Quakers, and Torture
Stoic Warriors, Nancy Sherman
discusses the effectiveness of stoicism as a defense against torture. In
“Torture and the stoic warrior,” Jessica Wolfendale asks in response whether
stoicism might be as advantageous to those administering torture as to those suffering
The Stoic victim of torture rises above it by identifying it as an “indifferent,”
that is, in effect, by saying that it is not so bad. Assuming that this works,
it raises another question: if indifference is the official stoic response to
torture, where does that leave the stoic soldier who discovers torture being
practiced by her own side, or the stoic citizen in a civic debate on the
acceptability of torture as a matter of policy? It seems as though the
philosophy that enables people to endure torture simultaneously undermines
their ability to criticize it. Indeed, it almost seems to require to the stoic
to blame the victims for giving in to the pain.
stoics try to find ways around this, for instance by classifying torture as a “dis-preferred
indifferent” or something of that nature. But for the time being, we can take for
granted that Greek stoicism has at least apparent problems responding to
torture, which prompts the question whether Chinese Daoism fares any better. For
my test case, I will take the philosopher Zhuangzi and will focus on not the
victim of torture, but the onlooker, specifically the citizen in a society in
which torture is practiced.
The Zhuangzi is frequently described as a
mystical text. Given the difficulties of talking about mysticism, I prefer to
come at it along the more pedestrian route of skepticism. Here is a familiar
example, my own translation, slightly adapted for clarity:
How do I know that
loving life is not a mistake? How do I know that fearing death is not like a
child forgetting its way home? Lady Li was born the daughter of barbarians.
When she was traded as a hostage to the state of Jin, she cried until the tears
drenched her robe. But once she took up residence in the palace and became the
royal concubine, she wondered why she’d ever wept. How do I know that the dead
don’t wonder why they ever longed for life?
One who dreams a night of feasting
may wake to a day of tears. One who dreams of weeping may be roused early for a
You don’t know it’s a dream while you’re dreaming; you may even interpret another
dream within it. Only when you awake do you realize it was one big dream. But
there may be a bigger awakening still, in which you discover that this, too,
was just a bigger dream. The stupid ones think they are awake and confidently
claim to know it. Are they kings? Peasants? Really?! Confucius and you are both
dreaming. And in saying you are dreaming, I am dreaming, too. (2/78–83)
Zhuangzi uses techniques similar to
those of Greek skeptics, appealing to diversity of opinion and the problem of
the criterion to reduce arguments to circles, regresses, or undefended
hypotheses. Though the methods are similar, however, the goals for skepticism in
China and Greece are different, as we shall see.
does not discuss torture directly though he does address captivity and death.
At first glace, Zhuangzi’s Chinese skepticism would seem to have the same
problem that Greek stoicism does: to the extent it would be effective in
neutralizing torture—in this case, by questioning how we know it is bad—it
undermines our ability to criticize torture as a practice.
this would be the correct diagnosis if, like Greek skepticism and stoicism, Chinese
skepticism were aimed at the goal of ataraxia,
“peace of mind.” But while peace of mind may be an added bonus for Zhuangzi’s
Daoism, it is not the ultimate goal, which is a life lived skillfully in
accordance with the dao: literally the
“path” or, in this context, the “way” that things are. Living in accordance
with the way that things are is not simply a subjective feeling but involves
character of skillful performance is illustrated in the story of Woodcarver
Qing, whose bell stands are so beautiful that onlookers think they must be the
work of ghosts or spirits. When asked how he does it, he says:
When I am going to make a
bell stand, I always fast in order to still my mind. When I have fasted for
three days, I no longer think of congratulations or reward, of titles or
stipends. When I have fasted for five days, I no longer think of praise or
blame, of skill or clumsiness. And when I have fasted for seven days, I am so
still that I forget I have four limbs and a body. By that time, the ruler and
the court no longer exist for me. My skill is focused and all outside
distractions fade away. After that I go into the mountain forest and examine
the heavenly nature of the trees. If I find one of superlative form and can see
a bell stand there, I put my hand to the job of carving; if not I let it go.
This way I am simply matching up nature with nature. (9/54–59)
If the goal were simply ataraxia, then the woodcarver’s virtue
would lie in his ability to preserve peace of mind, which he could achieve just
by not caring about the result. Admittedly, Woodcarver Qing doesn’t care about the result: he has
forgotten about titles or stipend, praise or blame, even his own body. But what
the story focuses on is not his state of mind but rather his success in carving
beautiful bell stands which, taken in context, is metaphor skillful living in
us go a little more deeply into the mechanics of this. Zhuangzi recognizes the
role language plays in structuring knowledge. To the extent that knowledge is
linguistic, doubts about language and doubts about knowledge are one in the
same. Zhuangzi thinks linguistic knowledge has a role to play—he certainly uses
language himself—but its usefulness is limited because it is inevitably too
crude. The ways that things are, the dao, involves subtle differences and
ambiguous possibilities that words don’t capture; differences like the unique
natures of individual trees and possibilities like Lady Li’s being both a
barbarian girl and a Chinese queen, both beautiful and treacherous. To the
extent that people rely on knowledge, they interact only with their own ideas,
which fall short of the diversity and possibility of reality; hence they live
clumsily. Skepticism in the Chinese tradition achieves more than just peace of
mind; it helps people live skillfully by putting them in touch with aspects of
reality that defy knowledge.
more example clarifies the link between skepticism and torture. Interestingly
enough, this one is a fictional dialogue—atypical for several reasons—between Confucius
and his favorite disciple, Yan Hui. In it, rather than being invoked mockingly
as he was above in the story of Lady Li, Confucius plays the role of the Daoist
sage, saying things the Confucian Confucius would never have said. (Once again,
the translation is slightly adapted for clarity.)
Hui asks for permission to go as an emissary to the Duke of Wei, who is reputed
to be so murderous that “corpses fill his state like grass in a swamp.” Yan Hui
has been studying politics with Confucius and is eager to use what he has
learned to help rectify the situation. Confucius snorts and asks how he plans
to do it. Yan Hui offers a series of plans which Confucius shoots down one
after the other. Finally Yan Hui gives up: “I have nothing else to offer. What
should I do?”
tells him he must fast—not the fasting of the body but of the mind. He has too
many plans, Confucius tells him, and the way does not like complexity. Rather
than filling his mind with strategies, he should empty it. “The way is found in
emptiness alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.”
is all too much for Yan Hui. Studying history and literature with the Confucian
Confucius, he thought he had been learning how to make the world work. And as
Confucius’s best student, he had reason to believe he was making progress. But
now this Daoist Confucius comes along and tells him that all this learning is weighing
him down and that, rather than filling his head with knowledge, he should be emptying
it. This is Yan Hui’s worst nightmare! “Prior to hearing this, I thought I knew
who I was. But now it is as though that person never existed,” he says in
despair. “Is that what you mean by
Confucius responds with delight at his student’s breakthrough. “Now you can go wander in his birdcage
without getting caught. . . .You’ve heard of using knowledge to know, but not
of using ignorance. Look up at the chink in the wall that fills the empty room
with light. 
This is the way to transform the
as Yan Hui gives up in despair, that is the moment when Confucius says he is
ready. The upshot of the story is not that Confucius has gotten Yan Hui to a
point where he no longer cares about the Duke’s carnage in Wei: that would be ataraxia. Rather, it is by pulling the
rug out from under all his plans that Confucius prepares him for diplomatic
success. The way to transform the situation, paradoxically enough, is by having
no idea how you are going to do it.
At least, that’s the theory. But let’s
stop for a minute and ask: What evidence there is that this really works? The
stories of Woodcarver Qing and Yan Hui are, after all, fictional. Nothing in
the historical records suggests that Zhuangzi himself was particularly adept at
carving bell stands or resolving complex political problems. If Daoism and its
descendent, Zen Buddhism were demonstrably effective in promoting skill, you
would think that Phil Jackson could have taught Shaquille O’Neal to shoot free
throws. Zhuangzi’s stories make an empirical claim: that doubt leads to skill.
In the absence of evidence to back it up, what reason is there to believe this
is anything more than a reassuring fiction?
there may be evidence. This is where John Woolman comes in. Woolman was a
Quaker who lived from 1720 to 1772 in what is now New Jersey. Many people think
the Quakers were always against slavery. But during this period the “peculiar
institution” seems to have been generally accepted, though some were struggling
with it individually, as we shall see.
story, for our purposes, begins in his twenty-second year, when he was working
as a clerk in a store. (Once again, the following passage is slightly edited
for clarity to modern readers.)
having a Negro woman, sold her and directed me to write a bill of sale, the man
being waiting who bought her. The thing was sudden, and though the thoughts of
writing an instrument of slavery for one of my fellow creatures felt uneasy to
me, yet I remembered I was hired by the year, that it was my employer who
directed me to do it, and that it was an elderly man, a Quaker Friend, who
bought her; so through weakness I gave way and wrote it, but at the completion
of it, I was so afflicted in my mind that I said before my employer and the
Friend that I believed slave-keeping to be a practice inconsistent with the
Christian religion. This in some degree abated my uneasiness, yet as often as I
reflected seriously upon it I thought I should have been clearer [in my mind] if
I had asked to be excused from writing it, at all, as a thing against my
conscience, for such it was. (32–33)
Later, he travels south, through
the Pennsylvania and Virginia colonies, and returns thoroughly convinced that
slavery is wrong. “I express it as it hath appeared to me, not once or twice,”
he says, “but as a matter fixed on my mind” (38). He raises the subject in his
own meeting and with friends and people he meets. Later, he begins visiting privately
with Quaker slave-owners in their homes to share his concerns. Eventually, in
1758, his grassroots efforts paid off when the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the
largest in America, agreed to condemn the slave trade officially.
is a misconception about slavery: that the plantation system lapsed because it
was no longer economically competitive with the increasingly industrial north.
Historians increasingly doubt this was true even by the time of the Civil War a
century later. But in the colonial period the trade was enormously profitable.
Even people not involved directly benefited indirectly from the economy that
grew up around it, including many Quakers in Woolman’s circle. In asking them
to rethink the slave trade, then, he was asking them to question the
foundations of their own prosperity, which is not an easy thing for anyone.
Many Friends who keep slaves are under some exercise of mind
on that account. At times they think about giving them their freedom, but find
many things in their way. The way of living and the annual expenses of some of
them are such that it seems impracticable for them to set their slaves free
without changing their own way of life. (141)
What made the issue difficult was
not slavery in isolation, but the way in which it was entangled with the rest
is important for us about Woolman for our purposes is not his insight that
slavery is wrong, which was not original with him or controversial now. What is
important for our purposes is how he got people to look critically at the
conditions of their own prosperity. How did he do it? In particular, one wonders
what went on in those private conversations he held with slave owners.
doesn’t tell us. He describes the conversations as difficult and lengthy, but
he rarely gives a blow-by-blow account. We can, however, glean a few things
from his preparation for these discussions. The first thing is his humility. We
saw previously how anxious he was about speaking out to his boss and the older
Friend about writing the bill of sale. Throughout the Journal, whenever he confronts anyone, it is always with the same reticence.
And this makes sense. Had he come across as self-righteous or pushy, it is hard
to image that he would have convinced anyone to change their minds. The fact of
his success thus corroborates his personal humility.
related factor, harder to notice but more germane to our discussion, is how
frequently his encounters are preceded by a state of profound doubt about how
to proceed. One example arises during one of his many journeys. He writes;
As it is common
for Friends on a visit to have entertainment free of cost, a difficulty arose
in my mind with respect to saving my own money by kindness received which to me
appeared to be the gain of oppression.” (60)
That is, though his fellow Quakers were
being kind to him in letting him stay in their homes, he felt uneasy accepting
a kindness that was paid for by slavery. One can imagine the awkwardness of the
situation, especially for such a shy person as Woolman evidently was.
wrestling with the problem for some time, however, he concludes that his
anxiety arises from misplaced faith in himself when he should have put his
faith in the justice of his cause. Recognizing this, he says;
I felt a
deliverance from that tempest in which I had been sorely exercised, and in
calmness of mind went forward, trusting that the Lord, as I faithfully attended
to him, would be a counselor to me in all difficulties and that by his strength
I should be enabled to leave money with [Friends who had slaves].” (60)
He puts his trust in the Lord.
the trick with Woolman, for non-believers like me, is not to be distracted by
the religious language. His editor notes that Woolman uses the words “God” and “truth”
interchangeably (314). Though he has strong convictions of his own, he says “it
is the duty of everyone to be firm in that which they know is right for them”
(50). His goal was not to convert people to his beliefs but to motivate them to
follow their own consciences. Taking him at his word, therefore, I would argue
that we are justified in factoring out God, so to speak, and using the word
“truth” in its place, so as to present a secular version of Woolman’s thought.
the last passage this way, he says that, rather than worrying himself about
what to say, he would allow the truth of his cause to speak for itself: “[I]n
calmness of mind [I] went forward, trusting that the truth, as I faithfully attended to it, would be a counselor to me in all difficulties and that by his its strength I should be enabled to
leave money with [Friends who had slaves].” As he puts it elsewhere (this time
his words, no substitutions), he made it his “concern . . . to say no more nor
less than what the spirit of truth opened” (106) and was “taught by renewed
experience to labor for an inward stillness, at no time to seek for words, but
to live in the spirit of truth and utter that to people which truth opened in
[me]” (42). Rather than trying to be clever, or smart, or compelling, he sought
only to be honest and let the truth speak for itself.
it worked. He continues,
When I expected
soon to leave a Friend’s house where I had entertainment, if I believed I
should not be kept clear of the gain of oppression without leaving money, I
spoke to one of the heads of the family privately and [asked] them to accept [some]
pieces of silver . . . As I expected this before I came out, I had provided a
large number of small pieces. . . . [O]ffering them to . . . wealthy people was
[awkward] both to me and them. But the fear of the Lord so covered me at
times that the way was made easier than I expected, and few if any manifested
any resentment at the offer, and most of them after some small talk accepted it”
This is the important thing about
Woolman: not his rightness—many people have been right—but his success in
operationalizing his rightness, so to speak. As uncomfortable as we might be
talking about truth in general, most would agree that slavery is in fact wrong.
Woolman’s genius lay in his ability to make this fact salient.
is a similarity between Woolman’s conversations with the slaveholders and Yan
Hui’s discussion with the Duke. In both cases, we see a connection between
doubt, first, and then ability to proceed effectively. Woolman’s documented
success in these discussions provides evidence for the Daoist assertion that skepticism
promotes skill particularly in the kind of political arena depicted in
Zhuangzi’s story of Confucius and Yan Hui. Woolman’s experience suggests that
it really works and that there is more at stake here than just peace of mind.
Woolman was successful in getting people to accept an inconvenient truth, and,
ironically, self-doubt on his part seems to have been a crucial step in the
similarity highlights an important difference: engagement. I mentioned earlier
that the dialogue between Confucius and Yan Hui was atypical for several
reasons. One was that Confucius was depicted as a hero and Daoist sage. A
second is that it features—and in the end even seems to promote—political
engagement. Most other stories in Zhuangzi focus on the natural world and often
explicitly reject the social and political realms. But clearly engagement is
crucial for Woolman. Had he allowed his shyness and doubts to cause him to
retreat, the rightness of his cause alone would have gotten him nowhere. Quaker
skeptical skill requires engagement whereas Daoism for the most part—though not
me pause here to address two objections. I have argued that
Woolman’s-doubt was crucial to his effectiveness in engaging truth. The first
objection is that the description of Woolman as doubting is overdrawn: he never
doubts that he is right, only how to proceed. The second objection is that,
speaking as he was with fellow Quakers, he was not appealing to the truth at
all, as I have argued, but to shared religious assumptions.
response to the first objection—that Woolman doesn’t doubt his fundamental
convictions, only how to act on them—in point of fact he is very careful to
restrict himself to his own impressions even when speaking about issues as
fundamental as slavery. “I express it as it hath appeared to me,” he said in a
passage quoted earlier, “not once or twice, but as a matter fixed on my mind”
(38). In this, he seems to have taken a page from the classical skeptics.
might ask why he felt compelled to act on his impressions if he did not think
they were really right. Arguably, Woolman could invoke the classical skeptic
defense that one is justified in acting on the basis of appearances alone
without claiming knowledge of the truth. But this would
merely defend Woolman’s right to speak out without presenting his reason for do.
reason, I would argue, is a sense of loyalty, bred of compassion.
To understand this, we need to reflect on the difference in paradigms between
the prophet or the teacher, on the one hand, and the concerned friend, on the
other. At issue is the justification required in order to speak out. The
prophet or the teacher makes an implicit claim to be right and therefore has an
obligation to be right, or at least to have good reason for believing they are,
before interfering in other people’s lives. Otherwise we would consider that
they have behaved irresponsibly and resent their intrusion.
by contrast, a friend intervening on what they fear is a dangerous error of
judgment on our part: a poor romantic or professional choice, an unrecognized
dependency, or an ethical lapse. Of course, we would hope that our friend would
have adequate reason before they interfered. But even if we thought they
didn’t, we would, upon reflection, forgive poor judgment if their mistake was
motivated by honest concern. We would not consider them irresponsible. Quite
the contrary, we might consider someone a poor friend if they used lack of
certainty as an excuse to avoid an awkward conversation. The criterion in this
case is not the justification of their belief but the sincerity of their
concern. In Woolman’s case, it seems most plausible that his success stemmed primarily
from his ability to convince his interlocutors that he was honestly concerned
about their well being and only then in his proof that he was right.
leads to the second objection: that he spoke only to people of his own faith. What
would he have done with people who did not share his belief, for instance, that
all people were creatures of God? This is a difficult question to answer. One
possibility is that he would have been forced to doubt even more. If there were
no shared assumptions but still a truth to the matter, then the surrender of
assumptions, especially if it were reciprocated, would presumably help discover
truth. If there were no truth to the matter, the surrender of assumptions
(unless it were a feint) would leave one defenseless. But this was not a
possibility Woolman seems to have entertained. Nor would it matter anymore
since, in the absence of truth, we would only be speaking of rhetorical
us return briefly to the discussion of mechanics and assume that most situations
are in the middle: that there is some truth to the matter but that our
perceptions of it are influenced by the intellectual language with which we
construct the issue. The more differently people construct the problem, the
more difficult it is for them to agree. In this case, what doubt does,
especially when it is reciprocated, is to open up room for negotiation.
Deconstructing our individual versions of the problem allows us to reconstruct
a shared version of it in which we can find agreement. The value of doubt in
this case would lie in the room that it opens up for discussion and
issue here is the question of truth. As I understand it, Woolman does not need
to claim to know the truth. But he must believe at least
that a truth exists, whether or not he knows it;
that the truth, in some sense, “will out”; and
that an open discussion among concerned parties
is an effective means of outing it.
In response, then, to the objection
that Woolman did not need to doubt shared assumptions, this may have been
historically true. But his logic suggests that he would have doubted those
assumptions, had circumstances called for it. So long as he accepts at least
the minimal conception of truth outlined above, Woolman need have no fear of doubting
his views but could, as he put it, calmly go forward, trusting the truth to
support him, whatever it was.
does this have to do with us? Several things. First, I think there is more than
a rough analogy between the issues of slavery and torture. What made the issue
of slavery particularly difficult for Woolman was its connection to people’s
ordinary lives: they depended on it for their income. Similarly, no one
approves of torture in the abstract. But people became willing to entertain the
possibility when they saw it as necessary to protect the safety of their
ordinary lives. In both cases, it is the personal stake in the matter that makes
it a difficult issue.
as ordinary citizens, we are not in the position to make policy decisions regarding
torture, nor, with any luck, will we ever be asked to endure or administer it.
But, as citizens, we are in a position to discuss it. This is something we, as
a public, have not done well. Whether on the national or local levels, even within
families, discussion of red-state/blue-state issues such as torture has been
poor. There are probably many reasons for this. But if you ask most people,
they will tell you that they don’t know how to have the discussions. Speaking
for myself, I never know what to say to people with whose bumper stickers I
our mistake may be thinking that we have to know how to have the conversations
in order to have them. If that were true, we would be in big trouble. But if the
reasoning in this paper is correct, our uncertainty, rather than being an
impediment, may perhaps the best foundation on which for these national
conversations to proceed. As Confucius said to Yan Hui in our story, “You’ve
heard of using knowledge to know, but not of using ignorance.” Assuming that
there is a truth to these matters (and that may be the big “if”), the evidence
suggests that an engaged skepticism may be a useful way to reveal it.
academics may be an interesting case in point. If we as a public did a poor job
having these conversations, we as public intellectuals did a poor job leading them.
The argument in this paper may explain why. As academics, doubt comes hard for
us. We are expected to have well-thought out views which we are able and
willing to defend. Admitting we don’t know may jeopardize our status among our
colleagues and our control over our students. And yet, there are ample reasons
for doubt. There are at least some
reasonable people on all sides of any real issue. And even if we don’t doubt
that we are right, we have all been at a loss about how to make the case over
the last few years. Historically-speaking, there has hardly been a better time
to admit that we don’t know how to proceed.
war, domestic spying, the right to habeas corpus—these are not questions we
want decided by close votes or Supreme Court decisions. These are issues on
which we would like to develop a national consensus. With the change of
administrations, it may feel as though the pressure is off. But in the absence
of widespread agreement the relief is temporary, at best. This consensus is not
something that is going to develop in congress or the media without developing
around dinner tables and water coolers first. It will not be handed down from
those who know to those who don’t but will have to grow out of discussions
among equals, if only be default. As it stands, we don’t know how to have those
conversations. But if what Zhuangzi and Woolman tell us is correct, rather than
being an admission of failure, acknowledging that ignorance might be the
necessary first step.
Davis, David Brion. 2008. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World.
Oxford University Press.
Phillip (ed.). 1985. Sextus Empiricus:
Selections from the Major Writings on Skepticism, Man, and God. Hackett
McPherson, James M. 2007.
The Mighty Scourge. Oxford University
Phillips P. (ed.). The Journal and Major
Essays of John Woolman, Friends United Press, 1989
Nancy. 2005. Stoic Warriors. Oxford
Jessica. 2006. “Torture and the Stoic Warrior.” South African Journal of Philosophy 25: 62-76.
Zhuangzi. 1956. Concordance to Chuang Tzu.
Harvard-Yenching Sinological Index Series, Supplement no. 20. Harvard
versions of this paper were presented at two conferences: the “Confronting
Torture” Symposium at Cal. State Fullerton in January, 2007, where Professor
Sherman reviewed this exchange, and a panel on “Notions of Sagehood in Early
China” at the Western Association of Asian Studies in September of the same
year. I would like to thank Craig Ihara and Eric Hutton for their roles in
organizing those events.
 It is a long-standing objection that the stoic lacks
the ability to sympathize with or forgive lapses of self-control in those who
don’t meet its standard. Modern psychological techniques of torture take
advantage of this by internalizing it. Everyone will lapse at some point,
falling from a stress position, feeling shame at forced nudity, or being glad
to see their interrogator after long enough in isolation. Now the stoic is
stuck with the problem of being unable to forgive or sympathize with himself,
which is the weakness that eventually breaks him. See Alfred McCoy, A Question of Torture (Holt Paperbacks:
Presumably hunting is a treat.
References are to the Harvard Yenching Sinological Index Series, supplement 20,
by chapter and line.
That is, it is the empty spot that allows for the illumination.
References are to Moulton, ed. The Journal
and Major Essays of John Woolman, Friends United Press, 1989, pp. 32–33.
For studies of this question, see James M. McPherson, The Mighty Scourge (Oxford UP, 2007) and David Brion Davis’s Inhuman
Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford UP:
That is, his loyalty to the truth as he saw it.
I owe these objections to my sister, Ann Kjellberg.
See Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of
Pyrrhonism, Book 1, chapter 15.
Sextus Empiricus, O.P., 1.11.
I am working this out in a forthcoming paper called “The Discipline of John
The distinction between the prophet/teacher model and the concerned friend
model arose out of a discussion with Joel Salheen.
In 1759, Woolman made a trip inland to Wehaloosing to visit the native people,
with whom relations were deteriorating due to the increasing intrusions of the
colonists. Despite some initial mistrust, the conversations seem to have been a
success, with one man, Papunehang, concluding “I love to feel where words come
from.” Was this the test case we were looking for? Once again, Woolman does not
tell us exactly what they said. Also, Woolman’s visit was preceded by a
Moravian named David Zeisberger, and we do not know the spiritual status of the
native when Woolman arrived.