I recently read Stephen Mitchell's version of Lao-tzu's Tao te Ching
, written over 2,500 years ago. After reading it, I realized that the 17th-century French businessmen had an idea similar to the Tao when they appealed to the Finance Minister to "laissez-nous faire
," meaning "leave us be" or "let us do." The Beatles also followed the idea of the Tao when they sang "Let it Be."
The book as I understood it is like a metaphysical Sermon on the Mount, that is, similar teachings without the personal God or threats of hell. Following the Tao, or The Way, is to lead a balanced life in harmony with others and with nature; as Mitchell translates it, the main values are "simplicity, patience, compassion." "The Way" is also what early Christianity was called, and Jesus' teaching had similar themes of humility and non-judgment toward others.
The key, it appears to me, is freedom: freedom from fear, including fear of death, and freedom from desire. If one doesn't fear death, and also doesn't seek to replace the real present with an illusion of the future, then one won't have cause to bother other people, or try to square a circle. One freed from fear and desire will leave people and things alone to follow their own course.
This is subversive, because fear is the product politicians sell, and desire is what the corporations sell. The corporation is like the serpent in the Garden of Eden: "You think you're happy, but you're not. You could be better off." And this may even be true. The forbidden fruit may offer more pleasure, more amusements, more products and services, and more knowledge. But at what price? As we grow addicted to the benefits of the fruit, we begin to fear death, which is the root of all other fears. Then the politicians come in promising to save us from the things we fear.
By "desire" I don't mean vision, will, intention, attraction, or love. Rather, I'm thinking of the state of unhappiness based on a belief that one is lacking something. But as Sheryl Crowe sang
, "It's not having what you want / It's wanting what you've got." Wanting what you've got is another way of saying appreciating what you have. Appreciate life - your ability to survive - as it is, and don't make yourself miserable by focusing on an illusory life as it "should" be according to some idea that entered your head. This idea could be anything that provokes dissatisfaction and desire: more money, a more active love life, "social justice," or "world peace." The problem is not the intention or action, but rather a lack of internal balance, making one more likely to "try too hard" or force the desired outcome. If one tries to force events to go a certain way, they most certainly will not, because others will also try to force events their
The Way also gives advice for rulers. In essence, it is the same message: leave people alone, leave things alone. Even let one's enemies alone because, as they try to force things, they will self-destruct. There have been subsequent historical examples of this. For instance, the Russians beat Napoleon because they refused to fight his armies head-to-head. The Tao offers plenty of sound advice for absolute monarchs. Indeed, in Chinese culture, the Emperor was viewed as the center around which the country revolved. If he just remained in the "center," and kept his own palace in order, the country would run smoothly. The more the Emperor interfered with the country, the more likely it would break down.
If our government understood The Way, it would let people do as they will. As the laws of economics tells us, things will generally work out better, sooner, if the people were not oppressed by excessive taxes, onerous regulations, and arbitrary force. But we don't have a Taoist Emperor or humble Christian King. Instead, we have the slings and arrows of mass democracy.
Republics do not have the centeredness and permanence of a monarchy. Indeed, our system of competitive elections and partisan politics is intentionally dis
harmonious. Instead of stability, most Presidents are elected promising "change" in the direction of even more government intervention in our lives. This seems to go against The Way. But so does politics itself. To succeed in politics, one must speak half-truths, take advantage over opponents when the opportunity arises, and back-stab friends when necessary. Can we achieve The Way's laissez-faire ends while abandoning The Way's non-aggressive means? Perhaps, as The Police sang
, "There is no political solution."
Not being a student, let alone a scholar, of Taoism, I don't know for sure what Taoist political engagement would look like. And Christianity todays seems far removed from, well, The Way it used to be. But it seems to me the the politics of The Way would tend toward petitions over electoral competition, and passive resistance over armed revolution. It would favor the tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Just as the Berlin Wall fell, it doesn't take crusaders and idealists to destroy the forces of evil; evil devours itself. So it's not a question of overthrowing evil, but letting it self-destruct.