Thinking About the Han, Again

I suppose that one of the reasons I’m fascinated by the Han dynasty in general and Han philosophy in particular is that I see many parallels between the political and philosophical situation in the Han dynasty and that of the contemporary “global civilization.”  The increasing political systematization of the Han dynasty left fewer and fewer ways to “opt out” of the dominant social and political structures, and led to creative ways of constructing new social options.

In the Warring States period, of course, there were a multitude of options, including the “dropout” option offered by certain strains of Daoism/Yangism, and which (I think) are represented in Analects Book 18 through characters such as the 楚狂 (“Madman of Chu”).  We see a limitation of these options in the Han, however, with greater political and philosophical unification and systematization.  When this happens, opposition to the dominant systems have to take new forms.

The situation of contemporary global society is somewhat similar to this.  Increasingly the western capitalist-democratic form of living is expanding (some might say invading) into different areas of the globe, and transforming what were once very different cultures offering their own ways of living into what might seem increasingly like a single, monolithic global culture.  I notice such change happening in India, for example–a country I often visit, and which seems increasingly more like home (the U.S.) every time I go there–not only in the trappings of culture–malls, highways, etc., but also in the attitudes, assumptions, and characters of the people living there.  We in the west are becoming better able to understand people in different parts of the world, not so much because we are becoming more familiar with their cultures, but because their cultures are transforming to mirror our own.  With this “globalization”, of course, comes the systematization and removal of options for abandoning the dominant system that discontents faced in the Han dynasty.  As a single dominant social and political system becomes the norm and leaves no space for opting out, those who cannot (for whatever reason) thrive within such a system are left anchorless.  They cannot thrive within the dominant system, and there is no real, organized alternative to this dominant system.

Eventually, it seems to me, a major test of any civilization is how well it provides for diversity and its discontents.  In ancient India (around the period of the Upanishads and early Buddhism), the “ascetic” tradition became established, in which it became socially acceptable for one either to follow the “worldly” path of either rulership, work, service, householdership, etc., or the ascetic path of leaving this behind and devoting oneself to spiritual practice in attempt to gain moksha, or nibbana (release from the round of rebirths).  The genius of this system is that it offered a way to direct the energies and talents of those who could not thrive within the dominant “householder” (Vedic, perhaps?) system into a creative and socially acceptable direction.  Without such a “second option”, those who cannot fit within the dominant social and political context may only be able to react to the dominant system, and this reaction will of necessity be critical or destructive.

Unlike the situation of ancient India, both the contemporary “capitalist-democratic” globalization trend and the Han dynasty do/did not offer alternative options for the “discontents” of these societies.  It is, of course, in the very nature of these systems not to offer such alternatives, as both represent universalizing systems.  It is an assumption of many members of the capitalist-democratic society, for example, that (unquestionably, even!) the best way for any society to function is to be both capitalist and democratic, and many of the states representing this ideology (the U.S., for example) have often seen it as their task to spread this ideology throughout the world in the name of “progress”.  Likewise, the politically unitary nature of the Han dynasty was such that it required strong political and philosophical unification.  Of course, I don’t want to overstate the philosophical systematization of the “Han synthesis” (Mark Csikszentmihalyi, among others, has argued–well and rightly, I think–that there was less philosophical unification in the Han than is often thought), but there certainly were a reduction of philosophical and political options similar to the situation encountered today with the advance of capitalist-democratic ideology.

We can see reactions to the political and philosophical system(s) of the Han dynasty in a number of philosophers, especially two I focus on, Wang Chong, in his Lunheng (“Balanced Discourses”) and Wang Fu, in his Qianfulun (“Discourses of a Hermit”).  We see two somewhat different responses to the Han in these two thinkers.  Wang Chong, we might say, was the ultimate critic.  He may be taken to represent the critical-destructive response to a dominant unitary system.  Wang Fu, on the other hand, represented more of an internal critic who seemed to be attempting to construct alternatives to the dominant political and philosophical systems.  As in the history of Chinese thought in general, new movements and philosophical options tended to be justified through connection with the past, with the ancient sages, or the 先王, etc.

So, my thoughts of late have been surrounding the project of tracking the response of Han philosophers to the dominant political and philosophical systems.  In what ways did they create and justify reactions and new options?  And in what ways did this inform their ethics?  And an even more interesting question–what can we learn from this, in formulating alternative ways of living in the increasingly “globalized” world today?

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