Thursday, May 21, 2009

Unemployment and Ancient Chinese Philosophy

Well, I am now good and unemployed. My duties as a professor of philosophy are all over, and I head out to meet a retired philosopher who specialized in Japanese philosophy who only recently moved to town tonight. During my third year review, (which I failed) I wrote and printed a short piece entitled “Miscellaneous Thoughts on Retention in My Position as an Assistant Professor” which consisted of only the following 5 quotes, but I elected not to include it in my 100page+ “retention packet.”

Here are a few things Confucius says about unemployment …
Confucius says “Riches and position are what men desire. If their attainment is to be by departing from the Way, do not have them. Poverty and lowliness are what men hate. If their abandonment is to be had by departing from the Way, do not abandon them ….” (Analects 4:5)
Confucius said, “Ning Wu Tzu was wise when the Way prevailed in the state, but dull witted when the Way did not prevail in the state. His wisdom could be equaled, but his dull-wittedness could not be equaled” (Analects 5:21)

Confucius believed in working, some times one worked for their family, and sometimes one worked for the state or some other employer. Confucius’ own job was mostly training young men who would seek employment, and he has a lot of other subtle things to say about the process (at 10:26, 9:16, or 14:1). But the heart of Confucius’ idea was that good people should be in high office, and offices should be given out meritocratically, not just to the most skilled, but to those with all round virtue. “Raising the Worthy” is the heart of Confucius’ system, his own “Way” and his opponents often think and talk about him in terms of his advocacy of raising the worthy. But Confucius also clearly imagines that taking part in family life is more central than employment (2:21). A virtuous man should be employed when the state is functioning well, but equally SHOULD be unemployed, or rather employed by his family, when the stat is not functioning well, even though this involves poverty or lowliness or dull-wittedness. For Confucius, employment is a good thing, but unemployment is nonetheless sometimes a duty. A job in a state which is not run via the way of virtue, will often put a person in the position of needing to act unvirtuously in order to keep their job, and that is not worth it according to Confucius. Likewise the job can come between a person and their duties to their family, unless the way prevails in the state.

Here are some things the Daodejing says:
“Do not raise the worthy, so that people will not compete
Do not value rare treasures, so that people will not steal
Do not display objects of desire, so that people’s hearts shall not be disturbed/ …”
Daodejing 3

Be apprehensive when receiving favor or disgrace.
Regard trouble as seriously as you regard your own body
What is meant by being apprehensive when receiving favor or disgrace?
Favor is considered inferior. / …
Daodejing 13

The Daodejing has a deeper worry about employment. “Raising the worthy” is already wrong. Raising the worthy leads to competition, and competition leads to problems for the family and state. Rather the sage rules by “emptying hearts and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones” (3). The Daodejing has a profoundly dialectical understanding of employment and unemployment. If the laws are complex, people will become cunning thieves to evade them. If wealth is exalted, people will fight each other and damage the state and themselves to become wealthy. If “merit” is the path to high status, then people will become skilled at faking “merit” in order to be “raised” as being “worthy.” So it is a mistake to encourage either employment of unemployment, “Therefore the sage says: I have no desires and people return to the good and simple life.” The way out of the mess is to re-orient one’s understanding so that favor does not seem desirable but dangerous, so that the good and simple life seems attractive. Humility is considered one of the Jewels of the Dao by the Daoists, but it isn’t a duty or burden like it is for Confucius. It is not enough to desire wealth but refuse to seek it, when it cannot be sought honorably, rather even desiring wealth is already a problem.

But as usual, my favorite thinker here is Zhuangzi. In Chapter 4 of the Book of Zhuangzi, Zhuangzi imagines a discussion between Confucius and his favorite disciple Yen Hui. Hui describes how he is going to go about impressing the rich and powerful so that they will employ him and he can improve things. First he plans to encourage the rulers to reform and act better, and Confucius shoots him down and says that their bosses will just overrule and fire or kill them. So Hui imagines that he will dissemble, being outwardly deceptive, but inwardly retaining his integrity. And Confucius shoots him down again, saying that this won’t work, “You are still being guided by your perceptions.” Instead Hui needs to engage in “the fast of the heart.” When Hui has done this and comes back and describes the experience, Confucius is delighted and says

“Perfect! I will tell you. You are capable of entering and roaming free inside his cage [the prospective employer], but do not be excited that you are making a name for yourself. When the words penetrate, sing your native note; when they fail to penetrate, desist. When there are no doors for you, no outlets, treating all abodes as one, you will find your lodgings in whichever is the inevitable, you will be nearly there.” Zhuangzi, chap 4

For Zhuangzi the issue of employment isn’t ultimately about raising the worthy, and merit, or about the dialectic of striving and competition, rather it is about the true emptiness of one’s heart when one takes lodging in the inevitable. One treats “all abodes:” employment and unemployment, rich houses and poor, states where the way prevails, and states where it does not, as one.

It is not only my job that is over. Unemployment is rising in the US like it hasn’t since the Great Depression, and it will continue to do so for some time. Much about our current collapse is already inevitable. Poverty and lowness are coming and we cannot abandon them whether we would like to or not. Our culture has excelled at “displaying objects of desire” and the peoples hearts will be disturbed beyond reckoning as they become more and more unattainable. Humility is certainly a jewel we should seek. But the truth is more than that. It is time for us to “find our lodging in whatever is inevitable.”

A few pages later, Zhuangzi has Confucius give this following wonderful summary

Confucius said: “Under heaven there are two great principles: one is destiny the other is duty. The love of a son for his parents is destiny and cannot be taken away from his heart. For a subject to serve his ruler is duty; there is no escaping this duty anywhere between heaven and earth. These are called two great principles. Therefore, a son finds contentment in serving his parents in all circumstances: this is the perfection of filial piety. A subject finds contentment in serving his ruler in all circumstances: this is the perfection of duty. But to serve one’s own soul so that grief and joy are not overwhelming, to outwardly handle what life throws at you as inevitable and not to be worried by this, this is the perfection of virtue. One who is a subject, or a son, has to do what he has to do. Caught up in the affairs of state, he forgets his own life. He has no time to love life or fear death. Therefore, dear friend, go on your mission!”


  1. Brian,

    I'm sorry to hear that you've lost your job.

    I'm a reader of TAE, and I've just found your blog here. Enjoying it.

    I'm an English teacher, and I do a class on religion & literature. A few weeks ago we looked at Zhuangzi, but only sections 1 & 2. The students (twelfth graders) really enjoyed the readings, and I think they were a little shaken up by them too. They all affect a brave relativism, but get a little nervous when they see Zhuangzi's version!


  2. Yeah Chapters 1 & 2 have a lot of the meat of Zhuangzi already, including the relativism, but his charm is related to his many cool stories. Snail Horns, the famous dialogue of Zhuangzi, Huizi, and the fish, and Zhuangzi as a young poacher, are all elsewhere.

    Zhaungzi tell the story of a snail with two "horns." On this snail there were people so tiny that there was a whole kingdom living on the left horn of the snail and another on the right horn. After much provocation, the people of the left horn could endure the insults no more and waged terrible war on the people of the right horn. And they wiped out the arrogant bastards of the right horn, suffering great losses themselves, and held a glorious victory party with a subdued moment of silence for the fallen, as the world apart from the snail cared not a whit.

    Zhuangzi tell that once a bug was chewing on a leaf so intently, that he did not notice the preying mantis who was about to eat him. And the preying mantis was studying the bug it was about to eat so intently, that it did not notice the hawk that was about to eat him. And the hawk was diving down at the preying mantis so intently that it did not notice Zhaungzi as a young poacher concentrating and aiming his crossbow. And Zhuangzi saw the bug, the mantis, the hawk, and his crossbow, and he stopped and looked around and saw one of the King's forest rangers hiding and aiming a crossbow at him. And he lowered his crossbow without firing, said hi, and took up life as a philosopher and shoemaker, rather than as a poacher.