Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Tao-te-Ching

For the past six years, books have been my life. I've read dozens of classic novels, dozens of histories, and dozens of philosophies.  Many of these have been excellent, even life-changing.  But the most excellent, the most life-changing, and actually the most trusted books I've read, and the only ones I'm ever motivated to reread, are the following:  the Tao-te-Ching, the Confucian Analects, the Hindu scriptures, the Buddhist scriptures, the Koran, and (most importantly for our culture) the Bible.

This was not the outcome that I initially expected.  For a long time my bets were on the great dead philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Frege, Carnap, Russell, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Sellars, and/or Rorty.      I actually did find many interesting ideas in these writers, but mostly on the nature and limits of human knowledge.  While this is an interesting topic in its own right, it does not provide a foundation at all.  In fact, each philosopher has a tendency to dispute the main doctrines of his predecessors.  Nothing is taken for granted in philosophy.  The philosopher's job, it turns out, is to doubt everything.

But for this very reason it's no wonder I was led to philosophy first.  I myself had been led to doubt everything.  In light of modern science, I had discounted religion and spirituality.  But science turned out to be primarily a technical enterprise, unrelated to how we live our everyday lives.  So I found myself doubting the sufficiency of both reason and faith, the two biggest games in town.  From this point of view, my question was a typically philosophical one.

Fortunately, I saw that the greatest philosophers had read and thought the most broadly, and I stuck to my plan of reading all the classics I could, including religious ones. 

The first holy text I opened up as an adult was the Tao-te-Ching, which had actually been recommended by a number of fellow grad students.  This was also the first book I'd read that seemed to state things simply as they were.  Mentally, my hierarchy of great literature became:  (1) Tao-te-Ching, (2) Nietzsche, etc. ...

The first chapter of the Tao-te-Ching (my own wording by comparing several translations):


The Tao one can explain is not the eternal Tao.
The name one can name is not the eternal name.
The source of the world is unnamable.
The mother of each thing is naming.

So by remaining passionless one encounters spirit.
And by remaining passionate one encounters the tangible.

These are two faces of the same thing.
Together, they are called profound,
The profoundest of the profound.
Gateway to all spirit.

Isn't it obvious that it's talking about reason and religion?  The paradox of modern life, described over 2000 years ago by an obscure poet, Lao Tzu, in China.  This simple book, copied faithfully over millenia, readable in a single afternoon, had put its finger on a problem that Nietzsche had driven himself mad trying to explain.

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