nor devil is to blame. Although the illness is grave, it is amenable to treatment.'


Chi Liang said: 'You are only one of the common ruck,' and speedily got rid of him. {p. 93} Then Dr Yü came forward and said: 'You were born with too little nervous force, and were too freely fed with mother's milk. Your illness is not one that has developed in a matter of twenty-four hours; the causes which have led up to it are of gradual growth. It is incurable.' Chi Liang replied: 'You are a good doctor,' and told them to give him some food. Lastly, Dr Lu said: 'Your illness is attributable neither to God, nor to man, nor to the agency of spirits. It was already fore-ordained in the mind of Providence when you were endowed with this bodily form at birth. What possible good can herbs and drugs do you? 'You are a heaven-born physician indeed!' cried Chi Liang; and he sent him away laden with presents.

Not long after, his illness disappeared of itself.



Duke Ching of Ch'i was travelling across the northern flank of the Ox-mountain in the direction of the capital. Gazing at the view before him, he burst into a flood of tears, exclaiming: 'What a lovely scene! How verdant and luxuriantly wooded! To think that some day I must die and leave my kingdom, passing away like running water! If only there were no such things as death, nothing should induce me to stir from this spot.' Two of the Ministers in attendance on the Duke, taking their cue from him, also began to weep, saying: 'We, who are dependent on your Highness's bounty, whose food is of an inferior sort, who have to ride on broken-down hacks or in creaking carts--even we do not want to die. How much less our sovereign liege!'


Yen Tzu, meanwhile, was standing by, with a broad smile on his face. The Duke wiped away his tears and, looking at him, said: 'To-day I am stricken with grief on my journey, and both K'ung and Chü mingle their tears with mine. How is it that you alone can smile? Yen Tzu replied: 'If the worthy ruler were to remain in perpetual possession of his realm, Duke T'ai and Duke Huan would still be exercising their sway. If the bold ruler were to remain in perpetual possession, Duke Chuang and Duke Ling would still be ruling the land. But if all these rulers were now in possession, where would your Highness be? Why, standing in the furrowed fields, clad in coir cape and hat! The ordinary garb of a Chinese peasant in wet weather.


Condemned to a hard life on earth, you would have had no time, I warrant, for brooding over death. Again, how did you yourself come to occupy this throne? By a series of successive reigns and removals, until at last your turn came. And are you alone going to weep and lament over this order of things? That is pure selfishness. it was the sight of these two objects--a self-centred prince and his fawning attendants--that set me quietly laughing to myself just now.'

Duke Ching felt much ashamed. Raising his goblet, he fined himself one cup, and his obsequious courtiers two cups of wine apiece.



There was once a man, Tung-mên Wu of Wei, who when his son died testified no grief. His house-steward said to him: 'The love you bore your son could hardly be equalled by that of any other parent. Why, then, do you not mourn for him now that he is dead? 'There was a time,' replied Tung-mên Wu, 'when I had no son, yet I never had occasion to grieve on that account. Now that my son is dead, I am only in the same condition as I was before my son was born. What reason have I, then, to mourn?

There is a story of Plutarch consoling his wife in exactly similar terms after the death of their daughter.

The husbandman takes his measures according to the season, the trader occupies himself with gain, the craftsman strives to master his art, the official pursues power. Here we have the operation of human forces.


But the husbandman has seasons of rain and seasons of drought, the trader meets with gains and losses, the craftsman experiences both failure and success, the official finds opportunities or the reverse. Here we see the working of Destiny.

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