When the great Tao is forgotten,
goodness and piety appear.
When the body’s intelligence declines,
cleverness and knowledge step forth.
When there is no peace in the family,
filial piety begins.
When the country falls into chaos,
patriotism is born.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 18, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, we were talking about trust issues. Lao Tzu said that to properly govern people you must begin with trusting them. When we fail to begin with trust, we make them untrustworthy, a self-fulfilling prophecy. He explained that the Master trusts the people, and the people prove themselves worthy of that trust.
Today, we are going show how our trust issues are tied into our relationship with the Tao. And, because the Tao flows through all beings, when we are out of harmony with the Tao, this discord spreads from individuals, to families, and to the whole country.
Trusting is harmony with the Tao. I don’t know how else to put it. A lack of trust is to be out of harmony with the Tao. Trust is a manifestation of harmony with the Tao. To not trust all beings is to not trust the Tao. All beings are a manifestation of the Tao in how they live their lives. A lack of trust is testifying that the way things are is not really the way things are. This is a denial of the Tao. Like the great Tao has been forgotten.
And there are consequences when the great Tao is forgotten. Today’s chapter is a warning to us. But we need to understand what Lao Tzu means by such things as goodness and piety, cleverness and knowledge, filial piety, and patriotism. Otherwise, we may not heed the warning.
He begins by saying that when the great Tao is forgotten, goodness and piety appear. We need to understand what he means by goodness and piety. Because they don’t sound like bad things. But they are. How can that be? What could possibly be wrong with goodness and piety?
Well, first off, they are poor substitutes for the real thing, the great Tao. It has been forgotten. The natural law, and our trust in that natural law, has been forsaken. And that has created a void in our lives, and in our world. Not like the eternal void (see chapter 4). The eternal void is filled with infinite possibilities. Out of that emptiness, comes abundance. But the void that is created by our forgetting the Tao is nothing like that. It is a vacuum. It doesn’t produce anything. It just sucks.
Goodness and piety sound like a good thing. But they aren’t natural. They are contrived. They run counter to the Tao. They aren’t based on trust. They are based on a lack of trust. They are duties. What is required of you because you can’t be trusted. This goodness and piety are what is expected of you, not something that flows naturally from you. They are born out of a sense of duty.
How these are contrived duties is best explained as we explore how forgetting the Tao affects individuals, families, and the whole country.
Lao Tzu talks about individuals first, when he refers to the body’s intelligence declining. What does he mean by body intelligence? I think he is talking about an individual’s connection with the Tao. I can’t think of a better word to describe this natural connection with the Tao, than intuition. We understand doing things intuitively. It means they just come naturally. It isn’t something that is contrived. It doesn’t require effort on our part. We just go with the flow. Or, like I told a friend, today, ride the wave. When we go with the flow of the Tao, we are acting effortlessly, we are doing intuitively and naturally, every thing that we do. It is a beautiful thing.
But the great Tao has been forgotten. And our intuition, our natural connection with the Tao, our body’s intelligence, declines. So, once again, that void, that vacuum, is created. Cleverness and knowledge step forth to try to fill in. But cleverness and knowledge, like goodness and piety, are contrived. We lean on our cleverness and knowledge to produce goodness and piety. Because it doesn’t come naturally to us. We have forgotten the great Tao.
Forgetting about the great Tao leads to no peace in the family. Family is important. It always has been; and it always will be. And peace in families is a beautiful thing. Parents and children naturally working together in love. Beautiful. But the great Tao has been forgotten. So, what produces peace and harmony in families has been lost. Filial piety begins. Filial piety is not going to be a familiar term to many of my readers, so I will explain that this is, once again, something that is born out of a sense of duty. It is the duty of parents to provide for their children. For children to honor and obey their parents. You may think that parents providing for their children, and children obeying their parents, is a good thing. And I am not going to argue with you. But this is an obligation. It is contrived. It is a duty. It isn’t based on trust. It is based on a lack of trust. It is a requirement. It doesn’t flow naturally. And no matter how “good” it may be, it isn’t good that it is being done out of a sense of duty. The goodness and piety, that are required of us, are not flowing naturally; like they would if we hadn’t forgotten the great Tao.
Forgetting about the great Tao affects individuals, families, and, yes, the whole country. The whole country falls into chaos. That is when patriotism is born. Perhaps you think you can envision a patriotism that isn’t born out of a sense of duty. Perhaps you think that I owe a duty to my country; and if I don’t love my country, because I lack that sense of duty to it, that patriotism, then I should leave it. But I will only counter that patriotism is born because the great Tao has been forgotten. That patriotism, with all of its flag-waving, is not in harmony with the Tao. Our country is in chaos, not because I am not dutifully waving my flag, but because the great Tao has been forgotten. If my country’s leaders don’t trust me, it isn’t because I can’t be trusted. But because they don’t trust, because they aren’t trusting the Tao, the country, with all its inhabitants, is in chaos. Patriotism is a contrived fix for what ails us. But it ain’t nothing like the real thing. And we remain in chaos. Because what we need to do is take a step back. Take a step back. Pause, and consider how it is that we got into this mess. And hopefully, start to remember. Remember the great Tao. End the decline. Start afresh, flowing naturally with the Tao.