Dao Du Jour II, Day 80: The Distance to Here

Chapter 80: Freedom

“Let there be a little country without many people.

Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred, 

and never use them.

Let them be mindful of death 

and disinclined to long journeys.

They’d have ships and carriages, 

but no place to go.

They’d have armor and weapons, 

but no parades.

They’d enjoy eating, 

take pleasure in clothes, 

be happy with their houses, 

devoted to their customs.”

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

When I saw the Marvel film Black Panther and was introduced to the kingdom of Wakanda, I got the feeling that, well, I’d seen this movie before. Prince T’Challa’s ship flies straight into a dense forest mountain that suddenly shimmers and disappears, revealing a hidden kingdom that, we quickly learn, is the most technologically advanced civilization on Earth. As or more impressive is that Wakanda has carefully preserved its cultural traditions; magical technology is seamlessly fused with magical rituals; ancient tribal affiliations are nested within a monarchy nested within a modern scientifically and technologically administrated state, all seamlessly integrated with the local flora and fauna. While uniquely blessed with the most precious resource on Earth, vibranium, it is the prudent stewardship of its power, not the resource itself, that is the key to their success. Though are armed to the teeth, they harness their power for peace and prosperity, not profit and plunder. The first rule of Wakanda is that you do not talk about Wakanda: The state sends people out into the world to gather information and, where possible, gently nudge civilization toward liberation, but they are sworn to secrecy about its whereabouts and very existence. Guided by a kind of Star Trek-ish Prime Directive, it errs on the side of non-intervention.

A small country with magical technology, isolated from civilization, with secret spies spanning the globe and reverence for ritual and tradition…where had I seen this before?

Most people know Francis Bacon as the founder of the scientific method. Whether he was or not—and whether there really is such a thing—fewer people know that he was also arguably one of the first writers of science fiction. In the New Atlantis, which Bacon never completed and died writing, a wayward ship of sick, starving, storm-tossed sailors stumbles upon a mysterious island missing from their maps. The strangers provide them with magic fruit that cures their ailments, invite them ashore, describe their customs, and take the (presumably British) crew to their leader. Bensalem, it turns out, is a veritable utopia; clean, orderly, prosperous, strong families, respect for law and state institutions, pervasive filial piety, and lots of land set aside for nature. They are “disinclined to long journeys” and “devoted to their customs.” The closest approximation to Bensalem in our world, in other words, is Switzerland.

The head of Bensalem resides in Solomon’s House, the nerve center of the society. Solomon’s House is essentially NASA, the White House, and the CIA rolled into one. Bensalem, it turns out, is not a democratic society; it is a deep state on steroids governed by scientists, technical experts, and bureaucrats. The leader of Solomon’s House regales the spellbound sailors with a litany of their achievements and inventions: flying machines, submarines, means for controlling the weather, curing diseases, creating what we today would call GMOs, and extending life. “The end of our foundation,” he tells them, “is the knowledge of causes and the secret motion of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” 

Though it displays the trappings of Christianity, Bensalem is essentially a society based on a religion of science; there is no separation of Church, State, and Science. It operates under a double veil of secrecy: the leaders decide what and when the public should know about its discoveries, and the entire society is kept secret from the rest of the world.

It is hierarchical in other ways. A disproportionate amount of the text is devoted to a detailed description of the “feast of the family,” an elaborate ritual celebrating the patriarchs of Bensalem’s typically large families. This might seem out of place in a tale about technological utopia, but perhaps Bacon recognized not only that Maslowe’s belonging needs would never go away, but that the purpose of technological progress was to enable people to realize them more fully. Bacon’s mythos reflects his logos: the goal of natural philosophy (the term science was not coined until the 19th century) was to use techno-science to “relieve the human estate.” He framed his utopian vision in Biblical terms: the aim was to restore the human condition in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall.

An irony of thinking about Bacon’s utopia today is that, for many, it has curdled into its opposite. Sure, there are the Space Baron’s gazing off into infinity and beyond—Elon Musk making for Mars, Jeff Bezos fancying himself as Captain Picard, Peter Thiel dreaming of libertarian, self-sufficient sea-steading societies—who believe that through technology all things are possible; a mindset that Jamie Wheal perfectly skewers as “Atlas Shrugged in space.” But many of today’s utopians see Bacon’s modernity as that which must be escaped. The reasons are many—climate change and environmental degredation, spiritual poverty, extractive and exploitative economies, separation from nature, the coarsening of the culture, disrespect for family values, consumerism, materialism, bullshit jobs—and so on. But an increasing number of cultural tribes are forming that want to tune in, turn on, and drop out.

On the right, the form this takes is what has come to be called the “Benedict Option,” coined by conservative writer Rod Dreher. Inspired by the original Benedictine monasteries of the 6th century, some ultra conservatives have begun to effectively secede from modernity, pulling their children from public schools and setting up their own communities far from the madding crowd of modern life. In their eyes, the modern liberal project of progress through science and technology of which Bacon’s vision was a major motor has produced a New Dark Ages hostile to life, virtue, God, community, and true human flourishing.

On the left, the form this takes is the eco village—call it the Bioregional Option. Modeled on the communes from the post-World War II counterculture, they seek a more natural way of life; growing their own food, building their own houses, making their own clothing and products, raising each others’ children. Throw in Wi-Fi and digital technology, a solar array, a little polyamory, a dash of prepper culture, a Montesorri-style education system, and a healthy dose of ritualized psychedelic use, and you’ve got yourself an eco-village.

Both are laudably trying to forge new forms of living that shore up modernity’s weaknesses. But both run the risk of romanticism. Progressives tend to be nostalgic for hunter-gatherer life before the advent of agriculture. Conservatives tend to be nostalgic for medieval life before the advent of industry. What we now know about both eras suggests that few would actually want to go back. The problem is that whether you’re attracted to the Benedict or the Bioregional options, they’re both options. They are both choices made on the basis of and within the bounds of modernity that tend to disregard modernity’s benefits.

Lao-tzu’s teaching is that we should not seek freedom in an idealized past or future social arrangement. That freedom is here, if we could but find it. The distance to here is the shortest in space but, often, the longest in spirit. The best way to shorten it is to set limits, but before you can set the limits you want, you must find and accept the limits there are.

To finitude, and not beyond.

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

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