Effortless Action: Wu-Wei as a Spiritual Ideal in Early China

Dissertation, Stanford University (1998)
Abstract
This dissertation has two major theses. The first is that the concept of "wu-wei" serves as a spiritual ideal for a group of five pre-Qin thinkers--Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, Zhuangzi and Xunzi--who share what might be called the "mainstream" Chinese worldview, and that this concept serves as a soteriological goal and spiritual ideal that cannot be understood except within the context of this worldview. More specifically, this worldview is primarily characterized by the belief that there is a normative order to the cosmos , within which human beings have a proper place and proper mode of behavior; that human beings once existed in a state of accord with this order, but have since fallen out of this state of harmony; that wu-wei represents a re-establishment of this original ideal state; and that a person who has regained this state will acquire a type of charismatic virtue or inner power referred to as de. The second thesis is that this ideal of effortless action contains within it a tension--referred to as the "paradox of wu-wei"--that can be seen as the central problematic with which the five thinkers discussed in the dissertation were concerned. In its most basic form, the paradox is that wu-wei represents a state of effortless action that needs to be regained through a process of self-cultivation or transformation, but it is hard to see how one can try not to try. It is argued that this tension at the center of wu-wei is a productive one, for perhaps the most revealing way of understanding these thinkers is to see them as responding in various ways to both the paradox of wu-wei and previous thinkers' proposed "solutions" to the paradox. It is argued that this central problematic of mainstream pre-Qin thought continues to be a dominant theme throughout the entire history of Chinese religious thought and--as a tension that seems to appear in any philosophy of self-cultivation--is relevant as well to the Western "virtue ethical" tradition
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