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A Longer Paper
The long paper that follows uses points from an earlier conference in which we discussed the Tao Te Ching and the film Being There, using this question:
I'm interested in your applying the ideas of Lao Tzu to this film. From the Taoist perspective, is Chance enlightened? Use points from the Tao Te Ching to defend your answer.
The next major writing assignment built directly upon this conference, but I brought Socrates into the conversation. I asked students to consider why the simple-minded gardener Chance possesses (or lacks) wisdom, given what Socrates says in the Apology and what Lao Tzu states in the Tao Te Ching. Special thanks to Chrissy Fetterer for permission to reproduce her paper here. As the reader will note, Chrissy uses points from conferences to defend a subtle assertion--one worked out in conference--that while Chance is not wise in either the Taoist or Socratic sense, he still resembles a Taoist sage. In this paper, I do not detect what Batson (1993) calls "The ENFI effect" when the register of informal conferences creeps into more formal writing. Still, this writer was very adept at moving from one register to the other; other writers, less skilled in formal writing but quite comfortable in the conferences, needed more guidance to adjust the diction in papers--if not for my class, then at least for other teachers they would meet after Core.
Chrissy Fetterer
Is Chance the Gardener Wise?
Chance, the gardener. The main character in the film Being There, he is a man who has never left the house of his benefactor, Mr. Jennings. His knowledge of the outside world is composed of what he has seen on television. A television is found in every room of the house in which Chance is likely to spend time. There is even a television in the garden, the garden which Chance has groomed and nursed throughout his entire life, his only occupation. For about fifty years until Mr. Jenning's death, Chance has encountered only one other human: the maid, Louise. He neither reads nor writes. Despite Chance's history of isolation, most people who come in contact with him in the film think he is wise. Wise? Knowing the mentioned facts about Chance, how could he be wise? Certainly he does not have academic wisdom such as knowledge of science and literature, but what about higher wisdom? Might Chance be spiritually wise? Does he have knowledge of truth and virtue?
According to the characteristics of the wise explained by Socratic and Taoist philosophy, Chance is not wise. However, on quick examination he seems to fit several qualities of a Taoist Sage. Due to these qualities, the most important of which is achieving simplicity through inaction, Chance seems to have set himself apart from ordinary men. Yet setting oneself apart from ordinary men to achieve simplicity, to attain wisdom, requires a conscious effort which Chance does not make. Chance also cannot be blessed with Taoist wisdom because he does not know and understand his own self and feelings. Finding the Tao, enlightenment, requires that one must first know oneself. Chance therefore is not truly wise. A similar situation occurs when Chance is analyzed according to Socratic philosophy. On first examination, Chance seems wise because he does not believe that he has any worthwhile knowledge. Yet Chance does not engage in the most important characteristic of the wise: separating oneself from the material world to contemplate the soul and truth. Although on the surface Chance appears wise according to Taoist and Socratic principles, deeper analysis demonstrates that he not.

A section from the famous book of Taoist thought, Chuang Tzu, describes the sage, the person who has the highest wisdom, as such: "[he] does not work at anything, does not pursue profit...says nothing yet says something...and wanders beyond the dust and grime....Ordinary men strain and struggle; the sage is stupid and blockish. He takes part in ten thousands ages and achieves simplicity in oneness" (42). If Chance's behaviors are examined, one finds that he appears to fit this description of a wise Taoist sage.

Referring to the first quality of a sage, "[he] does not work at anything," Chance exhibits this quality. He lives his life without action, particularly in the pursuit of knowledge. He does not seek the knowledge of the average person, being the knowledge of science, math, sociology, business, and other subjects. He must be aware of these subjects and that the average person pursues to learn about them because he watches television. Television contains educational programs and news reports. If Chance sees these programs and chooses to watch game shows, drama series, and comedy shows instead he would still be exposed to some form of education. Game show players answer questions and some actors in drama and comedy series hold professional jobs involving medicine, the law, and education. Chance rejects this knowledge as indicated by Jeff Lewandowski: "...he discarded the idea of knowledge as necessary" (Connect, 1/31/96). He chooses not to travel that path.

Another Taoist poem, written by the philosopher Lao-Tzu, from the Tao Te Ching, reads: "The further you travel, the less you know. This is why the Sage knows without budging, Identifies without looking, Does without trying" (#47). One does not gain knowledge by actively looking for it. Action leads one in the wrong direction, away from the Tao, enlightenment. Those who do not pursue any goal but let themselves be guided will find the Tao. If inaction leads to the Tao, which is wisdom, Chance is therefore wise. He lives inactively, especially in the pursuit of worldly knowledge, choosing not to travel on that path. Chance remains illiterate even when he becomes part of Benjamin Rand's circle of friends who are intelligent and powerful politicians.

Chance is not a politician, nor does he plan to become one. He is a gardener. Is not gardening an action? Possibly not in the ways in which Chance is a gardener. Gardening has been his only occupation his whole life so he has had many years to learn about his craft through experience. He does not read so he does not have books on gardening practices that would explain proper gardening techniques. He simply plants seeds, and learns everything by reacting to their responses. Chance lets Nature teach him how to garden. He "does without trying" as the poem from the Tao Te Ching says, and therefore his gardens grow.

The second quality of the Taoist sage is that he "does not pursue profit"; Chance fits this quality as well. He has the opportunity to pursue profit but does not take it. Chance is taken into the home of Benjamin Rand, a powerful and influential businessman, who befriends him and talks to him about business and political matters. At one point Ben asks Chance what he thinks can be done about the failing economy. Chance has no knowledge about business, so he offers Ben the only knowledge that he has: that of gardens. He tells Ben that a garden in the winter months is dead, but one only has to wait for the months of spring when the garden will grow and bloom again. Ben immediately applies this observation to the economy, and congratulates Chance on his fresh proposal. As Ben tells his business partners and other politicians about Chance's theory, Chance finds that he is respected by many people. At this point he has the opportunity to gain power and position over people because he has a following of admirers, but he does not pursue this opportunity.

The third quality of the Taoist sage: "says nothing yet says something," also seems to describe Chance. When Ben asks Chance how the failing economy can be improved, Chance, ignorant about economics, mentions a fact about a garden, he never mentions the word "economy" in his answer. Ben, however, immediately takes this observation of a garden as a way of looking at the economy, and is encouraged by this new and fresh idea. Chance says something without saying anything because it is Ben who compared a garden to the economy, not Chance. Chance is interviewed by other businessmen and the media. In each conversation he talks about how the seasons affect a garden, and never remarks on the economy. It is the people's interpretation that gives applied meaning to Chance's statement. Continuing this idea is Mark Weichelt who says: "People try to find meaning in everything they hear and see which they can't understand...we attach our own meaning to it. If the thing we are trying to interpret is very basic and simple, a wider range of people will find a wider range of meaning in it" (Connect, 1/31/96). The public, concerned about the economy, understood Chance's basic explanation of how a garden grows according the seasons and applied the idea to fit the economy's needs.

Chance "...wanders beyond the dust and grime," like the sage, while "...ordinary men strain and struggle." While Ben and other businessman and politicians, ordinary men, fret over the economy, Chance is fortunate to work in a garden with nature. He has an easy-going personality; his speech is calm and even. When he is faced and threatened by what appears to be a gang, Chance is relaxed and shows no fear. This reaction does appear somewhat naive and stupid, but might possibly be the sign of a sage. As the passage in the Chuang Tzu continues to say, the sage "is stupid and blockish."

The last quality of the sage as dictated by the Chuang Tzu reads: "He takes part in ten thousands ages and achieves simplicity in oneness." This statement applies to a much larger idea of Taoism: the uncarved block. Imagine a block of wood, a plain block of wood without any carvings or adornments. It is simple and pure, whole. This one block of wood has achieved simplicity in oneness. When a person truly becomes an uncarved block of wood he/she also becomes part of the ten thousand ages, everything, which is the Tao. Chance is like an uncarved block of wood. He is simple, pure, and honest. One knows what he is thinking because he does not hesitate to say it. At Ben Rand's house he is taken into an elevator, never seeing one before and not knowing of its function, and comments: "My, this is a small room." He is not honest and innocent in this way to amuse anyone or to be liked. As Anne Bolton notes: "He is not trying to achieve anything by being simple--he just is" (Connect, 1/31/96). Chance is a simple, uncarved block.

Chance seems wise because he appears to fit the qualities of a Taoist sage as described in the text, but his wisdom may not be true. A valuable part of what constitutes being a Taoist sage comes from recognizing that worldly things and concerns are unimportant. The future sage separates himself from these material illusions and pursues the spiritual world. When he finds that spiritual bliss, the Tao, he is then wise. Matt Tomkiel notes: "The whole key to enlightenment is being able to separate yourself from the petty, material things of the world and concentrate on spiritual wealth. The conscious act of separating oneself from these what constitutes enlightenment" (Connect, 1/31/96). Finding the Tao is an intentional search. The Tao Te Ching lends some advice to aid in this search: "Master the existing present, Understand the source of all things" (Tao Te Ching, #14). "Master" and "understand" are action verbs. Even though a major quality of knowing the Tao is inaction, one still has to completely release oneself from the mundane in order to find the Tao.

Looking specifically at Chance, he does not separate and release himself from mundane concerns. He is not familiar with worldly reality; sheltered inside Mr. Jenning's mansion all of his life, his only contact with outside society and reality is the television. Matt Tomkiel notes, "...he believes that television is reality" (Connect, 1/31/96). But television is not reality, it is illusion. Chance has no knowledge of society and its functions. As an example, he is not familiar with money. Everything he owns is either a gift from Mr. Jennings or the Rands. After he is forced to leave Mr. Jennings house, he walks on the streets alone, and after a few hours stops a person and says to him that he is very hungry and would like some food. He is not aware of how people must buy their food with money. Since Chance is not a part of society, does not experience it, and is not attached to earthly concerns, he cannot separate himself from this mundane world in attempt to enter the spiritual world. One cannot separate oneself from something which one is not part of initially.

Chance being aware of a spiritual world is unlikely, because he is not aware of its opposite: the earthly world, which is the society he is not part of. If wisdom is seriously recognizing and contemplating the spiritual world as opposed to the earthly world, as it is for Taoism, then Chance is not wise because he is not aware of a spiritual world. Socratic philosophy also teaches that true wisdom involves conversing with and understanding virtue and the spiritual world. Performing these actions and attaining true wisdom, a wisdom which Socrates calls "a wisdom more than human" (Apology, 25), would benefit the soul. Chance, most likely, does not contemplate the spiritual world. He does not engage in what would make one truly wise. Therefore, in Socratic belief, Chance is not wise.

The Rands, the politicians, and the public who hear Chance speak think he is wise because of his simple solution to remedy the nation's failing economy. Yet Chance is not wise due to his unawareness. The public believes that Chance "says nothing yet says something" when he talks about the seasonal growth of a garden. People translate that nothing into something which matters to them, a metaphor for the economy. Even though the metaphor is so simple they embrace the idea and believe it to be true. Chance seems to have the sage's quality of saying nothing yet saying something, but not entirely. When a sage says nothing, it at first means nothing to the ordinary people. They do not understand it because they are not familiar with the Tao. Later, however, the ordinary see wisdom in the "nothing" statement. The meaning dawns upon them. But the sage, due to his knowledge of the Tao, knows the importance of his seemingly "nothing" statement. He is aware that at first worldly people will not understand the wisdom; it will appear meaningless to them. Eventually they will find truth in it; they will find "something." Chance is unaware that regarding the economy as a garden could be a wise conception. He does not even make the connection. His only knowledge is of the garden, not the Tao. Referring to a poem in the Tao Te Ching which says that the few in the world who can attain the Tao teach without words (#43), Kristel points out: "This seems pretty much like Chance but the Tao seems likely to produce more of a conscious awareness of trying to teach without words" (Connect, 1/31/96) Chance does not understand that he is giving the people a new insight on how to handle the economy. He only knows that he is talking about a garden.

Chance does not know himself, more evidence supporting that he is not wise according to Taoist philosophy. A poem in the Tao Te Ching reads: "Knowing others is intelligent. Knowing yourself is enlightenment" (#33). Chance is not enlightened because he does not understand himself. He only recognizes simple nervous reflexes and reacts to them in order to give him pleasure. An example of Chance's self-ignorance occurs after Mr. Jenning's death. Upon hearing the news, Chance went into his bedroom to see him. He sat down on the edge of the bed and showed no emotion, not even sadness when looking at his dead benefactor. Chance directs his head towards the television, turns it on and absorbs himself in it, never glancing at Mr. Jennings again. Chance most likely must have some feelings, maybe concerning death, but he does not show them. He is unable to recognize his feelings and cope with them. Instead he buries them, and takes refuge in his usual contentment of watching television. Since Chance cannot cope with his own feelings, he has not examined himself. Examination leads to knowledge, so Chance has no knowledge of himself. Without this he cannot know the Tao because Tao is "...the origin of all things" (Tao Te Ching, #4). The Tao creates everything; it creates people. Therefore, everyone has Tao inside them, but to know the Tao partly requires realizing that it exists in oneself. If Chance cannot even understand his own sadness he does not understand the Tao; he is not wise.

Many viewers of the film would believe that Chance is not wise because of his isolation from society and lack of formal education. Society is taught to think that the wise are those people who are stationed on the highest step of the academic ladder: scholars who hold a Ph.D., for example. People who do blue-collar work or manual labor, are not considered to be smart enough to hold a "real" job. Viewers assume that a gardener who has never been outside his home for forty years could not possibly be wise. Socrates would not hold this assumption but argue: "I found that those who had the highest reputation were nearly the most deficient, while those who were thought to be inferior were more knowledgeable" (Apology, 26). Socrates arrived at this conclusion after conversing with several men of Athens, reputable for their vast knowledge, in search of the wisest man. Socrates determined that he must be wiser than any of them because " is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know" (Apology, 25). The other men might have knowledge of skills or facts, but that type of knowledge does not constitute wisdom. Knowing about the soul and truth, worthwhile information, constitutes wisdom. Hence, even if Chance does not know anything about the soul or virtue, Socrates would still consider him to be wise in this one respect because Chance does not think himself wise, or wiser than anybody else, simply because he knows how to grow a beautiful garden. Still as previously said, Socrates would not believe Chance is wholly wise because he does not separate himself from the material world and contemplate the existence of the soul and virtue that are part of the spiritual world.

Chance is not aware of a spiritual world where truth resides, whether truth is the Tao for Chinese philosophers or the soul and virtue for Socrates. He is only aware of one world, his own of gardening and television. If Chance is not even aware of a spiritual world, he certainly cannot separate himself from the material world in order to contemplate and enter the spiritual world. This being the most important characteristic of wisdom according to Taoist and Socratic philosophy, Chance cannot be wise. He may appear to be wise on the surface, for he is simple, pure and honest, qualities of the Taoist uncarved block; and he does not think or pride himself to be wise solely because he knows how to garden, a quality that Socrates would attribute to wisdom. Yet deeper analysis of Chance's character reveals that he is ignorant of himself and ignorant that the world in which he lives does not comprise the whole universe. He is oblivious to the spiritual realm with which the Taoist and Socratic sages are familiar.