Chapter 24: Proportion
“You can’t stand on tiptoe
or walk in leaps and bounds.
You can’t shine by showing off
or get ahead by pushing.
Self-satisfied people do no good,
self-promoters never grow up.
Such stuff is to the Tao
as garbage is to food
or a tumor to the body,
The follower of the Way
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
One of the funniest memes of the Trump era was a series of photos superimposing the back half of a horse on the asses of Trump and his brood. The lampooner spied a curious feature of the Trump family posture: they stand like centaurs. Look it up. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
The mythological creature is both fitting and not.
Fitting, in that Trump’s flashy façade hid a monster. We think of the narcissist as someone who is supremely self-satisfied, but the truth is the opposite. They feel so worthless inside that they need constant validation from others to fill the black hole in their heart.
While Trump’s heart was a black hole so supermassive that it warped the fabric of political spacetime, he reflected the culture as much he directed it. As a colleague of mine recently quipped, “There was a Trump-shaped hole in the culture, and Trump walked right through it.” He did not need to “leap and bound.” He just needed to step onto that escalator and descend the stairway from heaven that we had built for him.
For Americans, showing off, pushing, and self-promotion are theoretical vices but practically practical necessities. From credentialing to virtue-signaling, from Botox to photo-shopping, from the Power of Positive Thinking to the Secret, American culture could be characterized as a “tragedy of the common”: a zero-sum competition over image, income, and influence. The categorical imperative is to hide your back side and project a seamless bust of perfection. The ethos of toxic positivity predictably generates its opposite. The garbage we create, the tumors we accrue (literal and psychological), are simply the cost of doing business. As with Garrett Hardin’s original tragedy of the commons, the sad irony is that each, in pursuing his perceived self-interest, ensures the ruin of all. (The scenario is apt: the overgrazed pastures filled with cattle to produce the hamburgers Americans that fuel obesity, healthcare costs, and climate change). The confused centaurs are worse than the cattle overgrazing the pasture, for they could have chosen differently. As Aristotle noted, “just as man when is perfected is the best of animals, so too separated from law and justice he is worst of all…. Without virtue he is most unholy and savage, and worst in regard to sex and eating.”
The collapse of any kind of ecological commons is both cause and effect of the collapse of any kind of semantic commons. We still cling to the image of a “public square” where something called “debate” about “issues” purportedly happens, but the state of our public life better resembles the cultural topography of the country we are presently withdrawing from: an aggregate of loosely bound and poorly governed tribes who can’t get along. But we do so not with the grip of strong hands but the futile clasp of blunt hooves.
But the centaur is not a good fit for Trump in a different respect. The most important centaur in Greek mythology is wise Chiron, the tutor of the young Achilles. The centaur is the integrated human being: the one who has tamed and harnessed the ancient energies of the beast within, whose body and mind are wedded in a symbiotic dance, who is attuned to nature within and nature without.
The less “centaured” you are, the more you will pretend to be, the more you will trample underfoot.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”