Throw away holiness and wisdom,
and people will be a hundred times happier.
Throw away morality and justice,
and people will do the right thing.
Throw away industry and profit,
and there won’t be any thieves.
If these three aren’t enough,
just stay at the center of the circle
and let all things take their course.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 19, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
I entitled today’s blog post, “Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures” because yesterday’s chapter described a dark and desperate situation, indeed. The great Tao was forgotten. Lao Tzu describes the aftermath with how it affects each individual, whole families, and the entire country. I also think it describes our present day, all too well. We are not living in harmony with the way things are. Having forgotten the Tao, we are suffering great misfortune.
And, Lao Tzu offers us the antidote for what ails us in this chapter. These three things he wants us to throw away may seem too drastic a remedy. Maybe you need to reread through the last chapter, and get a real feel for just how bad things have gotten.
Or, you could just take a look at the news coming out from around the world. If that doesn’t sober you, then I don’t know what will.
Before I get to the three throwaways, I did want to begin with Lao Tzu’s final prescription. These three desperate measures may simply not be enough to turn things back around again and get us back on track. We need to be in perfect harmony with the way things are. And that is going to take more courage than our throwaways for this chapter.
If the three throwaways are not enough, just stay at the center of the circle. And let all things take their course. I said this will take courage. And it will. It is about trust. Trusting that the Tao will sort it all out. Performing the balancing act that it has always performed; and always will perform.
Okay, now, about that trust thing. Let’s look at the three throwaways. Remember, when we are not in perfect harmony with the Tao, when the great Tao has been forgotten, all kinds of substitutes arise to try and take the place of the Tao. Life is chaotic when it is lived out of harmony with the way things are. We crave order. The Tao does provide spontaneous order. But when that is forgotten, we seek to restore order.
All of these throwaways may seem to be good things in and of themselves. Why would Lao Tzu want us to throw them away? First, we have holiness and wisdom. Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with either one of these; if, we are talking about how individuals go about their daily lives. When we are living in perfect harmony with the Tao, I don’t doubt that both holiness and wisdom will be a mark of that harmony.
But Lao Tzu isn’t talking about throwing out holiness and wisdom as effects of a life lived in harmony with the Tao. What he is talking about is a system put into place to restore holiness and wisdom in the midst of the chaos that results from living out of harmony with the Tao. It is that system that needs throwing out. Yes, we are living in chaotic times. And, sadly, it is likely to only get more chaotic, the longer we go without remembering the great Tao. But Lao Tzu offers something that a system of holiness and wisdom will never offer. People will be a hundred times happier.
“But, but, Chuck, we can’t do that. Can’t you see how chaotic things are?” Remember, I said it was about trusting the Tao to work it out. As long as that system is in place, we are going against the flow of the way things are. We are suffering at the hands of the illusion. They simply must go. I promise you, people will be a hundred times happier.
The second throwaway is morality and justice. I know plenty of people who mistakenly think we have thrown those out long ago. They think immorality reigns and our justice system is barely able to keep up with the mess that throwing out morality has brought about. But I want you to think about that for just a moment. There is absolutely nothing wrong with morality and justice; when, it is the natural outgrowth of a life lived in harmony with the Tao. In fact, I would suggest that the reason that you might think immorality is such a problem today, is because we haven’t been living in harmony with the Tao.
And as for our system of justice, would someone please offer me some solid examples of actual justice. I live in the United States, and I apologize to those of my followers who are bored with my constant referrals to my own country, but it is my frame of reference. And the U.S. has only 5% of the world’s population, while having 25% of the world’s prison population. That is seriously (*put in your favorite expletive) up. What has it gotten us? Where is the justice in that? I am talking about people being incarcerated for victimless crimes. That covers roughly more than half. And even those that are incarcerated for crimes where there were victims, what restitution has been made to the victims?
The system of morality and justice is no substitute for a life lived in harmony with the Tao. Lao Tzu says to trust the people. Throw out morality and justice. People will do the right thing.
“Oh, but, Chuck, Chuck, how can we trust the people?” And all I can tell you is how can we not? Morality and justice aren’t doing it. They need to go in the rubbish heap.
And now to the final throwaway. This one might just be the most difficult one of them all, at least for me, to consider.
I can already hear some of you saying, “But industry and profit can’t be thrown away. Just where would we be without industry and profit? Do you want us all dwelling in caves?” And, there are the rest of you saying, “Hell yeah! Let’s get rid of capitalism!”
Before anyone hit’s the “unfollow” button I want to try and explain what I think Lao Tzu is getting at. I think Lao Tzu has come across somewhat cavalier in his use of language in today’s chapter. We need to throwaway holiness and wisdom. Check. We need to throwaway morality and justice. Check. And we need to throwaway industry and profit? Damn it, Lao Tzu, you have me really stalling on this one.
Okay, deep breath… Once again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with industry and profit; when, they are the results of a life lived in harmony with the Tao. I am very much in favor of a freed market. And, I have often likened the Tao to the invisible hand of the free market. Okay, so far, so good.
However, (you just knew there was going to be one of those). What we currently are experiencing in our world is not a freed market. We are not living in harmony with the Tao. What we have in place is an illusory system put in place of a freed market. That system, you can call it whatever you want. I know some of you will gladly call it capitalism. And some of you will rush to try to defend capitalism. But I don’t want to talk about the term capitalism at all. I try to keep it out of my vocabulary as much as possible. It simply means too many different things to too many different people. And I don’t think it is a term worth trying to salvage.
So I am not going to defend it, and I am not going to berate it. What I will do is say that the present system has to go. Our present system is designed to enrich the few at the expense of the many. And that is indefensible. It cannot be sustained in the long run? Why? Because the many will only take it for so long. Desperate times make for desperate people. And desperate people do desperate things. Horrible things.
People locked into a system where they see little legal means to surviving on this planet, will resort to illegal ones. Lao Tzu wants the people set free. People who are free to enjoy one hundred percent of the fruit of their labor will be less inclined to steal. And that is the problem that Lao Tzu is addressing when he says to throw out industry and profit. Why are there thieves? Because people are desperate. Eradicate the systems that cause the despair and you eliminate the despair.
There is so much more that I want to say about this chapter today. But I can already see that it is at least twice as long as what I would like it to be. The bottom line is this: Do you want people to be a hundred times happier? Will you trust people to do the right thing? Trust the Tao and trust the people. Lao Tzu certainly did. And we need to as well.