The darker side of daoist primitivism

Journal of Chinese Philosophy 37 (2):312-329 (2010)
Abstract
The Primitivist (responsible for chapters 8-11 of the heterogeneous Zhuangzi) has largely been interpreted as just another exponent of the philosophy of the Laozi or Daodejing. This is a shame, because the Primitivist is an idiosyncratic thinker whose theories do not simply reiterate those found in the Laozi. In this essay, I argue that even though the Primitivist embraced some of the values of the Laozi’s brand of Daoism, (e.g. simplicity, harmony with nature, being rid of knowledge, etc.) he would have censured its prescriptions; he had little faith that order could be achieved through an emphasis on minimalism, by doing nothing, or by advocating a change (or reversal) in values. Instead, the Primitivist suggests that the only way to curb the massive disorder of the late Warring States period was to purge the world of its root causes—namely, of all the artifice that kept the masses in competitive, violent strife—and suppress their reappearance. Without such a purge, the masses would be helpless to lead a natural, instinctual, pre-reflective mode of existence. By advocating such a strategy, the Primitivist seems to have membership in what must be a very exclusive group: he is a Daoist who thinks the world can only be brought into order by doing something—indeed, doing a whole lot of unpleasant, nasty things. I thus situate the Primitivist within the trend toward authoritarianism that characterized the period in which he wrote (3rd century BCE).
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