By Zulhaqem Zulkifli
Supernatural Mozi: Importance of the role of the supernatural
One of the salient features of Mohist doctrine is the particular utility of supernatural elements, most prominently seen in chapter twenty-six (Heaven’s Will) and chapter thirty-one (On Ghosts) in the core chapters of the Mo Zi. The supernatural, in this context, consists of two different entities – Heaven (tian) and ghosts. While ghosts are quite self-explanatory as indicative of a supernatural entity, the supernatural element in the concept of Heaven has to be seen through Mohist lenses. Bo Mou describes Mohist Heaven as “a nature deity” (Mou, 2008). Unlike the Heaven of Daoism and Confucianism, which is seen as occupying an ethereal reality, Heaven in Mohist doctrine is treated as an objective entity that oversees the actions of man. The role of the supernatural in Mohist dogma is major – one that pervades Mohist morality, acting as a central tenet that has to be appealed to for Mohist claims to stand. I will argue that Mohist utility of the supernatural provides a moral framework that is effective and accessible for the laymen.This will be discussed in four sections, beginning with the relationship of the supernatural and Mohist concepts, and the accessibility of Mo Zi’s ideas in relation to the non-philosophical masses (or laymen) in comparison with other prevalent ideas of the day. A critique of Mohist utility of the supernatural, especially with consideration to thinkers and those who do not subscribe to supernatural beliefs, will be offered and shown to be ultimately unsuccessful. I will lastly explore the relationship between religion, philosophy, the supernatural and its prevailing value.
Features of supernatural utility
The supernatural has a great presence in the ideas of Mo Zi. It is utilised as a double-pronged tool for both encouragement and warning towards the masses. Encouragement, in this context, is defined as playing a social role with regard to the masses. It is a source of motivation for people to adhere to Mohist ideals and also as a form of justification as to why they should do so. The role of encouragement to adhere to Mohist principles such as jianai and frugality is seen in chapter twenty-six (Heaven’s Will), where it is stated that “those who accord with Heaven’s will… will surely be rewarded” (Ivanhoe, Norden, 2005). Such a similar narrative of rewards is also seen in chapter thirty-one (On Ghosts), where Mo Zi says that the ancient sage kings, who were to be a source of reference for morality, believed that “ghosts and spirits could reward the worthy” (Ivanhoe, Norden, 2005). These two examples are but a few of other similar narratives that are observed throughout the discourse of the Mo Zi. They clearly showcase the adoption of an incentivised position by Mo Zi, which focuses on future rewards to be given to those who conformed to the ideas he advocated. The second feature of this double-pronged approach, takes the form of warning, where people are also reminded that failure to comply would result in punishment. It is interesting to note that mention of these punishments often accompany the mentions of rewards as with the above-mentioned examples, where there exists continuations such as “those who oppose Heaven’s will… will surely be punished” (Ivanhoe, Norden, 2005), and “ghost and spirits…punish the wicked” (Ivanhoe, Norden, 2005). We notice that there is a stylistic feature that is employed by Mo Zi – one that is marked by incentive for conformity to Mohist ideals, and then followed by a scenario where one is warned of punishment for failure to do so. People are offered an ultimatum with regards to the teachings of Mo Zi. Either one follows and be rewarded, or do the contrary and be punished, which in retrospection, really does not offer much of a choice. This technique of reward and punishment is also seen through the use of stories of the sage-kings who are often rewarded for virtuous behaviour and character, and corrupt rulers and officials who were often punished by ghosts. As such, this double-pronged approach depends heavily upon the use of supernatural elements such as Heaven and ghosts, which are not merely disembodied and ethereal presences. They take on the role as enforcers of Mo Zi’s teachings, rewarding those who conform and punishing those who do not.
Delving further, key concepts in Mohist thought also showcase a relationship with the supernatural. In particular, Heaven is seen as providing a kind of legitimacy for Mohist morality. As mentioned earlier on, the supernatural, rather than being an ethereal concept in Daoism and Confucianism, is a very real, much grounded presence in Mohist thought. It plays a dualistic role of both distributing rewards and meting out punishments – an enforcer of morality. According to Mo Zi, the concept of impartiality is justified by the concept of Heaven, which “sheds light upon all impartially” (Ivanhoe, Norden, 2005). This adds a sense of legitimacy to the idea of impartiality towards others as the divine standard – Heaven, adopts such a stance and therefore one should follow suit. Furthermore, this sense of legitimacy is further magnified when Heaven, is described as “the clearest standard in all the world” (Ivanhoe, Norden, 2005), where it is recognised as the gauge of what morality should be like. The concept of jianai is further augmented by this feature, as it is first and foremost, a concept that has impartiality as one of its main constituents. Carine Defoort and Nicolas Standaert, also claim that “Heaven is thus promoted as the foundation of jianai: it meaningfully relates to all humans, whether by accepting offerings or by compensating human actions” (Dfoort, Standaert, 2013). This highlights interdependence between the concept of jianai, and Heaven, since one cannot imagine a concept of jianai without the presence of Heaven because it is what gives the concept its value. Without Heaven, jianai would not have any weight or meaning to it. Thus, the role of the supernatural is not only that of an enforcer, it is also one that lends legitimacy and credence to its concepts, through its role as an objective standard, which ought to be emulated, and through the functional value it provides.
Cultural background vis-à-vis the non-philosophical masses
Following closely to the above-mentioned point, one then wonders — how exactly does this work? Especially given that most of the masses are not philosophers. The double-pronged approach of Mo Zi may be argued to be accessible and simple precisely because of its dualistic nature of punishment and rewards. Daoist ideas were at best vague and bordering on the ambiguous, while Confucianism entailed a lot of rituals with symbolic significance that had to be taught. For the non-philosophical masses, Mo Zi’s ideas were probably the most straightforward – follow and be rewarded, do the contrary and be punished – all these without the hassles of trying to figure out cryptic messages or subjecting one’s self through complex rituals which may or may not provide one with a comprehensive understanding of intended teachings. Furthermore, the non-philosophical masses, were highly likely not equipped with the rudimentary thinking skills required to weave through complex arguments and analogies, and would probably find Mo Zi’s ideological framework instructive. The feature of Mohist doctrine which relies upon stories of past examples, such as those of the sage-kings and those who were punished for wickedness, would appeal more to them given the superstitious background of the masses. Having said that, one may argue that the effectiveness of supernatural methodology predicates upon the requirement that there is a culture that supports supernatural elements and that the main masses believed in the existence of the supernatural, i.e. Heaven and ghosts.
Criticism of supernatural approach
Having deliberated upon the accessibility of Mo Zi’s ideas and how the supernatural may have allowed for an ease of comprehension, we still have to note that Mohist thought did not survive to the Qin dynasty, whereas Confucianism and Daoism is still practised to this very day and is traditionally regarded as practical in the history of Chinese philosophy. This, as mentioned earlier, was probably because of the idea that there was no predispositions to supernatural ideas by the masses and the eventual movement in favour for rational thought. Fang Shouchu, states that people before Mo Zi’s time did not believe in ghosts (supernatural), and that ghosts were merely a feature that was utilised by Mo Zi to illustrate “the benefit of interactions and entertainment” placing forward a claim that there was no such supernatural background to begin with within Chinese society. This strain of thought is also reflected later on, after Mo Zi, with the arrival of thinkers such as Xunzi who do not subscribe to this supernatural view. The Confucians in particular were sceptical of the supernatural, which was a source for debate with the later Mohists (Ding, 2011). While they agree that sacrificial rituals should still be carried out, it was with lesser emphasis on the appeasement of ghosts or Heaven, but more on the importance of the symbolic gesture of the said sacrificial acts. This is further agreed with Xunzi’s argument that “seeing it as literary embellishment is auspicious and seeing it as supernatural is inauspicious in his chapter About Heaven (Tianlun)” (Ding, 2011), which shows how later Confucians were not inclined to believe in a tangible presence of the supernatural. The later Mohists also faced problem with this concept as they did not understand the “Heaven’s will” thesis with particular regard to good health. They did not understand how it is that good health, which is assumed to be a reward for righteous actions, did not correspond with the disease and poor health that sages had towards the end of their lives. This seems to be a contradiction pointed out by Ding Sixin, in relation to the core chapters of the Mo Zi which states that “a completely righteous person (a sage) should be fully rewarded by ghosts and spirits” – reward being good health and long lives (Ivanhoe, Norden, 2005). The nature of the debates of the later Mohists was also grounded “not only in ethics and political philosophy but also in the natural sciences” (Lai, 2008). They were more focused on rational thought and practicality as observed by the emphasis on fa or standards for society and man to follow. The idea of the supernatural may not fit with this kind of rational thought and may even be viewed as a hindrance in the later Mohist camp. What all these illustrations show, is that there was an eventual shift within Chinese philosophical thought, from one that relies heavily upon a supernatural dimension to that of rational thought. However, the criticism does not sufficiently address the main point of the masses having a disposition to the ideas of the supernatural. Fang Shouchu’s claim is countered by Guo Moruo who states that “people have believed in becoming ghosts after death since the existence of writing and that the notion that ordinary people did not believe in ghosts before the time of Mo Zi was entirely made up” (Ding, 2011), showing that belief in the supernatural has had a deep-rooted seat within the Chinese psyche and that denial of such a situation is grossly inaccurate. While it does take note of the eventual development of Chinese thought that it was later more focused upon rational thought, it still does not dispute or negate the idea of the supernatural which continues to have a grip on Chinese culture. Furthermore, while later thinkers did not really subscribe to this idea of ghosts, they themselves were guilty at times of utilising them to promulgate their respective ideas, since for their ideas or representations to be effective, they would have to “be built upon a commonly accepted, though not necessarily commonly agreed upon concept of ghosts” (Lagerwey, 2004). This not only shows us the practical value of the supernatural in Chinese society during those times, but also reflects the prevalence of such a belief, such that it warrants them to be utilised even by the most adamant of thinkers, be it in a positive or negative light. Thus, it would seem that there is some intrinsic value to the idea of the supernatural that has its appeal even to this very day. The view that people in the Warring States period believed in the supernatural is further augmented by Ding himself who says that “religious beliefs centred around ghosts and spirits were still broadly popular within all levels of society” and adds on to the idea of accessibility when he states that “Mo Zi’s views on the supernatural were supported by this religious background” (Ding, 2011). This clearly shows that the idea of the supernatural had influence in Chinese society and had indeed been present for Mohist thought to plant its roots upon. Given such a situation, Mohist reliance on the supernatural may prove to be useful as it not only incorporates the superstitious nature of the masses, but also appeals to them, which may facilitate ease of accessibility to the ideas.
Relationship between religion, philosophy and the supernatural
Religion is an organised belief system that aims to provide direction and a framework for people to lead their lives. It is an attempt to bring about order in the chaos that is life, providing people with assurances, allowing them to procure a degree of control over the uncertainties in life. More importantly, ghosts and the supernatural, should not be viewed in the narrow sense of religion. It is a reflection of the cultural makeup and a broad attitude towards cosmology, daily activities and the arts. The relationship of religion and the supernatural is almost inseparable even today and it seems to showcase something more intrinsic about this phenomenon. The image of ghosts is one of the more prevalent features that crop up often in Chinese philosophical thought and with good reason. To learn about the living, it is important that we observe their attitudes towards the dead. Only then we can capture the essence of the emotions that drive their actions as John Lagerwey states “ghost and spirits are part of human experience” (Lagerwey, 2004) – they are an intrinsic part of the human psyche. In fact, this idea of ghosts being an intrinsic concept within the human psyche is further augmented by Lagerwey who states that:
It is in any case not something that a mature or institutional belief system had created, but a fundamental human psychological projection that was part of the world that these belief systems needed to deal with or to incorporate. Once it is incorporated into a religious system, therefore, it would be given a cloak that bears the distinctive trait of the religion. (2004)
This shows how the element of ghosts has a greater role in human lives other than being mere symbols. In fact, this could be the reason why the feature of ghosts, is one that is highly pervasive in Chinese philosophical thought, and that it is not a hallmark of Chinese culture, but in fact, of human nature. To reduce the supernatural to the domain of religion would be very narrow scope of what it represents, as the concept of the supernatural (especially ghosts), entails a larger range of issues, most of which is intrinsic to human nature and psyche. The evidence of this is still prevalent today. Even though we may have made advances in science and technology, ideas of the supernatural, though probably not as common as in the past, still persist in the minds of a majority of the human race.
I have discussed the relationship of the supernatural in relation to Mohist doctrine and illustrated the way that Mozi utilises it to teach his ideas. I have also attempted to showcase the accessibility of Mohist ideas, paying special attention to the masses who were mostly non-philosophical thinkers as well a rebuttal to the claims that there was no “supernatural-friendly” setting during those times and a discussion about how even thinkers who did not subscribe to beliefs in the supernatural nevertheless still utilised it for their advantage. The relationship between the supernatural and religion is also discussed, where the intrinsic value of the supernatural is explored to show why religion, philosophy and the supernatural are often seen together in Chinese philosophy. The supernatural is a diverse body with many functions that should not be reduced to mere fancies of the imagination. Its many properties, functions, qualities and nature should be discussed and explored in order for us to get a sense of the magnitude of the implications that this often derided and misunderstood idea has and has to offer. I have addressed these issues, paying particular attention to its importance to Mohist doctrine and the large role it plays in this doctrine. Finally, it is not only a discussion of the potential that the supernatural has, but also, it is a reflection that is the amalgamation of experiences of our short lives in this existence.
Image Credits: Eric Gerlach, Totally History, Biography