When people think about the intersections between traditional Western thought and classical Chinese philosophy, as far as comparative studies are concerned, the first name pair that comes to mind is probably Machiavelli and Sun Tzu.
The analogies between the two are not far-fetched, after all. Both were advisers to a ruling authority, both lived in a context of political upheaval, both wrote influential treatises on the subordination of politics to war, and the name of both came to be widely regarded as the epitome of cunning and subterfuge in the exercise of political and social relations.
The content of their magnum opus can be summed up in the following way: it is always better to resolve a conflict by diplomatic means, but if war is unavoidable, then you have to fight to win and I am going to show the strategies (which, by the way, do not exclude deception) for actually achieving this goal.
Beyond the Machiavelli-Sun Tzu binomial, however, there is another point of contact which might not be as discussed but it is, without a doubt, equally fascinating. This is in regards to an issue linked to the pursuit of happiness: here, we move from political philosophy to moral philosophy.
I am specifically referring to the two schools of thoughts spearheaded by Lao Tzu and Zeno of Citium, respectively known as taoism and stoicism.
How do we keep our mental lucidity when everything around us seems to be frantically moving at an absurd pace?
By letting things take their own course 一 Lao Tzu suggests 一 we become free. It is precisely by developing a stance of non-attachment to the sensitive reality that we can make our hearts less heavy.
By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try. The world is beyond the winning.
The purpose of this “effortless action” (無為; wu wei) is to maintain a perfect balance with nature.
Lao Tzu brilliantly renders this concept with the image of water. Although water is a light element, it cannot be considered weak because it still has the ability to slowly erode rock. Unlike other materials, it cannot be broken down into pieces, but it can go anywhere and take any shape in relation to the container it fills.
Likewise, according to the Stoic doctrine, freedom from mental disturbance (“ataraxy”) is attainable only if we learn to react to events harmoniously, in tune with the flow of things.
To illustrate this point, the Stoics said that man is like a dog tied to a moving wagon. If the dog refuses to run along with the wagon he will still be dragged by it, yet the choice remains his: to run or be dragged. As Seneca put it a bit more eloquently, fate leads the one who wants to be led, but it drags the one who does not want to be led (Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt).
How are these time-honoured doctrines still relevant today?
Taoism and stoicism might be particularly helpful when we deal with the distress caused by the coronavirus pandemic, ongoing as of the writing of this article.
Our heads might be filled with what ifs. What if there was never a national lockdown? What if I was still studying on campus and grabbing cappuccinos with my classmates? What if I went on that vacation to the beach that I planned with my partner?
We are used to having certainties, whether they are short-time plans or daily routines, but wherever we’re headed now seems to be a question mark on our lips with no answer.
But Lao Tzu and Zeno are there to remind us that nature’s plan will work itself out no matter what and there is nothing we can do about it. Therefore, there is little point in stressing over what is beyond our control to do.
As Emperor Marcus Aurelius – a Stoic himself – famously wrote:
“You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
In sum, it is often the case that the anxiety of the unknown makes us spend countless hours tracing on the palm of our hands the trajectory of a lifetime, and yet the path we set in our mind is often diverted from unmapped winds. It is much wiser 一 as the Taoists and Stoics would say 一 to take a deep breath to calm down and learn how to follow the current without turning upside down with each wave.