Comparing and Contrasting Virtue in Taoism and Socrates' Philosophy
The idea of virtue in Taoism may be compared and contrasted to the idea of virtue in the teachings of Socrates. For Socrates, virtue is related to the pursuit of wisdom through philosophy, and is ordered to that which is true and good. Taoism similarly calls upon the practitioner to devote himself to the Way, which is the order that life should take, and through which a life of virtue, or harmony, can be lived. If today virtue is understood as a "good habit," both Taoism and Socratic philosophy may be said to be Ways by which virtue may be achieved. Where the two schools of thought contrast, however, is in their expression of the Way. This paper will compare and contrast Taoism with Socratic philosophy on the subject of virtue and show how the two schools of thought both suggest that virtue pertains to the eternal, even though they differ on the means of attaining it.
Virtue in Socrates' Teaching and in Taoism
The Allegory of the Cave is a means whereby Plato impresses upon his audience the necessity of caring for the common good above that of the individual -- and the role that the philosopher plays in the maintenance of the State. The Allegory itself, as told through the person of Socrates to Glaucon, illustrates the manner in which the uneducated are brought to enlightenment: there is movement in the soul from darkness to light -- or from ignorance to wisdom. Yet, the goal of wisdom is not merely one's own enlightenment: as Plato suggests, the philosopher after moving into the light, must return to the cave to help the others who remain in darkness. Thus, the goal of the State is not to elevate one particular class, but rather all the classes should be elevated. This is the means whereby virtue is achieved according to Socrates.
According to Taoism, however, virtue is achieved in a different way. As Chuang Tzu states, virtue is identical to simplicity: "The man of kingly Virtue moves in simplicity and is ashamed to be a master of facts" (p. 128). In other words, the virtuous man is not a pedant or collector of information, but a man who lives simply and justly in a state of transcendence above the trivial and mundane. Elsewhere, virtue is understood as "harmony," while Tao or the Way is understood as "order" (p. 171). The object of virtue is to "embrace all things," much like the way Socrates' virtuous philosopher endeavors to accept all things (p. 171). According to Chuang Tzu, virtue leads to benevolence and Tao or the Way leads to righteousness (p. 171). In Taoism, Virtue is completed only in Heaven, and this idea may similarly be found in Socrates' teachings, especially when he suggests in the Symposium that the good life or virtuous man cannot be complete until it is united with God, i.e., in Heaven.
However, Burton Watson in his translation of Chuang Tzu, asserts that the word "virtue" "presents certain difficulties" (Tzu, 1964, p. 25). The problem lies in the way Chuang Tzu uses the word, sometimes in the conventional sense most similar to that used by Confucius or Mo, and other times in the "true" sense, which is the right and proper way the word should be used according to Chuang Tzu. This is the idea that true virtue belongs only "to the man of Tao" (Tzu, p. 25). Nonetheless, there is a sense of attaining or possessing that the word "virtue" should denotate -- in other words, he who has virtue in Taoism is he who embraced the Way. This is similar to Socrates' idea that the virtuous man should embrace Philosophy. Virtue is a characteristic, in other words, of a man who has applied himself to a path that leads him to a higher plane. Thus, both Socrates' philosophy and Chuang Tzu's Taoism share a sense of virtue.
The Means of Attaining Virtue
The movement of the soul first and foremost requires humility. As Plato suggests, the ignorant souls trapped in the cave of darkness who understand only the shadows of things must not succumb to pride, or be arrogant for knowing what little they do know. Such arrogance breeds self-contentment, and provides no impetus to move toward the light and beyond the boundaries of shadow: it gives no reason to seek the true nature of things or the wisdom that comes from things higher. Humility, however, offers a pretext for learning: by acknowledging one's ignorance, the path is made open for learning. Thus, humility is the first step toward gaining wisdom: as Glaucon says to Socrates, "How could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?" (1207). Big heads, swollen through pride, are never able to turn to see the true essence of things.
In Plato's Allegory those citizens in the cave, who are held as prisoners, are held by pride and kept in the darkness of their own ignorance and vice. But those who are freed, "released" (1208) as the Allegory suggests, are freed by an exercise of the virtue of humility: to them is given philosophy -- the study of wisdom. And for many it is a gift that they are "reluctant" to accept, because it means the end of Self and the beginning of Selflessness. As Plato shows, the process of enlightenment is one that not many are eager to partake of: we are all much more comfortable in our pride. Nonetheless, for the common good of all it is necessary that we cut away this pride and be exposed to the light: "Suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself" (Plato, 1208).
As Plato indicates, the journey to enlightenment and virtue is an uphill battle, against which the natural will of man revolts. It is almost necessary for the unenlightened to be "forced" to see reality -- to behold the true light of wisdom. For those who dwell in darkness, the light is "dazzling" and "irritating." Yet, once the eye begins to adjust, and the will begins to be less rebellious, and the mind begins to focus, enlightenment begins to take place. No more is the citizen a mere slave to ignorance -- now he has grown into a greater being -- a being capable of discernment.
The ideal State of Plato is built upon the ability to discern between truth and error: it is built upon the ability to know the nature of things, and not self-satisfaction with the mere shadows of impressionism. For the common good of all does enlightenment tend. It is not merely a tool by which a few may gain glory, but a way by which all may attain the Ideal of virtue.
Chuang Tzu, likewise, commends adherence to a Way. But the way of Confucius is derided when the latter is depicted as facing off against the Robber Chih with his arsenal of intellectual assumptions. Virtue is not the collection of facts and sayings, but rather the acceptance of all things, even those who have no virtue. When Confucius identifies wisdom as "middling virtue," he is putting himself at odds with the Socratic teaching and making a mockery of Socrates' idea of the virtuous life (Tzu, p. 325). The important assertion that Taoism makes, is that the true Way of virtue is indefinable, for any Way that can be codified or articulated by mere man is no Way at all, but rather a vain attempt at a system. The true Way is the pursuit of the Eternal, and this again is comparable to Socrates' pursuit of Wisdom, which is essentially the same thing as the Eternal. It is the Light that shines into the cave of darkness and illuminates the mind. The Way of Taoism is not simply a "way," but rather like the mountain that leads one up to the Light. In other words, "one who knows does not speak" and "one who speaks does not know." The speakers are those in the darkness of the cave. The knowers are they who silently climb.
How the Two Schools Contrast
Yet, this is where Taoism and Socrates' teachings differ. Taoism embraces reticence and silence -- or reflection and meditation. Socrates, however, was a talker. He loved to talk, and the Dialogues are the perfect proof of this. Socrates believed that through dialogue, one could better understand the meaning of virtue, goodness, eternity, etc. Still, for all his dialogue, he learned in the end that silence was important too -- and this may be seen in the fact that he chose to accept death as a virtuous act rather than escape and a longer life of teaching. To act with virtue, for Socrates, was to both speak and then, contradictorily, to be silent. Socrates, in the end, reflects the…