Chapter 16: Returning to the Root
“The ten thousand things arise together;
in their arising is their return.
Now they flower,
returning to the root.
The return to the root
Peace: to accept what must be,
To know what endures.
In that knowledge is wisdom.
Without it, ruin, disorder.
The body comes to its ending,
But there is nothing to fear.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
It’s customary to juxtapose Western philosophy as heady and complex and Eastern philosophy as embodied and simple. Though this cut does touch truth, the Greek philosopher Epicurus is an exception. His recipe for a good life was simple and straightforward. What came to be known as the “Tetrapharmakos,” the “four part cure,” tells you:
- Don’t fear God
- Don’t worry about death
- What is good is easy to get
- What is terrible is easy to endure
Epicureanism flourished in antiquity but became a minority report in the Western tradition because it was stamped out by the Vatican. A moment’s reflection on the recipe shows why, as Nietzsche quipped, “Christianity gave Eros poison to drink.” Despite the Church’s efforts, the root of Epicureanism proved too resilient, and it re-flowered and effloresced in the Renaissance.
Lao Tzu would have agreed with Epicurus, and this would appear to set him at odds with the Christian tradition. “To those who will not admit morality without a deity to validate it,” Leguin points out in her commentary, such advice “must seem incomprehensible, or illegitimate, or very troubling indeed.” Daoism does not see the need for the cosmos to have a backstop.
But perhaps things are not as they seem. Adam and Eve courted ruin and disorder only when they strayed from their roots—as creatures of the earth—and reached for the heavens, wanting to be like God. Mistakenly convinced that they didn’t already have it good enough and that it was terrible to endure their condition without escaping it, they tried to change things. They feared abiding in the Dao. They did not accept what must be.
Exiled from the garden, deracinated, they long to return to the tree whose plenty they didn’t notice: the Tree of Life. For the Daoist, every tree is the tree of life. When the Hebrews are told to build of the ark of the covenant to hold the tabernacle after they escape from Egypt, they have to wander in the wilderness for forty years lugging it around until they reach the Promised Land. Why?
Because it reminds them that God is always with them—even in the desert, where flowers can’t take root.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”