Shen Dao

Text and Interpretation Issues

Stoicism and the Great Dao

Political Implications

Daoist Influence and Paradox


Shen Dao (c. 350-275 B. C.) influenced both Daoism and Legalism. He was a native of Zhao who served at the Jixia academy in Qi (an ancient center of philosophical debate). A Han History lists him, along with Tian Pian, as having studied Huang-Lao doctrines and Dao-de (Laozi's Dao-De Jing). The earliest Daoist history (The Zhuangzi Ch. 33) lists him, along with Tian Pian and Peng Meng, leading up to Laozi and Zhuangzi. Hanfeizi credits him with originating the Legalist theory of shi (circumstance/power/charisma). His own writings were presumably lost so we know of him primarily through these indirect reports.

One Han source says he wrote a book of twelve chapters and another lists a book under his name with forty-two chapters. These seem to have disappeared by the Song Dynasty when someone assembled an apparently spurious book of fragments. Most scholars are skeptical of its historical reliability but others still debate the issue. We will rely only on the classical citations. These, in any case, give the views of Shen Dao which philosophers took as having influenced other developments in classical Chinese thought.

  1. Text and Interpretation issues

How can one thinker belong both an authoritarian Legalist and an anarchist Daoist tradition? This interpretive puzzle reminds us that early thinkers made no such distinction. The Han Historian who created the names of the two schools drew them from what he claimed were their respective core concepts—dao (ways:guides) and fa (standards). In fact, most philosophers from the classical period regularly used both terms. Han orthodoxy, however, viewed Daoists and Legalists as having changed the meaning of their respective defining concepts. For Daoists, dao meant ultimate reality and for Legalists, fa meant law. We must entertain the worry, therefore, that the sharp distinction between them might be an entrenched interpretive error.

We have other indications of a uniform distribution of views across the range. Hanfeizi, the paradigm legalist, wrote one of the earliest commentaries on the Laozi (purportedly the basic classic of Daoism). Recent work on Huang-Lao religion suggests that it also followed a more authoritarian reading of The Laozi. Many scholars now trace Huang-Lao attitudes and influence back well into the Warring States period. Han histories seem to identify Shen Dao as Huang-Lao. Working out a coherent interpretive theory for Shen Dao can be a way of exploring the shared background of these two directions of development.

For my purposes, therefore, I will concentrate on the account of Shen Dao in The Zhuangzi and try to show how the Hanfeizi theory of political circumstance might have flowed from the metaphysical theory. Then I will look at the brief criticisms of Xunzi to see how they can be reconciled with the resulting picture.

  1. Stoicism and the Great Tao

The Zhuangzi account characterizes Shen Dao and his associates, Tian Pian and Peng Meng as "universal" rather than "partial" and as lacking selfishness. These attitudes justify placing them as a link between Mohism and Daoism. It also separates Shen Dao from the alleged proto-Daoist Yang Zhu, who was an Ethical egoist. The rest of the moral description, however, makes them sound like ancient Roman Stoics. They merely "flowed" with events without calculating or choosing. The metaphysical description alleges that they united all things and avoided dividing them into two.

They called the absolute one the "Great Dao" (way). It embraced everything but had no distinctions within it. It had both acceptable and unacceptable. My hypothesis is that Shen Dao's innovation to contemporaneous moral thought lay in denying the traditional view that nature was a moral force--sort of. He makes his point somewhat puckishly--like the libertine who claims God intends him to do whatever he does. Shen Dao advocates following the actual dao--the actual course of world history. He adds (truly enough) "Even a clod of earth cannot miss the dao (guide).

Shen Dao's slogan was "abandon knowledge; discard self." In the context of ancient Chinese philosophy, this was amoral advice. Knowledge would have implied knowledge of some dao, e.g., the traditional Confucian dao or the Mohist utilitarian dao. To describe it as "knowledge" was to imply that one had the correct dao and the shared assumption was that their own dao was correct because it was natural (tian).

Let us call the course of action that results from learning and applying a dao (guide) a performance dao. Each Classical school advocated that we execute (i.e., make actual) a different performance dao. Obviously, people disagreed about what was the correct way to perform a dao just as they did about the content of the instruction. Shen Dao, in effect, finessed both questions by prescribing the actual dao. Surely the actual dao is a natural one and any actual performance is a natural one, so he can safely dispense with any further moral reflection and theory.

How do we get the flavor of determinism from this stance? While there are many rival prescriptive future world histories, he notes there is only one actual past history and there will be exactly one future history. Of the many things you might do in the future, exactly one is what you will do. The one actual world history is the Great Dao. This invites us to conclude the future is now fixed, but the argument is no stronger than the familiar tautology "what will be will be."

"Follow the dao" now has the required consequences. We do not need to study or learn, to make choices or distinctions. Whatever we do, it will count as following the dao—the course of nature. Thus, we can abandon even Yang Chu's egoism. For all its shocking content, it too is a form of know-how—a prescriptive doctrine.

Therefore, according to the text, Shen Dao:

. . . flowed with what couldn’t be changed and was indifferent to things." "He said: "Know to not know (what to do)." He would have reduced know-how to something harmful. Naked and without responsibility, he laughed at the social world for elevating worthies. Dissolute and with no standards of conduct, he rejected the social world's great sages. Skillful and crafty he responded to natural kinds. He lived together with shi and fei, mixed acceptable and avoidable. He did not treat knowing and deliberation as guides, did not know front from back. He was indifferent to everything. If he was pushed he went, if pulled he followed--like a leaf whirling in the stream, like a feather in a wind, like dust on a millstone. He was complete and distinguished (fei) nothing. In motion and rest never went too far. He was without crime. How was this? Natural kinds that lack knowledge are free from the trouble of creating a self and from the entanglements of knowing what to do. In motion or rest, he did not miss the natural tendencies. For this reason, he had no high status. So he said, "reach for being like things without knowledge of what to do. Do not use worthies and sages.

One notable difference from Roman Stoicism is that Shen Dao's doctrine does not enjoin us to approve of or accept what happens. Rather it suggests that we should make no judgment about it at all. The Stoics, by contrast, because of their deterministic conception of reason, concluded that, rationally, we should approve of whatever happens. The concept of reason plays no counterpart role in Shen Dao's view.

  1. Political Implications

Assuming this interpretation, we can explain how Shen Dao's ideas could have motivated the political insight Hanfeizi claimed to have derived from him. Shen Dao's system challenged the pre-philosophical Confucian doctrine of the mandate of tian (heaven/nature) which put nature on the side of moral virtue. Confucian legitimization required that the ruler hold his position by virtue of his superior moral character and wisdom. Shen Dao can be seen as rejecting the entrenched myth of the mandate of heaven with the simple observation that rulers become rulers because of circumstance, not because of their moral worth or desert. It just happens! The Legalists, unlike Shen Dao, found it interesting to reflect more on what makes it happen.

Their study, however, is not of a moral dao, it is the study of the actual circumstances that result in one's becoming a ruler. The circumstances of power are subtler than sheer coercion. There is a natural social tendency (noticed by Mozi) to conform to those in higher position. The ruler relies on this tendency—whether he deserves emulation or not. The ruler is in his position because he rests on a hierarchy of authority and the natural charisma of whoever is on the top more than it does on moral qualities or even force.

As Hanfeizi develops Shen Dao's theory, it includes techniques to enhance that natural charisma by elevating the throne, requiring ritual kneeling, kowtowing, debasing forms of address and severe punishment for looking directly into his face, publicizing stories of his strength, accomplishment and skill. Hanfeizi also ties it to Laozi's doctrine of taking "no deliberate action." The ruler maintains his situational authority by not expressing desires or decisions, by remaining aloof and mysterious as he observes the process of official decision making. How much of this elaboration stems from Shen Dao we can only speculate. The important component of the common contribution to Daoism and Legalism is the amoral portrayal of nature and natural process.

Xunzi criticizes Shen Dao in ways that suggest he used the concept of fa (standards) but the Hanfeizi account credits this concept to another source, Shang Yang. However, the concept itself was important to Mozi and could easily have been part of Shen Dao's system. Possibly, he advocated the use of clear, objective standards precisely because he doubted any moral reality. This would explain Xunzi's criticism that "His learning revered fa but he lacked fa." (Xunzi argued that the fundamental fa could only be the judgment of a cultured Confucian gentleman.) and that "blinded by the fa, he lacked awareness of worthy human capacities." Xunzi's third criticism, that Shen Dao had insight into following but not leading, fits his stoicism but conflicts with the fact that Hanfeizi credits him with a detailed theory of how to maintain leadership. Xunzi's criticism may be a way of disagreeing with the amoral theory of leadership. Claiming he had none means no sound one. Alternatively, Hanfeizi may have embellished Shen Dao's essentially negative theory with some positive content.

The blending of metaphysical and political-moral theory itself further recalls the Roman Stoics. Plausibly, Shen Dao and his group would have endorsed continuing to participate in government. If circumstances have so placed me, I will flow along. This classic Stoic attitude offers a way to harmonize moral alienation from a system seen as corrupt and the practical imperative to work within it. Traces of it can be seen in the school of Zhuangzi's later formulation of the famous "sage within; king without" ideal of wu-wei (non-deliberate action) action. One can responds to circumstances without thinking they are right.

  1. Taoist Influence and Paradox

The Zhuangzi account of Shen Dao, despite the seeming Daoist orientation, is ultimately critical and dismissive. It declares that his dao is for the dead, not the living. His dao was not really a dao. We can easily interpret this censure in the language of Laozi (whom the presentation treats as the next step in the dialectic). This notion of the natural dao does not tell us to do anything at all. It is a dao that can not dao (guide) us.

Another way to make the same point is to focus on the slogan, "abandon knowledge." The knowledge in question is not factual representation (to which supposedly Shen Dao would be favorable) but prescriptive guides. Thus, the slogan amounts to the prescription "do not follow prescriptive guides." This generates a prescriptive paradox. If you follow it, you disobey it. If you ignore it, you follow it. It is a dao that can not dao.

We see here perhaps the beginnings of the Daoist interest in paradox. The Zhuangzi account suggests that Laozi took something valuable from Shen Dao. Most plausibly, it is his anti-knowledge, anti-sage attitude. In The Laozi, we get almost no hint of logical determinism. He recommends abandoning knowledge on the quite different grounds that conforming to social systems of knowledge deprives us of natural freedom and spontaneity. His broadens his analysis of knowledge to include the knowledge implicit merely in the names and distinctions we use to construct guiding theories. This would have been the other route of influence from Shen Dao.

Zhuangzi also arguably draws some inspiration from Shen Dao although he notes the incoherence of an "all is one" metaphysics. The insight that an appeal to nature gives no guidance is crucial to Zhuangzi's mature Daoism.



Ames, Roger. 1983 The Art of Rulership: A Study in Ancient Chinese Political Thought (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press) .

Fung, Yu-lan. 1952 History of Chinese Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press) .

Graham, Angus. 1989 Disputers of the Dao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (La Salle, IL: Open Court) .

Hansen, Chad. 1992 A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought (New York: Oxford University Press) pp. xv-448.

Thompson, Paul. 1979 in Paul Thompson (ed.), The Shenzi Fragments (London: Oxford University Press) pp. xxiii, 424.