Monday, March 21, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 53

Poem 53

The great Way is easy, yet people prefer the side paths.
Be aware when things are out of balance.
Stay centered within the Tao.

When rich speculators prosper
While farmers lose their land;
when government officials spend money
on weapons instead of cures;
when the upper class is extravagant and irresponsible
while the poor have nowhere to turn-
all this is robbery and chaos.
It is not in keeping with the Tao.


Books in "Shakespeare and Co," Prague Feb., 2016
We now live in an era where pluralism is the order of the day.  Modern wisdom encourages us to believe that there is no one way to the truth; that there are, in fact, as many ways to the truth as there are cultures and religions in the world; and some would even go so far as to declare that there as many versions of the truth as there are people on the planet.  Indeed, this wisdom is, for the most part, sound, though one instinctively feels that, like all generalisations, it cannot be the whole truth of the matter.  We instinctively allow for exceptions to every rule. I will return to that in a moment.  However, let us explore a pluralist aproach for the moment. 

At times, I like to think that the human quest (or life itself) can be compared to climbing a hill.  Some might want to substitute the image of a mountain, or even that of a cliff in extreme cases, but I don't want to paint life as that hard, though indeed, it can be very much so for those amongst us who are unlucky in the hand of cards life plays them.  However, I quite realise that in purist and essentialist thinking I would be seen as a perspectivist, that is, that I would be looked upon as one who sees one perspective as being just that, one perspective amongst many, and that that one perspective would be just as important as the next.  Again, with our philosopher's hat on, we have to ask ourselves the legitimate question, "What's wrong with that? Such a contention is quite plausible, and even logical, is it not?" Let us draw out the implications of our simile or analogy, therefore.  (With our philosopher's hat on we might call this drawing out of the implications our thought experiment).  Let's say that  there are 5 major highways to the top of the hill (where the hill = Heaven, Nirvana, the Other World, The Afterlife, the Aim or Goal of life, the Good, the Truth and so on).  Let's call the Christian Way, Highway No. 1, The Jewish Way, Highway, No. 2, The Muslim Way, Highway No. 3, The Hindu Way, Highway No. 4 and The Buddhist Way, Highway No. 5. However, there are other highways outside these five great world religions as well like Taoism, Sikhism, Confucianism, Shinto, Baha'i, Jainism and Zoroastrianism.  These make up what we learned at college to be the twelve classical world religions.  We might name all these highways in ascending order according to their individual populations or popularity. Therefore, let's call these the 12 classical highways to heaven.  Now, according to some estimates there are as many as 4, 200 religions in the world.  Most of the 12 religions referred to above have other subdivisions or churches or communions or sects within their own particular designation.  In other words, our analogy quickly gives us a complicated and complex picture. Literally, then, there will be a huge network of roadways and pathways up our imaginary hill with 12 major highways, some fifty or sixty secondary roads, hundreds of tertiary ones and many overgrown pathways as well.

Man and his best friend, Prague, 2016
Religions obviously comprise a communal vision that is shared by many thousands of believers, while if one allowed for individual perspectives on things and further allowed that every individual made his or her own unique way to the top of our imaginary hill, then there would be some 7.5 billion pathways.  What a complex picture that would be.  However, perspectivism that ends in a 7.5 billion maze is nothing short of chaos.  The way of Jack the Ripper or Robert John Maudsley (the real life psychopath or sociopath on whom Hannibal Lecter is based: see HERE) and many other murderous human beings cannot obviously be seen as ways to truth, but rather to utter evil and perdition.  There are surely many thousands of people who possess immoral and amoral motivations and who commit acts that are not acceptable to civilized society.  This raises moral and ethical questions of a higher order than a rude perspectivism or wide relativism might allow.  Some paths lead to nothing but evil and perdition.  Some paths, in other words, are more correct than others, are truer ones, if you like.  Which are, then, the more correct truths and, further, which are, therefore, the less correct ones?  Which is the more correct way up the hill?  After a while all civilization comes up with straighter paths, with more correct maps of the terrain, with more appropriate and more direct ways up the hill, if we may sustain our metaphor. In this sense, then, there must logically be a hierarchy of ways to the truth, and that one way can be a better way there than others.  It is surely the business of ethics and of every religion and science worth their salt to decide on this hierarchy of values.

Distorting mirrors: Kafka Museum, Prague, Feb., 2016
The Tao, or God, or Truth or whatever is the way there to the top of our mythical or symbolic hill, is certainly a principle that gives balance and equanimity to life.  Our Taoist poem above indicates that we all wander astray from the balanced path, from the Still Point of being, from the core principle of life, from our own authentic truth that is recognized in a community setting (thereby obviating the confusion of a 7.5 billion maze-like chaos) and not just egotistically validated.  Becoming authentic human beings necessitates being centered in the core values of a greater community of acceptance and belonging, a community which is centered in the Tao or in a greater priciple.  I remember years ago reading the accounts of the crimes against humanity that came before the international judges at Nuremberg in the wake of WW II and noticing how the judges struggled for a standard of values that needed to be validated by a higher power or authority, namely God or the Tao or Truth or the Source of Value or of Life and so o others.  Why is murder wrong?  Why is it wrong to humilate and degrade others?  Why is it wrong to dehumanise others?  Against what criterion are we judging these crimes?  Who or what is the author of those criteria and vindicator of those against whom crimes are committed?  Is it just society or is there a higher authority.  These are big ethical questions that border on ontological and metaphysical ones.  If all is mere chance, then why bother fighting for justice at all?

W.B. Yeats said in the poem "The Second Coming" that

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned...

An over-arching horizon of values is needed, a vision to lead us on, or what the philosopher Charles Taylor refers to as our innate need for a moral framework within which we as individuals and as members of a community can orientate ourselves towards values and goods we hold dear; a framework by which we can judge whether we are moving closer to or further away from those same values.  These values or goods are what he calls "strong evaluators" of the standards we set ourselves in our lives.  These standards or goods become central to the those values by which we culturally, socially and personally identify ourselves.

All that robs us of such values - the heartless and egoic pursuit of worldly success and/or wealth - reduces our sense of authenticity as true selves.  We are thereby no longer centered in the Tao.  We fast become uprooted, or indeed rootless and have lost our true orientation to value which in centered in the Tao.  That is what our Taoist poet is insisting on in our first stanza in poem 53:

The great Way is easy,
yet people prefer the side paths.
Be aware when things are out of balance.
Stay centered within the Tao.

Our translator here is the wonderful writer and classical scholar Stephen Mitchell and he describes what it is like for us and for society to be rudderless and uncentered or unbalanced if you like.  Everything becomes egotistical, superficial and outwardly directed without the balancing nature of the Tao.

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