Two: Daoism and the Question Concerning Technology Responding to technological modernity with Daoist wuwei
Buber returned to the theme of the burdens of modern science and technology in “China and Us" a lecture delivered at a conference held at Richard Wilhelm’s China Institute in Frankfurt in 1928.33 Buber argued for the impossibility of Europeans escaping the weight of technological modernity in his reflections on the question—posed by Wilhelm—of whether Chinese wisdom offers a genuine attainable alterative for modern European civilization. Buber contends, as Heidegger likewise would, that adopting a Chinese way would require forsaking the European way. There is, he affirms, no “going back behind all this industrializing and technicizing and mechanizing," and hence modern Western civilization, because without technological modernity European civilization would lose its specific dao: “We" modern Europeans “would no longer proceed on the way at all; we would, in general no longer have a way"34 The Chinese dao is consequently impossible to realize under Western conditions.
Buber contends that modern Europeans cannot escape technology and science, nor should they desire to abandon these as they have become integral to the path itself as it has been undertaken and, of course, provide much for the improvement of human physical and intellectual existence. Nevertheless, sharing in the anxiety of Weimar intellectuals, Buber perceives a modern civilization deeply shaken by chaos and crisis. “This Europe" the one infected by irrationality and tempted by power and authoritarian strong “leaders,” is accordingly in need of hearing an elemental teaching from China after all. Europeans, he contends, need to learn something to temper and contest the relentless drive for instrumental power over things found in modern Western science and society.
Buber maintained in “China and Us” that it is difficult to imagine any experience that could possibly challenge the modern conception of life as the exercise of the will to power and a relentless struggle for existence. Yet, such a path is indeed indicated in the writings of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Daoist “nondoing” which Buber interprets as a non-coercive and responsive doing, is the key experience and conception that Europe can learn and adopt from China in order to temper its thirst for power and the domination over things and others.35 Wuwei can teach a humanity consumed by technological and historical success that such success comes with substantial costs in human suffering.36 Inspired by his encounter with Chinese Daoism, and his interpretation of the dynamic of the useless and the useful in the Zhuangzi, Buber concluded that success can be the loss of what is genuinely human, and non-success can be its genuine realization:
I believe that we can receive from China in a living manner something of the Daoist teaching of “non-action,” the teaching of Laozi. And for the reason that bearing our burden on our way we have learned something analogous, only negatively on the reverse side, so to speak. We have begun to learn, namely, that success is of no consequence. We have begun to doubt the significance of historical success, i.e. the validity of the person who sets an end for himself, carries this end into effect, accumulates the necessary means of power and succeeds with these means of power: the typical modern Western person. I say, we begin to doubt the content of existence of this person.
It is in this space that an encounter between Chinese wisdom and European reality becomes possible and necessary. This encounter and learning experience cannot occur to the same degree through Confucian philosophy. Buber argued Confucianism is (1) overly ethically demanding for a modernized Western form of life consumed by egoism, power, and wealth, (2) inapplicable in the Western context given Confucianism’s Chinese cultural presuppositions that require a particular form of ethical bonds between generations as well as the living and the dead, and, (3) inappropriate for addressing the basic crisis of modern Western civilization and its insatiable drive for power, progress, and accumulation.
What is “needful” in the modern Western context is precisely a revolutionary transformative teaching that pulls the egotistical yet fractured and dispersed modern self out of its absorption in frantic activities, ravenous consumption, and compulsive obsession for success. The transformative teaching that addresses the neediness of modern humanity would allow the self to be with itself as well as with others and the myriad things with which it interacts. This is the “deeply Chinese” understanding of the way taught in the books of Laozi and Zhuangzi:
And there we come into contact with something genuine and deeply Chinese, though not, to be sure, Confucian: with the teaching that genuine effecting is not interfering, not giving vent to power, but remaining within one’s self. This is the powerful existence that does not yield historical success, i.e. the success that can be exploited and registered in this hour, but only yields that effecting that at first appears insignificant, indeed invisible, yet endures across generations and there at times becomes perceptible in another form. At the core of each historical success hides the turning away from what the person who accomplished it really had in mind. Not realization, but the hidden non-realization that has been disguised or masked just through success is the essence of historical success.
A divergent vision of living and nourishing human life than the modern Western failed one is revealed in early Lao-Zhuang Daoist texts. Buber considered these sources to be the opposite of and to indicate a significant correction to the compulsive drive for and the instrumental calculation of success:
Opposed to it stands the changing of persons that takes place in the absence of success, the changing of persons through the fact that one effects without interfering. It is ... in the commencing knowledge of this action without doing, action through non-action, of this powerfulness of existence, that we can have contact with the great wisdom of China.
Buber concludes his discussion of this passage by noting how it is suffering and foolishness, and with an uncanny foreboding of the pending disaster that would soon swallow Europe and the world with National Socialism, the Shoah, and the Second World War, which has brought Europe on the verge of its own self-produced abyss and the need to discover for itself Laozi’s teaching of wuwei:
With us this knowledge does not originate as wisdom but as foolishness. We have obtained a taste of it in the bitterest manner; indeed, in a downright foolish manner. But there where we stand or there where we shall soon stand, we shall directly touch upon the reality for which Laozi spoke.37
It should be noted that, despite his reservations about Laozi’s mysticism in 1910, Buber’s discussions of Daoism in the 1920s and afterwards focus on the more
ethical-political Daodejing rather than the Zhuangzi. The mature Buber was
particularly interested in its political dimension, as evident in his translation into Hebrew of the chapters of the Daodejing on politics.38