Thursday, April 2, 2009

Daoism and conservatism

Just a quick plug for Sam Crane’s succinct dissection of American conservatives’ tendency to compare themselves to Daoists:

It's true that some Daoist sensibilities have some resonance with certain conservative ideas. Less government: the Daodejing moves in that direction. Just letting people do their things: to the extent that libertarianism is a part of the incoherent mish-mash that is contemporary conservatism, sure that's kind of like a Daoist orientation. But here's the big problem for conservatives: Daoism is not, and cannot, operate as a political ideology.

In general, I’m usually suspicious of attempts to relate ancient Chinese thinking, or any kind of ancient thinking, to modern issues. Such attempts tend to be overly simplistic and ignore the complex, and completely pre-modern, cultural, intellectual, and historical milieu in which such thinking developed. A character such as ren 仁, for example, is usually translated as “benevolence,” “humanity,” or something along those lines, but the ways in which we understand those words have been shaped by numerous historical factors that didn’t exist in ancient China.

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