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Greek Tragedy and the Watercourse Way of Taoist Thinking

( From A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy, Chapter 15 by You-Sheng Li)

Humans have long realized the tragic nature of civilized life on earth. Hindu-Buddhist traditions teach that life itself is suffering, and the only way to stop suffering is to give up all desires and extricate oneself from the secular world. According to the Judaic-Christian Bible, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and God drove them out of the Garden of Eden. There is no death but only happiness inside the Garden while death and suffering are the rule outside. “In pain you will eat its produce all the days of your life,” God said. The early Chinese Taoist philosophers saw the same tragic nature of humans but they took a different approach, admiring primary society and condemning secondary society, and regarding the secondary society as the cause of human suffering. Under the influence of Taoist philosophy, Chinese culture is often called optimistic culture by Western scholars.

The Bible story tells us that the suffering resides in our own nature, since God has pointed out, human suffering is inseparable part of knowledge. In other words the nature of civilized life on earth is tragic.

Now psychologists all agree that humans are born with exploratory desire to seek new knowledge, and self-conscious to know good from bad. The traditional Western tragedy from ancient Greece, Shakespeare to the present time carries forward from one generation to another in the form of timeless art is the most touching cry from the bottom of the deeply traumatised human heart. It dramatizes the nature of human experience in this civilized world.

Apart from more recent so-called domestic tragedy, classic tragedy usually describes a noble born protagonist, prompted by will or circumstance, ignorance or some binding obligation to confront an inexorable fate that ensures a tragic outcome. Shakespeare’s King Lear and Hamlet are typical examples. Tragedy was well developed in ancient Greece. As a form of drama, there is little difference between ancient Greek tragedy and Shakespeare’s and even modern ones. Greet tragedies were performed in honour of the god Dionysus. The term tragedy means “goat song”, and possibly refers to the sacrifice of a goat in harvest and fertility rituals. Some fifteen thousand Athenians would attend and watch these performances. The government issued free tickets to the poor to encourage them to go.

Tragedy was also an important theme in other art forms such as sculpture. Laocoon and his two sons are depicted struggling to breathe while coiled by two huge serpents. All those familiar with Greek sculpture tremble to their hearts at this image. In the mythology of the Trojan war Laocoon and his two sons are minor characters of no importance. Laocoon, as a priest, only warned his citizens of the risk of allowing the Greek wooden horse inside the city because of the natural sympathy of a human heart. Such innate kindness led to such tragic deaths, and Greeks chose to cement in art this moment of their suffering. It must have helped ancient Athenians to relieve their troubled feelings about the tragic side of their life. (Figure 17)

Ancient Greek drama and sculpture were by far the best in their contemporary world, and are surpassed by none in the succeeding two thousand and five hundred years. Their deep understanding of the human condition, reached such a profound level that many modern commentators claim that all the philosophy subsequently developed in the western world is only a footnote to Plato.

As members of our human race we are all proud of the remarkable achievements of ancient Greek people, and so were the Greeks themselves but only they who felt the vulnerability and fragility of their highly civilized life surrounded by cruel barbarians. In his famous speech to honour the dead who fell to defend their city, Pericles compared his Athenians with the cruel Spartans, speaking highly of their freedom, democracy, and cultural achievements. Athenians were eventually conquered by the Spartans and subsequently by the Macedonians, and the Romans. Aristotle was particularly hated by his citizens because he tutored Alexander the Great. This too illustrates the tragic nature of human civilized life.

In comparison to this ancient tragic tradition, Western scholars often call the Chinese an optimistic culture, lacking the tragic feeling of the Western world. These scholars point out other distinctively Chinese issues such as ancestor worship, bureaucratic organization, a much longer continuity of history, a collective and highly symbolic way of thinking, different ancient hero models and myths, different epistemology, etc. All those issues may be important to understand tragic/optimistic difference between the West and the East but the fundamental reason lies in the Taoist tradition which goes back to the Yellow Emperor and Great Yu’s t

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Greek Tragedy and the Watercourse Way of Taoist Thinking

Re: Greek Tragedy and the Watercourse Way of Taoist Thinking

The most striking difference between the East and West.

Are our lives happy or tragic?