“Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.
The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you temper with it, you’ll ruin it.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
This is blasphemy to modern ears. The whole idea of modernity is progress, particularly material progress. As the old Dow slogan put it, “better living through chemistry.”
The Daodejing tends to mix with progressive spirituality in American culture, so it may be surprising to consider that here, it embraces two core conservative ideas: one, that the world cannot be fixed, and two, that the attempt to fix it often messes it up even more. As the British conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott put it, “Those who in Elysian fields would dwell, do but extend the bounds of hell.” Yang is not a problem to solved or managed.
At first glance, this appears to counsel pessimism; and indeed, it certainly recognizes the tragic side of life. But seen rightly, it spells relief. Thomas Merton understood this:
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
That doesn’t mean we should quit our moral striving and slouch into cynicism. As Pope John XXIII put it, “See everything, overlook a lot, correct a little.”
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”