Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Tao Te Ching – Chapter 18
This modest little (four lines) chapter does nothing less than represent the entire debate between Confucianism and Taoism, two major philosophical traditions originating in ancient China. (Confucius and Lao Zi, purported author of the Tao Te Ching, were contemporaries, both living in China around 500 BCE.)
When great Tao is lost, there is kindness and morality
Intelligence and knowledge emerge, and there is great artifice
Family relations are not harmonious, and there is filial piety and parental devotion
The nation is in disorder and discord, and there are loyal ministers
If you look at the second part of each line, you might wonder what the problem is. What’s wrong with kindness, filial piety, and loyal ministers? (I’ll come back to artifice in a minute.) The answer is that nothing is wrong with these virtues. The issue, I think, is one of direction. Does Tao lead to these virtues, or do these virtues lead to Tao?
With apologies to scholars and philosophers for my gross oversimplification, Confucius believed that the conscious cultivation of identified virtues led to personal, social, and governmental harmony. Lao Zi, on the other hand, believed that when we live in harmony with Tao, these qualities naturally manifest without conscious effort. The “Te” of the Tao Te Ching means virtue, but in a much broader, organic sense than the moralistic, judgmental connotation we often attach to this word.
So back to our question about whether Tao leads to virtue or whether virtue leads to Tao -- does the “direction” matter?
This is where artifice comes in. The character used here 伪 carries connotations of pretense, hypocrisy, falsehood. But the character itself breaks down into person 人 and action 为 , suggesting something that a person does or makes. And indeed, one of the meanings of this character is man-made. Man-made has a more neutral connotation, and even a positive one. Indeed, we are often very proud of what we can manufacture and produce. In this sense, the character might be thought of as indicating something originating from the ego, or self.
If we think about it this way, the question becomes whether we can find Tao (God, the Sacred, whatever name you like), through the ego’s efforts. The Bible offers some insight.
Paul taught that when one surrenders oneself (ego) to the Holy Spirit, one naturally manifests the “fruit of the spirit” – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – just like fruit on a tree grows because of its intrinsic nature. I think this is similar to Lao Zi’s view that the highest virtue is not consciously cultivated in accordance with some moral code, but rather naturally flows through us when we are in harmony with Tao. In this sense, we are “not acting” ourselves. This represents the theme in the Tao Te Ching of wu wei, or non-action.
In contrast, some of you might be familiar with the Bible story of the Tower of Babel. Basically, a bunch of people got together and decided to build a tower high enough to reach heaven. Great idea, but, as you can guess, they were unsuccessful.
Going back to the Chinese characters, the Tower of Babel is more like the sense of “artifice” conveyed by the character 伪 in this chapter. Remember that this character combines person 人 with action 为 to convey the sense of something man-made. The fruit of the spirit is more like the theme of wu wei, or non-action, which permeates the Tao Te Ching. Wu wei is two characters, 无 meaning without, and 为 meaning action. Notice that the “action” part 为 Is the same in both concepts. One is the person acting; the other is non-action.
The point of this chapter is, I believe, that while kindness, morality, filial piety and parental devotion, and loyal ministers are all good things, they are, in the words of one author writing about this chapter, “second best.” They are like the artificial light we use and value when the sun goes down. It is man-made and useful when we have lost the natural light, but cannot duplicate or replace the sun itself.
The moon does not fight. It attacks no one. It does not worry. It does not try to crush others. It keeps to its course, but by its very nature, it gently influences. What other body could pull an entire ocean from shore to shore? The moon is faithful to its nature and its power is never diminished. ~Deng Ming-Dao
[Note: In response to a reader's comment that the posts are hard to read with the white print on the red background, I'm trying a larger font. I welcome feedback!]