Sunday, April 10, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 61

Poem 61

When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn't meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.


As a frequent traveller I am well used to having my identity checked at passport control or immigration counters as one enters various countries.  In these days of growing terrorist problems worldwide, our identity, and proof of it, was never more important.  Also, if we are users of the Internet, as most of us are now, we also realise that identity theft is a singularly common crime, so must must protect ourselves against that as much as we possibly can.

The beautiful Synogogue in Prague, February, 2016
It seems to me as a Special Needs Teacher and a part-time psychotherapist ans counsellor in a secondary school that one of the most sacred things that I do is to help any individual pupil come to acceptance of his identity (I hasten to add that I teach in an all-boys school, hence my use of male possessive adjective here), to come to realise that the fostering and development of one's own self is the most precious task each of us is charged with as a person. Therefore, coming to an awareness of our real identity is very important for every one of us.

In Ireland, we are celebrating the centenary of the beginnings of our young nation in the Easter Rising/Insurrection of 1916.  There have been many books, journals, magazines and commemorative pamphlets, running into hundreds at this stage, dedicated to this centenary celebrati0n - indeed, our own school has produced two such pamphlets.  To state this in other terms, one could truthfully say that our young nation is engaged in the task of coming to terms with its own identity.  Who are we as a young Irish nation? Where stands the vision of those men who first proclaimed the Irish Republic?  Has their vision of true equality for all "the children of the nation" been actually achieved?  We are, then, at present dealing with this and other questions in our commemorative ceremonies, in the many learned commentaries given, in the books written, in all the various media outlets - written, broadcast and digital - and such activity has been a rewarding exercise for us as a nation as individuals.

Artist at work, Firenze, summer 2002
Our Taoist poem speaks about power and about powerful nations.  Ireland is most certainly not a powerful nation, and yet she has power over her own people, can represent them internationally at the EU and at UN fora.  Power in the hands of evil men can lead to much destruction both of people, animals, the goods of the earth and the work of human hands as we have witnessed in the twentieth century.  Matthew White reports in his Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century, 2010 that the number of deaths by war and oppression during that period amounted to some 203 million human beings.  One wonders as to what the destruction of animals (mainly horses) and property amounted to - a figure I should prefer not to know as I'm sure it would be mind-bogglingly huge.  As the English Catholic politician and historian Lord Acton famously observed: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."  The statistics quoted confirm that statement.  Power corrupts individuals because of their selfish and worldly-driven and ambitious egos, and it is no wonder then how much more  power actually corrupts whole nations.  The second part of his famous quotation most definitely can be related to such men as Hitler and Stalin and the many hundreds of other despots the world has known since the beginnings of civilization.

Lord Acton, 1834 - 1902
Power, our Taoist poet recommends must always be accompanied by the virtue of humility if it is not to fulfill Lord Acton's famous statement about power quoted in the previous paragraph. Humilty has always been widely viewed as a central virtue in many religions and spiritualities deriving therefrom, and indeed in many philosophic traditions.  It has also often been counterpointed or contrasted with such vices as narcissism, "hubris" and other forms of pride. Humility, needless to say, is related to the adjective "humilis" that can be translated as humble and it is a virtue that became very much abused in Roman Catholic circles over the years where novices in religious orders, and women in particular were called upon to be self-abnegating to such an extent that they might have had a far too low opinion of themselves, perhaps even a low level of self-esteem and consequently very little apreciation for their real selves. However, the Latin word "humilitas" also has a link with the word "humus" which means "earth" or "clay." Hence humility, which obviously entails a certain level of ability to put the ego in its rightful place, also encompasses a sense of being "grounded" and "earthed."  It is this sense of the word that I feel the Taoist poet has in mind in the above quoted lines.

Being grounded and earthed means being able to admit that one does not have all the answers; that the ego has to take its place along with the heart, empathy and compassion as just one motivating factor in our lives; that there is no one right way to live life or any one simple answer to complex problems and that truth is rarely pure and never simple (Oscar Wilde); that everyone makes mistakes and that the admission of them is truly ennobling of the humble person who is always willing to learn.

Individuals as well as nations, then, are called upon by our Taoist poet to be humble, to be earthed, to be grounded, that is to be centered in the Tao.

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