Humans and nature can resemble and learn from each other. In Confucianism, the fluid and reflective nature of water provides a model for the various ways of being. The way that water nourishes everything which is in it, fearlessly seeks out the lowest spots to fill them, and has the capacity to level itself no matter where it is found, are all lessons for humans in their ability to imitate water. The appropriate phrase to describe this relationship is “as if”. Humans are not water, but they are akin to it, which is why meditating on it draws us closer to balance and harmony. To be “as if” water is to embody the principle of wu-wei or doing nothing, in an effort to participate in a kind of creative emptiness. This interpretation of wu-wei differs in the later forms of Daoism, where non-action was hardened into a strategic doctrine for effective rule. In this way, the agenda of wu-wei was no longer about finding stillness and peace and to “be like”, but about calculatingly managing others as a way of indirectly exerting one’s power and influence.
There are a few points to consider here: Zhuang Zhou is not a butterfly, dreaming is not awakening, and knowledge is not ignorance. Yet, these distinct situations interdepend and interchange to the point of where Zhuang Zhou is uncertain of where he is. The two contrasting moments correspond to the Confucian concept of li, ‘ritual’ and yue, ‘music’. The essense of li is control, and that of yue is ‘harmony’. Control holds back, while harmony blends. They correspond to Zhuang Zhou’s two moments in the dream of distinction then interchange, which also pervades our everyday life.
The word authentic comes from the Medieval Latin authenticus and Greek authentikos, meaning “original, genuine, principal”, from authentes or “acting on one’s own authority”. It derives from the term autos or “self, of oneself (independently)” and hentes meaning “being”, and the modern use of authentic implies that to be authentic, the contents in question should correspond to facts. In other words, authenticity refers to trustworthiness, reliability and consistency. An authentic document, for example, is understood to be genuine and original, or not a fake or copy, while authentic words are understood to come from the heart. Feelings and words should be aligned if they are to be considered authentic. Thus, a thing is authentic if it is what it professes to be. However, the question of authenticity becomes more complicated when authenticity becomes a characteristic attributed to human beings. After all, what does it mean to be truly autos-hentes or one’s own being? And is it even possible to truly represent oneself genuinely?
According to Varga (2020), although being oneself is somewhat inescapable, since whenever you make a choice or act, it is you who is making that choice or act, many of our thoughts, decisions and actions are not really are own and so they cannot genuinely express who we are. The issue here is whether we can ever be authentic in our day-to-day life in spite of influences that come from our families, friends, government, education, ideological affiliations, and even the language that we speak, which can affect the way that we think. If we are simply made up of these amalgam of influences, it would mean that our sense of self could not have existed without society. This argument goes so far as to make the metaphysical claim that our expressive self is only real because we as a society have made it real. So once we imagine it and give it a name and role, we cause it to be real. Consider the following dilemma: as far as we know, ‘Jennifer’ is a daughter, student, and friend. She is a Christian, an Australian, and only speaks English. We know of Jennifer as a kind girl. She was taught to express herself politely and has never in our presence made a condescending mark towards anyone. Do all these things point to an authentic Jennifer (where an authentic Jennifer would be one who acts in a way that reinforces her status as a kind, Christian friend and daughter), or is an authentic Jennifer the Jennifer beyond the labels and concepts, that is, the human that people happen to refer to by ‘Jennifer’? We will return to the Jennifer dilemma later.
Studies of contemporary Western culture are informed by conceptions of human agency, which emphasize individuality as the principal theme of personhood. Although the prevailing myth of individualism is that in eighteenth-century Europe, a few courageous men of reason fought against religious repression to set the individual free to find and express his authentic self, the development of individualism was gradual and much more complex than this myth suggests. The Enlightenment movement’s demand for liberty re-defined human beings as individual entities rather than as role-bearers in the system of social relations. People slowly gained an increasing awareness of what Charles Taylor (1989) refers to as “inwardness” or “internal space”, where the authentic self can be separated from public performance and perception. Furthermore, the growth of commerce created an expanding middle class of merchants, well-off farmers and urban craftsmen who advocated for private property and individual wealth accumulation (Foley, 2017). Underlying these developments was Christianity’s revolutionary idea: “we are all equal because we are all brothers” (Puyol, 2019). Although this concept of fraternity promised that every individual human being (whether child, woman, foreigner, poor, disabled, non-Christian, etc.) was equal in the eyes of God, fraternity did not translate into political equality because Christian equality was about the equal worth of souls and not the equal rights of men on earth. By the nineteenth century, these commercial, intellectual and religious movements and ideas promoted individualism and led to the development of capitalist entrepreneurism and Romantic individualism, where in the latter, the quest to find an authentic self translated into rejecting materialism and society and living solitarily in nature. A similar albeit mass version of Romantic individualism occurred in the 1960s, which Taylor (1998) called “an individuating revolution”. 1960s global youth culture produced expressive individualism, which rejected conformity and authority in order to discover or find your ‘true self’. The revolution promoted self-expression, equality and sensuality, but rather than simply being an excuse for self-indulgent hippyism (which 1960s youth culture is usually accused of), it was a way of shifting from the systems and times that suppressed individuality and creativity, resulting in the emergence of the Age of Authenticity.
Critics argue that the pursuit of authenticity and individualism has resulted in cultural decline as the preoccupation on one’s own feelings and attitudes is anti-social and destroys altruism and compassion towards others and community. Christopher Lasch (1979) has claimed that there are similarities between authenticity and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which are both characterized by self-indulgence and a lack of empathy. For Bloom (1987), the preoccupation with authenticity has made the minds of the youth “narrower and flatter” (p. 61), while Bell (1976) argues that the traditional economic processes, “based on a moral system of reward rooted in Protestant sanctification of work” (p. 38), have lost their legitimacy and are replaced by hedonism and the search for extreme experience or “kicks” and “highs”. The obsession with authenticity has also led to a time where we are losing our sense of truth and reality. Criticism of public institutions has gone so far as to legitimize alternative ways of knowing, where conspiracy theories and alternative medicine, schooling and journalism are all part of the larger conversation that characterizes the era of post-truth that we currently live in. On the other hand, as Watts (2019) states, there is a kind of nobility in the pursuit of authenticity. It is now common to tell children to follow their dreams and pursue their passions rather than stick to a dreary job all their lives that we believe would at odds with their true selves. There is also a kind of desperation to have authenticity around us, from our expectations of honesty and transparency in our closest relationships to how our leaders present themselves, for there is “nothing more despicable than a person who isn’t genuine…who betrays their feelings in order to save face.” There is also a tendency in Western society to avoid the monotonous nature of ritual, “which keeps us chained to the past.” (Watts, 2019). Meanwhile, the romanticisation of romantic love has stayed with us because it feels spontaneous and unmediated, which shows how authenticity has turned into the new cultural currency.
The emphasis on authenticity and transparency in Western culture sits well with the philosophical school of Existentialism. Existentialism arose with the collapse of the idea that philosophy itself can provide substantive norms and rules for existing by specifying particular ways of living, while authenticity was advocated as the approach where I can engage in my life as my own (Crowell, 2020). The need to live an authentic life to live meaningfully adds another important layer in moral evaluations. For instance, by keeping my promise, I act in accordance to a duty to others, and if I keep acting so because it is my duty, than according to Kant, I am acting morally because I act for the sake of duty. But, from the existentialist perspective, by simply keeping my promise out of duty’s sake makes the moral act of promise keeping inauthentic because I am only keeping the promise because I believe it is required and expected of moral people to do so. To keep my promise authentically, I need to take ownership of this choice and commit myself to the act of keeping my promise because it is my own decision and action, and not because it is socially or morally required of me. Only then can I succeed in being myself authentically. By choosing to do things on my own account, I recover myself from being alienated and absorbed into the anonymous self that uncritically engages in the world. Thus, there is a kind of integrity in acting authentically: I can either occupy a role and time that was given to me by others and drift in and out of these roles while feeling separated from myself, or I can autonomously commit myself and become whatever I choose.
In classical China, there was a similar prevailing interest in how to live an authentic life. The Daoist school, for example, actively rejected the Confucian idea that the good life comes from embodying traditional social norms and rites and instead focused on taking care of one’s own interest. Harisson (2013) refers to this as the ethical egoist argument, where the right thing to do is to pursue one’s own interests and maximize one’s own good. Because, it is argued, we are naturally inclined to prioritize our own interests, it follows that following societal ethical recommendations about doing the right thing distorts our selfish nature and therefore compromises our authentic selves. But, whereas the Confucian scholar Xunzi, who also recognized human selfish nature, argued that it is up to moral education and rigorous practice of rites to correct human behavior, the Daoist Yang Zhu claimed that to live an ethical life, we must maintain what is genuine in our lives by avoiding artificial moral and social obligations. So, rather than finding the good life in appropriate social relationships and roles, we should actively retreat from our social life and get rid of material goods and power. Thus, the best life can be can be lived away from society and in harmony with the natural flow of Dao (the Way). An authentic life can be found in the natural world, beside rivers and mountains, which is more conducive to living authentically, that is, as our true selves stripped from others’ expectations and from our artificial social roles.
So, there are various ways of answering the Jennifer dilemma. For the Confucians, Jennifer’s authentic self comes from how others see her and the roles she is expected to play in her social relationships. Jennifer is only Jennifer because she is a daughter to her mother, an Australian national, and a Christian follower. She becomes more herself the more she honorably practices these roles and carries out the appropriate rites and rituals associated with her identity. Existentialists would argue that she is only truly Jennifer if she autonomously adopts her role as daughter, Christian, etc. as her own. If she is simply following these roles mindlessly because others expect her to, then she is harming her authentic self and will never find the satisfaction of taking control over her own existence. Finally, the ethical egoist Daoists would claim that an authentic Jennifer can only be found if she rejects her social roles and obligations as daughter, Australian citizen, Christian. Only once she retreats from the socially constructed ‘Jennifer’ can the real, authentic Jennifer live in harmony and simplicity.
The Confucian texts show us that we can learn from water, especially still water because the stillness of water provides us with a mirror to reflect on the nature of reality, and in this reflection, we have the opportunity to embody stillness and calmness of mind. The importance of water and stillness highlights the importance of wu-wei, the art of doing nothing. Translated as effortless action, skilled inactivity, or action through non-action, wu-wei calls for passivity, quietude, and the absence of contentiousness in order to smoothly accommodate the other. Such action takes discipline and strength, much like how a professional swimmer effortlessly glides across the water. Thus, rather than interpreting wu-wei as a strategy to control and influence others indirectly, wu-wei can literally mean doing nothing, waiting, and reflecting as still water.
The original phrasing in chapter 4, section 4.2 uses “to attack” rather than “to govern” to mean that only when the people are attacked and thereby weakened can strong governance be established. The Book of Lord Shang puts forward the argument that people will only follow state order out of fear and so to create a strong and functioning state, a strong army should be created to deter people from doing wrong by inflicting heavy punishment.
The Book of Lord Shang is one of the most important, yet least studied, texts in Chinese philosophy and political culture. Along with the Analects, it is one of the foundational texts of early Chinese political thought that provides lengthy chapters about land management, state-society relations, historical evolution, and human nature. The book is the earliest surviving text from the Legalist School and is largely attributed to the thoughts of Shang Yang (Gongsun Yang or Lord of Shang), the successful politician whose state reforms allowed the Qin Empire to prosper during the tumultuous Warring States period. The Qin vision for long lasting governance was to empower the state by establishing total control over its material and human resources, an idea that is repeatedly put forward in chapter 4.
Throughout the fourth chapter, the moral norms of Chinese traditional culture, including rites and music, goodness and self-cultivation, are ridiculed with calls for the creation of a regime in which “villains…rule [the] good” (4.3); and an army that wins by doing “whatever the enemy is ashamed of” (4.1). Moreover, the textual style of using short and energetic sentences creates a “take it or leave it” approach to the text, where policies are proclaimed, but the justification for such action is rarely ever elaborated on. Despite the provocative ideas and lack of explanation in some sections, the text gives much insight into the Warring States period and the formation of the Chinese empire.
We live in a man’s world. From the great discoverers, philosophers, artists and scientists, to the law-makers, conquerors, and gods who were created in the image of man, our cultures and institutions were created by men, for men. The ideology of male intellectual, cultural and physical supremacy was easily demonstrated in earlier times when it was still publically acceptable when a man physically assaulted his wife if she questioned him. Both sexes were prescribed ‘genders’ or particular behaviors, appearances and roles that reinforced a power structure that portrayed men as naturally physical, more reasonable than women, more inventive, less affected by emotion, while simultaneously claiming that men were naturally aggressive and unable to cook or wash their own clothes. The patriarchal gender ideology was a system of convenience for men. As well as enforcing heterosexuality, it made marriage, one of the most intimate forms of human relationship, a relationship of master and slave. Keeping women controlled and out of the public domain, where men could attend to worldly affairs while women would stay home and do the undervalued work of raising children and doing housework (or running errands for her husband if she belonged to a higher class), was a means of creating and institutionalizing the rule of the father, allowing men as a group to dominate positions of power in culture, politics, law, business, military, and policing for thousands of years.
According to Figes (1986), the main motivation for male domination over the female is intimately related to paternity. Once a man knows for certain that there is a physical link between him and the child in his woman’s womb, the born child is believed to be a continuation of himself. In this sense, by controlling woman and her reproduction, man could become immortal. His name, power and property could be passed down through his sons, and onto their sons, allowing man to cheat death. By making women act as a vessel to mans’ seed, he gains a new sense of power and control over his environment. On a political level, passing territory and power through sons is expressed through the god-ruler relationship. For instance, in ancient China, the emperor was understood to be the “Son of Heaven”, who was responsible for maintaining harmony between the human-earthly sphere and the spiritual-heavenly world according to the Mandate of Heaven. In the neighboring territory of Japan, the supreme ruler was likewise divine. It was believed that incarnation occurred when the goddess Amaterasu gave birth to the founder of the dynasty that has been ruling Japan ever since in different bodily forms while maintaining the “Son of Heaven” status. In the Russian empire, the status of Tsar continued the Byzantine tradition of combining supreme secular and church authority into one monarch. Orthodox theologians argued that the Tsar acted as God’s emissary and was imbued with both absolute power and absolute responsibility to God. Consequently, although the Tsar was expected to obey God’s laws, he could write and decide earthly laws himself. Coronation or anointment to Tsardom was believed to be a sign from heaven, where the ruler, a Christ figure transfigured, embodied the Russian nation-state, Rossiia. Peter the Great, for example, tried to distinguish the state and its institutions from his personal authority, but failed to do so and his legitimacy as Tsar was based on his performance of heroic acts, which proved his transcendence by advancing the welfare of the earthly realm (Wortman, 2013). Peter’s successors too justified their authority not only by inherited rights, but by performance of the hero-ruler and his saving of the state and nation.
For Daly (2001), the god-ruler relationship in patriarchal societies is about men trying to rid themselves of their faults and impurities by subliming themselves into God, who is so sublime that he is both nowhere and everywhere at the same time. In this case, male rulers reified their self-images into the sublime symbol of god, and “use this condensed and purified product as a mask to engender awe” (p. 73). The mask of the heavenly father-son was used to justify particular dynastic rulers and ensure that powerful men were not limited by their physical bodies. They became immortal as heads of state through books written about them and through images, statues, masks, icons, and other idealized portrayals. These men of power were also believed to transcend the limitations of the human mind by their ability to communicate with a higher spirit, allowing them to be omnipotent or “almighty, possessing infinite power”. The heavenly father-son mask is not only limited to its abuse by political leaders. Religious representatives like priests, rabbis and ministers, as well as non-religious men of power, including psychiatrists, physicians, judges, scientists, and businessmen attempt to elicit awe from their patients, clients, subjects and other subordinates (Daly, 2001). They all presented a kind of omnipotent, omnipresent masculinity because if God is a father-son ruling his people, then it is in the nature of things that, according to the divine plan, the order of the universe and of our society is and remains male-centered, while women are converted into vessels chosen to be filled with divine male offspring. In this society, “woman exists only as an occasion for mediation, transaction, transition, transference, between man and his fellow man, indeed between man and himself” (Irigaray, 1985, p. 193). Works of art devoted to male sublimation portray, often in detail, female victimization and suffering. For instance, male rape fantasies are often reenacted and featured in works which depict religion, duty, patriotism and romantic love. Poussin’s Rape of the Sabines, Titian’s Rape of Europa and Botticelli’s Primavera, all depict “heroic” rape scenes that demonstrate the idealized traits of a new wife, including submissiveness to her husband and sacrifice for family and country. These scenes also show how sex can act as a weapon against women. As Andrea Dworkin (1987) stated, in intercourse women are “occupied−physically, internally, in her privacy” (p. 154). The material effects of the heavenly father-son masculinity can be seen in the different ways that violence is carried out against women in the home by domestic violence and marital rape; in the battlefield by military rape and prostitution; in religion by the exalted rape of Virgin Mary; and in pornography, where the rape of women is often depicted as ‘sexy’ and a ‘turn on’. In all of these depictions, the eroticization of rape, cruelty and other violence against women serves to ensure that men continue to gain access to women’s bodies to ensure male immortality and power.
In a world in which men hold most of the power, women’s status is argued to be in a state of dereliction, defined as a state of abandonment or “state of fusion which does not succeed in emerging as a subject” (Irigaray, 1991, p. 81). Women’s lack of a language in which they can recognize and love themselves and each other is reinforced by the systematic discrimination against women as a group in global political and economic institutions, in the continued practice of female genital mutilation, and in the religious and community wars against women and girls. Take the continued practice of female infanticide and femicide (the intentional killing of women because they are women) as just one example. Globally, the rate of femicide is significantly high. The Global Burden of Armed Violence 2015 database estimates that around 60,000 women are killed violently around the world each year. In El Salvador and Honduras, there are more than 10 female homicides per 100,000 women and the level of violence affecting women in these countries exceeds the combined rate of male and female homicides in the top 40 countries with the highest murder rates in the world, including Ecuador, Nicaragua and Tanzania (Global Americans Report, 2020). Between 2012 and 2015, there was an estimated 24,771 dowry deaths in India, while in Jordan, there are more than 20 reported “honor” killings each year (The Indian Express, 2015). Furthermore, at least 117 million girls around the world are estimated to demographically go “missing” due to sex-selective abortions, and in India alone, more than 10 million female births have been lost to sex selective abortion in the last 20 years (Asian Centre for Human Rights, 2016).
Thus, the heavenly father-son persona allows men to assume leadership positions and creates an environment conducive to male continuity and prosperity through male-centrered institutions, cultures and practices of violence against women. As a system of thought and being, the patriarchal god-family institutionalizes prideful masculinity and gives man and his sex the power of naming and of giving and taking, namely female, life. Women are placed on the other end of this system and are considered inferior and as financial liabilities to their families, while women themselves have, and in some cases continue to have, little or no say in the matter.
In this episode, the role and function of the Confucian Sage is examined. Much like the psychotherapist in the West, the Sage purposely uses silence to allow individuals to reflect on their selves, their conceptions of personhood, and on their community of relationships. The mirror-like quality of the sage in this encounter provides an alternative to examining one’s life through self-perception or through the perception of others which can be biased and full of judgement. But while the psychotherapist tends to use silence strategically or as a tool that masks psychotherapeutic theories, definitions and diagnoses, the Confucian Sage continues to be passive and non-intrusive to send back an image of what is given. Thus, the emptiness and stillness of the Sage’s mind is a required part of providing people with self-insight and hopefully, moral betterment.