As indicated before in these blogs, I don’t have much time for religion. This is especially the case with Christianity, as I believe that the historical events basic to that religion simply didn’t happen, or didn’t happen in the sense that Christianity maintains (ie Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, not a divine figure).
However, there is one way of thinking that is religious in some sense which I espouse, and the observant amongst you will already have guessed that it is Daoism.
Daoism is a way of thought that emerged in the C3 BCE in China, with an important text being the Daode jing (‘The Classic of the Way and its Power’ in one translation). This text is concerned with the Way (Chinese ‘dao’); the Way is what happens, but also why things happen. In other words the Way is the principle behind the universe.
However, the Daode jing in its opening words makes absolutely profound statement about what can be known about the Way:
As for the Way, the Way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way. (1)*
This one sentence basically solves most philosophical problems that had occurred to people before, and have occurred subsequently. As I have suggested earlier in these blogs, humans are hard-wired to look for causes, and this leads almost inevitably to the search for a Cause. However, Daode jing observes, humans can’t ever have a full knowledge of the Way because we are already a part of it, and part of its processes (you can’t, for example, have a detached and complete view of yourself driving or you would crash, similarly you can’t have a detached and complete view of yourself living, because you are living).
This view of humanity also entails the recognition that humanity can never be viewed in isolation from ‘the 10,000 things’ (a Chinese phrase meaning all living things, the biota, and all non-living things, the phenomena of the world), because these surround and define us as much as we define them.
The Way then is immanent in the world, not detached and separate, as concepts like God are. It is also not a personal God, someone who will rescue you from sticky situations and take you to heaven after you die. In fact in one famous passage the Daode jing states:
Heaven and Earth are not humane;
They regard the ten thousand things as straw dogs.
The Sage is not humane;
He regards the common people as straw dogs. (5)
‘Straw dogs’, like Mao’s ‘capitalist running dogs’, sound like something that should automatically be despised, but an early commentator noted that in the time the Daode jing was written straw dogs were constructed and adorned with care (and if they were anything like other Chinese artistic productions of the period, they would have been constructed and decorated to a very high standard**). These straw dogs were treated with great respect and used in certain rites, but once they had been used they were discarded.
In other words this passage means the Way has regard for the ten thousand things when they play their part in the world, but has no regard for them beyond this. Similarly, ‘the Sage’, the person who has a better understanding than average of the Way, has regard for other people if and when they play their role as part of the Way.
So what is humanity’s role? A famous Daoist saying has it that if a person studies and humbles themself to understand the Way, at the end of all their study and striving their understanding will simply be that of a frog sitting on a water-lily pad. Ribbit!
My interpretation of this is that humanity is to grant itself no greater prominence in the world than is justified by its ecological role. As hunter-gatherers humans were medium to top-level predators, and acted as such, expanding throughout the world, as agriculturalists humanity was able, using the capacity of favourable environments for growing crops, to expand its population, within modernity humanity was able to continue its exploitation of natural resources to transform the world and to greatly expand its capabilities, knowledge and population. However, as we have seen this expansion has outstripped the capacity of the earth to support all this activity. As the Daode jing warns ‘What is not the Way will come to an early end’ (55), and if humanity continues on this course of wearing out natural resources and capacity the Way will depart from humanity, ie we will become extinct, just as any other species that outruns resources will do.
However, as I have argued in earlier blogs, we have the means, still, to return to a lower level of exploitation of the natural world and return to way of life that is closer to the Way. The Daode jing, whilst rejecting immortality in terms of personal survival after death defines immortality as ‘To die but not be forgotten—that’s true long life’ (33); at this point in history we, collectively, have our chance at immortality by being remembered as the generation that turned back to the Way and permitted humanity a longer-term relationship with the Way.
These thoughts are in line with a famous passage the Daode jing lays down three virtues for people:
‘I constantly have three treasures;
Hold on to them and treasure them.
The first is compassion;
The second is frugality;
And the third is not presuming to be at the forefront in the world.’ (67)
These three virtues, which are usually in English remembered as ‘compassion, restraint and humility’, I hope are reflected in the thoughts above. We have compassion for other people, and for the ’10,000 things’ equally, we recommend human activities that try to return humanity to a more restrained way of living, and we practise humility by recognising that humanity cannot be above nature, or better than nature, but in fact humanity is not distinct from nature, being in reality humans-in-nature-with-the-Way, or some such concept.
I will leave readers to explore for themselves the Daode jing in all its facets, and to ponder on de (‘power’ or ‘virtue’, the mode of employing the Way in the world), and other important Daoist concepts such as ziran (‘self-so’), wu wei (‘non-action’), ‘emptiness’. There are also other Daoist texts to explore, principally the delightful Chuangzi ([Writings of] Master Chuang).
I should say in introducing Daoism to my readers I am merely expounding one of my favourite hobby-horses. A Christian might expect the world to be saved by everyone embracing Jesus. I don’t expect the world to turn Daoist, but, crucially, the world already is Daoist, insofar as people are already part of the Way, whether they know it or not. For people who follow Daoism, there is no us and them, no ‘Daoist’ and ‘non-Daoists’, because to describe a person as a ‘non-Daoist’ would be as sensible as talking about a ‘non-canine dog’.
We are all part of the Way because there is no sense in which we can be not-of-the-Way. If we are not of the Way, we are dead.
* all quotes from the Daode jing from Robert G Henricks. 1993. Tao-te Ching. New York: Modern Library
** See Chinese Art (1958), William Willetts.
Next Week: Grumbles 1—modernity’s purposelessness and inability to change