Religion —and the ethics thereof — are linked, in most societies that have them, with lawfulness. Even when people look to distant analogs of the society they grew up in, they still assume the local temple and priest is somehow associated with teaching people to be good and an ideal order of society. And for the most part, they are right.

Sadequain Naqqash, ‘Treasures of Time’, mural in the State Bank of Pakistan

Some schools of thought, however, have differed in their deployment of the religious idea. The Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (“Master Butterfly”, ca. 4th century BC) gives a provocative account of an argument between the Robber Chih — a brigand who was ravaging the countryside, “a menace to the world” — and a Confucian sage, the epitome of well-meaning law.

“Why” protests the robber, “do you say the thief has no virtue? Being the first one in [battle] is bravery; being the last one to retreat is righteousness. Knowing whether a job can be pulled off is wisdom; dividing the loot fairly is benevolence.”

The robber, explains the commentator, follows the Way (Tao) of the Thief, just as the sage follows the Way of the Sage. The problem with the sage, he continues, is that he uses his mind “like a pair of eyes”, and sets himself to look after the nature of other people. He builds a walled state to enclose and teach the common folk, saying that virtue is “gladness and joy in mind; embracing universal love without partisanship.” Those who have a nature different to himself he calls inferior. And, notes the commentator wryly, when the sages “fashion measures and seals to ensure trustworthiness, people will steal with measure and seal… The little thief is called a robber; the big thief becomes a lord. And we all know virtue is found in the houses of lords.”

The little [poor] man and the big [rich] man, he says, will choose to die to attain riches, if they are poor, or to earn virtue and honor, if they are already rich. Both, he says, pervert their nature for these things. “Do not be a little man or a big man — return and obey Heaven within you, whether it is crooked or straight. Do not strive to make your conduct consistent, do not try to perfect your righteousness, or you will lose what you already have.” To the king he says, “you would not want to gain the empire in exchange for your limbs or your body; so it seems your body is more important than the empire. Why then do you spend days fretting over something less valuable than what you already have?”

A different approach to the dialogue between the robber and the sage was taken by the great Sunni theologian, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (AH 450-555/AD 1058-1111), who says he was robbed by bandits while returning to his family from a theological seminary. After making his way home, he decided to seek out the bandit chief in the countryside. Explaining that he was a student of the Law, and that the bandits had taken his notes from the seminary, he asked for their return. The bandit chief was sympathetic, and returned the (to him useless) papers, but earnestly advised the young man: “how can you say you are a student of the Law when you have these things on paper, and not written in your heart?” Experiences like this led Ghazali to abandon his path of scholastic study, give up material possessions and become a Sufi ascetic.

Writing decades later, and perhaps reflecting on these events, he describes how a holy man was once meditating in the countryside. Seeing him, a local brigand thought to pray by him and maybe get a blessing. But the holy man rebuked him, and told him to get away, because he was a sinner. In response a heavenly voice sounded — “Because of Our raza (free will and pleasure), your slates are now wiped clean. You can both begin your religious practice anew.”

Such attitudes do not lend themselves well to the organisation of a sedentary, stratified society centered on the written word. They are characteristic of what monasticism would call anchorites (Gr. anakhorités, “withdrawers”).

Somewhat interesting are also those societies that have emerged in the wake of such anchorite movements, striking some compromise between ethical and amoral life. A common medieval belief was that the world goes in cycles, and that God establishes a new Law whenever he re-creates the world. In early modern Turkey, the Sabbatians were a Jewish sect following the name of the aspiring Messiah Sabbatai Zevi (d. 1676) who had proclaimed a new era of the world. After his fall from grace, those followers who remained faithful to his name continued to outwardly observe Jewish law, but gathered in a dark room once a year and shared a piece of pork among themselves. They reasoned that, since their messiah had failed, the commandments of the Torah were still valid in this age of the world: and they transgressed them to commemorate their coming abrogation in the world to come.

Master Zhuang dreams of a butterfly (Lu Zhi, 1552). “To know to stop where they cannot arrive by means of knowledge is the highest attainment.”


  • Extracts from the Zhuangzi adapted from Burton Watson’s translation, The Complete Works of Chuang Chou. Some are paraphrased for readability, or to make an exact translation readable.
  • Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941).

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