- 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
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
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
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
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 things...is 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
"...it 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
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