Sunday, September 28, 2008

Descent from The Highest

One of my favorite books for contemplation is Tao Te Ching, the classic book of Chinese wisdom penned by the mystic Lao Tzu. This morning I was reading Chapter #18, which spoke of a historical progression - in fact, a devolution:

The Mighty Way declined among the folk
And then came kindness and morality.
When wisdom and intelligence appeared,
They brought with them a great hypocrisy.
The six relations were no more at peace,
So codes were made to regulate our homes.
The fatherland grew dark, confused by strife;
Official loyalty became the style.

(Blakney translation)

The "Mighty Way", or Tao, is the highest order of things, the uncreated and mysterious that lies behind all that exists. Following Tao is the highest road that any person or society can follow - as it apparently had in the depths of the antiquity to which Lao Tzu refers.

But it declined - and notice what replaced it: kindness and morality. Wow - what could be wrong with kindness and morality? Those are good things, right? True, they are - but they're lesser goods than following Tao. They're second-best to the greatest good.

Note what follows them: wisdom and intelligence. Apparently these are tertiary - if you can't follow Tao, and are unable to even be kind and moral, you can be wise and intelligent. But here we see the first mention of outright evil: apparently with wisdom and intelligence come "a great hypocrisy". This is easy to observe in everyday life: we all know people who are wise in a cunning fashion, even using "wisdom" to justify evil, and it is easy to find those who use great intelligence to advance themselves at the expense of others. These can slip in when the greatest goods in a culture are wisdom and intelligence.

Which explains why "the six relations"* were no longer at peace. With wisdom and intelligence so easy to counterfeit, strife would be almost inevitable. To deal with this, laws were drawn up, but they were an inadequate substitute for Tao. The cancer spread "from the roots" - originating in the homes and families, it seeped out into the culture at large until the entire "fatherland" was plunged into strife. At last all that was left was "Official loyalty" - an idiom in Chinese wisdom literature for external observance of norms with no internal disposition of true obedience.

As I read this, I thought over the past couple of centuries of Western civilization. To a layman like myself, it seems that we have followed this very path. Once obedience to Tao Himself - Jesus Christ - was presumed. Then it became optional, but it was presumed that people would be kind and moral even if they weren't obedient to Tao. This didn't last long, as following generations asked the inevitable question about being kind and moral: "Why should I?" Wisdom and intellect were exulted above even the lesser goods of kindness and morality, and obedience was not even on the radar. This brought what the Sage said it would: counterfeits and hypocrisy. Basic human relations degenerated, and strife seeped through our culture. This is where I see our general culture now: in the state where "official loyalty" is the norm, with cunning and self-promoting intellect the highest most are expected to attain.

Does this mean all is lost? Has everything sunk so low? No - there are still those who seek to be kind and moral, and those who seek the highest good: devotion and obedience to Tao. But a culture that has its standards set so low is only one step short of the final fate that the sages predict:


*Blakney's footnotes explain these as basic human relations: father and son, elder and younger brothers, and husband and wife. I don't know enough about the cultural context to comment on that, but regardless of specific application, the inference is clear: the most basic human relations, which should have been harmonious, were not.

1 comment:

Salome Ellen said...

I think you should mention Christ the Eternal Tao which makes the connection. :-D