Book Club: Tao Te Ching (March 2018)

This month we read Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu.

About the book: the book is comprised of eighty-one short chapters which cover the ways of the “Way” and lay out all the main ideas of one, Taoism (also known as Daoism) of the world’s oldest philosophies.

The main attraction to this way of thinking is the Tao itself, which is the idea of great flow of everything. The Tao is that mysterious, unnamable process through which everything in the universe happens. Throughout the book, the great Tao is held up as an example of how we all should live our lives.

What is the Tao? It is humble, non-judgmental, generous, flexible, and peaceful. The Tao is also the master at wu wei, or “unattached action,” and if a person practices this as well, they can effortlessly succeed in life. It is only through personal discipline and by releasing desire that we can find these virtues and reach enlightenment in oneness with the Tao.

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One of the most enigmatic Chinese texts is Tao Te Ching, which opens with the following paradox: “The way that can be explained, is not the eternal way. The name which can be named, is not the eternal name.”

Lao Tzu opens us by essentially explaining that the subject of his book, the Tao, or the Way, the eternal essence of all things that motivates their actions, that moves the universe, is not something he can talk about. It’s not something that can explain to other people and yet, he writes the whole book about it. What is the import of a book like this? I think that there is a very important message within this book that has a lot of relevance today; I’m going to try to argue that, far from being something you can dismiss as Eastern mysticism or something that’s irrelevant in our modern lives… there’s a source of wisdom in these ideas.

Let’s first look at the context of this book:

There’s ambiguity about the authorship of this book but what we do think is that this book was written sometime during the Warring States period in China and this was a period of intense political turmoil. It’s important to recognize that the context from which the book was written was really Lao Tzu addressing the ruling classes. Most people can’t read classical Chinese. This is a situation where there is quite a bit of chaos, quite a bit of turmoil, and maim and slaughter, Lao Tzu is seeing all this and he sees it as being out of sync with how we views the natural world.

There are three main ideas in this book that I think a modern person could maintain and appreciate in their life today:

The first is wu wei which essentially translates into non-action or non-doing. This is what Lao Tzu holds in the highest esteem. The people who can act without doing, the people who can lead without leading, teach without speaking, and manage affairs without having them trouble them.

The second is the Tao itself. Now, what does this Tao mean metaphysically? Is it a principle of physics? Is it compatible with out modern scientific understanding of things? Or, is it something that we can dismiss by being disproven by later science? I tend to lean on the scientific view of things. I think it’s a way of reconciling what is essentially a view that’s quite different of how we see things, but yet, potentially quite compatible.

Finally I want to talk about De or virtue. In particular, what does Lao Tzu have to say about being a good person? He has a lot to say about virtue that almost seems paradoxical. But I think this is interesting especially in light of our last book, The Elephant In The Brain, that Lao Tzu is very suspicious of moral signaling and of people who pretend at virtue or have the pretension of doing good things.

What is the main takeaway from this prolific book?

Our brains are always trying to create relative contrast and what Lao Tzu is saying is that many of our desires are an urge to get more of one thing and less or something else (e.g. more wealth, less famine or more praise and less shame) and he’s saying that while this desire might have a certain truth in a relative sense, ultimately it has to be self-defeating. For example, in order to make every single person happy we’d have to redefine what happiness is. So it’s from this idea of a relative contrast that he gets this idea of the Tao and gets this idea of how we should operate.

Lao Tzu also talks about self-cultivation which is taken in the meditative view of diminishing one’s desire, diminishing one’s reckless and greedy attitude, and as Lao Tzu says, if one acts in this way, one will be alright in the end.

Feel free to join in on our Facebook Group Discussion I’d love to discuss this book with you there. For April, we’ll be reading The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber.