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)
Today’s chapter is something of a downer. We have been talking about being in harmony with the Tao – that always means things go well for us. But, what happens when we aren’t in harmony with the Tao? What happens when the great Tao is forgotten? Then things start to deteriorate fast.
A couple chapters ago, Lao Tzu said, “When you realize where you come from, you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused, kind-hearted, dignified as a king.” That sounds somehow strange to us, unnatural; but that is only because we haven’t been following the Tao for quite a long while now. What Lao Tzu was describing should, in reality, be our natural state. It is what happens, naturally, as we are immersed in the wonder of the Tao. We can deal with whatever life brings us.
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu chronicles exactly what will happen, what is happening, because the Tao has been forgotten. Yes, it is a downer. People stumble about in confusion and sorrow. It becomes harder and harder to deal with the twists and turns in life. Instead of being in a natural state of contentment. We are in an unnatural state of turmoil. And, the way Lao Tzu describes it in today’s chapter, this turmoil is a contagion that spreads from individuals to families to whole countries.
I want to say it again. Harmony with the Tao is our natural state. Stumbling about in confusion and sorrow is completely unnatural. But, whatever else we humans may be, we are certainly resourceful creatures. We always find ways to try and adapt to our unnatural state of affairs. That is why, when the great Tao is forgotten, goodness and piety appear.
Now, goodness and piety don’t seem like such bad things, do they? That is what makes the trap so alluring. What is the problem with goodness and piety? What makes them a trap? It is because they are contrived. They don’t flow naturally, from the core of our being, as a product of our harmony with the way things are. In fact, they are poor substitutes for reliance on the Tao. Contrived, forced, unnatural. We, of course, have some idea what goodness and piety should be like. But, it isn’t always easy to be good and pious. It requires effort to try and be good and pious. But, with the right amount of effort on our own part, or the application of force from outside of us, we might just be able to put on a good show. And, ultimately, that is exactly what it is. A show. It is pretentious. But, with the great Tao forgotten, it is all we have left.
Lao Tzu first describes how this plays out in individuals. When the great Tao is forgotten, the body’s intelligence declines. Body’s intelligence refers to our body’s spontaneous and intuitive connection to the Tao. Before, we didn’t have to think about it. Our actions were effortless. They just flowed naturally from the core of our being. But, since we have forgotten the great Tao, our body’s intelligence has declined. And so, cleverness and knowledge step forth.
I hardly need to say that cleverness and knowledge are poor substitutes for the spontaneous and intuitive connection our bodies once had with the Tao. We will, no doubt, celebrate our mind’s ability to adapt. But we don’t really know all that we think we know. We merely delude ourselves. No matter how clever we think we are, no matter how much we think we know, we are only deceiving ourselves; and, things are only likely to get much worse before we ever get back on track.
How do things take a turn for the worse? Individuals aren’t islands unto themselves. They are a part of something greater, a family. But individuals who are messed up, mess up family life. And family life is important, make no mistake about it. That is why, when Lao Tzu was speaking, before, of the supreme good 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. But how is that now possible? The great Tao has been forgotten. How can individuals be completely present when they have lost their spontaneous and intuitive connection with the Tao? All the cleverness and knowledge one can muster will never suffice. The confusion and sorrow, the turmoil in individuals spills over into families. Where is the harmony? Where is the peace? Family life, too, is naturally spontaneous and intuitive, or, at least it was. But with the peace lost, something will always rise to fill the vacuum which has been created. And, in families, that is filial piety.
Every time I add my commentary to today’s chapter, I always start with the assumption that 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 is contrived and forced. Filial piety refers to things which we do 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. And, a child’s duties to their parents. Some may argue that all of this is nothing more than family values. And, what can be wrong with family values? The answer, of course, is that there is nothing wrong with anything that flows spontaneously, intuitively, and naturally from the core of our beings. That would be voluntary. But these duties aren’t being done voluntarily. They are forced, contrived. And, just like with the goodness and piety we spoke of earlier, their actual purpose is all for appearances. It is nothing but a pretentious show. Just wait until cracks and fissures start to show in the facade that has been constructed around the family unit. You’ll see that there is still no peace in the family.
But we aren’t done yet. The family is the backbone of the entire country. When family life is ravaged by chaos, you can bet it won’t be long until the whole country falls into chaos. In yesterday’s chapter, we were talking about how important it is that our leaders trust the people. But when the great Tao has been forgotten, we no longer trust ourselves, let alone each other. We will end up seeking out leaders to control us, because we no longer believe we can control ourselves. Transferring control from self to something external to us is as much as admitting we are no longer humans. We belong in cages. So, we gladly walk in and close the doors behind us. Individuals are no longer championed. Now, the collective is all that matters. When the country falls into chaos, patriotism is born.
I have talked before about how loathsome a thing patriotism is to me. There is absolutely nothing natural about patriotism. It is entirely contrived and forced. Just try to imagine a presidential candidate that refused to wear a flag pin. Or, one that didn’t end every speech with “God bless America!” Like the moral sense of duty to one’s family, we have a moral sense of duty to our country. God and country! You hardly ever hear one without the other. Your country can do no wrong. You must support the troops. Nationalism inevitably leads to fascism. And the way so many of my “friends” on Facebook have been talking with regards to the Syrian refugees, fascism will be welcomed with great applause.
Today’s chapter ended up being a huge downer. But it all needed to be said. And now I am done.