“If powerful men and women
could center themselves in [the Dao],
the whole world would be transformed by itself….
People would be content
with their simple, everyday lives,
in harmony, and free of desire.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
Few passages in the Daodejing sound more utopian than this. Yet few ages, arguably, are more cynical than ours. Sure, the elimination of desire and world peace are impossible and, in the case of the former, economically disastrous.
But if we adopt the hermeneutic of Trump apologists and take the passage “seriously, but not literally,” it has something important to tell us.
One of the many lessons of the Trump years was that who is in charge matters. For a long time, many Americans—call them casual centrists—didn’t think or worry much about politics, naively assuming that the system would take care of itself, or cynically believing that they’re all crooks anyway, so why bother?
The very idea that the character of the leader doesn’t matter was foreign to the ancients. For Plato, the ideal leader was the philosopher. The philosopher was not a professor of philosophy, but a person who had attained self-mastery, possessed the virtues, and was driven above all toward the truth and the common good.
The idea that character doesn’t matter in politics flows from the political atomism of our cultural DNA: classical liberalism. As Patrick Dineen has pointed out, the idea that we are first and foremost individuals, islands unto ourselves, isn’t just corrosive to the flourishing of human society; it’s false. You don’t even need to ask Aristotle; just consult your local evolutionary biologist.
People instinctively look to the leader—even if they’re disgusted, even if they can’t look away. And even if they are repulsed and don’t follow his example, it makes them just a little bit more cynical, a little bit more jaded. It’s precisely that fatalism that is fatal to a free society. Without leaders centered in—or at least orbiting—the Dao, it’s harder for people to be center themselves.
But what follows from this is that we are all powerful men and women, caught, as King put it, in a seamless garment of destiny. We are part of the same social fabric that produced Trump. We must then take responsibility for ten thousand tiny ways we “transform the world” every day. We must center ourselves precisely by remembering that we are not the center of things.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”