In one word, relevancy.
We can look at modern society in the West—we can observe current problems—we can ask, why are these things happening? Then, we can study ancient wisdoms from the Tao Te Ching, to see if they supply answers. Both Lao Tzu and Confucius lived near the beginning of the “Warring States” period of the Zhou Dynasty; thus their writings were an analysis of, and provided answers to, the chaos that was breaking out at that time—which is quite similar to the chaos now. They give us answers, today.
While we could study this question analytically in terms of society’s corrupt institutional structures, consider that these structures were a product of human decisions…and those decisions were a product of the underlying thinking. So instead, we will study society’s problems analytically in terms of “thought structures” (i.e. philosophies). Flawed philosophies; thus flawed decisions, and thereby flawed structures.
As this account will explore, thinking and decision making in the West has been almost line-for-line opposite wisdoms recorded in the 2,500 year old Tao Te Ching. The path taken has been 180 degrees against “the Way,” exactly what the Tao Te Ching was authored to caution us against. And so, this handy little book tells us both why these negative results are happening, as well as how and where to find a better path. As a side note, this needn’t evoke a defensive nationalist response from the West, just because the wisdoms come from the East.
But as the saying goes—”When a fool hears about the way, he just laughs and laughs. If he didn’t laugh, it wouldn’t be the way” (ch41, Hogan). This is the arrogance of failure. The West needs open-minded people who are interested in rethinking failed thinking. The Tao Te Ching advises us to retrace our steps, to think backwards, until the original misstep is found. This is easier said than done, especially when some missteps are imbedded in thousands of years of passed-down thought structures. And so, a lot of Taoism (the real thing, not the watered-down version that sells in America) seems shockingly counter to Western thinking.
This brings us to a second, and related, reason for starting this account. The West interprets Taoism as “inspiring” Hallmark gift cards, complete with a mildly distasteful sort of corporatized “spirituality.” Yet real Taoism resides, unseen, in deep darkness. The Tao Te Ching is not a harmless “feel good” book of substance-less platitudes; it has teeth. While it is passive observation, it observes some rather inconvenient truths. It is neither optimistic nor pessimistic; merely realistic. And that realism can be deeply disturbing, particularly to entrenched idealism.
Let’s take a couple amusing examples to get you ready for what’s coming in future pieces. You’ll never see those feel-good internet memes quote “Heaven and earth are heartless, treating creatures like straw dogs, sages are heartless too, they treat people like straw dogs” (ch5, Porter). Note: a straw dog is an ornament used in a festival, but thrown away after its usefulness has ended. How would that get “likes” on social media? And you’ll certainly never see “The ancient masters of the way tried not to enlighten but to keep people in the dark, what makes people hard to rule is their knowledge, who rules the realm with knowledge is the terror of the realm” (ch71, Porter). This goes completely against the Western wisdom that “knowledge is power” and ultimately a good thing (discussed here). And so, these lines of the Tao Te Ching are simply ignored, or outright deleted (as both were in Mitchell’s translation).
But here is the problem with the West ignoring the parts of the Tao Te Ching they don’t like—those parts are exactly the ones they need! And it’s for this reason, as well as the reason of hollowly posting platitudes without ever exploring their relevancy to the current environment, that every single Taoist social media account seems completely devoid of intellectual substance. So, a related purpose of this group is to explore Taoist “scripture,” and link this to modern happenings. In a way, this is “Taoist fundamentalism”: the ancient text exists—authoritative versions in English exist—we can simply take the best translations, and let them say what they say. What could be easier? To do otherwise is nonsensical—if these are ancient heuristics for avoiding failure, then altering the meaning to fit current failed thinking, renders them useless.
Which brings us to translations. For our studies I will use the Bill Porter translation here, although it is sometimes useful to quote different translations when they show interesting deviations (with 100 different translations, there’s plenty to reference). But in general I find Porter’s work the most authoritative. His book also provides commentary from Chinese scholars across thousands of years (which is required for interpretation). Some popular versions, e.g. Stephen Mitchell’s, are bastardizations. Mitchell can’t read a single word of Mandarin let alone Classical Chinese and has never lived in East Asia; his version reads like Westernized nonsense, complete with modified pronouns, and deleted lines which “sounded absurd” because he “thought they couldn’t be right.” Since the entire point of ancient heuristics is to transcend temporal cultural silliness, these “corrected” versions must be avoided.
And finally, this brings us to the text’s function. The Tao Te Ching is a set of ancient heuristics for people to use as a guide in navigating across thousands of years; for avoiding wrong steps that have all made made before. A heuristic “enables a person to discover or learn something for themselves, proceeding to a solution by trial and error or by rules that are only loosely defined” (NOAD). And as a set of heuristics, we know Taoism has been highly successful (i.e. provided utility) by its survival over thousands of years of trials (it’s one of the top three most translated books in the world). Meme survival is sort of like Darwinian survival of the fittest. Although there are a number of highly successful books of wisdom, there’s never been one that holds up so well thousands of years later. There are no flaws in the reasoning, no internal irreconcilables, almost no temporal cultural references, and no re-writes. Every word was perfect, in the first publishing. Given the limitations of that time period, this seems an almost miraculous accomplishment.
The Tao Te Ching is the work of a rouge scholar studying patterns in history from his position as keeper of the royal archives. Lao Tzu (real name Li Erh, or whoever wrote it) was likely an actual genius, and clearly a realist, utilitarian, and pragmatist. Perhaps we could call it the work of a “pre-scientist.” Consider this thought experiment: what if Einstein was born in 600BC, with the same intellectual curiosity into the natural workings of things, but with none of today’s modern tools and accumulated data? He might just be Lao Tzu.
Today, in the age of technically-deep but narrow scientism and pedantic linguistic reasoning, Lao Tzu’s more “basic” and broad understanding of nature holds the key.