Sunday, April 3, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 59

Poem 59

For governing a country well
there is nothing better than moderation.

The mark of a moderate man
is freedom from his own ideas.
Tolerant like the sky,
all-pervading like sunlight,
firm like a mountain,
supple like a tree in the wind,
he has no destination in view
and makes use of anything
life happens to bring his way.

Nothing is impossible for him.
Because he has let go,
he can care for the people's welfare
as a mother cares for her child.


Bust of Socrates
Let me return to two old chestnuts that I have used many times over in these pages.  The first is my love for what we were taught as one of Socrates' great teachings, namely that the surest starting point is our declaration of ignorance in any matter, and to progress in learning therefrom.  This is what I call the method of Socratic Ignorance.  At college in the late 1970s, I remember reading that once the humble Socrates met a man who was said by many of his contemporaries to be wise, but shortly after having engaged him in conversation, Socrates found that this man had no more wisdom than himself. Further, this supposedly wise man became very angry when Socrates had demonstrated by logic that he was not so wise after all.  Socrates famously concluded that "it seems that I am wiser than he is, to this small extent anyway, that I do not think I know what I do not know." (See Apology 21d)  The second old chestnut to which I have returned equally often in these posts is that of St Augustine who remarked that we progress in our knowledge of truth, especially truth with a capital T, by which he would have meant God, by way of a "docta ignorantia" or "learned ignorance." [Est ergo in nobis quaedam, ut ita dicam, docta ignorantia, sed docta spiritu Dei, qui adiuvat infirmitatem nostram: There is, therefore, in us a certain, shall I say (so to speak), a learned ignorance, but a learned one of the spirit of God, who helps us in our infirmity. My translation.  See Epistle 130, 14, 27).  It is interesting that Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) took the title of his famous book Docta Ignorantia (1440)  from this sentence in St Augustine's magisterial letters.  The whole aim of Nicholas of Cusa, taking his inspiration from St Augustine, is that one can only know who God is, or may be, through a negative theology or a negative way, Apophatic Theology, namely by amassing all the knowledge we have about who or what he is not!]

It must surely be, in this or a similar sense, that our Taoist poet writes above of knowledge of the Tao. Our poet writes that the mark of a wise man is "freedom from his own ideas."  It never surprises me to meet people who are so convinced that they are right with respect to this or that idea, or most certain concerning the motives of this or that person.  After all, ideas and concepts are just that, ideas and concepts. Indeed, opinions, which rate on a much lower scale than those of ideas and concepts, are also heralded by egotists to be almost set in stone.  There has to be room, surely, for movement, or flexibility in our opinions (certainly) and in our ideas and concepts (as often as is logically and practically possible) in order for knowledge to grow on the way to the Truth.  Again, the wise man learns to bend in the wind of opposition, to choose his battles wisely, to smile on opposition and criticism as well as on agreement and praise - hard to do, but very worthwhile practising.  Likewise, everything a wise man encounters, good, bad and indifferent is part of the overall picture of life.  All experiences, good and bad, are metaphorically "grist to the mill."

St Augustine at study - he was a lifelong scholar
Most spiritualities and religions talk about how we handicap ourselves, or how we smother our very light of life - to use another metaphor - by our clinging onto things and even people who are, in the context of time or of eternity, or compared to the infinity of the universe, mere impermanent realities.  Hence spiritualities and religions often ask their followers to let go of their dependencies, their clinging onto this or that or the other obsession. They advise us to "Let go and Let life!" or "Live and Let Live!" or "Let Go and Let God!"  All of these things are hard to do, that is why we must return again and again to our sitting position and attempt to meditate, to arrive at that still pointedness of existence, to the heart of the Tao.  After a while, all becomes so natural, just as natural as a mother caring for her child.  As Fr Richard Rohr so succinctly puts it, in the title of one of his many books, "everything belongs."

No comments:

Post a Comment