Shen Tao

Text and Interpretation issues

Stoicism and the Great Tao

Political Implications

Taoist Influence and Paradox

Shen Tao (c. 350-275 B. C.) influenced both Taoism and Legalism. He was a native of Chao who served at the Chi-hsia academy in Ch'i (an ancient center of philosophical debate). A Han History lists him, along with T'ien P'ien, as having studied Huang-Lao doctrines and Tao-te (Lao Tzu's Tao-Te Ching). The earliest Taoist history (The Chuang Tzu Ch. 33) lists him, along with T'ien P'ien and P'eng Meng, leading up to Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. Han Fei Tzu credits him with originating the Legalist theory of shih (circumstance/power/charisma). His own writings were presumably lost so we know of him primarily through these indirect reports.

One Han source says he wrote a book of twelve chapters and another lists a book under his name with forty-two chapters. These seem to have been lost by the Sung Dynasty when an apparently spurious book of fragments was assembled. Most scholars are skeptical of its historical reliability but the issue is still debated. We will rely only on the classical citations. These, in any case, give the views of Shen Tao which were taken to have influenced other developments in classical Chinese thought.

  1. Text and Interpretation issues

The interpretive puzzle (How can one thinker be both an authoritarian Legalist and an anarchist Taoist?) reminds us that early thinkers made no such distinction. The two names were drawn from what the Han Historian took to be their respective focal concept-tao (ways:guides) and fa (standards:laws). Philosophers in the classical period regularly used both terms, but Han orthodoxy held that thinkers from the named schools changed the meaning of their own defining concepts. For Taoists, tao meant ultimate reality and for Legalists fa meant law. We may worry, therefore, that the sharp distinction between them could be an artifact of an entrenched interpretive error.

We have other indications of this more uniform distribution of views across the range. Han Fei Tzu, the paradigm legalist, wrote one of the earliest commentaries on the Lao Tzu (purportedly the basic classic of Taoism). Recent work on Huang-Lao religion suggests that it also followed a more authoritarian reading of The Lao Tzu.

Many scholars now trace Huang-Lao attitudes and influence back well into the Warring States period where the Han History places Shen Tao and identifies him. Working out a coherent interpretive theory for Shen Tao is, therefore, one way of exploring the shared background of these two "schools." For this purpose, I will start with the account in The Chuang Tzu and try to show how the Han Fei Tzu theory of political circumstance might flow from the metaphysical theory. Then I will look at the brief criticisms of Hsün Tzu to see how they can be reconciled with the resulting picture.

  1. Stoicism and the Great Tao

The Chuang Tzu account characterizes Shen Tao and his associates, T'ien P'ien and P'eng Meng as "universal" rather than "partial" and as lacking selfishness. This justifies placing them as a link between Mohism and Taoism. It also separates him from the alleged proto-Taoist Yang Zhu, who was an Ethical egoist. The rest of the moral description, however, makes them sound like ancient Roman Stoics. They merely "flowed" with events without calculating or choosing. The metaphysical description alleges that they united all things and avoided dividing them into two.

They called the absolute "one" the Great Tao (way). It embraced everything but had no distinctions within it. It had both acceptable and unacceptable. My hypothesis is that Shen Tao's innovation to contemporaneous moral thought lay in denying the traditional view that nature was a moral force--sort of. He makes his point perversely--like the libertine who claims God intended him to do whatever he does. Shen Tao advocates following the actual tao--the actual course of world history. He adds (truly enough) "Even a clod of earth cannot miss the tao (guide).

Shen Tao's slogan was "abandon knowledge; discard self." In the context of ancient Chinese philosophy, knowledge was knowledge of some tao-the traditional Confucian tao or the Mohist utilitarian tao. I call the course of action that follows on correctly learning and applying a tao (guide) a performance tao. Each Classical school advocated we execute (make actual) a different performance tao. Shen Tao prescribed the actual tao so he can safely dispense with moral reflection and theory.

How do we get the flavor of determinism from this stance? While there are many rival prescriptive future world histories, he notes there is only one actual past history and there will be exactly one future history. Of the many things you might do in the future, exactly one is what you will do. The one actual world history is the Great Tao. This invites us to conclude the future is now fixed, but the argument is no stronger than the familiar tautology "what will be will be."

"Follow the tao" now has the required consequences. We don't need to study or learn, to make choices or distinctions. Whatever we do, it will count as following the tao-the course of nature. Thus we can abandon even Yang Chu's egoism. For all its shocking content, it too is a form of know-how-a prescriptive doctrine.

So we are told Shen Tao flowed with what couldn't be changed and was indifferent to things." "He said "know to not know (what to do)." He would have reduced know how to something harmful. Naked and without responsibility, he laughed at the social world for elevating worthies. Dissolute and with no standards of conduct, he rejected the social world's great sages. Skillful and crafty he responded to natural kinds. He lived together with shih and fei, mixed acceptable and avoidable. He didn't treat knowing and deliberation as guides, didn't know front from back. He was indifferent to everything.

If he was pushed he went, if pulled he followed--like a leaf whirling in the stream, like a feather in a wind, like dust on a millstone. He was complete and distinguished (fei) nothing. In motion and rest never went too far. He was without crime. How was this? Natural kinds that lack knowledge are free from the trouble of creating a self and from the entanglements of knowing what to do. In motion or rest he did not miss the natural tendencies. And for this reason he had no high status. So he said, "reach for being like things without knowledge of what to do. Don't use worthies and sages.

One notable difference from Stoicism is that Shen Tao's doctrine does not enjoin us to approve of or accept what happens. Rather it suggests that we should make no judgment about them at all. The Stoics, by contrast, because of their deterministic conception of reason, thought we had to rationally approve of whatever happens. The doctrine of reason plays no part in Shen Tao's counterpart of this view.

  1. Political Implications

This interpretation now can motivate the political insight Han Fei Tzu claimed to have derived from Shen Tao. Shen Tao's system challenged the pre-philosophical Confucian doctrine of the mandate of t'ien (heaven/nature) which put nature on the side of moral virtue. It claimed that the ruler ruled because of his superior moral character and wisdom. Shen Tao can be seen as rejecting this entrenched myth with the simple observation that rulers become rulers because of circumstance, not because of their moral worth or desert. It happens! The Legalists, unlike Shen Tao, find what makes it happen worthy of study and reflection.

The study, however, is not of a moral tao, it is the study of the actual circumstances that result in one's becoming a ruler. The circumstances of power are more subtle than sheer coercion. There is a natural social tendency (noticed by Mo Tzu) to conform to those in higher position. The ruler depends on this tendency-whether he deserves emulation or not. The ruler is in his position because he depends on a hierarchy of authority and the natural charisma of the one on the top as much as it does on force or moral qualities.

As Han Fei Tzu develops Shen Tao's theory, it includes techniques to enhance that natural charisma by an elevated throne, ritual requirements of kneeling, kowtowing, debasing forms of address, severe punishment for looking directly into his face, publicizing stories of his strength, accomplishment and skill. Han Fei Tzu also ties it to Lao Tzu's doctrine of "no deliberate action" as the ruler maintains his situational authority by not expressing desires or decisions, by remaining aloof and mysterious as he observes the process of official decision making. How much of this elaboration stems from Shen Tao we can only speculate. The important part of the common contribution to Taoism and Legalism is the amoral portrayal of nature and natural process.

Hsün Tzu criticizes Shen Tao in ways that suggest he used the concept of fa (standards) but the Han Fei Tzu account credits this concept to Shang Yang. However, the concept itself was also important to Mo Tzu and could easily have been part of Shen Tao's system. One possibility would be that he would have advocated the use of clear, objective standards precisely because of the absence of any moral reality. This would explain Hsün Tzu's criticism that "His learning revered fa but he lacked fa." (Hsün Tzu argued that the fundamental fa could only be the judgment of a cultured Confucian gentleman.) and that "blinded by the fa, he lacked awareness of worthy human capacities." Hsün Tzu's third criticism, that Shen Tao had insight into following but not leading, fits his stoicism but conflicts with the fact that Han Fei Tzu credits him with a detailed theory of how to maintain leadership unless we take Hsün Tzu to be stating a disagreement with his theory of leadership as opposed to claiming he had none.

The combination of metaphysical and political-moral theory also reminds us of the stoics. It is plausible that Shen Tao and his group would have continued to participate in government. If circumstances had so placed them, they would flow along with circumstance. This is the classic way to harmonize moral alienation from a system seen as corrupt and the practical need to work within it. Traces of it can be seen in the school of Chuang Tzu's later formulation of the famous "sage within; king without" ideal of wu-wei (non-deliberate action) action. One responds to circumstances without thinking they are right.

  1. Taoist Influence and Paradox

The Chuang Tzu account, despite his seeming Taoist orientation, is ultimately critical and dismissive of Shen Tao. It declares his a dao for the dead, not the living. His dao was really not a dao. We can easily interpret this censure in the language of Lao Tzu (whom the presentation treats as the next step in the dialectic). This notion of the natural tao does not tell us to do anything at all. It is a tao that can not tao (guide) us.

Another way to make the same point is to focus on the slogan, "abandon knowledge." The knowledge in question is not factual representation (to which supposedly Shen Tao would be favorable) but prescriptive guides. Thus the slogan amounts to the prescription "do not follow prescriptive guides." If you follow it, you disobey it. If you ignore it, you follow it. It is a tao that can not tao.

We see here perhaps the beginnings of the Taoist interest in paradox. The Chuang Tzu account suggests that Lao Tzu took something valuable from Shen Tao. Most plausibly it is his anti-knowledge, anti-sage attitude. In the Lao Tzu we get almost no hint of logical determinism. He recommends abandoning knowledge on the quite different grounds that conforming to social systems of knowledge deprives us of natural freedom and spontaneity. His broadens his analysis of knowledge to include the knowledge implicit merely in the names and distinctions we use to construct guiding theories.

Chuang Tzu also arguably draws some inspiration from Shen Tao although he clearly sees the incoherence of an "all is one" metaphysics. The insight that an appeal to nature gives no guidance is crucial to Chuang Tzu's mature Taoism.