This week, world leaders are meeting in Copenhagen to discuss what to do about global warming. How did we ever get into this mess? Yes, we all know the proximate causes – the greenhouse effect, carbon emissions, etc. But I’m asking about the underlying cause: the construction of our view of mankind’s relationship with the natural world.
In this post, I want to take a brief look at an entirely different perspective of our place in the universe: the ancient Chinese view of the cosmos. It’s fundamentally different from how the Western world sees things. And there’s a lot we can learn from it.
Let’s start with what there wasn’t. There was no “command and control” Creator that ruled over the natural world. Consequently, there was no God to create Man in His image to follow His command and dominate Nature. Instead, there was the Tao, which existed even before the creation of the world. But there was no ruling mandate that came along with the Tao’s role in creation, as the Tao Te Ching itself states:Tao everlasting does not act And yet nothing is not done. If kings and barons can abide by it, The ten thousand things will transform by themselves.
And in a direct contrast to God the Creator expecting Man to follow His own dominating role, the Tao instead informs the sage how to follow the ways of the Tao in leading the people:In loving the people and governing the state… To give birth yet not to claim possession, To act yet not to hold on to, To grow yet not to lord over, This is called the dark virtue.
As historian Toby Huff so clearly puts it: “Within this cosmos there is no prime mover, no high God, no lawgiver”.
So, if there was no Creator, how did this harmony come about? In the West, we’re used to an either/or approach to cosmology. In our present day, it’s the faith of religion against the reductionism of science. Either there’s a God who created everything and gave it all meaning, or there was just the Big Bang and ever since then the immutable laws of physics arranged everything down to the last molecule in a cold, hard universe without magic, mystery or meaning.
But the Chinese view of Nature had nothing to do with either of these two extremes. Instead, they saw the universal order of things as “an ordered harmony of wills without an ordainer”. Joseph Needham, the leading 20th century expert on ancient Chinese cosmology, gives the analogy of a traditional country-dance to describe the Chinese view:
Spontaneous yet ordered, in the sense of patterned movements of dancers in a country dance of figures, none of whom are bound by law to do what they do, nor yet pushed by others coming behind, but cooperate in a voluntary harmony of wills.
Here’s how an early Chinese philosopher – Wang Pi writing around 240 AD – described the cosmology expressed in the I Ching, on which he wrote a famous commentary:
We do not see Heaven command the four seasons, and yet they never swerve from their course. So also we do not see the sage ordering the people about, and yet they obey and spontaneously serve him.
Needham describes this thought as “extremely Chinese. Universal harmony comes about not by the celestial fiat of some King of Kings, but by the spontaneous cooperation of all beings in the universe … not from the orders of a superior authority external to themselves, but from the fact that they were all parts in a hierarchy of wholes forming a cosmic pattern, and what they obeyed were the internal dictates of their own natures.”
Needham coined the phrase “an organic worldview” to describe this – self-contained organisms following their own internal rules within the context of larger organisms, and themselves comprised of smaller organisms also following their own rules.
And this worldview leads to a very different perspective of humanity’s place in the universe. In contrast to the Genesis myth putting Nature under Man’s dominion, “the universe did not exist especially to satisfy man. His role in the universe was ‘to assist in the transforming and nourishing process of heaven and earth.’”
In my blog, Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I’ve described how, beginning with Plato, our dualist Western tradition came to idealize the mind and separate the abstractions of the prefrontal cortex (pfc) from our animate consciousness. By contrast, Chinese traditions looked for harmonization between the pfc’s faculties and the other aspects of our existence. “Hence the key word is always harmony; the ancient Chinese sought for order and harmony throughout natural phenomena, and took this to be the ideal in all human relationships.”
The Chinese never conceived of an immortal soul. They never conceived of an omnipotent Creator. The notion of dualism never entered their consciousness. They used their pfc faculties every bit as much as the Greeks, but for the purpose of understanding the integration of these faculties with other aspects of themselves and with the natural world around them.
Because of their emphasis on harmony, it never occurred to them that they should use their intellect to conquer the natural world. On the contrary, traditional Chinese thought is pervaded by the notion of “non-purposive action”, wu–wei, as the wisest approach to the natural world and to life in general. In the words of the Tao Te Ching:One who desires to take the world and act upon it, I see that it cannot be done. The world is a spirit vessel, Which cannot be acted upon. One who acts on it fails, One who holds on to it loses.
Over two millennia of Western dualism, billions of people have spent their lives struggling with the conflict between the natural drives of their animate consciousness and a conceptualized ideal of spirituality arising from the pfc’s abstractions. In traditional Chinese thought, the opposite is true. Harmony is seen as arising from each of us being in touch with and following our own true nature.
And the same harmony applies to our relationship with the natural world. As world leaders meet this week in Copenhagen to debate how to manage the global climate crisis we’ve brought on ourselves, they might do well to pause for a moment and consider this view from the Tao Te Ching of the Taoist approach to the natural world:Careful, like crossing a river in winter… Reverent, like being guests… Those who keep this Tao, Do not want to be filled to the full. Because they are not full, They can renew themselves before being worn out.
 Chen, E.M., (1989). The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary. St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House. Chapter 37.
 Ibid. Chapter 10.
 Huff, T. E. (1993/2006). The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 251-2.
 Needham, J., (1956/1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 2. London: Cambridge University Press.
 Needham, ibid.
 Needham, ibid.
 Needham, ibid.
 Chen, ibid. Chapter 29.
 Chen, ibid. Chapter 15.