Chaucer’s philosophical history

The Monk’s Tale, one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, presents an interesting challenge to Aristotle’s famous assertion that “poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.” The moralizing monk of Chaucer, however, presents a series of short biographies of powerful men and their respective downfalls that his listeners might “be warned by these examples, true and old.” In so doing, Chaucer’s monk calls into question Aristotle’s contention about the limits of history. By transforming history into poetry Chaucer has universalized the otherwise singular historical personage, thereby raising history to the level of the philosophic and gravely important occupied by poetry.

There are, however, some reasons to object to Chaucer’s derivation of morals from historical events. Descartes, for example, asserts in his Discourse on Method that “those who regulate their conduct” by the examples provided in history, “are liable to fall into the extravagances of the knights-errant of Romance, and form projects beyond their power of performance.” Descartes’s objection, though, extends wider than the purview of this essay in his rejection of extracting guidance for present conduct not only from history but from literature and poetry as well. Descartes rejects the moral guidance of narrative in a more general sense. He worries that because a narrative may be fictional or extravagant it may inspire a reader to the impossible. Given his allusion to Don Quixote, who did just the sort of thing about which he expresses his worries, however, it may legitimately be wondered whether a world full of men who imitate the Romances and so live their lives according to a strict code of honor and valor, virtues universally ascribed to Don Quixote by the other characters in his eponymous novel, would be such an undesirable place after all. Descartes’s statement brings him close to rejecting the study of history and literature altogether. If the past were indeed as distant and foreign as Descartes holds it to be, it might be legitimate to do so. Thucydides seems closer to the mark in his assertion in his History of the Peloponnesian War that “there is … no advantage in reflections on the past further than may be of service to the present.”

That the past is of service to the present seems self-evident, though Descartes may find room for disagreement. The means by which the past can be of service to the present, however, is a subject of debate. Dewey repositions the historical as the singular, for example, in his attempt to use the education of the young in history as a means by which to provide them with the impetus and ability to alter current social conditions. In his Education and Experience, Dewey claims that “the issues and problems of present social life are in such intimate and direct connection with the past that students cannot be prepared to understand either these problems or the best way of dealing with them without delving into their roots in the past.” Dewey, then, agrees with Chaucer in his belief that the experience of the past is a necessary source from which to learn how to act in the present. Dewey departs from Chaucer, however, in his beliefs about the nature of this knowledge. Whereas Chaucer sees the past as a mine filled with examples to be imitated or avoided, Dewey desires the student of history to study the root causes of the problems of the present in order to change them in the future.

There is at issue here a divergence in understandings of human nature as well as of a man’s place in society. Chaucer’s view relies upon an understanding of the immutability of human nature. Man must be the same sort of creature today as he was long ago for Chaucer’s use of the past as a source of moral guidance to be practicable. As a society consists of just such creatures, while the particulars, such as technology, government, and custom, may differ greatly in various eras, the essential nature of society qua society does not change. While a man or a society may be improved, in Chaucer’s view, the essential nature of man and society, generally, abides. Dewey, on the other hand, adheres to an ideology which seeks the improvement of man and society generally. Within this framework, history can be little more than a record of the follies of unimproved individual men and societies within the wider narrative of gradual improvement of man and society over time.

More than Dewey, Marx submerges the individual within this social and general paradigm in his view of history. For Marx, history is much more the record of the effects of abstract, general, and impersonal forces, what he calls “the natural laws of [a society’s] movement,” than it is of particular persons or peoples. If the great forces behind any given society are indeed abstract and impersonal, however, Chaucer’s extrapolation of moral guidance from history is misguided and unnecessary.

Chaucer’s moralization of history is only legitimate within the framework of the philosophy of history he espouses, one in which history is the record of the chosen activities of particular persons whose nature does not differ substantially from the persons of earlier or later ages. Chaucer’s very ability to draw meaningful guidance for persons in the present from the activities of persons in the past, however, also stands as an argument against the lack of utility in historical study as believed by Descartes, the belief in history as a record of the causes of society’s ills espoused by Dewey, and the impersonalization of history attempted by Marx. It may, in addition, belie Aristotle’s belief in the inferiority of history to poetry. Through his universalization of history, Chaucer, the great English poet, was able to raise history to the dignity and relevance of poetry.

Primary Source: Xenophon’s “Memorabilia,” Book IV (ca. 370 BC) (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.11)

Socrates was so useful in all circumstances and in all ways, that any observer gifted with ordinary perception can see that nothing was more useful than the companionship of Socrates, and time spent with him in any place and in any circumstances. The very recollection of him in absence brought no small good to his constant companions and followers; for even in his light moods they gained no less from his society than when he was serious.

Thus he would often say he was “in love”; but clearly his heart was set not on those who were fair to outward view, but on those whose souls excelled in goodness. These excellent beings he recognized by their quickness to learn whatever subject they studied, ability to remember what they learned, and desire for every kind of knowledge on which depend good management of a household and estate and tactful dealing with men and the affairs of men. For education would make such beings not only happy in themselves, and successful in the management of their households, but capable of conferring happiness on their fellow-men and on states alike. His method of approach varied. To those who thought themselves possessed of natural endowments and despised learning, he explained that the greater the natural gifts, the greater is the need of education; pointing out that thoroughbreds by their spirit and mettle develop into serviceable and splendid creatures, if they are broken in as colts, but if unbroken, prove intractable and sorry jades; and high-bred puppies, keen workers and good tacklers of game, make first-rate hounds and useful dogs, if well trained, but, if untrained, turn out stupid, crazy, disobedient brutes. It is the same with human beings. The most highly gifted, the youths of ardent soul, capable of doing whatever they attempt, if educated and taught their duty grow into excellent and useful men; for manifold and great are their good deeds. But untrained and untaught, these same become utterly evil and mischievous; for without knowledge to discern their duty, they often put their hand to vile deeds, and through the very grandeur and vehemence of their nature, they are uncontrollable and intractable: therefore manifold and great are their evil deeds.

Those who prided themselves on riches and thought they had no need of education, supposing that their wealth would suffice them for gaining the objects of their wishes and winning honor among men, he admonished thus. “Only a fool” he said, “can think it possible to distinguish between things useful and things harmful without learning: only a fool can think that without distinguishing these he will get all he wants by means of his wealth and be able to do what is expedient: only a simpleton can think that without the power to do what is expedient he is doing well and has made good or sufficient provision for his life: only a simpleton can think that by his wealth alone without knowledge he will be reputed good at something, or will enjoy a good reputation without being reputed good at anything in particular.”

 

Vocabulary Builder

 Look up each of the following words in a dictionary and write the definition on a sheet of paper:

recollection

mettle

splendid

ardent

manifold

vile

admonish

suffice

expedient

provision

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.10)

Because of the excellent education they received and the freedom they had to develop and share their own ideas, the Athenians produced some of the greatest thinkers in all of human history. Among these thinkers are three men, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, whose ideas have influenced nearly everyone since then. All three of these men were philosophers. The word “philosophy” means “love of wisdom” in Greek. Philosophers are people who use reason to search for the truth about important things like human life, God, and nature.

While there were many philosophers before Socrates, Socrates is almost always considered the greatest of philosophers and so the Greek who was most important in beginning the Greek tradition of philosophy. Within his lifetime, Socrates became very well known for wandering around the agora, the marketplace in the center of Athens where all of the men went to meet. There, he would ask people questions about what they believed. He would try to figure out what people believed and why they believed those things. Through his questions, many people discovered that they could not explain their beliefs well or did not have good reasons for believing those things. It was asking too many questions that got Socrates in trouble.

Socrates was put on trial in Athens in 399 BC. He was charged with two crimes. His first crime, they said, was introducing new gods. By this, they meant that Socrates was encouraging people to question the existence of the traditional gods of the Greeks, the gods of Mount Olympus, and was encouraging them instead to worship other gods. His second crime, his accusers claimed, was corrupting the youth. By this they meant that Socrates was encouraging young people to question their parents and other authorities. They believed that by asking so many questions and making people look bad Socrates was leading the young men of Athens to disrespect for their elders.

At his trial, Socrates defended himself by claiming that he had committed neither of these crimes. Instead, he said that he had been led by God to do what he did. Years ago, said Socrates, a man had gone to the Oracle of Apollo, a temple where people went to ask for advice and wisdom from the god Apollo, in the Greek city of Delphi. The man had asked the god there who was the wisest man in the world. The god had told him that Socrates was the wisest man in the world.

When Socrates was told of Apollo’s answer, he could not believe that he was the wisest man in the world. He set out to prove the god wrong. He went to various people he thought must be wiser than himself and asked them questions to find out if they were indeed wise. After questioning many people, Socrates concluded that most people believe they are wise but really are not. Socrates understood that he was the wisest man in the world because he was the only man who knew he was not wise. He said that since that time God had made him continue to question people in his search for wisdom.

Of course, the jury at his trial was not happy with this. They found Socrates guilty of both charges and sentenced him to death. Socrates was executed a few days later. He was forced to drink a poison called hemlock. Socrates was 70 years old when he died.

One of Socrates’s young students, a boy named Plato, grew up to write many books about Socrates and his ideas. Plato also founded a school called the Academy where he taught young men about Socrates and Socrates’s ideas. In his books, Plato continued the tradition that Socrates’s had started of questioning everything in a search for perfect wisdom.

One of Plato’s most important ideas is his theory of the forms. Plato believed that we can know what something is only because we already have, in our souls, a perfect idea of that thing. For example, even though all apples look different when we look at each one of them closely, we can recognize any apple as an apple because we know, somewhere inside of us, what a perfect apple looks like. This is also how we judge whether an apple is a good apple or a bad apple. The more similar to the perfect apple (the form) it is, the closer it is to being a good apple. The further it is from looking like the perfect apple (the form), the closer it is to being a bad apple or perhaps not even being an apple at all.

If there are perfect apples, Plato said, there must also be perfect human beings. Plato believed that human souls are made of three parts: desire, will, and reason. Desire is what makes us want things. Will is how we control our wants. And reason is what helps us decide which desires to follow and which ones not to. If these three are not properly balanced, a person becomes bad. A person who lets their desires rule them, for example, might steal whatever they want or hit people just because they get mad. Instead, said Plato, we have to learn how to bring all three of these parts of our souls into harmony. The reason should help us decide which desires are good and which are bad and the will should help direct us to the right things. If someone balances the three parts of their soul, they will become a virtuous person. A virtuous person, says Plato, is the perfect kind of person.

Plato had many students at his Academy. One of them was Aristotle, who went on to found his own school called the Lyceum. Aristotle developed a philosophy that was both very similar to Plato’s and also different in some important ways.

Aristotle believed that the one thing that all people want is happiness. He said that everything else we do we do for some other purpose. For example, people like money, but we like money because we can buy things with it. We buy these things because they make us happy. Therefore, everything we do we do for happiness.

Aristotle went on to explain that each thing functions best when it does what it was made to do. The hammer functions best when it is used to hammer in nails. The tree functions best when it is allowed to grow large and bear fruit. Human beings, then, will function best if they do what they were made to do. And, if they are allowed to function best, they will be happiest.

He then explained that the function of human beings is in the virtues. Human beings were made to behave virtuously. Humans must, then, be virtuous in order to be truly happy.

In addition to his ideas about virtue and happiness, Aristotle is also famous for his scientific research. He wrote some of the earliest books on topics in science, including zoology and biology. He used to spend much of his time walking up and down the shore of the Aegean Sea near his home, looking for new plant and animal specimens that washed up.

Although Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were different from each other in some of their ideas, they did have some important things in common. First, all three of them knew that virtue is very important. They recognized that without virtue a person can never be completely happy and fulfilled. All three of them were also very curious about people and about the world around them. The ideas of these three men continue to influence us in many ways even today.

 

Review Questions

 1. What were the two crimes for which Socrates was executed?

2. What was the name of the school founded by Plato?

3. In a paragraph, describe what Aristotle believed people had to do in order to be happy.

 

Vocabulary Words

Philosophy – in Greek, “philosophy” means “love of wisdom;” philosophers are people who use reason to search for the truth about important things like human life, God, and nature.

Reason – the ability of the human mind to think, understand, and form judgments.

Personhood in Medieval Philosophy (Personhood Part VI)

The history of medieval thought is largely a history of attempts by various thinkers to bridge the gap between and create a synthesis of biblical faith and Greco-Roman philosophy within the context of the Christian Church. As is to be expected from any attempt to reconcile such disparate sources as Plato, Aristotle, and Genesis, and to create a coherent whole out of this reconciliation, this medieval synthesis of Western thought was often an uncomfortable amalgam of contradictory elements. Medieval ideas about personhood are largely the result of this tension and combination.

One relatively early example of this tension in Christian thought is demonstrated in the words of the fourth century bishop Gregory of Nyssa in his work “On Infants’ Early Deaths.” In that work, Gregory refers to a newborn who has died shortly after birth as passing away “before he is even human,” adding to this statement the parenthetical explanation that “the gift of reason is man’s peculiarity, and he has never had it in him.”69 For his belief that reason is the defining feature of humanity, Gregory drew upon the ideas of the extremely influential late second and early third century Christian author Origen, according to whose assertion, “we hold the resemblance to God to be preserved in the reasonable soul.”70 Origen, who drew heavily on Greek philosophy to explain biblical ideas, in turn, drew on that philosophy for this explanation of the content of the Imago Dei. The Bible itself, however, offers no such identification between human reason and the Imago Dei. In bringing together the Greek philosophical idea that reason is the defining feature of personhood and the biblical idea of the Imago Dei, the beginning of the uncomfortable synthesis of the Greco-Roman with the biblical is demonstrated. In spite of his denial of full personhood to an infant, however, an apparent departure from previous Christian understandings, Gregory nonetheless does not express doubt in the same work that said infants possess immortal and complete human souls.

Another fairly early example of this uncomfortable synthesis that marked medieval Christian thought occurs in Augustine of Hippo’s early fifth century work “On the Holy Trinity.” In that work, as in much else that he wrote, Augustine exhibits a bizarre mix of Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity. This amalgam leads him, in a discussion of women, to draw simultaneously on the opening chapters of Genesis and on 1 Corinthians 11:3-12, interpreting both through the lens of Neo-Platonic philosophy. The rather strange conclusion that he reaches is that a woman herself does not bear the Imago Dei but is the Imago Dei only in conjunction with her husband. According to Augustine, “woman herself alone … is not the image of God; but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one.”71 The uncomfortable mixture of the biblical and Platonic in Augustine’s thought runs throughout his discussion of the Imago Dei and reaches its high point when he, along with Origen and Gregory before him, identifies the Imago Dei with a “rational mind.”72 He is forced to admit, in order to remain true to the biblical text and to traditional Christian anthropology and soteriology but clearly in contradiction to what his previously stated views on women imply, that “it is clear, not men only, but also women have” full possession of this “rational mind.”73

Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the tension between the biblical and the Greco-Roman in medieval Christian thought on personhood is in the ideas of the thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas, whose influence on Western Christianity is arguably less than only Paul and Augustine. Whereas Augustine struggled to find a synthesis between the Neo-Platonic and the biblical, Aquinas sought to bring Aristotle’s philosophy together with the Bible. Just as in Augustine’s work, this attempted synthesis creates a tension that is a palpable and ubiquitous presence in Aquinas’s works. His thoughts on women certainly present an outstanding example of this uncomfortable synthesis, as is exhibited by his discussion of women in his Summa Theologica’s Question 92.74 There, Aquinas almost desperately attempts to make the statements of Genesis in regards to the creation and dignity of women agree with Aristotle’s thought on women in his work On the Generation of Animals. In order to make two very different and ultimately mutually exclusive accounts agree, however, Aquinas is forced to perform strenuous mental gymnastics. In his First Article, Reply to Objection 1 in that section, for instance, he is forced to affirm both that woman is a good and complete creation of God, as Genesis claims, and that she is “defective and misbegotten,” as Aristotle claims. In spite of his very best mental gymnastics, Aquinas is clearly unable to make Genesis and Aristotle agree.75 

Notes

69 Gregory of Nyssa, “On Infants’ Early Deaths,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 2nd series, Vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

70 Origen, Against Celsus, book 7, ch. 66.

71 Augustine of Hippo, On the Holy Trinity, ch. 7, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers , 1st series, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004).

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid.

74 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 92, in Thomas Aquinas: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952).

75 I have adapted most of the preceding paragraph from a post to my blog. David Withun, “Aquinas’s uncomfortable synthesis,” Pious Fabrications, 4 April 2013, http://www.piousfabrications.com/2013/04/aquinass-uncomfortable-synthesis.html (accessed 20 April 2013).

Personhood in Late Antiquity: How Barbarians, Slaves, Women, and Children Became Persons (Personhood in Late Antiquity, Part I)

The Greco-Roman world, whose Hellenistic culture and thought dominated the West throughout Antiquity, possessed a very narrow definition of what constituted a person, a full and equal member of the human political and legal community with all of the rights and responsibilities that status confers. In large part, the full application of that term and the concept it represented were limited to free adult male Greek, or, later, Roman, aristocrats. Groups such as slaves, children, women, men who were not Roman citizens, the poor, and others who did not fit into this narrow category were excluded from full participation in personhood. Slaves alone constituted a third of the population of the Roman Empire and women made up approximately half. The majority of the population of the Roman Empire, then, was seen as possessing less than full personhood. Groups that were denied full personhood were often subject to disdain, abuse, brutality, and even execution with no legal recourse. The Jews, on the other hand, who made up a small but visible minority of subjects and citizens under Greek and Roman rule in Antiquity, because of their doctrine of the Imago Dei, held a much wider understanding of personhood and included under that concept all members of the human species regardless of social status, age, gender, or nationality. As a result, Jewish law conferred upon slaves, women, children, the poor, and other such groups the status of full personhood and the rights associated with that status under Jewish law. Christianity emerged from Judaism in the first century AD and carried with it the idea of the Imago Dei, coupling with that idea its own original ideas of the Incarnation of God as man and the availability of salvation for all people through recapitulation. Already heavily influenced by Hellenistic thought from its inception, Christianity in large part became a point of synthesis between Judaism and Hellenism beginning in the second century as an increasing number of converts to the incipient religion came from segments of the Roman Empire outside of the Jewish community, especially from marginalized and oppressed groups. Because of its message of the full personhood of women, children, slaves, and other marginalized and oppressed classes in Roman society, it drew its converts especially from these groups. In the fourth century, Christianity became the official, dominant, and popular religion of the Roman Empire and began to exert a major influence on law, thought, and culture in the West. Although it continued to struggle with the process of reconciling and synthesizing the Judaic and Hellenistic elements it had inherited, Christianity introduced a new and wider understanding of who was fully a person, a definition which included even unborn children and the lowest and most degraded segments of society. Popularized and refined throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, this definition became the standard understanding of what constitutes a human being according to Western thought and, although it has been and continues to be challenged from various quarters, it remains the standard understanding today.

The Tao in Cross-Cultural Comparison

The idea of an objective, transcendent, and eternal force, law, or “way of things” is one that is found in nearly every culture of the world. In schools of Chinese philosophy such as Taoism and Confucianism, this idea has been called the Tao, or Way; in ancient Greek thought as well as in later Jewish and Christian philosophy and theology, this concept was labeled as Logos, or Word; and, in Indian thought including both Hinduism and Buddhism as well as other varieties of Indian religion, the idea was first referred to as Dharma and later identified as Brahman. The content of these ideas as they were developed within their respective cultural, religious, and philosophical homes reflects both the diversity of cultural expression as well as a remarkable fundamental unity in thought across civilizations, geography, and time.

According to Alan Chan, a professor of philosophy, “a key term in the philosophical vocabulary, it [the Tao] informs early Chinese philosophy as a whole” (“Laozi”). The idea, however, “is interpreted differently” throughout the thought of the various philosophical schools of ancient China.

One of the earliest and fullest treatments of the Tao in Chinese thought is found in the philosophy of Kongzi (551-479 BCE), better known in the English-speaking world as Confucius (Ivanhoe, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 1). For Kongzi, the Tao, as the Way of heaven, is largely a concept that reflects ancient Chinese morals and mores. He urged his students to “set your heart upon the Way, rely upon Virtue, lean upon Goodness, and explore widely in your cultivation of the arts” (Kongzi, The Analects, 7.1, in Ivanhoe, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 21). In the thought of Kongzi, there was a golden age which had preceded the current age of decline. In that golden age, people observed all of the customs and conventions associated with propriety and virtue in ancient China. Since then, however, people had fallen away from observing the proper rituals and, as a result, Chinese society had entered a period of decline. While viewing the Tao in spiritual terms, as the Way of Heaven, Kongzi’s concern is largely social and political, rather than religious or otherwise metaphysical.

For Laozi (a legendary figure held by popular mythology to be a contemporary of Kongzi), the only other Chinese thinker whose ideas can be said to have had an influence equivalent to or greater than that of Kongzi, the Tao was something similar but simultaneously quite different (Ivanhoe, p. 161). Laozi maintained the earlier view, reflected in Kongzi’s thought, that the Tao is the Way of Heaven, the all-pervading and governing principle of the universe. He also maintained Kongzi’s view that there had once been a golden age during which people had been at harmony with the Tao, and therefore with themselves, with each other, with the world around them, and with heaven itself. They had lost their original harmony with it through too much ambition, striving, strain, and stress; they had thereby injured themselves by separating themselves from their nature and from the Tao. This is the point at which Laozi separates from Kongzi in his analysis and prescription. Rather than viewing the problem as fundamentally social and turning to traditionalism and social conservatism for salvation, Laozi viewed the problem as, at heart, a spiritual problem, a problem in the soul of man, and one whose only solution was in man’s soul and, according to Laozi, this solution often entailed a retreat from the social world altogether. According to Jacob Needleman, a professor of philosophy, in the view of Laozi, “man is built to be an individual incarnation of this whole [the Tao]. His good, his happiness – the very meaning of his life – is to live in correspondence and relationship to the whole, to be and act precisely as the universe itself is and moves” (Feng and English, Tao Te Ching, p. xiv).

In viewing the Tao in terms of nature, spirit, and the individual, Laozi’s thought departs widely from that of Kongzi, which viewed the Tao in terms of society, ritual, and organization. The two thinkers are agreed, however, in the fundamental assertion that there is a Tao, a Way of Heaven, a law, guiding force, and governing principle in the cosmos. In this harmony, they also find agreement with thinkers from a wide variety of other cultures; fascinatingly, many of these thinkers with similar ideas were their contemporaries and near-contemporaries.

In Greece, at the nearly the same moment that Kongzi and Laozi were developing and teaching their ideas of the Tao, the philosopher Heraclitus (535-475 BCE) introduced the concept of the Logos, a word meaning both “Word” and “Reason,” into Greek thought. According to Richard Tarnas, a professor of philosophy and psychology, in Heraclitus’s thought, the Logos was “the rational principle governing the cosmos” (The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 45). Frederick Coplestone, a historian of philosophy, describes Heraclitus’s logos as “the universal law immanent in all things, binding all things into a unity and determining the constant change in the universe according to universal law” (A History of Philosophy, p. 43). This is an idea, developed nearly simultaneously with the views of Kongzi and Laozi but thousands of miles away and in a very different cultural context, that bears a remarkable resemblance to the concept of the Tao in Chinese thought, especially in the thought of Laozi. The views of Heraclitus in regards to man’s relationship with the Logos are also remarkably similar to the views of Laozi. According to Coplestone, Heraclitus urged that “man should … strive to attain to the viewpoint of reason [that is, of the Logos] and to live by reason [the Logos]” (A History of Philosophy, p. 43), a view nearly synonymous with those of Laozi.

The concept of the Logos would later be taken up by both Jewish and Christian philosophers in the Greek-speaking world. It would be identified in those religious traditions with the Word of God. Later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Christian missionaries in China recognized the notable similarity between the Greek concept of the Logos and the Chinese concept of the Tao, and took up using the word “Tao” as a Chinese translation for the word “Logos.” For example, a 1911 translation of the Bible into Cantonese by the American Bible Society opens the Gospel of John with the proclamation:

In the beginning was the Tao,
And the Tao was with God,
And the Tao was God.
The same was in the beginning with God. (Damascene, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 8)

The word “Tao,” of course, is here being used to translate the word “Logos” in the original Greek of the biblical text.

In addition to this similar idea from Western thought, Indian thought also provides examples of concepts very similar to the concept of the Tao in its ideas of Dharma and Brahman. According to James C. Livingstone, a professor of religion, “in the Vedas,” which texts represent some of the earliest developments in Indian religion and philosophy, “the word dharma stood for an eternally fixed moral law that underlies the universe” (Anatomy of the Sacred, p. 362). So central to ancient Hindu thought was the concern for coming into concord with this law that, “in the later law books,” such as the Law of Manu, “dharma came to refer specifically to the duties and obligations of social life” (Livingstone, Anatomy of the Sacred, p. 362).

Whereas from its inception the Logos of Heraclitus bore a similarity to the Tao as it was developed in the thought of Laozi, the Dharma in its inception bears a much closer resemblance to the Tao as enunciated in the thought of Kongzi. As in Kongzi’s philosophy, the earliest Indian thought on Dharma viewed it largely as a matter of social important, a set of laws, rituals, customs, and conventions to be followed in order for people to attain social harmony and person prosperity. In later Indian thought, however, the Dharma would come to resemble something much more similar to Laozi’s more spiritual and personal version of the Tao.

In Hinduism, for example, the Dharma would be associated closely with the idea of Brahman, the “God [who] is being, awareness, and bliss” (Smith, The World’s Religions, p. 60). Just as meditation on the self-identification of the God of Judaism and Christianity as “I AM,” or the root source, underlying principle, and governing force of existence, in Exodus 3:14 would lead later Jewish and Christian thinkers to an identification of God with the Logos of Greek thought, this very similar description of the Supreme Being in Hinduism demonstrates the similarities of Brahman, Dharma, and Tao.

Also remarkably similar is the Hindu treatment of the relationship between man and Brahman. According to Hindu thought as developed in the Upanishads, a set of mystical, theological, mythological, and philosophical texts, the most important of which were written between 1000 and 600 BCE, Brahman is also identical with the atman, the personal soul of each individual human being. This identification of the atman with Brahman sounds very much like the identification of the Logos, as universal Reason, with the reason inherent in each person, as well as with Laozi’s concept of each man as intended to be an embodiment and reflection of the Tao. There is also a further similarity with Jewish and Christian thought here in the biblical assertion that human beings were created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27).

Although the Buddha (563-483), a contemporary of Kongzi, Laozi, and Heraclitus, rejected the Hindu concept of Brahman, in splitting with the Hinduism developing during the period of the composition of the Upanishads, his ideas concerning Dharma also present a noteworthy comparison here. According to professor and spiritual leader Eknath Easwaran, in the thought of the Buddha, “dharma expresses the central law of life, that all things and events are part of an indivisible whole” (The Dhammapada, p. 12). Here again there is emphasis on an underlying principle which in some sense unites and governs the cosmos. And, in the Buddha’s thought, yet again emphasis is placed on the need for each individual to come into harmony with that principle and thereby attain peace for one’s self and for the world.

Across cultural boundaries and, in the ancient world, nearly insurmountable geographic expanses, at a point in time nearly simultaneous, several of the great civilizations of the world, China, Greece, the Middle East, and India, saw thinkers introduce and develop concepts that bore a remarkable similarity to each other. As Kongzi and Laozi developed their ideas of the Tao in China, Heraclitus expounded upon the Logos in Greece, Jewish thinkers developed their first ideas about a God who is Being Itself, and the authors of the Upanishads and the Buddha taught about Dharma in India. In these ideas, there is a display of cultural uniqueness and of divergence in thought, but also, and far more noteworthy, a fascinating similarity in their assertion that there is a uniting and governing underlying source which transcends and yet remains imminent within it and that man, for his own salvation both as a species and as individuals, must come into harmony with this principle.

ReferencesChan, Alan, “Laozi”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

Coplestone, Frederick. (1946). A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1946.

Damascene, Hiermonk. (2004). Christ the Eternal Tao. Platina: Valaam Books.

Easwaran, Eknath. (1999). The Dhammapada. Tomales: Nilgiri Press.

Feng, Gia-Fu and Jane English. Translators. (1989). Tao Te Ching. New York: Vintage Books.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. and Bryan W. Van Norden. (2005). Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy: Second Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Livingstone, James C. (1998). Anatomy of the Sacred: An Introduction to Religion, Third Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Smith, Huston. (1991). The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers.

Tarnas, Richard. (1991). The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books.

Amazon.com Widgets

America Needs an Education Overhaul

There are few issues more important to the future of the United States than the issue of education. It is through the nation’s educational systems that its future is being built. The boys and girls who are studying and learning in American schools today will be the men and women who will lead this country and even the world tomorrow. And yet, American students have been steadily falling behind their international counterparts in standardized test scores and overall academic performance. If we are going to do the right thing for our children and save the future for the United States, this nation needs to reorient its priorities, stop throwing money at the problem, and be willing to work hard and take the necessary steps to drastically overhaul American education.

Gallup Polls conducted in the month before each of the United States’ most recent presidential elections have found that the percentage of American voters who name education as their primary concern in the election has decreased dramatically over the last decade (Saad, “Economy is Dominant Issue for Americans as Election Nears”). Before the 2000 presidential election, 17% of voters stated that education was their number one concern. Before the 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential elections, however, a mere 5%, 3%, and 4%, respectively, statistically even numbers, said that education was their primary concern. Instead, a majority of Americans have designated issues such as defense, healthcare, and the economy as their central concerns.

While these are valid and important things to be concerned about, education is the more important issue as it forms the baseline and background for these others. To take one example, those Americans primarily concerned with defense should also be equally concerned about education as the United States requires well-educated people, especially people who can become experts in technology, science, and mathematics, fields the United States is falling behind in, if it is to maintain its global military superiority. In a recent speech, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made this point clear, saying “Just as DoD developed the world’s finest counterterrorism force over the past decade, we need to build and maintain the finest cyber force and operations. We’re recruiting, we’re training, we’re retaining the best and the brightest in order to stay ahead of other nations” (Panetta, “Remarks”). Without an educational system that adequately prepares young people to enter fields such as cyber operations, the United States will lose its military dominance in the next generation.

Some might wonder, in response to all of this, whether the American school systems really are all that bad. Are education systems in the United States really failing that badly to prepare students for the future and are they really falling that far behind their peers in other nations? A recent study by Public Agenda, for instance, found that most American parents “say the amount of science and math their child studies now is sufficient” (“Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Workforce”).

The reality, however, is that the education American students are receiving is far from sufficient. “Scores from the 2009 Programme for International Student,” for instance, found tat “out of 34 countries” ranked in a recent study of standardized test scores, “the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math” (Armario, “Wake-up call”). This places the United States “far behind the highest scoring countries, including South Korea, Finland and Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai in China and Canada” (ibid.). What this means for the next generation in terms of military and economic superiority is both obvious and alarming.

There is no simple solution to this problem. Americans have tried for years to merely throw money at the issue and have seen little in terms of lasting results. What is necessary is a complete overhaul of the American public education system. While holding teachers accountable, raising budgets, and other popularly proposed solutions are all part of the fabric of what it will take to made a real and lasting change for the better, they are not the underlying issue. The underlying issue and what ultimately needs the most reform is the current approach to education in America; the United States needs a revamped and updated perspective and curriculum that is able to provide the education the modern world demands. The old system, based on the ideas of philosophers of education such as John Dewey focused essentially on providing just enough learning to allow the average student to enter a workforce of laborers and servers. The future demands that we provide more than “just enough” learning, that we strive for an above average education for above average children, and that education be focused on molding innovators, creators, and thinkers (Hutchins, The Great Conversation). This overhaul will no doubt be an expensive and often painful effort that will require a great deal of sacrifice for all of us, but we are speaking about our future, our children, and I believe we can all agree no price is too high to pay to do the very best we can do for future generations of Americans.

Works Cited 

Armario, Christine. “’Wake-up call’: U.S. students trail global leaders.” MSNBC.com. 7 December 2010. Web. 9 December 2012.

Hutchins, Robert M. The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education. New York: William Benton, 1952. Print.

Panetta, Leon E. “Remarks by Secretary Panetta on Cybersecurity to the Business Executives for National Security, New York City.” U.S. Department of Defense. 11 October 2012. Web. 9 December 2012.

“Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Workforce. (cover story).” NSTA Reports! Jan. 2007: 1+. Education Research Complete. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.

Saad, Lydia. “Economy is Dominant Issue for Americans as Elction Nears.” Gallup Politics. 22 October 2012. Web. 9 December 2012.