I’m trying a new approach to texts. I am, by nature, a completionist, and this has rarely served me well. I know there isn’t enough time to read everything I’d like. I also know that a significant percentage of what any given author writes isn’t necessarily important. I’ve picked up Benjamin Schwart’s The World of Though in Ancient China, but I’m only going to (re)read it through the chapter on Daoism (i.e. 255 pages). And then I will set it aside.
Having just read his chapter on the influence of the Chou dynasty, I’m struck by our desire, throughout human history, to claim a certain reading of the past as a justification for power. We choose a time far enough removed to be both attractive in its contemporaneity and distant enough so that no one lived to experience (and thus refute our revision of) it. If one goes too far back the relevance is lost on those we are trying to persuade. For example, no one would look to late 17th century Puritan America as a model for how to make our country great again. But christen the post-depression and WWII era as the Greatest Generation, throw in some allusions to later 1950’s pop-mythology like Leave it Beaver and you have the stuff of (fascist and incredibly effective) presidential campaigns.
Confucius looked back to an idealized Chou dynasty as a model for his version of propriety (li). Why do we look back and not forward? Perhaps it is as simple as the belief that things that have happened can be known, while things in the future are by definition unknown. For example, it is much more convincing to say, when lost in the woods, “follow me, there is a path out and I have walked it (or been told of it)” than “follow me, I will find a way out even though no one has yet”.
Yet how many of those who follow stop to think that the former requires an act of faith as indemonstrable as the latter?