Chapter 18: Second Bests
“In the degradation of the great way
come benevolence and righteousness.
The disordered family
Is full of dutiful children and parents.
The disordered society is full of patriots.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
Lao Tzu’s direct target here is Confucius, but he’s really just referring to any society bereft of trust. But who could be against benevolence, righteousness, and doing one’s duty? Aren’t these precisely the virtues that create and sustain “law and order”?
Lao-Tzu is not so much casting these virtues as vices as he is skewering what we today would call “virtue signaling.” While it’s generally (often religious) people on the Right braying about progressives doing this on the Left—e.g., posting support for BLM on social media while continuing about their UMC/PMC bourgeoius lives, or sporting Bernie bumper stickers while opposing zoning changes in their tony, gentrified neighborhoods—virtue signaling is precisely what Jesus faulted the Pharisees for.
Virtue signaling—what Jesus called “hypocrisy,” a term derived from the Greek for “actor”—is a function of a lack of trust. If our bodies and hearts and minds are in sync with each other and with our surroundings, we don’t need to use magic words to know we are on the same wavelength. We don’t need flags and symbols and war cries and scapegoats. We just dance.
But once we lose the beat and drift apart, we get scared, and we start dancing to different rhythms, and the rhythms clash, and this noise frightens us, and we yearn for that original harmony. So we have to make up words and rules, and we have to crow about them, and anyone who doesn’t repeat our words and follow our rules is not one of us. And if we don’t repeat the words often and loudly enough, if we don’t follow the rules faithfully enough, we will be cast into the outer darkness.
But for Lao Tzu, the outer darkness is the place to be; or more precisely, being on what Richard Rohr calls the “edge of the inside”—the position of the prophet who plays by the rules of society but knows that they are just a game. The prophet plays the long game of creatively and cleverly bending the rules and expanding the box of who is included and what is permitted. The hypocrite, the virtue signaler, fears the outer darkness because he has not reckoned with his inner darkness.
Beware false prophets, aye, but beware false patriots ever more.
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