Chapter 33: Kinds of Power
“Knowing other people is intelligence,
knowing yourself is wisdom.
Overcoming others takes strength,
Overcoming yourself takes greatness.
Contentment is wealth.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
Power is commonly understood as a base end viciously pursued in a zero-sum game. No philosopher is more associated with it than Friedrich Nietzsche, so much so that his phrase “the will to power” has become part of our vernacular. Nothing could seem more at odd with the Daoist emphasis on “going with the flow” than the desire to fight the river, as Achilles does in the Iliad. But the conventional understanding of Nietzsche’s idea, and of power itself, is misguided. As Aristotle said of being, power is said in many ways.
“In times of peace, the warlike man sets upon himself,” Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil. The first layer of meaning here is the literal: the warrior of the body trains in peace time in order to be more effective when battle calls, in order to dominate the enemy. The second layer of meaning is the ethical: the warrior of the heart improves his character through habituation of good deeds. The third layer of meaning is spiritual: the warrior of the spirit overcomes his ego and aligns himself with the cosmos through contemplative practice.
The paradox of Nietzsche’s notion of “self-overcoming” is the same as in the Daoist notion of wuwei: Trying not to try. Trying too hard is what Nietzsche called the “ascetic ideal.” It stems from discontent with and a refusal to accept the way things are—including ourselves—and involves the futile attempt to change, deny, or escape from them. The opposite pole we might call the “aesthetic ideal,” though this is somewhat of an oxymoron. It is the figure of the “last man” Nietzsche lambasted, the consumer, the person who is given over to hedonism and strives for nothing greater than themselves, what C.S. Lewis called “men without chests.” The middle way is not to flee the world or get lost in it, but to joyfully participate in the dance of the 10,000 things.
The chief obstacle to doing so for Nietzsche—and for the Daoist—is the self. Self-overcoming entails not some heroic act of the will, but the realization and acceptance that there is no self. Having let go of the desires for pleasure, profit, power and permanence, one becomes a receptacle and conduit for a higher power. LeGuin translates the Daodejing “A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way.”
Contentment doesn’t mean complacency. It means saying yes to life within and without, rather than cutting existence in half—good vs. evil, self vs. others, heaven vs. hell, and so on. And that radical acceptance of what is allows the knots of suffering to relax, to give, to be unraveled by the patient power of the Dao. Contentment is reveling in the revelation of that unraveling.
You already have all you need. The need is to give yourself away.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”