Laozi, Nietzsche and Kropotkin: Are The Common People Good?

Pic: Hugh Rankin (PD)

Pic: Hugh Rankin (PD)

What say you, Disinfonaughts? Are the common people, and the uncivilized, good? Are they better off than those on high?

via Bao Pu 抱朴

I picked up Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals (1887) yesterday and found a passage which immediately made me think of Laozi. Here’s Nietzsche, writing about the origins of the concept of “good” :

… the judgment good does not originate with those to whom the good has been done. Rather it was the “good” themselves, that is to say the noble, mighty, highly placed, and high-minded who decreed themselves and their actions to be good, i.e., belonging to the highest rank, in contradistinction to all that wasbase, low-minded and plebian. It was only this pathos of distance that authorized them to create values and name them … Such an origin would suggest that there is no a priori necessity for associating the word good with altruistic deeds, as those [English] moral psychologists are fond of claiming. In fact, it is only after aristocratic values have begun to decline that the egoism-altruism dichotomy takes possession of the human conscience …

Nietzsche goes on to mention that he discovered that the etymology of the word good in various languages always contains the basic concept of noble, “in the hierarchical, class sense …” and that “this development is strictly parallel to that other which eventually converted the notions common, plebian, base into the notion of bad.”

Ancient Daoists would scoff at the idea that goodness is the domain of the aristocrats. Laozi suggested that the great Dao has more in common with the lowly, that which lies unseen, neglected, at the foundation. The Daoists avoided using the aristocratic-flavoured term Junzi, which can be translated as Princely Person, Superior Person or Gentleman, as a term for their ideal human.

Peter Kropotkin argued in Modern Science and Anarchism (1901) that “… a scientific study … proves that usages and customs created by mankind for the sake of mutual aid, mutual defence, and peace in general, were precisely elaborated by the ‘nameless multitude.’ And it was these same customs that enabled man to survive in his struggle for existence … Science demonstrates to us that the so-called leaders, heroes, and legislators of humanity have added nothing to history beyond what had already been worked out by the Customary Law. The best of them have only put into words and sanctioned the institutions that already existed by habit and custom …”

It seems to me that this resembles Laozi’s view, to which he adds the observation that making morality explicit, makes it forced. Forced morality is far from ideal, and creates more problems. Authentic “morality” has been “worked out” by the “nameless masses” before any philosophers, religious authorities or heroes spoke of them. [this morality is nothing more than local morality however, not universal or objective]

It seems that many (e.g., Daoists, Mohists, Legalists) felt the Ru, (which includes the Confucians) took themselves too seriously, were self-righteous, and looked down on the plebian, common people, the Little People (Xiaoren).

But, pages later, Nietzsche seems to think this view is appalling, as he blames the Jews and Christians for inverting the aristocratic value system as those who began this “grand and unspeakably disastrous initiative”: “It was the Jew who, with frightening consistency, dared to invert the aristocratic value equations good/noble/powerful/beautiful/happy/favored-of-the-gods and maintain, with the furious hatred of the underprivileged and impotent, that ‘only the poor, the powerless, are good; only the suffering, sick, and ugly, truly blessed …’”

Zhuangzi gave examples such as crippled and deformed people, those who had lowly occupations such as butchers, and those of ancient times who were uncivilized, plain and lived at one with Nature as those who might be better regarded as “good,” or better off.


I could go on, but, I will not.

  • Damien Quinn

    I don’t know if they are inherently better or worse, though there seems to be a certain cultural toxicity at either end of the rich/poor spectrum. Probably arises from the sense of being outside normal society.

    Perhaps it’s more pertinent to ask whether someone’s ability to effect others is large or small rather than ask if they are good or bad. The worst person in the world could do no harm on a desert island.

    In those terms, a poor persons footprint is small, it doesn’t really matter if he is good or bad in the grand scheme of things. A rich persons footprint is bigger, even if they’re only a little worse than average, the result can be very harmful.

    • Liam_McGonagle

      If you define evil as a toxic form of ignorance, and consider that nothing is so common as ignorance, I’d have to say that commoners are a great deal worse than the elites.

      The problem being, of course, as you say, by definition the elite are so much more systemically important that their evil is more noticeable.

      Some may accuse me of being an apologist, or at least a weak link, but I think it really might be useful to consider the psychic problems of the elite.

      • Damien Quinn

        I don’t think you’re right about evil being some sort of ignorance, for something to be wrong there has to be some sort of informed direction and ignorance is ultimately a state of being uninformed. Generally, a state of pristine ignorance, innocence, is seen as the polar opposite of evil.

        Not to say willful ignorance isn’t distasteful.

        Also, rather than be misconstrued, I didn’t mean to suggest the rich are systematically important, they’re probably the least important element of the system, in my opinion, I was saying that they exercise an inordinate level of control and so can be most damaging to the system.

        The master switch might be capable of stopping the whole machine but that doesn’t mean it’s systematically important.

        • Liam_McGonagle

          I don’t think there are many *ssholes who understand that they really are *ssholes. I’m pretty sure that nearly all of them consider themselves to be ‘misunderstood’ heroes.

          Now they may actually be misunderstood, but it is probably more likely that it is they themselves whose cognition is deficient.

          One of the hallmarks of ignorance is that it lends itself to a type of vigorous satisfaction by virtue of its simplicity. Germans loved Hitler because blaming foreigners and Jews for all their problems gave Germans a lot more room to act, etc., etc.

          I strongly believe that nearly all evil is really a dysnfunctional form of ignorance. Most dysfunction is due to systemic friction (i.e., it does not adequately address the rights of others and therefore creates social tension, etc., etc.), not that it is necessarily farther from the truth than other forms of error.

          On average elites have a ‘somewhat’ better but far from perfect understaning of systemic dynamics than do peasants. The peasant’s misunderstanding may be truly grotesque, and even 180 degrees apart from the actual case, but since nobody cares what they think or acts upon it, the consequences are far smaller.

          • Damien Quinn

            Is the evil in your scenario due to ignorance or self righteousness?

            The fact that an arsehole is unaware of his faults hardly makes the faults themselves any better of worse. The problem with an arsehole tends to be that he thinks he’s always right. He’s aware of other options (as opposed to ignorant) but he’s convinced of his own importance.

            I’ve found that rich people tend to be arseholes, on a side note.

          • Liam_McGonagle

            Of course. If you don’t HAVE to deal with a person every day, on the rare occasion you do you will be inclined to view him as an obstacle rather than an actual person.

            I think all evil starts off as inadvertant ignorance and then sometimes spirals into intentional malice because people are uncomfortable confronting their own ignorance.

          • Damien Quinn

            That’s not far from my opinion, although I still think you’d be more accurate to call it self righteousness rather than ignorance.

          • Liam_McGonagle

            Maybe. Potato/potahto. Everyone feels the need to justify himself but it can’t really be done to complete satisfaction unless we’re willing to do a sh*tty job.

      • mannyfurious

        There are different types of “ignorance” though. The “common” man’s ignorance is a lack of education, which simply means he doesn’t have all the necessary information.

        The “elite” man’s ignorance is far more profound, in my opinion. His ignorance is not due to a lack of information, but from a lack of knowledge about what to do with that information. You could boil it down to lacking a sense of “empathy” or “compassion” but that doesn’t quite seem to catch the load of the thing. The elite are ignorant to how their actions affect others, but, more importantly, themselves. Empathy, oddly enough, is the direct result of self-awareness. I care for others only because I care for myself. The elites don’t care for others because they don’t actually care for themselves. That lack of self-love manifests itself in things like narcissism and other neuroses, which then comes across as self-love run amok.

        You can’t love yourself if you don’t “know” yourself, and so that’s the source of their “ignorance” maybe?

        In many cases, this is true of the common man, as well. Gang bangers destroy their own lives because they don’t actually love their lives. That’s the only logical conclusion.

        • Liam_McGonagle

          Recently I’ve become fascinated by the idea that a good deal of the elites’ misanthropy is due to their ignorance of their own psychic needs.

          I fully believe that their antisocial behaviour is intentional, but that it arises out of an inner spiritual agitation whose cause they can’t quite place. I wonder if some of them would not actually appreciate a means of resolving that agitation instead of temporarily displacing it–and thereby increasing social dysfunction–which they typically do now.

          Our current production and social models leverage a high degree of centralization, with only a few elite individuals having influence over the moving institutional parts. In effect, we’re asking them to operate a machine of such immense complexity that no human can be expected to truly understand it.

          Currently, to ease the stress they feel, elites simply increase the amount of environmental opacity, to prevent others from observing them operate the levers, and thus sparing them a tidal wave of disparaging commentary.

          In the short term that allows the elites the psychic energy they need to keep the machinery moving, even if in a minimally satisfactory manner, but in the long run it creates social friction.

          Peasants are the first to recongize the dysfunction, even if they don’t understand why. Only gradually does the dysfunction increase the antipathy between the various segments of society to the point it erupts into intentional class warfare.

          Subject to a hostility that seems irresolvable to them (as they themselves do not understand its true origins), elites feel perfectly justified in ignoring or attacking the peasantry.

          If we asked less from our elites–admitted that nobody is capable of adequtely exercising such power alone–rather than merely condemned them as horrible people, maybe we could begin to move forward.

          • mannyfurious

            Those are interesting ideas. I don’t know how I feel about them, though. You’ve given me something to think about.

          • thisbliss

            Agreed, particularly this:

            “If we asked less from our elites–admitted that nobody is capable of adequtely exercising such power alone–rather than merely condemned them as horrible people, maybe we could begin to move forward.”
            Too much energy is wasted on frustration and condemnation from facebook pages to high streets

          • Simon Valentine

            no one operates
            there are only pretenders
            and pretendeees

            pretensive (and false) solutions (called tradition or twisted into a system of NO, ‘answer’, ‘authority’, etc)
            people aren’t in charge any more than they solve n-body
            sad day for the universe

          • Simon Valentine

            and if you ‘solve’ n-body (it’s wrong) you “brand” name it

        • echar

          I would like this more if you worded it in a less absolute manner. However I mostly agree with what I percieve you are saying.

    • kowalityjesus

      Wealth and poverty; the one is the parent of luxury and
      indolence, and the other of meanness and viciousness, and both of
      discontent. – Plato

  • BuzzCoastin

    studying the Tao is just a figure of speech
    used in the early phases of development
    studing the Tao leads to the retention of concepts
    whereby the Tao is lost
    Hunag Po

    • BuzzCoastin

      The Master has no mind of her own.
      She works with the mind of the people.

      She is good to people who are good.
      She is also good to people who aren’t good.
      This is true goodness.

      She trusts people who are trustworthy.
      She also trusts people who aren’t trustworthy.
      This is true trust.

      The Master’s mind is like space.
      People don’t understand her.
      They look to her and wait.
      She treats them like her own children.
      Tao Te Ching, Mitchell

      • BuzzCoastin

        “For the harmony of the world is a harmony of opposition, as in the case of the bow and of the lyre,” according to Heraclitus; and according to Euripides, neither good nor bad may be found apart, but are mingled together for the sake of greater beauty.

        • BuzzCoastin

          All things are with others identical, and the saying of Heraclitus is true that the good and the evil are the same.

          • BuzzCoastin

            Heraclitus says that to God all things are beautiful and good and right, though men suppose that some are right and others wrong.

  • mannyfurious

    I wonder if there’s a difference between the “common” and the “elite” beyond the situations/circumstances each was born into. Human beings, in general, have a tendency to be dicks. Some dicks have the means and resources to be very destructive. Others, not so much.

    I do believe Laozi and Zhuangzi both felt that poverty was a much more “noble” way of life than a life of abundance. Not intrinsically, but simply because property and slavery are one and the same in their worldview. The more you own, the more you save for the thief, and the more tightly you hold onto it. The more you’re deluded by illusions. The man with the most property drowns in the flood, dragged to the bottom by the very things he believes are giving him life. The man who owns little is free to swim wherever the current may take him.

    This is a viewpoint I agree with and it’s why I say the “elite” are only the “elite” because we agree to play along with their illusions. If we’d all make like Zhuangzi and say, “Fuck your money, fuck your cars, fuck your oil, fuck your commercialized misogyny, fuck your status, fuck your Iphones, fuck your whole entire illusion, I’m going to go play in the mud and enjoy the fuck out of it” we’d all be better off. But usually I’m just dismissed as a hippie or some other term that allows people to continue on with the illusion, because they’re not actually angry about the unfair distribution of resources. They’re angry because they’re not at the top.

    • Liam_McGonagle

      “Nil se ceist d’uasal na iseal, ach a bheith thuas tamall agus thios tamall”.

      • Virtually Yours

        “Wheel of Morality, turn-turn-turn. Tell us the lesson that we should learn…”

  • Simon Valentine

    assuming there’s authority is part of the process of going to look for authority, whether it’s a 100, 110, or PHI% assumption. shit in shit out even with a dictionary. if you haven’t seen local good be utilitarian (non-local) bad, omgyourelikesonoob. likewise with a collection of actual bad (criminal, even) dos don’ts (and ‘whos’?) with facade good. ya can’t test it. ya can’t know it. yet one assumption is clear: ya either have it or ya don’t.

    my my how QP is screaming, with that plastic bag all over its face. let it die, too.

  • echar

    I am a daughter of the King of Ophir,” she said. “My father sold me to a Shemite chief, because I would not marry a prince of Koth.”

    The Cimmerian grunted in surprize.

    Her lips twisted in a bitter smile. “Aye, civilized men sell their children as
    slaves to savages, sometimes. They call your race barbaric, Conan of Cimmeria.”

    “We do not sell our children,” he growled, his chin jutting truculently.

    -Iron Shadows in the Moon by Robert E. Howard

  • kowalityjesus

    It can be admitted that Christianity possesses a paradoxical philosophy in simultaneously exalting poverty and yet seeking by virtue to alleviate it. – C.S.Lewis [paraphrase]

  • Graham Marco

    A traveling monk asked an old woman the road to Taizan, a popular
    temple supposed to give wisdom to the one who worships there. The old
    woman said: “Go straight ahead.” When the monk proceeded a few steps,
    she said to herself: “He also is a common church-goer.”

    Someone told this incident to Joshu, who said: “Wait until I
    investigate.” The next day he went and asked the same question, and the
    old woman gave the same answer.

    Joshu remarked: “I have investigated that old woman.”

    The Gateless Gate

  • kimsbutt

    The lot of man is nasty and brutish

  • Mu Geistlicht

    Question… are we Disinfonauts or Disinfonaughts? One sounds explorative and the other one sounds a little naughty.