Those who know don’t talk.
Those who talk don’t know. Close your mouth,
block off your senses,
blunt your sharpness,
untie your knots,
soften your glare,
settle your dust.
This is the primal identity. Be like the Tao.
It can’t be approached or withdrawn from,
benefited or harmed,
honored or brought into disgrace.
It gives itself up continually.
That is why it endures.
The Stephen Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching (The Way [Tao] of Life, also transliterated as Dao De Ching) is a remarkable demonstration of how to recreate the richness of a foreign, ancient text. Also available as a serenely recited audio-book, Mitchell brings the masterpiece of the legendary Chinese sage Laozi into a relevant modern idiom.
The Tao is especially significant because, although it is a work of ancient wisdom literature, its precepts nonetheless seem revolutionary today. In the terminology of Western philosophy, Laozi has one basic point, elaborated throughout the Tao — the state of hyperself-consciousness, technological development, and social control we have developed as the default of the modern world is little more than a shaky edifice, a weak attempt to escape our real and immediate relationship with the world.
In fact, I think that it is little exaggeration to claim that conventional American life is a point by point rejection of the Tao. By legend, Laozi, a 6th century contemporary of Confucius, was a beloved government official who left China after he perceived that the regime had fallen into decline. Upon his detention at the border, he produced the Tao as a manual for life, while also providing an oblique commentary on the motivation behind his self-imposed exile.
We may extend the legend to imagine that Laozi’s renunciation was a refusal of the course of human life which has finally evolved into our 21st century malaise. Consider the third precept in the Tao:
If you overesteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal. The Master leads
by emptying people’s minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think that they know. Practice not-doing (wu wei),
and everything will fall into place.
Further comment on the cultural contrast with the values of our society is hardly necessary. People are indeed paralyzed by the overbearing media inflation of “great men”. Even the cheapest celebrity has overrun hard-won and quiet forms of accomplishment, as reality show fame is now more highly and widely regarded than elite education. But the worst aspect of this celebrity culture is not the excessive acclaim of the stars itself. It is the effective paralysis of everyone else who may otherwise contribute to a better society, as they accept their role as the “little people” in a society of performers and spectators.
The fact of modern materialism has often been noted, but Laozi is not a tired and familiar critic of worldly vanity. In his more comprehensive analysis, the idle worship of dull riches is more than an inherent property of avaricious humanity. It is connected with a leadership style and a program of cultural conditioning. In contrast to the Master, the unenlightened leader encourages ambition, narrows the scope of interest, and establishes simple certainties rather than encouraging curiosity and wonder.
As a consequence, we overvalue material wealth because, when we engage the world with the blunt instrument of force (in the widest possible sense), our values must likewise become dull, solid, and secure. When work and progress have become ends in themselves, we have become alienated from our abandoned natural inclinations, from the Taoist “Way”, the path we would pursue without the baggage of conventional ambition.
And when we have so lost our basic sense of the Way, social dysfunctions can only compound themselves. Laozi expresses the Tao as the Way of the Great Mother, which can be understood as a metaphor for an approach to life that considers the origins of all things before their surface appearances. On the correct path, nothing can distract or disturb us, even death, which may be greeted with a smile.
But when we go against the Way, when we attempt to command nature rather than accept it, then we will always be searching for remedies we can never find. For example, when work offers only material rewards, we must become materialists, but even that materialism is no longer enjoyable. What joy can wealth offer to one who has been cut off from their own source? The imperative of economic development begins, psychologically, as an attempt to rebuild a self alienated from the world. Is it by accident than an American society of immigrants and exiles has set so zealously upon economic development as the meaning of life?
And so we operate through a cosmological vision of constant necessity, of ever-pressing demands which can never be traced back to a deeper inner source. Existence is always a task and never a harmony. To draw another contrast, perhaps the most Taoist moment in the Western tradition occurs in the New Testament, when Jesus notes the unforced symbiosis between humanity and the environment.
Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
The persistent rejection of this viewpoint has led us to our current moment in history where almost nothing is considered worth doing if it is not done as a profession. Even sport and play, once the most spontaneous aspects of human life, have been completely regimented and professionalized.
Moreover, the professionalization of sport gives us a good indication of just how separated from the necessity of human survival work has become. It has become an end itself, a moral necessity, to zealously pursue even frivolous positions professor David Graeber has termed “bullshit jobs“. On this path, we limit our world to an unfulfilling pile of professional labels. The world becomes exclusively spatial, as we see ourselves in terms of our ‘position’ and our society in terms of its continual economic ‘growth’.
The Tao offers us another metaphor for human being. Rather than occupying fixed space, we should recognize that we are as fluid and as ineffable as water.
The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao. In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present. When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.
Water, especially when we experience it as a stream, river, or ocean, seems to have great vital force in spite of its lack of any vital intention. Thus water becomes a symbolic metaphor for wu wei, a form of “not doing” which is nonetheless creative, generative, and maternally primal. Active, conscious, intentional activity only degrades the doer and lessens their capacity to achieve the ends they desired. Laozi goes on to demonstrate how any activity eventually undoes its own purpose if pursued excessively.
Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.
Again, this perspective should seem heretical bordering on treasonous to the American mainstream. The aim of every business is, after all, to continue filling its bowl to the brim long after it has spilled over. When mass culture floods our awareness with viral images and soundbites, it has sharpened the knife of media into the dull blade of meaninglessness. “Do your work, then step back” is not good advice for padding your resume or LinkedIn profile.
The Western perspective, the perspective of gain and expansion, has now twice resulted in what Vergil termed an “empire without end“, across the Mediterranean and now across the globe. If you look across our society, it is clear how this dream of eternal expansion has been uneasily maintained. Labor omnia vicit/improbus, “Overzealous work has conquered all things” (Georgics 1.145-6). Deviating from the Way is a completely all-encompassing decision, which will corrupt every other aspect of life.
One may, of course, see the wisdom in Laozi’s vision and still reject the Way. In my estimation, this was the cultural perspective of classical tragedy, which implicitly celebrated the hubris of self-knowledge and self-determination against the watery vagaries of the larger cosmic process. Oedipus’ tragedy, for instance, resonates with the concept of wu wei. Attempting to avoid his fate by leaving his adopted Corinth and setting off for Thebes, ruled by his biological parents, Oedipus slays his biological father on the road and takes his mother for a wife, fulfilling the very prophecy of parricide and incest he had been avoiding.
Perhaps, Laozi may counsel us, Oedipus could have only really avoided his fate by accepting it, by not doing anything at all. The complete subordination of one’s will to the cosmos can often, in an uncanny way, free one from the determinism of disasters and misfortunes which otherwise seem destined. This is the death that comes with a smile, or the dire prophecy that ends up being fulfilled as a joke (Aeneas eating his own tables in hunger). Abandoning all attempts at instrumental reform, fate may come to us gently, as our companion rather than as our opponent.
The tragic hero chooses otherwise, and continues to assert an Apollonian vision against a world he imagines as oppressive, an entrapping snake to be slayed and cast aside. While much has been written praising this mentality as the birth of a modern individualized consciousness, the ancient Greeks and Romans still saw it as a distinctly tragic path, one destined to result in the paradox of life-affirming tears and not a simple celebration of “Western progress”.
If we were to put these views in a crude continuum, we may place Taoism at one end of the spectrum and the modern belief in instrumental rationality and technological progress on the other side. Laozi tells us that we may commune with the world if abandon the attempt to control it. The technocrats who push exclusive STEM training as a form of education tell us that we may control the world if we abandon any attempt to commune with it.
And in the middle they seem to so often inhabit, we find the Greeks, recognizing the allure of instrumental rationality but understanding its strict limitations, and seeing its pursuit as the essential problem of the tragic hero. We may go against the Way and disrupt the world with our own provocative originality, but the path of hubris always flows to the same end. Achilles, no stranger to hubris himself, tells Athena at the start of the Iliad,
Why now, daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus, have you come? Is it so that you might see the arrogance [ὕβριν]of Agamemnon, son of Atreus? One thing I will tell you, and I think this will be brought to pass: through his own excessive pride shall he presently lose his life.
The tragic hero always dies in resistance to the Way, in his insistence on setting himself as his own authority. In this case, Achilles is foretelling the karmic debt Agamemnon will later pay for his tyrannical abuses as the Greek chief during the Trojan war. The bloom of power must be balanced by the sharp suffering of violent death. Achilles’ own life is presented to him as an explicit choice between a mild life of which Laozi would approve and tragic heroism.
For my mother the goddess, silver-footed Thetis, telleth me that twofold fates are bearing me toward the doom of death: if I abide here and war about the city of the Trojans, then lost is my home-return, but my renown shall be imperishable; but if I return home to my dear native land, lost then is my glorious renown, yet shall my life long endure, neither shall the doom of death come soon upon me.
It is the hope of glory which ultimately pushes Achilles towards his life of remarkable violence and early death. For the Greeks this was the proper choice for a wanton aristocrat, who would value honor and historical renown above the mundane pleasantries of life itself. The Way should be resisted precisely because it is the Way, because it is a restriction on individual dignity and agency.
Yet history is full of ironic inversions, and today the indulgence of hubris is common and not exceptional. What was for the Greeks a rare form of outrageous self-assertion is now a tiresome, ubiquitous form of personal narcissism. It is no longer heroic to resist the Way, it is expected. Engineers laugh at the folly of Daedalus and Icarus — these were accidents on the way to perfect control over nature, over society, and over life itself.
To participate in the modern economy alone is to join a project of enormous hubris, stripped of any sense of Greek balance. In a parade of absolutely naked ambition, everyone believes they are fundamentally qualified to run anything as an unquestionable authority with sufficient training. The ancient notion of natural, inviolable human limitations has been rendered decidedly ancient and irrelevant in the Enlightenment rush towards a culture of constant improvement.
It is now the path of the Tao which is genuinely heroic, though at first it seems passive and anti-heroic. As Homer so beautifully showed us, hubris is the path of death, a path which seems brave, but ultimately degrades itself into a sort of universal mutual aggression, into Hobbes’ famous war of all against all. The book of tragic death has been written many times, while the book of life is still obscure and unknown. Laozi writes:
Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plats are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry. Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.
There is only one innovation our society cannot currently accomplish. Though it has no ‘hard’ metrics, this discovery is the only one that is unquestionably true and vital — to find a part of ourselves without any need for advancement or redevelopment, that has no versions and issues no updates. This disowned Taoist core will only work when it aims to accomplish nothing — like life, and like art, it is an end in itself, and can only be recognized by those who seek nothing from it.
Taoism allows us to rejoin the world rather than believe the arrogant absurdity that we might solve it. The anti-solution is the solution — an antidote to modern hubris.
Please also see the In Our Time episode on “Daoism“.