Home » Blog » Neglected Virtue (4) Mass Ignorance – “Should the People Know the ‘Terrible Truths’?” John Williams (National University of Singapore)

Neglected Virtue (4) Mass Ignorance – “Should the People Know the ‘Terrible Truths’?” John Williams (National University of Singapore)

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John Williams is a President’s Graduate Fellow at the National University of Singapore; he has articles on the Zhuangzi collection forthcoming in Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy (2017) and Philosophy East & West (2017).

Daoist Primitivism: A Counter-Intuitive Take on Human Dignity and Well-Being

One common trope throughout the otherwise heterogeneous Daoist corpus is the “reversal of opposites”: that is, turning a commonly held position on its head. For instance, people apparently don’t want to be ugly and rejected by society. The Zhuangzi‘s “Ren Jian Shi“《莊子•人間世》, however, demonstrates that an ugly reject—in this case, a discombobulated freak named Shu—can live out his natural years (zhongqitiannian 終其天年) because nobody bothers him: viz, the government gives him extra rations out of pity, he doesn’t have to serve in the military due to his deformities, and so on, among many other hidden benefits bestowed on this seeming loser.[1] Thus, what was first taken to be the case, the disappointment of being an ugly reject, has been reversed.

These reversals are fun, on the whole, but one strand of Daoist writing, known as the Primitivist strand, seemingly takes the fun too far. Allow Daodejing《道德經》chapter 3 to illustrate a questionable reversal:

是以聖人之治,虛其心,實其腹,弱其志,強其骨。常使民無知無欲。使夫知者不敢為也。
Therefore in governing the people, the sage [king] empties their minds but fills their bellies, weakens their wills but strengthens their bones. He always keeps them innocent of knowledge and free from desire, and ensures that the clever never dare to act.[2]

People typically don’t want their rulers to make them ignorant, I presume. Such forced ignorance flies in the face of everything we think we know about human dignity and well-being. This reversal simply went too far. Or did it?

Given the “terrible truths” thesis motivated by Brian Leiter, however, the sage king appears more humane than at first glance.[3] The “terrible truths” thesis brings into question the assumption that truths are in some sense good, and that knowledge of truths is likewise good. Truths often turn out to be terrible, while knowledge of these “terrible truths” leads to despair. Perhaps the sage king is humane in steering his populace clear of knowledge, thereby allowing them to avoid the misery knowledge entails?

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[1] (1) Ziporyn, Brook. (2009). Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings. Hackett. p.31; (2) http://ctext.org/zhuangzi/man-in-the-world-associated-with
[2] (1) Lau, D.C. (1963). LAO TZU: Tao Te Ching. Penguin. p.7; (2) http://ctext.org/dictionary.pl?if=en&id=11594
[3] (1) Leiter, Brian. (Forthcoming) “The Truth is Terrible.” Daniel Came (ed.), Nietzsche on Morality and the Affirmation of Life. Oxford University Press; (2) http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2099162&rec=1&srcabs=955037&alg=1&pos=6


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