Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Tao of Grace

One Cosmos remains one of the more interesting blogs I've found of late. Today "Gagdad Bob" is writing about Taoism. I read the Tao Te Ching more than a few years ago, during university and also after when I was dating a girl who was rather hard left. This was long before I knew anything much about Christianity or even considered it worth looking at. You can imagine how pleased (and surprised!) she was when I (oh so delicately!) tried to tell her that it was not compatible with her political beliefs. You might stop and wonder how can anything be compatible with an every changing amalgam of anarchism and communism? You might give yourself an aneurism trying to reconcile just those two things, never mind adding a third element, but that would be to get ahead of things here. Do the aneurism on your own time, please. Writes Bob:
wu wei is one of the central concepts of Taoism. Although literally translated as "non-doing" or "non action," it is probably more accurately thought of as 'not forcing." The apocryphal writer of the Tao Te Ching, Lau-tzu, gained his insights by simply observing the way nature worked. Nature doesn't "do" anything, and yet it gets everything done in a most efficient way. Non-action means living in accord with the way things are, for example, in the way that water naturally overcomes whatever is in its way and flows toward its destination. It doesn't mean that you don’t cut the wood, but that you cut it along the grain--you don't force things. ... Non-doing means not acting in the way you would like things to be, but in terms of the way they are. In other words, it means acting in accord with objective truth, with the natural order of things, not with mere opinion. It means living in alignment with with pre-existent reason--with the logos.
I think this is a very wise way to look at things, and quite irreconcilable with social engineering, from full blown communism's "new man" through "new government" to silly PC-isms like quota hiring, so why she glammed on it I have no idea. Bob:
The principles of the Tao are very much at odds with contemporary left-liberalism, which forever tries to impose order and outcomes, as opposed to classical liberalism, which trusts that the chaos of liberty spontaneously leads to a higher and much more robust order. For example, the Tao states, "I let go of economics, and people become prosperous." "When taxes are too high, people go hungry." "When the government is too intrusive, people lose their spirit." "If you don't trust the people, you make them untrustworthy." "Try to make people happy, and you lay the groundwork for misery." "Stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself." Leftists hate the idea that there is infinitely more embodied wisdom in a free market than in the shrewd sophistry of Paul Krugman, and that most societal problems will solve themselves if you allow them to. Indeed, many of our most troubling contemporary problems are a result of some meddling liberal "solution" that was put in place 30, 40, or 50 years ago.
Bob, however, goes too far when he links president Bush's governance with Taoist minimalism. Most conservatives, admirers and naysyers, will admit that Bush Jr. is not a small government man in the mold of, say, Ronald Regan. It's true that Bush appears to be skepictal about some nostrums near and dear to certain intellectuals but there's no denying that he is beholden to certain other intellectuals. How does one square nation building in the middle east with hands off governance? Beats me. Perhaps my ex, like Bob, saw only what she opposed as being forced. If she was for it, then it was natural; in her mind it took the form of "I'm for what's natural." easy mistake to make, but a harder one to recognize. Which way does the cosmic wood grain run? Bob goes on to get a little mystical, a bit philosophical:
Perhaps the ultimate lesson of Taoism is that language can introduce all sorts of redundancies into existence. We do not "have" an experience. We are experience. Experience is an encounter between a knower and known, but in reality, knower and known are simply two sides of the same coin: there is no knower without a known, and no knowledge without a knower. External and internal reality are bound together by a mysterious process that we do not understand, and to which we add nothing by escaping into some symbolic representation of it.
Indulge me as I play the annoying philosopher, but isn't the suggestion that "there is no knower without a known, and no knowledge without a knower" exactly the kind of redundancy one might expect language to give rise to? My view is that we are social by nature and as a result we need language in much the same way that we need houses and clothing. Those are extentions of a human or humans. They are like an arm or a leg. We can survive without them, but we are greatly aided by having them. There is a real charm and insight that arises from this point of view - another example is that the beaver's dam is an extention of the beaver itself - but there is a danger as well. The biological ideas I gleaned from Richard Dawkins' Extended Phenotype, and simply extended the idea to include language. In both instances - The Tao and Dawkins' book - the threat is to the autonomy of the individual, which is in danger of being nothing more than a neutral place where something happens. My own argument would be to seek a middle ground. Language exists in all human societies, and - I'm willing to bet - there exists in all of those languages a subject / object distinction. The widespread existence of that metaphysic in disparate circumstances leads me to give it a great deal of weight. There is something here, something normative. The "I" is not a mere quirk. If this basic relational metaphysic is true, then there are likely others as well. The key term is "relational." Metaphysics is about relationships, which is why it slips by when we focus narrowly on me, myself and I, and what I can see, touch and count. The subject / object distinction is prior to measurement, for example. You have to recognize something as "not me" before it occurs to you to investigate it purely through physical means. If the "I" is real, however, so is the dependence on a social network. We can't champion one over the other without injuring ourselves. Which brings me back to the subject at hand - what is nature? And what is 'control' or 'force'? It's too simple and too easy to wrap ourselves in 'nature' and accuse others of 'forcing it'. Isn't doing that simply trying to give reign to our own 'I' and buck the constraints of somebody else's? Isn't the sum of those other 'I's' something we might call our community? In my own tradition we understand nature in light of what is called natural right, and there is a lot of complex thinking and writing about what that is and is not. Some of a more antinomian mindset find that school of thought controlling, but as I've tried to show, and as the Wikki entry mentions, the charge itself is problematic. There don't appear to be any easy answers. The one that comes to me is simply ongoing negotiation, trusting that Grace will prevail among those who think they have it and those who deny it that it exists.

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