“Tradition is a dead weight, stifling creativity”
Essay Title: “Tradition is a dead weight, stifling creativity” Discuss this claim in the context of Confucianism and Taoism


Tutorial Group: F102 Tuesdays at 3pm

Date of Submission: November 3rd
Is tradition a dead weight, stifling creativity? Here in the realm of western thought, tradition is seen more as “a guide and not a jailor” [1], holding the hand of creativity on the path to creation. But in the eastern philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism, this view is not held. Tradition is seen largely as a trap for the individual, drawing people away from the dynamicism and freedom that is necessary for true creativity.

In fact, Taoism appears to say some very negative things about tradition as it relates to creativity, in the second chapter of Lao Tzu’s ‘Tao Te Ching’ it says:

When people see things as beautiful,

ugliness is created.

When people see things as good,

evil is created.[2]

A possible interpretation of this is that, as soon as a “people” (note the plural form) or a group acknowledge the beauty and goodness of things, ‘ugliness’ and ‘evil’ are created. Once something has been accepted into a society’s or people’s tradition as beautiful or good, something negative happens in response, remember, tradition can be defined as “A mode of thought or behaviour followed by a people continuously”[3]. What seems to be implied is that it is only the Individual; separate from the traditions of a society or “people”, who can acknowledge the beautiful and the good. That which is created by a person is beautiful and good, but that which is created by a “people” is ugly and evil.

Of course, this is only one of a myriad of possible interpretations of this passage, this, however, is the nature of the ‘Tao Te Ching’. Written in poetic form and the incredibly dynamic language of Archaic Chinese, the collection of poems reflects the importance Taoism places on the unstructured and unformed. Opposed to this is tradition, which is; “The passing down of elements of a culture from generation to generation, especially by oral communication”[4]. For these “elements of culture” to be passed down, they have to be communicated, for them to be communicated, they have to be put into some form of language, and for them to be put into language, they have to be given some form and structure as concrete, set, ideas.

Taoism places much emphasis on freeing the mind from these concrete, set ideas that hold the individual away from the dynamic and spontaneous process of true creation. The central idea of Taoism, the ‘Tao’, or ‘way’, is also formless and unstructured and cannot be communicated in any traditionalist sense, this is described quite clearly in the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching:

The tao that can be described

is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be spoken

is not the eternal Name.[5]

This may seem strange, opening a thesis on your subject by saying that you cannot describe or name that subject. It is not a very strong way of opening a thesis at all, and if a university student were to hand in such work, he or she would be rightly failed. But this is the nature of the Tao, it’s nature cannot be properly put into the constricting realm of language, since what forms language is our interaction with the world, and what forms the world is the Tao.

Before the universe was born

there was something in the chaos of the heavens.

It stands alone and empty,

solitary and unchanging.

It is ever present and secure.

It may be regarded as the Mother of the universe.

Because I do not know it\'s name,

I call it the Tao.[6]

This nameless nature of the Tao is mentioned many times through the Tao Te Ching, and adds much emphasis to the point of the incommunicability of the Tao. The Tao can only be described through ambiguous poetic metaphor and analogy with vast realms of possible interpretations; this runs contrary to the idea of tradition, where concrete ideas are passed on through the generations.

Water is the softest and most yielding substance.

Yet nothing is better than water,

for overcoming the hard and rigid,

because nothing can compete with it.

Everyone knows that the soft and yielding

overcomes the rigid and hard,

but few can put this knowledge into practice.[7]

Here again we can