Chapter 30: Not Making War
“Things flourish then perish.
Not the Way.
What’s not the Way
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
This chapter is doubly confounding. First, it chiefly focuses on war, which makes these four lines seem out of place. Second, it seems to contradict a central tenet of Daoism (and the Buddhism it inspired): the truth of impermanence. Here, the Way is negatively identified with what endures.
But the Dao is in the details.
When discussing the wise ruler, the text traces the root of war to “boasting,” “domineering,” and “arrogance” that turn prosperity into “bad harvests.” To make war is to starve and stampede over the root of peace first and foremost in the soul. Economic prosperity is an expression of spiritual prosperity; or, in the language of the Gospel, true wealth comes from poverty of spirit, from those who can empty themselves of ego to receive the grace of God and humbly tend the bounty of creation. To “end soon” is to refuse to accept the impermanence of things, and to make war on them—to conquer nature is to treat oneself and others as things, not persons.
Heidegger said that while things perish, only human beings die. The distinction is not just about our (apparently—see “elephants, grieving”) special awareness of our mortality, but about our freedom to accept or reject it. He was referring less to biological death, and more to spiritual life. Heidegger’s insight is bracingly captured by the late psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott: “the catastrophe you fear will happen has already happened.” The anxiety that lurks around and seeps through the edges of our everyday experience puts us on guard and spurs us on to seize the day and crush this and kill that—to conquest, to war—because it convinces us that if we do not, things will fall apart. But the catastrophe is that things have already fallen apart, including us. Being born, we fall into the world, and prop ourselves up, first physically, then psychologically. And much of our propping and prospering is centered on covering up that primal catastrophe, and pretending that we can outfox fate and prevent perishing.
Death, put another way, is not the end, but the beginning. Aligning with the Way, one is reborn again and again. It is not about living forever, or even for a long time, but about keeping alive the child, the beginner’s mind, that plays without why; these are the rulers, the chapter tells us, that “prosper because they can’t help it.” It is Nietzsche’s third metamorphosis of the spirit: “Innocence the child is and forgetting, a beginning anew, a play, a self-propelling wheel, a first movement, a sacred Yea-saying.” As Joseph Campbell liked to say, “if you’re falling, dive.” Build sandcastles with disciplined abandon, knowing they will end soon. And if you dive, you begin to “fall upward,” in Father Richard Rohr’s happy turn of phrase. Gravity is turned into a tailwind, chaos is conducted, catastrophe is not averted, but converted. Tolkien’s Christianity found its way into his philosophy of storytelling through what he called the “eucatastrophe,” the sudden opening to heaven that can only happen in hell.
The Daoist sage agrees with Zarathustra: the path of eternity is bent, and all that is straight lies.
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