“When a country is in harmony with the Tao,
the factories make trucks and tractors.
When a country goes counter to the Tao,
warheads are stockpiled outside the cities.
There is no greater illusion than fear,
no greater wrong than preparing to defend yourself,
no greater misfortune than having an enemy.
Whoever can see through all fear
will always be safe.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
This week I taught Machiavelli’s The Prince, which offers the opposite advice: the ruler should always keep his focus on war and readiness for war, and the key to keeping power is to be afraid of foreign invasions and domestic uprisings. To prevent both, you must make people fear you. Fear is not an illusion to “see through.” It is the truth that stands behind all illusions.
But your main enemy is not people, but Nature. Nature is not the Dao, but “Fortuna,” which Machiavelli casts in feminine terms as a force the ruler must try to master, to, if necessary, “beat and strike her.” Only the prince equipped with virtú—the root of which is Latin for “man”—has a chance of outfoxing and overpowering Fortuna to wrest power and glory from her clutches. But Fortuna is much more Kali or Tiamat than Providence or Gaia. Harmony with her is impossible; the best that can be hoped for is defensive rearguard actions that temporarily fend off her swallowing us whole. Or tearing us to pieces.
Machiavelli would have been fascinated by Trump—someone should write a Machiavellian assessment of his reign—but he arguably never could have predicted what Fortuna would throw at the United States: a cold civil war based on illusions that are both cause and effect of fear. The chief “enemy” is no longer foreign, but domestic. Machiavelli works well for the world of realpolitik, the geopolitics of the world of the 20th century. But our situation is becoming increasingly characterized by what Ross Douthat calls “dreampolitik”: large segments of the population captured by alternative realities split off from the broader body politic, convinced their fellow citizens are their enemies.
In this world, FDR and the Dao are more useful than Machiavelli. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—and the illusions it fosters and is fueled by. Just as we pulled ourselves out of the Great Depression through muscular government action and wartime mobilization—“the factories make trucks and tractors”—we must pull ourselves out of this perilous moment by making America make again, and leading the 30 year project to decarbonize the global economy and avert catastrophic climate change.
If we do that with speed, at scale, and with solidarity—and with a lot of Fortuna on our side—then we just may help humanity attain harmony with the Dao.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”