As a child of western society, the life that I live is far-removed from the principles of the philosophy of Lao Tzu. Often considered an opposition to Confucianism written around 600 B. C. , the Tao Te Ching (Book of Tao and Virtue) by Lao Tzu advocates an individualistic life of simplicity, tranquility and non-action among other characteristics that explain the indefinable Tao. If transformed into a Taoist society, the world we live in would barely be recognizable upon return. In many regards, the aspects of life that western society values run completely opposite to the philosophy of the Tao Te Ching.
Synonymous with western thought are words like achievement, progression and rationality. Rooted in the intellectual revolution of 17th century Europe, we have come to value and emphasize these qualities in everyday life. Though they are arguably good or bad, possessiveness and selfishness are also rampant in our society, and I must include myself in such an assessment. Our culture is one in which its members constantly strive to attain as much as possible for the purpose of improved self-image and fulfillment of desires.
We generally act, work, and perform duties to attain some reward or consequence that is socially praiseworthy. In addition, we generally take great pride in all that we do, and this pride extends to a species-pride in our generally anthropocentric worldview. This mentality, so apparent in even my own choices and actions, are in direct conflict with the philosophy of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. In similar fashion to the Baghavad Gita s message of action without attachment to consequence, Taoism advocates non-action or action without striving for rewards.
Perhaps the best explanation is that Tao is the way of nature, or the way of the heavens. Taoism is concerned with the sublime patterns of nature and harmonizing oneself with the course of nature. Thus, the ideal life for the individual involves taking no action that is contrary to the natural order of things. This denotes a life of simplicity, tranquility, non-possessiveness, humility and flexibility characteristics that would necessarily change the life of the typical western individual.
Specifically, we seem to currently live in a society that places a tremendous emphasis on self-importance and self-esteem. We buy self-help books at an astounding rate. We encourage our children to have pride regardless of how well they are performing. Meanwhile, the Tao Te Ching seems to deride such self-pride, instead advocating that individuals live a life devoid of vanity. Of the individual sages Lao Tzu writes, Not congratulating themselves, they are therefore meritorious. Not taking pride in themselves, they last long (Tao Te Ching, ch. 22).
Furthermore, while our current culture seems to teach children that they are the center of attention and the anthropocentric worldview holding that humans are the most superior species on earth, the Tao Te Ching again advocates humility by stating, I have three treasures that I keep and hold: one is mercy, the second is frugality, the third is not presuming to be a the head of the world (Tao Te Ching, ch. 67). Human beings generally place themselves at the top of a world community hierarchy rather than seeing themselves as simply members of the community.
We often live self-serving lifestyles without regard for the potential inaccuracy of such a worldview. The Tao Te Ching holds that those who glorify themselves have no merit, those who are proud of themselves do not last (Tao Te Ching, ch. 23). To accept a less proud worldview would have profound effects on the lives we lead. One interesting result of adopting the Tao Te Ching s disdain for pride and respect for the way of nature would be a change in our treatment of the environment and other non-human life.
Currently, the actions of the western world are indicative of an extreme anthropocentrist philosophy towards nature. Our actions can be most nearly be described as blatant disregard for the natural world. The expansion of the human cement empire continues to destroy natural habitat while justifying such behavior with the vane notion that humans are the superior species on earth and the environment exists to serve us. Taoism advocates a laissez faire principle of allowing nature to follow its own course.
Thus, it is no surprise that environmentalists, naturalists, natural food advocates or vegetarians and wildlife protectors are among those who adhere to and site the philosophy of the Tao Te Ching. They are in agreement with quotes from the the text such as, The superior person respects the Earth as her mother, the heavens as her father, and all living things as her brothers and sisters. Further evidence for this respect for nature comes from Chang Tzu, If you want to nourish a bird, you should let it live any way it chooses. Creatures differ because they have different likes and dislikes.
Taking a laissez faire philosophy from the Tao Te Ching and Chang Tzu and adopting respect for the integrity of the natural world would necessarily lead to less development of natural habitat, decreasing of environmental pollution, improvements to the factory farming of animals, as well as a myriad of other ethical considerations which would severely alter our lives. Another pervading aspect of western life that is condemned by the Tao Te Ching is possessiveness. Living in a capitalist society, Americans are familiar with a life dominated by consumerism.
Above all, we are consumers in an economic system and a life philosophy concerned with increasing profit. Lao Tzu writes, All beings work, without exception: if they live without possessiveness, act without presumption, and do not dwell on success, then by this very nondwelling, success will not leave (Tao Te Ching, ch. 2). He further advocates that we, abandon profit lessen selfishness, and diminish desire (Tao Te Ching, ch. 19). An application of these principles of simplicity to our current society would be mind-boggling.
The Taoist message in this regard, is reminiscent of transcendentalism in American literature. It is an attempt to shift emphasis from external pleasures and possessions to internal peace. Perhaps Henry David Thoreau is a demonstration of an American abandoning western values in favor of some of the vital Taoist principles. The result was a man free from the desire to buy an expensive house, clothing and other luxuries; and content to live the simplest possible life. In many ways, the life of Thoreau appeased many aspects of Taoism.
He also lived a life free from duty at Walden Pond, in accordance with such statements as, abandon duty (Tao Te Ching, ch. 19) and the general disdain for excess activity (Tao Te Ching, ch. 24) expressed by Lao Tzu. Again, an application of these principles to the average American s life would be devastating. The lifestyle Thoreau lived at Walden Pond is often seen as perverse and unproductive to the masses. And so, any change tending toward Taoist philosophy of non-consumerism and non-possessiveness would likewise be seen as perverse by the vast majority of people that I have come in contact with.
It would require throwing away the nine-to-five laborious lives that we lead in order to buy designer clothes and expensive cars. Instead, western culture is tending further away from Taoist principles rather than closer to adopting them. I think that in our society, people tend to not realize that alternative lifestyles actually exist in the world. In fact, most of the world does not live the way that we live, and certainly all but an infinitesimal portion of human history has not lived the type of lives that we lead. Taoism is in many ways the anti-western philosophy.
Two striking examples of the conflict between Taoist philosophy and the society we live in are in the disdain of Taoism for pride and possessiveness. From these two qualities, it is clear that we derive our anthropocentric worldview and our profit-driven lifestyles. To implement the Taoist principles of simplicity and humility in the lives of westerners would destroy everything that we are accustomed to. However, I m willing to admit that the radical changes that would take place might be a beneficial destruction to the quality of our lives.