Sunday, 18 August 2019

Thoughts on the Tao Te Ching

There's a lot I liked about this. Sadly, it’s easier for me to express my discontent than the things I agreed with. I will briefly talk about the things I liked, then go on about the things I hated, then do some questions I had, then probably cycle back to the positive.


I liked the opening lessons or statements and found the quality slowly dropped off, especially towards the end.

Reading these and thinking about them generally gave me a feeling of reflective calm, which is a rare resource for me. I liked the conception of lessons or statements leading or gesturing towards what cannot be described.
The 'finger pointing at the moon' stuff.

I liked the conception of the Tao as a kind of unmoved mover, beyond conceptions of space and time but encompassing both.

I like the lessons about indifference to virtue, or at least to the conception of performed or obvious virtue.
This cut quite close for me as the difficulty of the problem of 'good' and of doing good, when that desire is itself intermixed with a desire for reward, (even internal reward of self) and of a desire to be perceived as good, and with the social rewards of 'good conduct'. This seems a perennial human problem and of particular relevance today.


I absolutely despised the MURDEROUS and shameful incuriosity of Taoism. The mind is meant to interact with the world, and a mind unchallenged by any interest in the outside reality sinks into a kind of perverse inner death which, I am sure, seems like wisdom; the mind can deal very well with its own products if it allows nothing else in. Such a mind might well seem self-comprehending and even, but there will be little there to be comprehended.
You certainly cannot drown in a swimming pool drained of water.

An absence of interest in reality, or in modern thinking, the conspiratorial belief in narcissistic shit like simulation theory, is a sin and a flaw. Reality challenges and educates us, that challenge introduces disorder and suffering, but through this we grow, and learn. Wisdom in the absence of curiosity is cheap fucking wisdom.

Don't be passionate as you will suffer and wear out, ok, fair enough. But if you are never passionate then how do you know anything about your own nature? What your limits are, what provokes you, what you can or cannot do, the substance of your being. Some of these things only come out or reveal themselves in situations of stress. This is another cheap form of wisdom. Know yourself easily by making sure there is not much to know.

The later stuff about immortality and the obsession with preserving, particularly your own, life, I regard as pathetic and worthless. But there is thankfully not too much of that here at this early stage.

A lot of this is just "how to survive under various tyrannies". Which, fair enough, might be reasonable and useful advice, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. The deep political quietism and massive retreat from 'difficult' issues is, maybe wise?  I don't know. It seems like it could be wise or fucking stupid depending a lot on context and circumstance. Especially in the later parts it seems to slip more deeply into conservative authoritarianism.
If this is the  *less* conservative and authoritarian version of Confucius then I don't think I am going to like Confucius much.

No Particular Advice About Anything - I'm not exactly looking for Dale Carnegie or plumbing advice here, but the totality of the message seems to be "become one with the Tao and either you will be able to solve this or it just won't bother you that much", which, again, fair enough might not be bad advice, but its very hard to tell if I'm being Barnumed here, and it would be a little useful to have a handful of slightly more concrete suggestions.

I think I've worn out my anger. On to;


Are you training Hermits or rulers here Lao Tzu? Because you appear a little confused on this point. Seems like the advertising claims to be training people to be hermits while the Facebook algorythms mainly show the ads to executive types.

Also - women.

Presumably someone somewhere has done something about what Feminist Taoism might look like, or what it might look like from a more-classically-female perspective, i.e. if you don't really necessarily want to go of and live as a 'sage' on a mountain, if you have quite a lot of complex interrelated social work to do and if you would actually like to retain some complex connections to the social world.

I have the same disagreement with this over the nature of 'nature', and moral laws which claim to link human moral good with 'natural law' as I do with most such philosophies.

Nature is exactly as vast, indifferent and infinite as described. Its also often naturally catastrophic, cold, inhuman, often governed by wild chance. There is no stable state of nature, only brief periods of relative meta-stability. Neither do I believe in any baseline original human culture (i.e. "when we were in the stone age" etc.)
Human existence is a river, and its narrowing and deepening as things go on, not widening. To return to the prehistoric past would be to return to any one of many and varied cognitive and social modes, not to a pure land where things made sense. There is no pure land. It’s a river, which Taoism should be able to grasp and understand, but if it did, then all the stuff about abandoning technology and going off to be simple wouldn't make much sense.
A microchip is exactly as much part of the Tao as a plough or a flint arrowhead. It cannot be otherwise.

I suspect humans can be alienated from their nature as Lao Tzu suggests, but this may be much more complex and partial a process and experience than can be solved by just going off to be hunter-gatherers.

'Human Nature' is very much up for grabs, to an almost disturbing extent.

Probably my biggest disagreement with Lao Tzu is that I don't think the Tao can create virtue on its own. The infinite has no interest in us. Our annihilation or our development is all the same to the Tao. So its fakery in a way, this stuff linking human goodness and virtue to the Infinite.


Part of me *feels* as if some or much of this is true. Or perhaps should be true, or can be true. I did, and do feel a sense of calm and a slight relief from my crushing internal angst and stormy temperament when considering the Tao. I do feel as if contemplating the Tao *should* help turn you into the kind of person described, maybe more by Chuang Tzu than here, and kind of low-key, ultra-chill, very-calm, good person. That would please me.
It seems like it *can* be true, even if it is not *necessarily* true, and perhaps that is enough.

Still, like most religions, you are better off not finding out too much about Taoism. There are too many inconsistencies, too many assumptions about history and human nature that have been easily and totally overturned by the actual observation and interest in reality which Taoism seems deliberately-ignorant of, and like most faiths, waaaaay to many fiddly little bits of theology/philosophy that just don't make any fucking, (even basic, to-a-12-year-old) sense, and which when you try to get them all fitting together, produce reams and reams of blather, like a failed calculation resulting in infinite numbers.


  1. I can't say that it will positively alter your assessment, but for an anarchist/feminist take on the Tao Te Ching, you could do a lot worse than looking at Ursula K. Le Guin's translation of it.

  2. I think its hard to understand Taoism outside of practice, I learned more about it from Tai Chi than I did from reading Lao Tzu, or Chung Tzu (which is kinda more fun to read btw). Also I will now look for Ursula Le Guin's tranlation (thanks faoladh)!!

    1. No problem. I like her rendition of it, but I also like to look at as many translations as possible when I don't understand the language something is translated from.


  3. Hermit or Rulers: it could be both?
    There is a long tradition among people/groups who are interested in either vulgar or spiritual alchemy -or really any ancient spirituality- to encode or hide certain teachings due to threat of torture or death (or even merely the self-destructive mis-use by the uninitiated). Sufis and Taoists are notably fond of such cyphers. So it may be that the text is, like "The Interior Castle" of St. Teresa of Avila or "The Divine Governance of the Human Kingdom" of Ibn Arabi, a manual for hermits bent to a metaphor which its intended audience would be familiar with?