“First he cuts out desire for superfluous material goods (they only keep their owner awake at night), then desire for praise and fear of blame (both drive men mad), then desire for power (the only successful ruler is one who suffers as his kingdom suffers). But this is not enough. Morality is frequently used to justify violence. Morality must go. Violence frequently starts with a fixed difference of opinion. Fixed opinion must go. But without desire, morality, and opinion, what is left for a man to occupy his time? The best things of all: physical enjoyment and cultivation of the inner life. Once a man knows these, success in competition will seem a poor reward for living. Thus Lao Tzu completes his negative operation on human nature – though not wholly negative, since he has implanted a new motivation to replace the old.”
– The Parting of the Way, p. 169
To eschew materialism, judgment, and conventional notions of power are sentiments commonly expressed these days. But to reject morality and fixed opinion seems completely counterintuitive to Western thought. We are all very accustomed to negotiating life by knowing what is right and wrong; we crave certainty and admire those who act with conviction. How can these elements be undesirable? Lao Tzu points out that our world is one filled with conflicts initiated by people who believed in the righteousness of their cause and the certainty of their views. In a wonderful TED talk, “Wrongologist” Kathryn Schulz explains how our over-attachment to rightness can lead us to see others who do not share our views as ignorant, stupid, and even evil, thus causing terrible misunderstandings and unnecessary conflicts:
Like Schulz, Welch’s sage asks us to thinking differently, opting instead to respect the autonomy of individual realities (as long as they do not impinge with the creation of our own), reject the lure of certainty, and embrace the unpredictability and mystery that is life. This line of thinking is incredibly difficult, perhaps impossible to accept; Welch himself believes few of us are capable of living the way Lao Tzu espouses. But he also explains that living with this mindset offers two distinct advantages to society.
Casting aside the rock of Sisyphus
“In America today competitive life is becoming unbearable – at least it is for some of us, and may be for more of us than are aware of it. Like Sisyphus no one can get his stone to the crest of the hill. Each year’s production must be higher than last. If we are a foreman now, we must become a superintendent. If we are Chairman of the Board, we must retire and start a new business. Or if we do not win promotion, still we must strike for higher wages. Our standard of living must always go up. It can never get to the top. If only it could get to the top! If only we did not have to buy a Buick next year because we bought a Pontiac last! To such subconscious protests Lao Tzu answers: You need not.”
The Parting of the Way, p. 174-175
This was written in 1965; since then the pressures of daily life have grown exponentially. Lao Tzu believes that to walk away from the constant struggles caused by competition and find stillness is the most effective way of dealing with almost every problem. In his words lies a firm rejection of the modern narrative of inexorable progress for the greater good. The old sage tells us that by abandoning the mindset of “keeping up with the Jones”, people can avoid the snares of greed and ambition altogether. In order to rationalize this approach, he asks us to invert the pyramid of conventional values in our minds, to perceive success as failure, wealth as poverty, and positives as negatives.
In essence, Lao Tzu wants us to consider life as a carnival. A social ritual with medieval origins, the role of the carnival was to temporarily turn the conventional order of society on its head (source). For a brief time, the village fool becomes king, the rich are transformed into paupers, and reversals (a key theme in Taoism) become commonplace. Lao Tzu asks us to pursue this line of thinking on a more permanent basis:
…The racial outcast, the misfit, the pervert, the recluse – for all these people Lao Tzu has an important message…
“… he tells them that they are wise to be obscure; that there is a standard by which here and now they are better than most of the successful people who seem so far above them; that this unbearable stone which they have thought they must push to the top of the hill may be discarded. He urges that they observe the order of life and see the suffering to which aggression and excessive activity have led the men of success. He offers them the comfort of an esoteric discipline which some, at least, are capable of accepting. Thus I think Lao Tzu goes to the core of their pain. He makes it possible for them once more to think well of themselves.”
– The Parting of the Way, p. 176
There is a strange logic here that makes the exercise less silly than it initially appears. If we can see the low as high and the high as low, if we can see fame and fortune as traps and snares, perhaps we and society overall can become happier, quieter, and more content. As Welch writes, one of the advantage of this way of thinking is that it offers comfort and dignity to the poor, the dispossessed, and the marginalized, providing them with an accessible path to appreciate what is truly important in life. Once again, this form of mental gymnastics seems easier said than done.
To Live Quietly or Die a Noble Death
The second advantage of a Taoist mindset is that it may allow us to escape our own self-destructive tendencies. Lao Tzu believes that the fundamental character of humanity must change for that to occur, but his notion of improvement is once again radical and strange:
“For him improvement of character means better suiting man to not fighting wars. A noble man can fight wars; a brave man can fight them; a strong man can fight them. Our ideals of character resemble those by which primitive societies raised their children to be hunters, warriors, and kings. In raising our children to become warriors and kings at school, in the factory, on the political platform, and in the bomber cockpit, we teach them strength and courage. We excite their ambition, giving them – if we can – an indomitable will to get to the top. We show them that they must always be ready to sacrifice themselves or others for the good of the tribe, for a moral principle, or for a difference of opinion. The result is inevitable. They cannot leave each other in peace. Kings will have kingdoms and warriors wars.”
Ever the contrarian, Welch’s Lao Tzu rejects conventional notions of strength, courage, and ambition. In modern society, he claims, these qualities are no longer necessary for human survival and have actually become detrimental to nature, culture, and self. Operating once again on the theme of reversal, the old sage asks us instead to value the opposite traits: To favour cooperation, contentment, and even weakness, for these things cultivate empathy and nurture the bonds of community. Lao Tzu’s ideas appear quite feminist in nature, a firm rejection of qualities typically associated with the masculine and patriarchal. Considering the origins of Taoism as discussed in last week’s post, this is perhaps not a surprise.
“Lao Tzu tries to tell us, I think, that humanity, if it does perish, must perish for its nobility. To perish for our nobility is a noble thought. Or is it better to be ignoble than extinct? So here we stand, fretted with golden fire, unable to reconcile ourselves to a quieter role on the earth.”
Welch’s sage offers us a choice: To accept a more sustainable way of living or to go out in a blaze of glory. Are we as a society able to swallow our pride and reject the urge to dominate and control the world? Or are we too attached and invested in our way of thinking and being that we continue to walk down the road of the status quo, even to our doom?
Is any of this applicable to today? It is very difficult to imagine modern civilization undergo such a radical transformation. However, I believe many of Lao Tzu’s ideas have value within the mind of an individual; their strangeness pushes us to explore our own worldviews, assumptions, and value systems. They can provide a new platform on which to explore the realities of others. If we are willing to wrestle with these ideas with an open mind, they can perhaps even help us discover new ways of understanding that are crucial for the construction of a more sustainable and inclusive future.
Comments? Thoughts? Disagreements? Confusion? I would love to hear it. Until next week.
Next Up: A thoroughly non-human perspective of the world.
- Tao Today: A Sage’s Take on Modern Society, Part 1
- Diamond’s Collapse: Twilight at Easter
- Food, Awareness, Action: The One-Straw Revolution
Welch, Holmes. Taoism: The Parting of the Way. Boston: Beacon Paperback, 1965.