Dao Du Jour II, Day 55: Gen A

Chapter 54: Some Rules

“Well planted is not uprooted,

Well kept is not lost.

The offerings of the generations 

to the ancestors will not cease.

To follow the way yourself is real power.

To follow it in the family is abundant power.

To follow it in the community is steady power.

To follow it in the whole world is universal power.”

Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

Today’s chapter sounds notes of Lao Tzu’s alleged antagonist, Confucius. It is tempting and, in fact, useful to contrast the two, but in truth they are two sides of the same coin: Confucianism—rules, roles, order—is the yang to Daoism’s yin. Consider that contained in this equation is a solution to what is perhaps the chief problem plaguing Western civilization—and, in the long run, civilization itself.

What is our relationship to our “ancestors”? 

For us moderns, the first images that come to mind are swarthy, rugged hunter-gatherers avoiding saber-toothed tigers, encircling wooly mammoths, and running across some stock African savannah. They are pictures we have from low-budget documentaries, museum mannequins, high school history textbooks, and the just-so stories from pepper pop social science. Until five minutes ago, we assume, all human beings engaged in something called “ancestor worship,” a superstitious animism that treated the ancestors as though they were gods. We know better now. They were just different species of hominids, and we may not be gods, but we are somehow more human, more humane, more evolved than they are.

What if this were exactly backwards? What if our relationship to our ancestors is mythological, and our ancestors relationship to theirs was more reasonable?

The first step in seeing this is to get clear about what we mean by “worship.” No one has more effectively rectified this name for modern minds than David Foster Wallace, who pointed out in This is Water that “In the day to day trenches of adult existence, there’s no such thing as atheism. Everybody worships.” What you worship is what you pay the most attention to, what you value most highly. You can’t not care because you are care. Your gods can be deduced by the order of your loves. 

There is a reason Wallace’s text has become a postmodern classic quoted ad nauseum (for the record, I was teaching it before it was cool) to the point of becoming a contemporary cliché. As he himself points out, cliches are cliches for a reason. Despite his status as a postmodern prophet, the great American novelist of the age of irony who articulated, in both exquisite and excruciating detail, the structure of feeling of that time—which is very much still our time—Wallace had recourse to traditional wisdom. As he put it, a good reason for believing in Jesus or the Buddha’s four Noble Truths is that “pretty much anything else will eat you alive.”

Traditional wisdom is reasonable, but not rational. This is not hair splitting; the latter two terms do not mean the same thing, and the difference makes a world of difference. Rationality is the epistemology of the (French and German) Enlightenment, and it is what happens when you try, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, to grasp reality within the bounds of reason alone. It makes two contradictory demands of the knower: to only believe what can be supported by evidence (empiricism), and that the roots of our knowledge do not lie in experience. They are contradictory because when paired with the practical side of human nature—we are not just knowers, but doers—it is impossible to be a pure empiricist, on the one hand, and to not have prejudices, on the other. You can never wait to act before you have all the data because you will never have all the data; however well informed you might be, existence is a guessing game. Your action, then, is at least somewhat guided by unfounded beliefs, but not beliefs you have deduced, but inherited. Before logic and calculation come on the scene, you are oriented by a cognitive heritage of whose origin you are ignorant and without which you can neither think nor move. The fatal assumptions in this epistemology are that we are individual, ahistorical minds, rather than historical bodies bound to collectives.

To be reasonable, as opposed to rational, means to recognize and accept the limits of reason. This truth was axiomatic for not only the classical and medieval thinkers in the West, but for the Eastern traditions of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. As C.S. Lewis put it in the Abolition of Man, almost all philosophical and religious thinkers and traditions, not to mention almost all people who have ever lived, either explicitly or tacitly recognized that some first principles—something like the Dao, God, the Logos, and so on—have to be assumed in order not just to prove anything, but to doanything. Conceding that there are limits to reason does not automatically lead to nihilism, on the one hand, or believing in a bearded man in the sky, on the other. It just means agreeing with Hamlet quote. All of which is to say that while worshipping may not be rational, it is eminently reasonable. It is not so much irrational to worship as it is impossible not to. So that is settled.

Next, we have to consider how it came to be that we worship not the deep, long-term past, but the shallow, short-term future. David Brooks wrote an important essay a ways back in The Atlantic, “The Nuclear Family was a Mistake,” chronicling the shift in domestic mores over the last 150 years. Prior to mass urban- and then suburban-ization, households not only had more children, but included what we now call the “extended” family, and sometimes even non-kin, they almost never moved around, and were intergenerational. One of the reasons we are the WEIRDest people in the world—Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic—is that our conception of the family is restricted in size and narrowed in time. The nuclear family, when it hangs together, is engaged in a battle against the world: parents today are in competition against other families for scarce resources, especially admission to to an elite college in order to gain entrance into, or maintain status within, the Professional Managerial Class, so that their children can spend their twenties and early thirties building their careers so that they have a chance of having kids of their own and replicating the cycle. Many, having successfully run the gauntlet, are concluding that it’s not worth the trouble. I hyperbolize, of course, but the fact that our society is even arguably adjacent to this situation would be shocking to our ancestors and should be alarming to us. You don’t have to go full Jerry Falwell to recognize that, at some point, liquid modernity’s threat to family values is a threat to modern civilization itself. One of the most confused ideas in the environmental movement, besides opposition to nuclear power, is that sustainability has something to do with children having a high carbon footprint and being an undue burden on the planet. 

This change in the composition and meaning of family structure has coincided with the so-called “demographic transition”—the process by which fertility rates in a country fall dramatically with the rise of GDP per capita. While this is good for stabilizing global population in the long term, it introduces a new risk: that depopulation will render economies unsustainable. It may be that the so-called developed world will have to perform a tricky balancing act in the civilization bottleneck of the late 21st century akin to the dilemma in the film Speed: if we drive too fast—have too many people consuming too much—we crash the bus, but if we drive too slow—have too few people producing too little—the bus will blow up.

In the Chinese tradition, the family is a cosmic concept. There is a reason that—again, both for Western thinkers like Aristotle and for Confucius—the family is regarded as the atomic unit of politics: it is the first contact point between the individual and the universe. Both Rick Santorum and Hillary Clinton were right—it takes a family and a village. But it also takes a nation and a planet.

Ancestor worship is not about the past. It’s about the future. And here, there is something new. Past societies were primarily ethnocentric, rooted in a local soil and bound by common blood and traditions. The great advance in modernity was the shift to worldcentric thinking, cosmopolitans bound by ideals. What we need today are what Tara Isabella Burton has called “rooted cosmopolitans”: love and attachment to place is not at odds with, but entailed by, a planetary consciousness. “Future generations” must begin to refer not to some distant, faceless descendants, but to our children and theirs, who will live here, in this place.

In The Good Ancestor, Roman Krznaric offers a new way to think about our relationship to our ancestors, our descendants, and time itself. We will be ancestors, and should act as such. Our children will be ancestors, and they should be raised as such. And beyond this, if we fail to recognize this fact, and persist in playing at civilization like children playing house rather than building one. Believing we will be ancestors worshiped by our descendants in the future may be the condition for there being one. For Generation Alpha, the “A” has to stand for ancestor.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”