Zhuangzi glossary


Daoists, Quakers, and Torture

P. Kjellberg


Daoists, Quakers, and Torture


            In 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 it.[1] 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.[2]

            Classical 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 hunt.[3] 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)[4]

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.

            Zhuangzi 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.

            I believe 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 objective performance.

            The objective 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 general.

            Let 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.

            One 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.)

            Yan 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?”

            Confucius 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.”

            This 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 emptiness?”

            “Yes!” 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. [5] This is the way to transform the situation!”

            Just 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?


            But 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.

            Woolman’s 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.)

My employer, 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)[6]

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.

            There 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.[7] 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. Woolman notes:

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 of life.

            What 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.

            Woolman 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.

            A 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.

            After 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.

            Now 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.

            Rereading 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.

            And 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[8] 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” (1757, 60–1).

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.

            There 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 process.

            This 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 exclusively—eschews it.

            Let me pause here to address two objections.[9] 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.

            In 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.[10]

            One 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.[11] But this would merely defend Woolman’s right to speak out without presenting his reason for do.

            His reason, I would argue, is a sense of loyalty, bred of compassion.[12] 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.

            Consider, 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.[13]

            This 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 tactics, anyway.

            Let 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 negotiation.

            At 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

1.     that a truth exists, whether or not he knows it;

2.     that the truth, in some sense, “will out”; and

3.     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.[14]

            What 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.

            Second, 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 disagree.

            But 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.

            We 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.

            Pre-emptive 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.

Hallie, Phillip (ed.). 1985. Sextus Empiricus: Selections from the Major Writings on Skepticism, Man, and God. Hackett Publishing.

McPherson, James M. 2007. The Mighty Scourge. Oxford University Press.

Moulton, Phillips P. (ed.). The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, Friends United Press, 1989

Sherman, Nancy. 2005. Stoic Warriors. Oxford University Press.

Wolfendale, 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 University Press.

[1] Early 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.

[2] 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: 2006).

[3] Presumably hunting is a treat.

[4] References are to the Harvard Yenching Sinological Index Series, supplement 20, by chapter and line.

[5] That is, it is the empty spot that allows for the illumination.

[6] References are to Moulton, ed. The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, Friends United Press, 1989, pp. 32–33.

[7] 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: 2008).

[8] That is, his loyalty to the truth as he saw it.

[9] I owe these objections to my sister, Ann Kjellberg.

[10] See Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Book 1, chapter 15.

[11] Sextus Empiricus, O.P., 1.11.

[12] I am working this out in a forthcoming paper called “The Discipline of John Woolman.”

[13] The distinction between the prophet/teacher model and the concerned friend model arose out of a discussion with Joel Salheen.

[14] 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.