Monday, December 13, 2010


The antique works of the Chinese tradition—the Analects of Confucius, the Mencius, the Chuang Tzu—are collections of the sayings attributed to the eponymous wise men. If anthology is their principle of composition, there is good reason to suspect that sayings and commentaries coming from later in the traditions came to be included in the growing text.

The Lao Tzu, also known as the Tao Te Ching, is no exception. Like the other ancient texts, it, too, was written in its various iterations on such materials as paper, silk, and strips of bamboo.

The Tao Te Ching, like The Laws of Manu, is a mix of cosmogonic myth and instruction in correct living, with this difference: the Chinese classic contains several cosmogonies:

The world had a beginning
And this beginning could be the mother of the world.

The way begets one; one begets two; two begets three; three begets the myriad creatures.

There is a thing confusedly formed,
Born before heaven and earth.
Silent and void
It stands alone and does not change,
Goes round and does not weary.
It is capable of being the mother of the world.
I know not its name
So I style it “the way.”

Hence the way is great; heaven is great; earth is great; and the king is also great. Within the realm there are four things that are great, and the king counts as one.

Then, having set forth this last hierarchy, the writer concludes:

Man models himself on earth,
Earth on heaven,
Heaven on the way,
And the way on that which is naturally so.

Now, if we indeed model ourselves on earth, it follows that we also model ourselves on both “the Way” and “that which is naturally so.” The world has a structure, and in order to achieve liberation, we must attune ourselves, both to that structure and to the nature of things.

Reading this Chinese classic in its entirety, we come to see that the vision behind it prescribes the behavior not just of the individual, but of the empire as well. The ruler of this utopian empire is the individual king, who must also be a sage, one who blends himself into the quietude of the cosmos.

“The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects,” says the sage.

Friday, December 3, 2010


I’ve mentioned “legitimation” in several of these blogs: Religious Traditions: Statics; The Laws of Manu; and The Pentateuch. Now is an apt time to expand on this concept.

Suppose I wrote something in this blog that you doubted. You might write me and say, “How do you know?” In asking this question, you’re asking for me to legitimize my point. You are asking for a legitimation.

Being something of a scholar, I might have mentioned that my thoughts on the subject of legitimation follow those of Max Weber, specifically, his theory of “the types of legitimate authority” as set forth in his major tome, Economy and Society. It’s a well-known theory, and many thinkers have found it useful for explaining how the human world works. They’ve modified it, but they still acknowledge its explanatory power. Weber remains, as if by coincidence, something of an authority on the issue of legitimation.

My example shows how legitimation works in ordinary secular life, how it is important and how we make our decisions based on our judgment of how persuasive an argument is.

In the world of traditional religion, legitimation takes a standard form. Let’s say there’s a mindset common to the traditional religions, great or small. Let’s say that those who share this mindset think about legitimacy assuming three unstated axioms and several corollaries. (The first of these axioms also exists in the minds of most nontraditional, secular people.)

The first axiom is that there are directives that should guide human behavior and thought. The second, that these directives come from a charter, which consists of myths, whether they be cosmogonic, founder, both, or other, and whether the myths are passed along orally or are set down in writing. The third axiom is that the charter has a source. This source is always something beyond the everyday, the ordinary, the natural. It can be a god or gods, ancestors, heroes, or some impersonal metaphysical reality. Supernatural is a term that comes to mind.

As for the corollaries, they augment the axioms by clarifying the traits of the charter. They concern the relation between a charter and its source. The first corollary is: The charter partakes of the source. It is, or contains, a mythology (a set of interrelated myths); the mythology concerns the relation between the higher power(s) and the transcendent. A second corollary is that the charter is superior to and thus authoritative for the community that takes it for its own. It belongs to that transcendental, supernatural order that the traditional mind-set assumes to be eternally in place and that the center spends its time interpreting.

The charter is significant. It tells the community what to do: what the ritual taboos and requirements are; what is moral and what immoral; what the proper human relationships are. Last of all, the charter is univocal. It speaks with a single voice. It contains no contradictions.

So when a question arises within the community concerning the proper course of action, it knows where to go for answers. It knows that any such course must be legitimized by appealing to the authoritative, significant, univocal charter, which reflects the ultimate source to which it is bound.