Chapter 67: Three Treasures
“I have three treasures.
I keep and treasure them.
The first, mercy,
the second, moderation,
the third, modesty.
If you’re merciful you can be brave,
if you’re moderate you can be generous,
and if you don’t presume to lead,
you can lead the high and mighty.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
Mercy puts us in a moral, or even religious, frame of mind. Strange, then, that the word is etymologically related to our words for commerce: mercantile, merchant, merchandise. Or maybe not strange at all.
Economic transactions—whether the everyday exchange of money for goods and services, or the high-frequency securities trades coursing through fiber optic cables—are fueled by faith. Collective, largely tacit, agreement that money is valuable, that its current holders obtained it legally and justly in the past, and that debts incurred in the present can and will be paid in the future—all of these are articles of faith in the modern secular church of capitalism.
Counterintuitive as it may seem to us, many of the early boosters of capitalism—or put more precisely, what Max Weber called the “Protestant work ethic”—saw the system as not about the acquisition of private wealth, but the cultivation of the commonweal. The good capitalist was not someone who amassed a fortune to become like Scrooge McDuck doing backstrokes in his swimming pool of gold coins, but lived modestly, was not ruled by greed but restrained by moderation, and continually reinvested his profits in the next venture. The aim was to create wealth to create jobs and innovations that would enhance life. And all of this was understood in spiritual context of self-sacrifice and doing God’s work in the world.
The perversion of this idea, of course, found form in the elevation of productivity and GDP growth to the status of a tenet of modern life. If production and exchange are signs of society more closely enacting the divine will, then the more the better. Today’s capitalism is produced by, and produces, not moderation but greed. People are driven not to live modestly, but in luxury. And our system of debts, as today’s debates around college student loan forgiveness, could hardly be called merciful. In Medieval Europe, the tradition of Carnival played an essential social function: the periodic suspension and inversion of the social hierarchy, such that slaves became masters and fools became kings for a day. This mini-mercy functioned as a safety valve to release the pressure that inevitably builds in any rule- and role-bound system.
Because any social system is a game. The problem is when people forget it is a game, when they grow too attached to their roles and masks and costumes. Our word for persona, it bears pointing out, is related to the Greek term for masks used in drama. What acts of mercy involve is a knowing smile, a wink, an acknowledgement that we cannot pay our debts, that we are flawed and fallible creatures, that we are forgiven, that society is an organized conspiracy against the truth.
Conspiracy carries bad connotations, but it literally just means “breathing together.” Instead of holding the breath, mercy exhales. It is a kind of confession, and a willful abdication of a power it recognizes it never really possessed. Mercy spares its recipient, yes, but it also releases the giver. For it reminds us that there is a conspiracy that rules the world, but it is a conspiracy of life—of breath, ruach, pneuma, prana, qi, call it what you will. It subtends and binds and courses through our many economies, the flows of physical and natural and virtual capital—the gift economy of nature.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”