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)
Back a couple chapters ago, Lao Tzu said, “When you realize where you come from, you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kind-hearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king.” This is what happens, naturally, as you are immersed in the wonder of the Tao. This is a state of being in perfect harmony with the way things are. Because you are going with the flow of the Universe, you can deal with whatever life brings you.
But what happens when you don’t realize the Source, when the great Tao is forgotten? Then, you stumble in confusion and sorrow. It becomes harder and harder to deal with whatever life brings you. This is a state of turmoil. As Lao Tzu describes it, in today’s chapter, it spreads like a contagion from the individual, to the family, to the whole country.
Let’s get this straight, right from the beginning, harmony with the Tao is our natural state. To stumble about in confusion and sorrow, is completely unnatural. But, being the resourceful creatures, us humans tend to be, we will find ways to try and adapt to our unnatural way of living. The great Tao is forgotten. Goodness and piety appear in its place.
Goodness and piety don’t seem like very bad things, do they? I guess that is why we fall for the trap. Much like bugs are attracted to beautiful, but deadly, things. The problem with goodness and piety is that they are contrived. They don’t flow, naturally, as a product of our harmony with the way things are. They are poor substitutes. Contrived. Forced. Unnatural. We have some idea what goodness and piety should be like. But it isn’t easy to be good or pious. We can try to be good and pious. And with the right amount of effort on our own part, or due to force from the outside, we might even put on a good show. But, ultimately, that is all it is. A show. It is pretentious. But it is all we have left.
In speaking of how this is manifest in individuals, Lao Tzu describes it like this: Because the great Tao has been forgotten, the body’s intelligence declines. What does he mean by “body’s intelligence”? I think he means our intuitive connection with the Tao. I have said it before, but it bears repeating. Harmony with the Tao is spontaneous and intuitive. You don’t have to think about it. And your actions are effortless. They just flow naturally, from the core of your being. But you have forgotten the Tao; and your body’s connection with the Tao has been cut off. For awhile, you may still continue to do the things you have always done. But with each passing day, it gets harder and harder. It is a state of decline. But, like I said, we are resourceful creatures; when the body’s intelligence declines, cleverness and knowledge are sure to step forth. I think we have a love/hate relationship with cleverness. Some of the time, we like the idea of being clever. Other times, it is a term of derision. But, love it or hate it, cleverness and knowledge are poor substitutes for the spontaneous intuition that our bodies have, when our connection with the Tao is strong. We may think we are clever and knowledgeable. But the reality is, we don’t know what we think we know. We should be practicing knowing that we don’t know. But how can we? Our knowledge, our cleverness, is all we have going for us. No wonder we stumble about in confusion and sorrow.
Family life is important. This is why, when Lao Tzu was speaking of the supreme good (being in harmony with the way things are), he said, “In family life, be completely present.” Being present is a state of oneness with the way things are. We need to be completely present in our family life. And so, when the great Tao is forgotten, it does have a profound affect on families. Turmoil in individuals spills over into families. You can’t very well be completely present, when you have lost your connection with the Tao. Harmony? Peace? They are soon lost. Family life is important. Families have been around for as far back as anyone can remember. Family life is an expression of the emergent order. Families, too, are spontaneous and intuitive, in their natural state. But, when there is no peace in the family, something must fill the vacuum, created in the absence of the Tao. Lao Tzu says that’s when filial piety begins.
Filial piety is not a familiar term to our Western minds. Like the piety we spoke of earlier, it isn’t spontaneous, intuitive, or natural. It, too, is contrived and forced. We are talking about things done out of a moral sense of duty. We are talking about a father’s duty to provide for his children. A mother’s duty to nurture her children. A husband’s and wife’s duties to each other. Children’s duties to their parents. Some people will say, “But this is nothing more than family values. What is wrong with family values?” And there wouldn’t be anything wrong with them, if they flowed naturally from the core of each individual’s being. But they aren’t voluntary or spontaneous. They are contrived duties. And, in all honesty, the whole point of filial piety is to keep up appearances. How do I know this is true? Because, the end result is not peace. Not real peace. It may look like it, on the outside. But that is just a facade. Start scraping away at the surface and you will see the truth.
Once chaos has ravaged family life, it isn’t long until the whole country falls into chaos. For family life really is the backbone of the country. To a certain extent, the country is the last resort. That is why we institute governments. Lao Tzu devotes many chapters to the art of governing, including yesterday’s. In yesterday’s chapter we were talking about the need for our leaders to trust us. But when we don’t trust ourselves, it is hard to be trusted. The great Tao has been forgotten. We have lost our connection with the Tao. We no longer believe we can trust ourselves, or each other. And, unscrupulous leaders are ready to ride in, promising to save the day. If we can’t trust ourselves, how can we trust them? But, remember, we are talking about a state of chaos, here. That is just the advantage some are looking for. That is when patriotism is born. I don’t think I have ever failed to make very clear exactly how I feel about patriotism. It is a loathsome thing. There is nothing natural about patriotism. It is entirely contrived. Like the moral sense of duty in family life, we have a moral sense of duty to the country. God and country! Generally, those two hardly get separated. You have a moral duty to support your country, which can do no wrong. You must support the troops. I could go on and on. It is disgusting, and wholly uncharacteristic of the natural order. It is about as far removed from the eternal reality as I can imagine.
This is a very depressing chapter. Things really get bad fast, when the great Tao is forgotten. We need to start remembering. And the sooner we do, the better it will be.