For M.J., my friend

I write this with a heavy heart. Amid pervasive confrontation with the floods of data regarding the coronavirus, we each prepare for this abstraction to take more determinate shape in personal encounters—and yet, I was not prepared for my friend, a veteran of the Stonewall riots and a decades-long survivor of AIDS, to become infected. My heart is heavy.

I aim to reflect, not merely to rationalize—but a rational voice threatens my reflection. It overpowers, insisting, “He does not deserve this; this is a gross injustice. The universe is cruel, or at least meaningless.” This is a voice perhaps familiar to those without a notion of eternality, without the hope of a utopic afterlife awaiting our departure from a thus-made-tolerable imprisonment within a finite body. Without such a notion, greater difficulty is faced maintaining any notion of (counterfactual) justice or (transcendent) meaning—for no fixed external consolation guarantees either. My heart is heavy.

I turn to the Fifth Chapter (章) of the Daodejing: 天地不仁以萬物為芻狗. Before offering my interpretation of it, I’d like to criticize a few translations of this passage (and the clause which follows it), beginning with Henri Borel’s Laotzu’s Tao and Wu Wei, translated into English by Dwight Goddard:

Heaven and earth are not like humans, they are impartial. They regard all things as insignificant, as though they were playthings made of straw. The wise man is also impartial. To him all men are alike and unimportant.

Borel/Goddard marks the subtlest flaw of these considered translations, going so far as to contradict the text’s meaning by introducing “playthings,” as though the text describes cheap toys that have no “real” significance.

Stan Rosenthal, in his interpretation of The Tao Te Ching, translates the passage quite differently:

Nature acts without intent, so cannot be described as acting with benevolence, nor malevolence to any thing. In this respect, the Tao is just the same, though in reality it should be said that nature follows the rule of Tao. Therefore, even when he seems to act in manner kind or benevolent, the sage is not acting with such intent, for in conscious matters such as these, he is amoral and indifferent.

Rosenthal seems to prioritize interpretive commentary—which is admirable if taken exclusively to reflect his understanding of the Daodejing without extending inference to its veracity in relation to the text itself. But it is also problematic in the truly baffling clause stating that Dao is as the intentionless acts of nature, although nature, in reality follows Dao’s rule, in the vague reference to “conscious matters,” and in the oft-abusive representation of sage as “amoral.”

Stephen Mitchell radically westernizes the passage in Tao te Ching: A New English Translation:

The Tao doesn’t take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil. The Master doesn’t take sides; she welcomes both saints and sinners.

Mitchell, perhaps distracted at having subversively gendered the Master “she,” marks the most puerile of the above, not only recklessly introducing terms of good and evil but Christianizing with saints and sinners.

Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall, in their “philosophical translation” of Daodejing—“Making This Life Significant,” stay closer to the source material, using its cultural metaphor of “straw dogs”:

The heavens and the earth are not partial to institutionalized morality. They take things (wànwù) and treat them all as straw dogs. Sages too are not partial to institutionalized morality. They treat the common people as straw dogs.

The translation by Ames and Hall shows remarkable fidelity in rendering the text (as does the whole of their Daodejing), but because the text is a difficult ‘philosophical’ work, explication is yet required.

天地, heavens-and-earth. Though examined apart below, this is best understood as an interpenetrative and interdependent relation, insoluble in discrete “heavens” and “earth.” This may be made clearer in consideration of the Huainanzi’s description of Dao between heavens-and-earth as so large nothing is outside it and so small that nothing is within it (道在天地之閒也其大無外其小無內).

天, tiān, in part represents day, sky, and heavens. It may be viewed as an ideograph, depicting a person (人, rén) standing with arms outstretched (大; dà), indicating vastness, with an exaggerated head (formed with the addition 一, yī; representing ‘one’).

地, dì, in part represents earth, ground, field, place, and land. It consists of the radicals tŭ (土), meaning “earth” or “soil,” pictographically representing clay on a potter’s wheel, and yĕ (也), meaning “too” or “also,” pictographically representing the vagina and vulva.

不仁. First bù (不), a negative prefix (“non-“), pictographically representing a flower’s calyx. This is followed by rén (仁), familiar to one acquainted with Confucianism. Taking a certain distance from translation as “virtue” or “benevolence”—the former risking uniformity for all or applicability irrespective of context, the latter risking hyperbolic deference or “absolute non-violence”—this is most closely and concisely rendered “humaneness.” It consists of the radicals: rén (亻), pictographically representing the profile of a person; and èr (二), which is two. It encompasses both disposition (comportment, internality) and action (behavior, externality) of a person, inexorably bound up with interpersonal and communal sense.

This is distinct from many “Western” virtues which appear to be as viably practicable in total isolation as in society, and appear to apply to all without accounting for diversity. This is an especially central concept in Confucian ethics and marks a key point of divergence between Confucianism and Daoism. On the one hand, Confucius judges rén as that which gives humanity a superlative value in comparison to other animals and things, a certain distinctive human relation to the heavens—this becomes most apparent in the Confucian 天命, “Mandate of Heaven”. A reading more consistent with Daoism recognizes this pretension as the ultimate in “immorality”—in harmful thinking and acting—and this distinction clarifies one pervasive flaw in many of the above translations of this passage.

To suggest that the force of this passage is merely to assert that “nature” acts without reliably favoring the “good” or “evil” is intellectual laziness, overlooking the profundity of the passage and cheapening its insights. In translation, we must be cautious to avoid suggesting complete value-neutrality of either heavens-and-earth or of sage. Instead, both heavens-and-earth and sage merely do not esteem some particular thing as always being of intrinsically greater worth than some other. Such a position can be asserted as cynically indifferent or uncaring in the same manner that “justice” might appear predatory or unjust to those who unjustly demand oppression of others for their own benefit.

以, or yĭ, represents a purposeful relation, not merely instrumental (“to use” toward some end) nor hierarchically possessive (“taking” as taking-from). This is a dispositional comportment toward the manifold “things” (more closely, processes of emerging relations).

萬物, wànwù, may be most precisely understood as inseparable (as with heavens-and-earth, 天地, above). Though generally rendered “ten-thousand things” (the manifold, the myriad), this remains untranslated by Ames above for good reason—he describes wànwù as “ten thousand processes or events” and explains that this “refers to the unsummed totality of all particular processes and events as they constitute this world.” As Ames elaborates, “Zhuangzi’s expression wuhua 物花—‘the perpetually transforming of processes and events’—suggests the mutuality and interpenetration of all forms of process, as one ‘thing’ that transforms to become another.”

為, wéi, may be seen as completing the above 以 (yĭ) – forming a taking…to be. Rendering it thus, heavens-and-earth take the manifold things to be “straw dogs.”

芻狗, chúgŏu: straw dogs. Straw dogs are neither playthings nor are they akin to a “sacrificial lamb,” for they require no violence against non-human life. Zhuangzi’s account of the ritual objects referred to here provides clarity:

The straw dogs, before they are set out for the sacrifice, are kept in a basket which is covered by a beautifully designed embroidery. Meanwhile, the representatives of the dead and the official in charge of the rituals pray and prepare themselves to fetch the straw dogs. However, once they have been presented, they are just trampled on, head and back, by those around. The left-over bits are swept up and burnt by the grass-cutters. That’s all they’re worth by then. If anyone takes them and puts them back in their baskets, covers them again with the embroidery and then hangs around or even lies down beside them to sleep, he will either have fearful dreams or, more likely, constant nightmares. Now, your Master seems to have picked up some straw dogs originating from previous kings and has summoned his followers to lie down and sleep beneath them.…

The sage’s attitude, as resembling treatment of the straw dog, cannot be utter indifference or value-neutrality. As meticulously crafted, esteemed, regarded as sacred objects, straw dogs have a definite reverential esteem—as well a reverential profanation in due time. The sage neither clings to the straw dog too long nor wholly treats it as without worth: what is right (“pious”) comportment at one time becomes wrong (“impious”) comportment at another. Accordingly, in this oft-misunderstood passage of Daodejing, we find neither nihilistic universe nor exhortation to indifference, but rather the centrality of transience—due reverence in due time and due irreverence thereafter. It is a stark contrast to demands for eternality and fixity.

This theme of “fleetingness” is reinforced in two notable passages addressing death in Zhuangzi. The first describes the relatable shock of Huizi, who went to visit Zhuangzi upon learning of the death of his wife, and found him sprawled out and banging on his tub, singing. How could he behave in this aloof way, apparently uncaring? Zhuangzi’s response reveals his sagacity. Though, of course, his heart was burdened with grief following her death, he then thought back to her birth and to the time before it. In mysterious beauty, she emerged in birth, and later in this persistent cycle of change—like the passage of seasons—finds her “emerged” in death. Not only would sustained outcry reveal opposition to the same movement whence emerged she who had passed, but it would also reveal ignorant resistance to the movement whither we are proceeding. At the time of his own death, he reproves his disciplines for undue concern in a funeral ceremony—if his body is left above ground, the birds will eat him, if buried, the crickets and ants. Why is it of such importance that the crickets and ants should be given this favor?

I address that insistent rational voice: “He does not deserve this. This is a gross injustice. The universe is cruel, or at least meaningless.” What I mean by “does not deserve” and “gross injustice” is that I do not wish this illness to have befallen him. Certain cancers might arise in correspondence with certain behaviors, but cancer also can arise through no identifiable cause. One might be injured in a car accident as a result of reckless driving or simply as a random consequence of driving in a given place at a given time. The intricate predicament of health and justice, and the culpability of those with greater wealth for the sufferings of those with lesser wealth, is far more expansive than can be engaged with here. However, the Universe is neither cruel nor meaningless. Rather, it emerges without conditional cruelty or affection, emerges in dynamic movement—beautifully ugly, hideously beautiful. And I write, not endlessly, in loving reflection on the beauty of my friend.

Rev. Cpl. Austin D. Burke is completing coursework toward their doctoral degree in philosophy at The New School for Social Research.