Sunday, June 19, 2016

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching 72

Poem 72

When they lose their sense of awe,
people turn to religion.
When they no longer trust themselves,
they begin to depend upon authority.

Therefore the Master steps back
so that people won't be confused.
He teaches without a teaching,
so that people will have nothing to learn.


Aristotle, following his teacher Plato's insight, believed that philosophy begins in wonder. The American philosopher Garreth Matthews (1929 - 2011) describes what Aristotle and Plato before him believed wonder to be: The wonder Aristotle has in mind is, he argues, "astonishment over basic puzzles or perplexities (aporia)." The actual word in Greek is "thaumazein" (wonder).  Aristotle talks about a man who is constantly wondering, namely constantly puzzled about the nature of people and things in this world.  So, it is so much more than simply having a question.  For Aristotle wonder is about the puzzlement we experience when contemplating the beauty of numbers - say the irrationality of root 2, the motion/path of the planets and so on and so forth. Basically, then, it's a "ah" moment rather than a "ha" or "aha" moment.

It is more than interesting, and not a little surprising that our Taoist poet sees religions as lacking in the sense of awe and wonder.  In other words, then, for our Taoist writer, religions attempt to domesticate wonder, capture it in neat phrases, doctrines, dogmas and formularies.  In so doing, our poet is arguing that they kill mystery and awe.

When people, he further argues, stop trusting their own native instincts and intuitions they begin to become dependent on the advice and on the recommendations of those in authority.  They become, consequently, overly dependent on external approval and begin to lack inner responsibility for themselves, their thoughts and their decisions.

In the final stanza, once again, our Taoist author takes refuge in paradox for the sake of making us flounder in a sea of confusion, that is, lest we become too complacent with our newly found insights into the awe and mystery of the Tao.  What he or she is saying is that we will, of necessity, be awe-struck and wonder-enraptured when we come to pondering the depths or heights of the mystery of life.

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