[NB] To Understand the Ancient

I recently came across a book, The Pheasant Cap Master and the End of History: Linking Religion to Philosophy in Early China by Marnix Wells. I’m liking it a lot—my main complaint is that the book deserved better production values than it got (typos, images missing, uneven layout; nothing that prevents the text from being useful, thankfully). The core of the book is a translation of a third century BCE treatise by Heguanzi, the “Pheasant Cap Master,” but includes a lengthy scholarly discussion of the manuscript’s context. That’s useful for me, since my familiarity with Chinese material remains rather shallow.

The core rationale for both the discussion and the translation is to emphasize that Taoism’s roots extend into Chinese antiquity and that this isn’t as appreciated as it should be because of more rationalist philosophers having regularly made efforts to purge such works from public consciousness. Though Wells doesn’t do so, his portrait of the rational-religious rivalry in ancient China suggests that Communism’s success in modern China may have capitalized on well-established tendencies within Chinese thought and habit.

I don’t want to dwell overmuch on the details of scholarly debates I probably don’t (and can’t) fully appreciate. What I want to highlight are a few gems from Heguanzi’s treatise that have caught my eye.

“If you wish to know the future,
Examine the past.
If you wish to know the ancient,
Examine the present.” (123)

We have here four temporal dimensions, not three. Past, present, and future, as we expect, but an additional ‘ancient’ that I would tend to lump with the past. This distinction is really insightful, because when we look at the past and future, we are examining them from the point of view of the present, as patterns of action in the process of unfolding, while when we examine the ancient, we do so from a perspective from which we don’t have a present. It jibes well with an insight I’ve noted here before.

The ‘past’ is here the immediate network of events that leads to the present and by examining their dynamics, we are able to grasp somewhat how they are likely to develop into the future. Because we are ourselves lodged within the present moment, we occupy the horizon along which these factors are presently playing out. Past and future are joined in communication through the present, forging communicative memory.

When we look to the ancient, we have none of the implicit knowledge of our preset that allows us to make sense of it. The ancient is one sort of past without a present, one mode through which we encounter cultural memory. We have no sense of its communicative life, so in order to understand it, we must project our sense of having a communicative context backward into it. We have to project our intimate understanding of the operations of daily life, with all its messiness, backward so that we can at least guess at how it might have been lived.

It also suggests that the study of the ancient will provide us little help in appreciating the future. The future derives from the near past, not the deep past, and the mechanisms that produce it rest in that near past. Examining the deep past for mechanisms we can apply to the present is wrong-headed. It will lead us to take courses of action that have too dim an appreciation of the living moment of which we are a part.

This distance between past ans ancient appears in the distance of near and far:

“From here on,
you, sir, cannot exhaustively enquire about it.
It is also beyond what I can express.

In all questions, the important thing is to desire
from the close-at-hand the knowledge to be far seeing,
from one to know myriads.” (136)

This is both similar to and radically disparate from the thinking that characterizes the parallel of the micro- and macrocosm. If you know the myriadness in what is close to you, in the humble things, you will be able to appreciate how diverse and myriad things are elsewhere, and appreciate that there are subtle principles regulating the myriad near and far. No macrocosm at all, but a diverse but ordered cosm.

There is a deeply humane streak in this way of thinking, one that Wells rightfully seems to identify as proto-Taoist.

“Pangzi said: Why do you put aside Heaven and prioritize man?
Heguanzi said:
Heaven is high and hard to know.
It has good-fortune that may not be invited,
It has disasters that may not be avoided.
If your law is Heaven, you will be harsh.” (122)

Back and forth, this theme appears again and again. There is a Way for humanity, but humanity is not the Way, or, as Wells quotes from another text, “Man expands the Way, the Way does not expand man” (206fn76). You must accord yourself to what is harsh and inescapable, but within that accord develop what is most yours, furthering it on the human scale.

Pansophist that I am, I can’t help but quote this from Heguanzi’s description of the five forms of governance proper to a healthy state:

“adaptive governance does not alter customs

Adaptive governance
summons worthy Sages,
makes a Way of mind technique,
respects work to generate harmony.” (137-38)

4 thoughts on “[NB] To Understand the Ancient

  1. Pingback: Sympathy | Disrupt & Repair

  2. Pingback: [NB] Kalunga and the Breath of God, or People Just Float | Disrupt & Repair

  3. Pingback: How do you live for the future? | Disrupt & Repair

  4. Pingback: [NB] Other Mary | Disrupt & Repair

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