Episode #34: The Bildung Option: Lene Rachel Andersen on the Nordic Secret

According to the recently released World Happiness Report, all four Nordic nations are in the top 10, with Finland and Denmark leading the way. What is the secret to their success?

In 2020, David Brooks asked the same question:

Progressives say it’s because they have generous welfare states. Some libertarians point out that these countries score high on nearly every measure of free market openness. Immigration restrictionists note that until recently they were ethnically homogeneous societies.

None of these explanations, it turns out, is sufficient. The answer is education, specifically, education policy guided by an understanding of human nature and development captured by the German word Bildung.

Lene Rachel Andersen is a futurist and cultural philosopher who not only tells the Nordic success story, but explains how Bildung can and must be adapted for the 21st century. Can Bildung provide the cultural and institutional DNA for a new Renaissance?





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Episode #33: Kim Stanley Robinson on COP26

During my trip to the global climate talks in Glasgow in 2021, I had a most serendipitous encounter.

I was there as a member of Boston College’s first delegation to the United Nations Conference of the Parties (“COP”), and on day three, I bumped into the science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, whose novel, The Ministry for the Future, I had recently assigned in my course on the ethics of climate change. Robinson is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest science fiction writers of our time. Ministry even made Barack Obama’s best books list of 2020.

I was expecting a photo and maybe a brief comment about his experience of the COP; instead, he gave me his email and, a few days later, over an hour of his time.

We sat on the floor in the “Action Zone,” one of the main lounges, ducking beneath the din of the conference, and talked about the climate, the future, the power of stories, and what he likes to call the science fiction novel we are currently all living within.

Continue reading “Episode #33: Kim Stanley Robinson on COP26”

Episode #32: The Middle Way with Lou Marinoff

Lou Marinoff helped pioneer and popularize philosophical counseling and authored the international bestseller Plato not Prozac. His work has been featured in The Economist and the The New York Times, and beyond his work as a professor and counselor, he has consulted with many organizations all over the world, including the World Economic Forum.

In our latest dialogue, Lou spells out his diagnosis of the pathological extremes in American culture, and offers the Middle Way of the “ABCs”–Aristotle, Buddha, and Confucius–to help us make sense of and work through our troubled times.

Continue reading “Episode #32: The Middle Way with Lou Marinoff”

Episode #31: Jared Woodard, Investment Strategist

Jared Woodard is head of the Research Investment Committee and director for Global
Investment Strategy at Band of America Global Research. In this role, he offers insights on global asset allocation and key market trends to the firm’s institutional, government and retail clients.

Jared also holds a PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University, where he was a classmate of mine. How does someone shift from a PhD in philosophy to a successful career in finance? Tune in to find out. Beyond his own career transition story, Jared and I discuss metaphysical nihilism, the challenges of the 21st century economy, and the enduring value of the liberal arts.

Note: The views discussed in this episode are Jared’s own and do not reflect those of his employer.

Continue reading “Episode #31: Jared Woodard, Investment Strategist”

Episode #30: Values of the Wise with Jason Merchey

Jason Merchey embodies the Socratic ethos and the philosophical way of life: the humble search for wisdom. He has served in many roles—from clinical psychologist, to real estate investor, to therapy dog trainer—but his guiding passion is the love of wisdom. In his recent book, Wisdom: A Very Valuable Virtue that Cannot Be Taught, he explores this virtue that is so elusive yet so essential to a life well lived.

Jason has developed practical tools to help people develop wisdom in their own life, including the Top Values Tool and the Ethical Decision Making Guide. Self-knowledge is a key component of wisdom, and we don’t often have occasion to step back and reflect on why, exactly, we do what we do. Check them out!

In this conversation, we explore the nature of wisdom and many things more, from wisdom in investing to one of my favorite topics: the wisdom of dogs.

Continue reading “Episode #30: Values of the Wise with Jason Merchey”

Episode #29: How to Be Authentic with Skye Cleary

Skye C. Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of How to Be Authentic: Simone de Beauvoir and the Quest for Fulfillment (St Martin’s Press / Ebury 2022), Existentialism and Romantic Love (Palgrave Macmillan 2015) and co-editor of How to Live a Good Life (Vintage 2020). Her work has been published with The Paris Review, AeonThe Times Literary SupplementTED-EdLos Angeles Review of Books,The IndependentThe ConversationBusiness InsiderNew Republicand others. In 2021, she was a MacDowell Fellow. In 2017, she won the New Philosopher Writers’ Award.  

She teaches at Columbia University and the City University of New York, and previously at ThinkOlio, the New York Public Library, and with incarcerated students. She is former Editor-in-Chief of the American Philosophical Association’s Blog and a certified fellow with the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. Before philosophy,  she was an international equity arbitrageur, management consultant, and Lieutenant in the Australian Army Reserves.

Beyond philosophy, we explore her experience practicing martial arts, her NYC cocktail bar expertise, and her experience interviewing Esther Perel.





  • TedEd Video: “Why Do We Love? A Philosophical Inquiry”:


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Episode #28: Being and Lovingness: Skye Cleary

Skye C. Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of How to Be Authentic: Simone de Beauvoir and the Quest for Fulfillment (St Martin’s Press / Ebury 2022), Existentialism and Romantic Love (Palgrave Macmillan 2015) and co-editor of How to Live a Good Life (Vintage 2020). Her work has been published with The Paris Review, AeonThe Times Literary SupplementTED-EdLos Angeles Review of Books, The IndependentThe ConversationBusiness InsiderNew Republicand others. In 2021, she was a MacDowell Fellow. In 2017, she won the New Philosopher Writers’ Award.  

She teaches at Columbia University and the City University of New York, and previously at ThinkOlio, the New York Public Library, and with incarcerated students. She is former Editor-in-Chief of the American Philosophical Association’s Blog and a certified fellow with the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. Before philosophy,  she was an international equity arbitrageur, management consultant, and Lieutenant in the Australian Army Reserves.

Beyond philosophy, we explore her experience practicing martial arts, her NYC cocktail bar expertise, and her experience interviewing Esther Perel.





  • TedEd Video: “Why Do We Love? A Philosophical Inquiry”:


Podcasting is a time-intensive labor of love. Your support is most appreciated!


Dao Du Jour: Done Not Done

It’s now been over a year and a half since I started this project, and having worked through two translations—producing 162 entires and almost 400 pages of material—it’s time to bring it to an end. I went back and read my first entry, Day Zero, to remind myself why I started and reflect on how it went. Here was my initial plan:

each day, I’ll select a quote from a chapter of the text, and offer you a short response to it. It may be only a sentence or a question; it may be a personal reflection along the lines of a journal entry; it may take the form of metaphysical musing, or maybe even mild moralizing; it may come off as clichéd, banal self-help or cultural appropriation; it may be social or political commentary; it may even, heaven forfend, get a little “woo-woo.”

And that’s about what I did. What surprised me as the project unfolded was how naturally the text opened up portals to things you wouldn’t normally associate with Daoism—allegorical interpretations of the Bible, critiques of neoliberal political economy, the folly of space billionaires. Over time, I began half-joking to myself that if I turned it into book, the subtitle would be “A Christian Self-Help Book About Politics.”

And turning the Dao Du Jour into a book is exactly what I plan to do. This was of course an intention at the outset, but it was only tentative and vague. But as the project picked up momentum, at the urging of several of my regular readers, and after consulting with a literary agent, that intention strengthened and crystallized.

It’s an odd thing scribbling down strange little musings on the regular and sending them out into the infinite interwebs, rarely knowing who is reading or how it lands for them. In that first post, I reflected on the dyad of reading and writing in relation to the yin-yang symbol:

One of the most obvious features of the yin-yang symbol is that dualities are interconnected and mutually interpenetrate each other; there is black in all white and white in all black. Reading is predominantly passive (yin-ish), writing mainly active (yang-ish). When you read, you’re reading something someone wrote, and when you write, you’re writing something someone else will (hopefully) read. Nevertheless, reading only works if the reader is bringing something to the table, and writing only sings if it’s open to the inspiration of the moment and mindful of the reader to whom it’s addressed. To read, you have to grapple with the writer, and to write, you have to listen, not just to the muse, but to the reader. You have to do something like dance.

Here, I was talking about myself reading the Daodejing and writing about it. What interests me now that the writing is done, though, is what you readers experienced. I’ve heard from many of you over the last year and a half, but want to hear more.

What made sense, what didn’t, and how did it help you make sense of the world?

What shapes and constellations did you detect emerging from the essays (essay literally means “attempts”).

What attempts succeeded, what failed, and what did success mean?

In keeping with the Daoist spirit of wuwei—“doing without doing”—consider the Dao Du Jour “done not done.” And not just in the sense that this ending is the beginning of bringing forth a book from the bevy of blog posts. The writing is done but not done—like all action, I trust it will bear karmic fruit in my own life and, I hope, in yours.

Thanks for whatever you brought to the table. Thanks for grappling with my ideas. Thanks for dancing.


Dao Du Jour II, Day 81: Show Don’t Tell

Chapter 81: Telling It True

“True words aren’t charming, 

charming words aren’t true.

Good people aren’t contentious, 

contentious people aren’t good.

People who know aren’t learned, 

learned people don’t know.

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

One of the recurring trinities in the Western tradition is what Plato called the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. One question I have always had is why these three? And why three?

A related question I always had is why the four so-called cardinal virtues extolled in both Greco-Roman philosophy and Christian moral theology are, well, what they are—prudence, courage, moderation, and justice? 

The answer is simple, and you get there by asking a different question: what is hard about being human? When I study Aristotle’s account of virtue with my students, I ask them four questions: Who faces uncertainty about how to behave? Who feels fear? Who faces temptation? Who has to make decisions about what is fair? Everyone raises their hand in response to all four questions, and that is the point; it’s hard to imagine your life going that well if you can’t manage uncertainty, fear, desire, and scarcity.

You can take a similar approach to the Four Yogas in the Hindu tradition, the four paths to the divine: jnana (knowledge), bhakti (devotion), karma (action), and hatha (embodied practices). There are multiple paths, but not an infinity of paths; they pathways are constrained by the grain of the human condition. Everyone has a mind, a heart, and a body, and everyone acts in relation to everyone and everything else, and everyone inclines in a certain direction. This is reflected in the Enneagram model; there are only three types (head, heart, and body) because, well, there are only three types of people. The word yoga is related to our word for the yoke of an egg; it means to unite, to integrate, to whole. If we are exercising our heads, hearts, haras, and hands well, we are healing and wholing ourselves, others, and the world.

You might have noticed that the trinity tucked into the tail end of that sentence offers an answer to our first question. Ken Wilber has pointed out that the Beautiful, the Good, and the True are reincarnated many times in both Western and Eastern traditions: in the three jewels of Buddhism, they are the Buddha (personal awakening), Sangha (community of practice), and the Dharma (truth about reality); in the Christian trinity, the Son (I am God), the Father (God’s will must be done), the Holy Spirit (God is the world); Immanuel Kant’s three great critiques of Judgment (beauty), Practical Reason (morality), and Pure Reason (truth). A simpler way to distill these three dimensions, Wilber suggests, is art, morals, and science, or simply self, culture, and nature. If we yoke these with the four yogas and the four virtues above, we get an integral yoga, or yoga of yoga: strive to integrate mind, body, and soul in self, culture, and nature by mastering uncertainty, fear, desire, and scarcity. That will lead us to the simplicity on the other side of complexity to which the Daodejing directs us.

What, then, are we to make of this final chapter, and what does it have to do with the human trinity? This: the beautiful is not the pleasant, the good is not the advantageous, and the true is not the factual. And this: taking a page from the Christian view of the Trinity—that God is both three and one—Beauty is good and true, goodness is beautiful and true, and truth is good and beautiful. But going beyond the Christian view—or rather, going along with its deepest meaning—God is both three and one and neither. 

The Dao is always inviting us to take this first and final step, what Zen calls the “step backward” into the play of paradox, and insisting against the protests of the head that the only way to tell it true is by “doing without outdoing.” This is, the closing line of the text says, “the Way of the wise,” wuwei, the way of woo that woos us on toward wisdom. 

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

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.”

Dao Du Jour II, Day 79: Chaos is a Ladder

Chapter 79: Keeping the Contract

“After a great enmity is settled,
some enmity always remains.
How to make peace?
Wise souls keep their part of the contract and don’t make demands on others.
People whose power is real fulfill their obligations;
people whose power is hollow insist on their claims.

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

“Do you know what the realm is?” Littlefinger asks Verys.

In one of the most gripping scenes in Game of Thrones, two of the king’s advisors debate the nature of power in the empty throne room.

“It’s a story we’ve agreed to tell each other over, and over, and over, until we forget that it’s a lie.”

“But what do we have left once we abandon the lie?” Verys asks. ”Chaos. A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.”

Our modern way of life is purportedly premised on a social contract. In the beginning, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau told us, there was a chaotic, lawless state of nature, and individuals came together and voluntarily agreed to respect each other’s rights and empower a government to for protection of life, liberty, and property. Yeah.

In political philosophy, a distinction is typically drawn between the ancients and the moderns. For the ancients, politics was about virtue, and the human being was understood as a dependent rational animal. The aim of the state and the laws is not just to provide physical safety and economic prosperity, but to make men good—that is, prudent, temperate, just, wise, and brave. Statecraft, in other words, is soul craft. One can only become good by developing the virtues requisite to being a good citizen, virtues inherited from an established tradition. By being liberated from his infantile and adolescent appetites and passions, man is freed for citizenship.

For the moderns, politics is about rights, and the human being is taken to be an independent rational agent. The aim of the state is to protect and respect the rights of the individual, not to promote a vision of the good. Harm no one, steal nothing, pay your taxes, and you may do as you please. The states cares not about your soul, only your actions. By being liberated from threats to safety and property and from the moral and religious constraints of inherited tradition, man is freed from oppression.

In the Republic, Socrates’ interlocutors ask him why they must engage in mythopoiesis (literally, myth-making) in designing the ideal city; specifically, why must they tell a story to the future rulers about where they came from. Put another way, they want to know why they have to make shit up. The reason, Socrates replies, is that we don’t know the truth about the gods and the origin of human beings, on the one hand, and that we cannot live without a story about such things, on the other. Given that we have to lie, we ought to tell a “noble lie” or “useful falsehood.” The story must be “true” not literally, but metaphorically, and metaphorically in the sense that it encodes the values and virtues most conducive to individual and collective flourishing given the limits of human nature.

A central conceit of modernity is that are all grown up and no longer need bedtime stories. We live, in Charles Taylor’s phrase, in an “immanent frame” in which we don’t feel the need to tether our values to a cosmic ground or superhuman source. This is reflected in the origin stories of modern political philosophy: there are no gods or demigods, just human beings rationally maximizing their utility, giving up their natural freedom to receive the benefits of sociality, and voluntarily entering into society. The state of nature is a pit, and the social contract is a ladder. This is how we “make peace.” The consent of the governed, even if tacit, is where the state derives its legitimacy.

This, of course, is a lie. Common sense would tell you so, as would all that we now know from evolutionary biology, primatology, psychology, and anthropology.

But it is not just false: it is also a story. Joseph Campbell wrote that “myth is public dream; dream is private myth.” Modernity sunders the mythos and the logos, privatizing mythology and presenting the public space as merely logical. The state, the laws, the public square, and civic institutions are framed as neutral, an amoral space for rational deliberation, but this is just a clever mask for a new mythos. This does not make it bad. Just disingenuous. It is a story—about good and evil and virtue and vice and what is worthy of worship and what is not—and should be acknowledged as such. Indeed, on balance, modernity offers a more useful falsehood than tradition. But it has major plot holes that traditional stories never had.

By abandoning the noble lie of myth, liberalism tears the social fabric that binds us together and opens up portals to what the show Stranger Things calls “the upside down.” Plato wrote that the danger with democracies is that they get drunk of the “unmixed wine of freedom.” When everyone is doing their own thing, following their private myth, and living out their own truth, the soul and society are uncoordinated. This breeds chaos, and chaos is a ladder for asocial entrepreneurs. Plato calls these figures the “drones,” vicious creatures that prey on people’s intellectual and moral weakness, exploit and exacerbate social divisions, siphon resources from the public, and nudge society toward a tyranny triggered by its fetishization of freedom.

A contract is a social construct. Its power depends upon the individuals making it. In the Bible, a contract is contrasted with the covenant that God makes with humanity. Its power depends upon something that transcends the individuals; it is a burden that they inherit, a creditor to whom they are indebted, and an obligation they can never fulfill. The whole point of the Christian story is that flawed humanity cannot through its own power reconcile with God, so God forgives them and encourages them to forgive each other.

After every enmity, great and small, is settled—whether a feud between neighbors or a social contract binding millions—some enmity always remains. If you convince people that they are atomic individuals with the right to bear rights, they will always find something to fight over. Even if their bellies and bank accounts are full, their streets and cities safe, they will invent imaginary rights to lay claim to. They will feel empowered only by expressing their sense of entitlement because they are untethered from the source of real power: the joyful discharging of duties inherited and not chosen. Every act of submission to tradition tethers the soul more tightly to its source.

The “de” in daodejing is sometimes translated “virtue,” and that gloss serves well here. The virtue of being forgiving, here, entails the recognition that we are all always already fucking up, breaking contracts, offending others, trespassing boundaries—and that is ok, because we belong to each other and to the world. Paradoxically, it is only through community that we can fully be ourselves.

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

Episode #27: On Science and Stoicism: Massimo Pigliucci (Part 2)

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at City University of New York. He holds PhDs in both philosophy and biology. As an early adopter of blogging, he has effectively communicated philosophy to the broader public. A prominent philosopher of science, he has engaged popular scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, exposing the limits of science and the key role philosophy can play in figuring out the role of science in public life. More recently, he has played a leading role in the “Stoic Renaissance” and translated the teachings of this ancient philosophical school into practical terms for living a good life.

Continue reading “Episode #27: On Science and Stoicism: Massimo Pigliucci (Part 2)”

Dao Du Jour II, Day 78: The Unknown Known

Chapter 78: Paradoxes

“Nothing in the world

is as soft, as weak, as water;

nothing else can wear away

the hard, the strong,

and remain unaltered.

Soft overcomes hard,

weak overcomes strong.

Everybody knows it,

nobody uses the knowledge.”

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

In a press conference held shortly before the disastrous War in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, parrying skepticism about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction, gave a famous disquisition on epistemology:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.”

As Slavoj Zizek pointed out, Rumsfeld forgot a fourth category: “unknown knowns,” the things we don’t know that we know. Indeed, the omission itself is an example of an unknown known; the category itself, like psychoanalysis generally, is impatiently dismissed by powerful people who fancy themselves the best and the brightest and chafe at the idea of limits to what they can know and control. Rumsfeld didn’t know that he knew about unknown knowns. The omission was so pregnant with import that Errol Morris made the category the title of his 2013 documentary on Rumsfeld.

The unknown known is pieces of our psyche we have disowned and repressed. Our psyche is ruled by an analogue of the law of energy conservation: the dark energy has to go somewhere, and so it shows up internally, in dreams, or externally, in projections we make onto other people. Everyone can see our shadow except us. Donald Rumsfeld surely did not think he was being an arrogant, condescending, lying, dissembling stooge; that he was all of these things was obvious to a casual observer.

Two years after Rumsfeld’s press conference, David Foster Wallace delivered his famous commencement address, “This is Water,” in which he cleverly used a parable to illustrated what he called the “no bullshit value of a liberal arts education.” In the parable, two young fish swim past an older fish who tells them to “enjoy the water,” and after swimming along for a few minutes, one turns to the other and asks “What the hell is water?”

An irony of the piece’ legacy is that while it was an exercise in “commencement address taboo”—an attempt get at the “no bullshit value of a liberal arts education” without relying on cliches and bromides—it has been referenced ad nauseum and all but become a cliché itself. A further irony is that the text itself warns against a superficial interpretation of it; yet I suspect that people often read it and, well, keep swimming along.

I begin the first class of each semester by having the freshmen read the piece, and asking them not only what they think he means by “water,” but why he chooses water as his master metaphor.

Try it yourself. Read the piece. Write down some ideas. I’ll wait.

So what is water?

  • Unconscious biases.
  • Unconscious beliefs.
  • Unconscious values.
  • Unconscious assumptions.
  • Unconscious prejudices.
  • Unknown knowns.

So why water?

  • It’s invisible.
  • It distorts what you see.
  • It’s essential for life.
  • It can take any shape.
  • It’s hard to grasp and hold onto.
  • It’s heavy.
  • It’s powerful.
  • It can drown you.
  • It can swallow cities.

When you’re swimming in the shallows, the stakes aren’t that high. But when you dive into the depths—or when you are dragged into them, and you will be—the pressure compounds, and what you don’t know you know can mean life or death.

Mind your surroundings. Especially those that are mind.

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

Episode #26: On Science and Stoicism: Massimo Pigliucci (Part 1)

Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at City University of New York. He holds PhDs in both philosophy and biology. As an early adopter of blogging, he has effectively communicated philosophy to the broader public. A prominent philosopher of science, he has engaged popular scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, exposing the limits of science and the key role philosophy can play in figuring out the role of science in public life. More recently, he has played a leading role in the “Stoic Renaissance” and translated the teachings of this ancient philosophical school into practical terms for living a good life.

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Dao Du Jour II, Day 77: The Bows that Bind (or, Taste the Rainbow)

Chapter 77: The Bow

“The Way of heaven
is like a bow bent to shoot:
it’s top end brought down,
it’s lower end raised up.
It brings the high down,
lifts the low,
takes from those who have,
gives to those who have not.

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

A dozen years ago, a video went viral in which a man camping in Yosemite witnessed a “double rainbow.” It went viral less due to wonder at the phenomenon, and more due to his stupefied reaction: “what does this mean?” The hive mind’s reaction to his reaction is instructive.

Continue reading “Dao Du Jour II, Day 77: The Bows that Bind (or, Taste the Rainbow)”

Episode #25: Philosophical Consulting: Lou Marinoff (Part 2)

Lou Marinoff was doing practical philosophy before it was cool. In the 1990s, he helped pioneer and popularize philosophical counseling and authored the international bestseller Plato not Prozac. His work has been featured in The Economist and the The New York Times, and beyond his work as a professor and counselor, he has consulted with many organizations all over the world, including the World Economic Forum.

In Part 2, Lou dives deeper into the skills exercised in philosophical counseling, tells us how he expanded his practice into consulting with businesses and organizations all over the world, and explains how his recent book on the roots of human conflict can help us make sense of increasingly chaotic culture.

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Dao Du Jour II, Day 76: The Militia Industrial Complex

Chapter 76: Hardness

“Living people are soft and tender.
Corpses are hard and stiff.
So hardness and stiffness go with death; tenderness, softness, go with life.
And the hard sword fails,
The stiff tree’s felled.
The hard and great go under.
The soft and weak stay up.”

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

Of the many things that puzzled me about the Biblical stories growing up, one always stuck out: when God is hurling plagues at the Egyptians in Exodus, and Moses asks for his people to be let go, God repeatedly “hardens” Pharaoh’s heart. It puzzles for two reasons: first, it seems to relieve Pharaoh of responsibility, and second, it prolongs the Hebrew’s bondage and increases the suffering of the innocent Egyptian people. Why doesn’t God just snap his fingers and zap them to the Promised Land?

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Dao Du Jour II, Day 75: Daoist Economics

Chapter 75: Greed

“People are starving.
The rich gobble taxes,
that’s why people are starving.

People rebel.
The rich oppress them,
that’s why people rebel.

People hold life cheap.
The rich make it too costly,
That’s why people hold it cheap.

But those who don’t live for the sake of living
are worth more than the wealth-seekers.

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

When Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he is neither romanticizing poverty nor attacking the rich. This is not a primarily economic statement, though economic proposals can be derived from it, and sure, it’s fair to say that Jesus was neither a neoliberal nor a commie. Jesus was not an economist—or rather, he called us to rethink what exactly an economy is.

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Dao Du Jour II, Day 74: Playing a Playing God

Chapter 74: The Lord of Slaughter

“When people are normal and decent and
there’s always an executioner.
To take the place of that executioner is to take the place of the great carpenter.
People who cut the greatest carpenter’s wood
seldom get off with their hands uncut.”

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

We often focus on Jesus’ metaphysical status as the son of God. We seldom attend to the details of his social status as a carpenter. The son of the greatest carpenter was a carpenter, a profession that demands an exacting attention to detail.

Continue reading “Dao Du Jour II, Day 74: Playing a Playing God”

Episode #24: Plato Not Prozac: Lou Marinoff (Part 1)

Lou Marinoff was doing practical philosophy before it was cool. In the 1990s, he helped pioneer and popularize philosophical counseling and authored the international bestseller Plato not Prozac. His work has been featured in The Economist and the The New York Times, and beyond his work as a professor and counselor, he has consulted with many organizations all over the world, including the World Economic Forum.

Continue reading “Episode #24: Plato Not Prozac: Lou Marinoff (Part 1)”

Dao Du Jour II, Day 73: Daring Do

Chapter 73: Daring to Do

“Brave daring leads to death.
Brave caution leads to life.
The choice can be the right one
or the wrong one.”

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

Today’s selection is a reminder that the mind is a wonderful thing to lose. It scrambles our conventional categories and catalyzes a number of confusions. Remember that from the Daoist—and Socratic—perspective, confusion is something to seek and exacerbate, not to flee and eradicate, because it is a birth pang of enlightenment. Confusion is not a sign that there is something wrong with you; it is a sign of what is wrong with you, and is therefore useful.

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Dao Du Jour II, Day 72: Stupid Is As Stupid Was

Chapter 72: The Right Fear

“When we don’t fear what we should fear
we are in fearful danger.
We ought not to live in narrow houses,
we ought not to do stupid work.
If we don’t accept stupidity
we won’t act stupidly.”

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

Aristotle famously defined virtue as a mean between two extremes, and courage as the mean between cowardice and recklessness. The courageous are not fearless. They feel fear toward the right objects, at the right time, in the right amount, in the right way.

The Obama doctrine on foreign policy was striking in its simplicity—it could have fit on a bumper sticker or a t-shirt—and, for a politician typically regarded as a liberal, ironically conservative:

“Don’t do stupid shit.”

Continue reading “Dao Du Jour II, Day 72: Stupid Is As Stupid Was”

Dao Du Jour II, Day 71: The Power of Ignorance

Chapter 71: The Sick Mind

“To know without knowing is best.
Not knowing without knowing it is sick.
To be sick of sickness is the only cure.
The wise aren’t sick.
They’re sick of sickness,
So they’re well.”

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

There is more to this than Socrates’ famous insight that his wisdom consisted in knowing what he did not know. That is what you might call existential ignorance. Socrates connected this with self-knowledge: he realized he was not just grasping some fact about his own psychology through introspection, but gaining insight into human nature and, beyond this, into the relationship between humanity and the cosmos. To “know thyself” is not to acquire comprehensive knowledge of your own psychology, but to discover where you are in the cosmic order.

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Dao Du Jour II, Day 70: Moderate Modernity

Chapter 70: Being Obscure

“Words come from an ancestry,
Deeds from a mastery:
When these are unknown, so am I.
In my obscurity
Is my value.
That’s why the wise
Wear their jade under common clothes.”

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

Francis Fukuyama’s new book, Liberalism and Its Discontents, ends on a rather uninspiring note: a plea for moderation, a virtue whose personal and political value was not lost on the Greeks:

“This emphasis on moderation has been largely discarded in modern times: university graduates are routinely told to “follow their passions,” and people who live to excess are criticized only when it harms their physical health. Moderation implies and requires self-restraint, the deliberate effort not to seek the greatest emotion or the fullest accomplishment. Moderation is seen as an artificial constraint on the inner self, whose full expression is said to be the source of human happiness and achievement.”

The “inner self,” an idea that derives from the Christian tradition and attains its modern expression in Martin Luther, finds its political correlate in classical liberalism. The state protects my external self—life, liberty, and property—and leaves me free to pursue happiness and salvation however I please, so long as I do not obstruct others’ attempts to do the same. Central to this project is a healthy sense of boundary and differentiation between the private and the public spheres, between civil society and the state, between the personal and the political. Though connected, and in some ways overlapping, each sphere has a logic and integrity that commands respect. It is understood, for instance, that there are some things you simply do not do or say in public.

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Dao Du Jour II, Day 69: Immense (Culture) Wars of the Spirit

Chapter 69: Using Mystery

“The expert in warfare says:
Rather than dare make the attack
I’d take the attack;
Rather than dare advance an inch
I’d retreat a foot.
Being armed without weapons,
Giving the attacker no opponent.
Nothing’s worse than attacking what yields.
To attack what yields is to throw away the prize.”

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

There is a war going on, but not the one you think.

Yes, there is the kinetic war in Ukraine. Yes, it is part of a broader conflict we can fairly call a new Cold War between Russian and the West. Yes, that is part of a deeper struggle between democratic and authoritarian capitalism. Yes, overlapping with this is a Code War, a #spacerace to gain dominance in information and disinformation technologies. And yes, at an even subtler level, it is all part of the Hot War—a planetary drama about resources, energy, and the climate. What do you think powers all those computers?

Continue reading “Dao Du Jour II, Day 69: Immense (Culture) Wars of the Spirit”

Dao Du Jour II, Day 68: Followership

Chapter 68: Heaven’s Lead

“The best captain doesn’t rush in front.
The fiercest fights doesn’t bluster.
The big winner isn’t competing.
The best boss takes a low footing.”

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

Reality television is easy to dismiss as trash, and much of it surely is, but sometimes it appeals for good reasons: it transmits elemental truths about human nature. The show Undercover Boss is a case in point. In the show, company executives in large companies don the garb of their peasant workers and are forced to walk in their shoes for a day. In place of a number or a name on a spread sheet, they encounter a person. They take a “low footing.”

Continue reading “Dao Du Jour II, Day 68: Followership”

Dao Du Jour II, Day 67: Three Treasures

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.

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Dao Du Jour II, Day 66: Of Tricksters and Trolls

Chapter 66: Lowdown

“Lakes and rivers are lords of the hundred valleys.
Why? Because they’ll go lower.
So they’re lords of the hundred valleys.
Just so, a wise soul,
Wanting to be above other people,
Talks to them from below,
And to guide them follows them.”

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

Michelle Obama was praised for exhorting us: “When they go low, we go high.”

While this kind of rhetoric feels good, it risks radiating the unique sort of moral self-righteousness that leads the left to electoral defeat.

People’s default settings leaving home and going out in public—at work, in a classroom, on a social media site, etc—are defense and projection of their priors. They are tightly gripping a double-edged sword called “us and them.”

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Dao Du Jour, Day II: Analogy is the Alchemy of Intellect and Imagination

Chapter 65: One Power

“Once upon a time
those who ruled according to the Way
didn’t use it to make people knowing
but to keep them unknowing.
People get hard to manage
when they know too much.
Whoever rules by intellect
is a curse upon the land.
Whoever rules by ignorance
is a blessing on it.”

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

In her commentary on this chapter, LeGuin observes: “This is a mystical statement about government—and in our minds those two realms are worlds apart.” World events are now conspiring to help us understand how they are bound.

Continue reading “Dao Du Jour, Day II: Analogy is the Alchemy of Intellect and Imagination”

Dao Du Jour II, Day 64: Micro, Macro, Meso

Chapter 64: Mindful of Little Things

“It’s easy to keep hold of what hasn’t stirred,
Easy to plan what hasn’t occurred.
It’s easy to shatter delicate things,
Easy to scatter little things.
Do things before they happen.
Get them straight before they get mixed up.
The tree you can’t reach your arms around
Grew from a tiny seedling.
The nine-story tower rises from a leap of clay.
The ten-thousand-mile journey
Begins beneath your foot.”

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

The late great biologist and entomologist E.O. Wilson had a felicitous phrase to describe the billions of microorganisms beneath our feet: “the little things that run the world.” When we think about biodiversity loss and endangered species, we tend to picture the “charismatic megafauna” that populate our zoos and our nature documentaries. This is perfectly natural: we occupy the space between the microcosm and the macrocosm: the mesocosm. The human realm is the Middle Kingdom between what Pascal called the two infinities, the little window between the infinitesimal of the suboptical and the infinity of the superoptical. The meso is both our milieu and our metier.

Continue reading “Dao Du Jour II, Day 64: Micro, Macro, Meso”

Dao Du Jour II, Day 63: The Easy and the Hard

Chapter 63: Consider Beginnings

“Study the hard while it’s easy.
Do big things while they’re small.
The hardest jobs in the world start out easy,
The great affairs of the world start small…
The wise soul, by treating the easy as hard,
Doesn’t find anything hard.”

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

I just completed my first sesshin, a week-long silent retreat in the Zen Buddhist tradition. It was not just hard, but a kind of hard so different from the normal round of challenges we all deal with on a regular basis. You sit in zazen, seated meditation, for roughly seven hours a day, starting at 4:30 am. From an evolutionary perspective, the fact that an animal programmed for sociality, movement, pursuit of desires, speech, and so on would choose to do such a thing flies in the face of reason. Realizing that the desire to give up, get up, and retreat from the retreat is a siren song seducing you away from your cushion requires Herculean restraint. Somehow, to simply sit is the most deceptively simply of things.

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Dao Du Jour II, Day 62: The Indranet

Chapter 62: The Gift of the Way

“The way is the hearth and home
of the ten thousand things.
Good souls treasure it,
lost souls find shelter in it.”

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

“Psychic spies from China try to steal your mind’s elation…” —The Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Californication” (for further reference, see “Tok, Tik”)

What comes after the attention economy?

Continue reading “Dao Du Jour II, Day 62: The Indranet”

Dao Du Jour II, Day 61: Lying Low

Chapter 61: Lying Low

“The polity of greatness
runs downhill like a river to the sea,
joining with everything,
woman to everything.

By stillness the woman
may always dominate the man,
lying quiet underneath him.

So a great country
submitting to small ones,
dominates them;
so small countries,
submitting to a great one, dominate it.

Lie low to be on top,
be on top by lying low.”

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

Reflection on the war in Ukraine, I am reminded of the film Blow, in which Johnny Depp plays a drug dealer who is eventually caught for smuggling pot across the Mexican border. His defense in court is futile, but disarming: he insists he was just bringing some trees across an imaginary line. The same idea animates John Lennox’s “Imagine”: “imagine there’s no countries.” It’s a seductive idea that is empirically true: states, nations, and borders are all fictions. And yet we sense that it is also somehow false.

Imagine there are no novels; no plays; no movies; no comic books; no games. If you have trouble doing that, then you are on the way toward seeing what is fishy in the dismissal of polities as polite lies.

Plato engaged this paradox head on in the first book of political philosophy in the Western tradition. As Socrates and his friends puzzle out the design of an ideal society, he insists that there must be a shared narrative that binds the people together, a common identity that supersedes their roles as rulers, soldiers, and craftsmen. It is a lie but, he argues, it is a useful and noble lie. Though literally false, it is symbolically true in that it does not merely help a people survive, but it reminds them of why they should: who they are, what they stand for, and what deserves to be passed on. The story encodes the virtues and values they valorize.

We now have ample evidence for what would have been common sense to everyone before the Enlightenment: that human beings are storytelling animals. It’s right there not only in Plato, but in Aristotle, when he said man is by nature a political animal. Without a good long soak in a community that tells stories about what is good and bad, just and unjust, noble and base, a human being will not become fully human.

If a culture loses any sense of nobility—of what is good, better, and best and, conversely, what is bad, worse, and worst—then every lie will present as equally empty. Saturated in the smug sensibility that it has overcome the political superstitions of its forebears, such a people will recline in the knowledge that, as Nietzsche’s last man puts it, “formerly all the world was mad.” It is precisely this comfortably numb posture—nihilism, cynicism, and relativism—that the crisis in Ukraine has shaken the West out of. What war is good for is that it is a force that gives us meaning; this war has broken the spell of the post-historical paradise cast by the end of the Cold War. What Trump did in the realm of “bits,” stirring up culture war, Putin has done in the world of “its,” by launching an actual war.

At some level, it is true that all of the entities in question—NATO, the EU, Ukraine, Russia, the rules-based liberal international world order, etc.—do not, strictly speaking, exist. The problem is not merely that this is unimportant; it’s that it is exactly this conceit that dictators exploit. The so-called “post-truth” condition of our politics is something Putin both helped create and benefits from. Putin draws his power in large part from the West’s lack of purpose and waning faith in its founding ideals and way of life; that is has become a victim of its own success, grown fat, lazy, and distracted; that it has become liberal in Robert Frost’s sense of the word: a person “too broad minded to take his own side in a quarrel.”

What is “our own side”? That the world of the West, in Hemingway’s words, “is a fine place, and worth fighting for.” That the story we tell ourselves about democracy, liberty, equality, and human rights is the best one out there, however we have failed and will fail to enact it. Or at the very least that, beyond all the reverse patriotism and racial reckoning and scarcely concealed imperialism of US history, the West is better than what Anne Applebaum has recently called Autocracy, Inc.

Putin’s fever dreams are a classic case study in gender identity pathology played out at geopolitical scale. Purporting to return Ukraine to the bosom of Mother Russia, Putin brings to light both the most immature, alienated form of masculinity and its twin, the dark feminine. So obsessed with being and becoming a “great power,” Putin is turning his country into a petty one. The man who cannot respect the feminine power will be devoured by it. Plumbing the depths of the Arctic Ocean for oil, and pushing the boundaries of NATO, he has effectively poked and awoken the slumbering bear of liberal modernity. The real “mother Russia” is the feminine principle of rest, limit, stillness. He can drill as deep into Mother Earth as he wants, and sneer and snarl at the liberal West all he likes, but she will tear him apart in end, one way or another.

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

New Publication: “Hierarchy and Its Discontents”

Check out my latest essay in The Developmentalist, a magazine that explores how worldviews and values shape our politics and culture:


Dao Du Jour II, Day 61: Good Trouble

Chapter 60: Staying Put

“If you keep control by following the Way, 

Troubled spirits won’t act up.

They won’t lose their immaterial strength,

But they won’t harm people with it,

Nor will wise people come to harm.

And so, neither harming the other,

These powers will come together in a unity.”

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

What Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world”—the shift from a society ordered around spiritual flows to one built around material flows—never really happened. What happened was a re-enchantment, but not of the kind that critics of modernity pine for. In rather the same way that “de-regulation” is really just “re-regulation—the question is not whether there are rules, what but they are and who they benefit—the burning of one sacred canopy is the erection of another. This is the case made by Eugene McCarraher is his magisterial book, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity. It’s an old argument, really, showing up from Moses’s critique of the golden calf to Marx’s critique of money. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, there is no such thing as the economy. There are only individuals, families, communities, states, and nature.

If you try to snuff out the troubled spirits of humanity, you’re really just sweeping them under the carpet. What we call neoliberalism—the grab bag of deregulation, privatization, and the free flow of labor, goods, services, and capital across national borders that has dominated our world for the last four score—is not just an approach to economics or a form of political economy, but a total worldview that has come to govern the way we think about ourselves and what we value. And the main problem is that it has no room for actual human beings—only human capital, Human Resources, and what can fit on a ledger or balance sheet.

If the Great Recession of 2008 was the moment of conception for the birth of neoliberalism’s successor, the 2016 campaign was the quickening. One of the most important developments of our age is the emergence, on not just on the left but on the right, of opposition to neoliberalism. The brandishing of “neoliberal” as an epithet used to be a tic of leftists tarring moderate Democrats as “neoliberal shills,” but a new breed of Republican politicians is openly using the “n-word.” Though Trump surely has no idea what the word means, his entire political being was and is a revolt against the forces it describes, the forces that wrought what he correctly described in his inaugural address as “American carnage.” 

The problem is that the attack on neoliberalism is not so much from the left and the right, but from above and below. Perhaps the most interesting Trump 2016 voters were the ones who supported Bernie Sanders, but switched to Trump once Hillary put him away. While the spirits Sanders and Trump channeled were troubled by the same thing, they were and are separated by a chasm. Where Sanders called for fixing the problems of modernity by moving the system toward a social democracy, Trump gave voice to a growing sentiment on the right: to retreat from modernity into ethnic and national enclaves, to withdraw into Fortress America. Both agree with John Adams that “the merchant has no country.” Where they diverge is what “country” means, and who belongs in it. One hopes to continue the march of progress, the other to drag us back into history, the stuff of fourth turnings, Thucydides Traps, and great wars of the spirit.

What both understand is that the worldview that has dominated our lives for an age has run its course. What used to be called the “vital center” has now become a black hole. It gobbles the traditional communities that are its heart, and destroys the environment that is its fuel, slowly eating away at its pith and periphery. And the troubling, terrifying tug of its hideous gravity has led these two kindred spirits not to build a better spaceship, but to hasten the hole’s work by tearing each other apart. 

The good news, though, is that we are witnessing not the troubled spirits themselves, but they’re terrified form twisted into a tribal snarl; strong, yes, but not the “immaterial strength” they possess. Hated is powerful and harbors a hideous strength. But hatred is merely hope denied a hearing, a lame trickle siphoned off the one true power. We forget that, as abysmal a candidate as she was, Hillary’s campaign slogan was “Stronger Together.” Properly channeled, these troubled spirits could come together to make good trouble and forge a more vital center. This is the way.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 60: Matter Spirited Away

Chapter 59: Staying on the Way

“In looking after your life and following the way,

Gather spirit.

Gather spirit early,

And so redouble power,

And so become invulnerable.


Live long by looking long.”

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

When it comes to religion, “spirit” is the word that is most important and least defined. 

The irony is that our intuitions about spirit are primarily inherited from the Christian tradition, and yet this understanding of spirit is contrary to the crux of Christian theology: the incarnation. Properly understood, the incarnation is a word for the idea that spirit and matter are one. In Alan Watts’ sharp turn of phrase, “matter is spirit named.” The incarnation is usually (mis)understood in dualistic terms because people bring to it fuzzy ideas about spirit as some immaterial, ghostlike essence and matter as some clump of dead stuff, and they bang them together in their minds like a child trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. But the problem is not how to fit them together, but how they are imagined to be in the first place. 

Our ideas about matter come from perception and high school science class; matter is physical objects in space or, at the micro level, tiny particles bumping into each other. But we now know that at the micro-micro level, all that is solid matter melts into air. The more you drill down, atoms become subatoms become muons and gluons and superstrings and quantum foam and on and on; matter becomes “dark,” and even the dark matter isn’t the bottommost thing, there’s dark energy; and none of it’s staying still, and it’s exhibiting “entanglement” (action at a distance), and one moment it’s a wave, another a particle, but also both and neither at the same time. And the deeper physics goes, the more “metaphysical” it becomes; the more, that is, it starts to resemble a spiritual realm of Platonic forms and spooky forces than the heaps of earth and rock you see before your eyes. Modern physics spirits matter away.

But even this woo-way that physics takes you down misses the point. The Dao of Physics is not the true Dao. Plato called physics a “probable myth” or “likely story”; despite its empirical and mathematical foundations, it is still an interpretation of ultimate reality. The incarnation is not the idea that spirit became matter, or God became human; it’s that all matter is spiritual, and all spirit is material. They are the same reality looked at from different sides. This unitive or “nondual” interpretation of Christian theology is, of course, heresy from the perspective of orthodoxy. And yet it is supremely fitting, since Christ himself was a heretic to the orthodoxy of his time.

But this new idea fails if it remains simply an idea, and clarifies into a new theology—or, worse, a pseudo-scientific spirituality, e.g., “quantum physics proves Eastern religions are true.” When Jesus says “repent, and you will be saved,” he is not asking you to say you’re sorry for your sins. The word repent is a lame translation of the Greek word “metanoia,” which means to “go beyond mind.” Conversion doesn’t mean suddenly assenting to a set of theological propositions. It refers to a transformation in consciousness, a temporary transcendence of what Cynthia Borgeault calls the “egoic operating system.” Jesus isn’t trying to make you feel guilty for your sins, or to persuade you to become a Christian; he’s trying to shake you into having what Zen Buddhism calls “kensho.”

Of course we are taught none of this in Sunday school. Nor are we taught how to breathe. The two oversights are related. Our teachers were not taught to breathe when they were children, and usually we have to go through some kind of spiritual breakdown to rediscover the lost art of breathing; the art we lose as we grow into the constrictions of the ego, and that our civilization has lost as it has hardened into the iron cage of modernity. 

If we were taught to “gather spirit early,” who knows what we’d be capable of?

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 50: The Fire Also Rises

Chapter 58: Living with Change

“The normal changes into the monstrous, 

the fortunate into the unfortunate, 

and our bewilderment goes on and on.”

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

Of the many bewildering things of the last few years, one is that Billy Joel has not done an update of his hit song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (though amateurs have tried). The original spans decades. The last five years alone provide ample fodder for a follow up. The tune is a tonic for our times, and the timing of its release is telling.

As fate would have it, the song was released on September 27th, 1989, weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th. The final line of the last stanza—“I can’t take it any more”—dovetailed well with the end of the era it chronicled: the Cold War. The song stands in as a cultural artifact of what may as well be an older civilization: the world of History. 

That same year, Francis Fukuyama published what would become the most important essay in modern political science, “The End of History.” Fukuyama’s narrative provided the intellectual backdrop for the cultural period that followed: the holiday from history between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, the unipolar moment in which America was the sole superpower, globalization went into warp speed, the economy went gangbusters, the internet came alive, and a new normal of peace and prosperity was established. History—what James Joyce called a “nightmare from which I am trying to awaken,” what Hegel termed a “slaughter beach”—was now something that happened to other people—in the past or the developing world. Sooner or later, we would all be what David Brooks called “bobos in paradise.”

One of the many pop culture references in Joel’s song is to the game show Wheel of Fortune. The show is a highly Americanized riff on an ancient concept: Almost all is shine and glitz, all must have prizes, Vanna White never ages and her teeth are perpetually, preposterously white, and there are only a couple of black slots on the wheel; the odds are stacked in your favor. But the original wheel of fortune, an ancient metaphor associated with the goddess Fortuna, had a dark side. It captured the ancient view of history and the world—that existence is a circle, equal parts good and bad, light and dark, joy and sorrow. Time has no arrow, history no arc. Arcs are the product of myopia; to get your vision corrected, you need to either zoom out or just wait awhile.

This idea of the world and history as a worm destined to turn is also captured in the yin/yang symbol. Though it’s impossible to depict in graphic form, the sphere is slowly turning, meaning that the perfect balance of harmony, perpetual peace and prosperity, is impossible. California Daoism is really a kind of Gnosticism that wants to airbrush the yang out of the photo (which is a supremely yangish thing to do). It’s Vanna’s teeth. As the Red Hot Chili Peppers sing, ”Tidal waves couldn’t save the world from Californication.”

The turning of the worm is “the monstrous,” but the term for monster is related to the word for showing, manifesting, or revealing. The monster is the bearer of bad news, but its news that needs to be heard, news that was swept under the carpet and edited out of the establishment narrative. We find ourselves now in the maw of the monster, and it may be that we have only just left the Shire. Think of the last twenty years as the gradual turning of the wheel of fortune, the “zag,” the “yang.” From 9/11 to the Great Recession to the election of Trump and, finally, the pandemic, we have been humbled and laid low by world-historical forces. After Trump was elected, much attention was devoted to the intellectual inspiration of his grey eminence, Steve Bannon. Among the hodge podge of sources that composed Bannon’s eclectic worldview was a book called The Fourth Turning, which posited that history is not linear, but cyclical. Each cycle lasts about 80 years, the length of a single human life, and concludes with a kind of catastrophe that dramatically reorders society. In America, there have been three: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II. Bannon believes we are near the beginning of the next fourth turning. As he likes to put it, “Things aren’t going to be ok.” Prophecies that we are on the cusp of a new civil war and predictions that we are entering the “Turbulent Twenties” are by now a dime a dozen. But there is another way to tell the story. If Fukuyama’s linear image of historical progress is naïve, and Bannon’s cyclical image is fatalistic, perhaps we can combine them. What results is a spiral. It’s not that there isn’t progress, but that progress proceeds in a cyclical, non-linear fashion.  

We didn’t start the fire; our ancestors did. But the fire they bequeathed to us, like Prometheus, was not just a curse but a gift. We inherit the problems of our forebears, but also the tools to fight new problems they couldn’t have predicted. The fire, put another way, is not something we should want or hope to put out. It is our responsibility to deal with it: by turns fighting it, tending it, stoking it, restarting it, and reimagining it. Our great task is to “reinvent fire” by taming the sun and harnessing its power to move away from a fossil fuel-based economy. And even after we’ve done that—and we will—new fires will break out.

Fire does not just burn, but also rises. 

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 58: The Personal is the Political is the Poetic

Chapter 57: Being Simple

“The more restrictions and prohibitions in the world,

The poorer people get.

The more experts the country has 

the more of a mess it’s in.

The more ingenious the skillful are, 

the more monstrous their inventions.

The louder the call for law and order, 

the more the thieves and con men multiply.”

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

The Daodejing often presents as a Rorschach test: you can see what you want to see—or what your unconscious wants to see. It is guided by the “law of the infinite cornucopia.” The text has an absorptive quality, on the one hand, welcoming whatever mold you try to press into it, and yet is elusive, on the other, since for that very reason you can’t quite pin it down. Though generally turned to for personal enlightenment, it can be just as illuminating for political enlightenment. Not least because, more than ever, the personal has become the political.

But in this respect, the Daodejing is not exactly like a Rorschach. The ink blots can handle the aperspectival madness of the netherworld of the psyche. There are an infinite number of shapes a psyche can adopt; there are a finite number of shapes a polity can take.

In today’s excerpt, you can reasonably detect notes of traditional social conservatism, libertarianism, and progressivism. 

The libertarian is allergic to “restrictions and prohibitions” because they limit personal freedom, particularly economic freedom. A more restricted economy is a poorer economy, and a poorer economy means less freedom.

The traditional social conservative is fine with “restrictions and prohibitions” when it comes to morality and, within limits, economics, but not if they are imposed in a top-down fashion by technocratic experts. Catholic social teaching, for instance, follows the principle of subsidiarity: problems should be solved at the lowest level possible. The restrictions and prohibitions should primarily be inherited from tradition—seven generations are smarter than one—and transmitted through education in the family and community instructions. They should be expressions of character, not dictates of compliance.

The progressive is on guard against an oligarchy masquerading as a meritocracy. The “skillful” who design the social architecture of our lives—think Big Tech today—are like Dr. Frankenstein, building monsters their genius deludes them into thinking they can control. Concentrated economic and thus political power must be disrupted.

When traditional norms have broken down, experts have failed us, and the meritocracy has devolved into corporatism as the continuation of politics by other means—what Michael Sandel was called “the tyranny of merit”—people will be drawn to demagogues barking about law and order like moths to a flame. Just as the valorization of “leadership” means that following is in high fashion, talk about law and order is a sure sign of the normalization of chaos, and issues most loudly from those who wish to sow it.

By surfacing our dominant political categories, the Daodejing can free us up to organize them more creatively. Each of these values—virtue, liberty, and equality—has an important role to play. An integral or post-progressive approach can help us think about how to build back better once we have clearly perceived our situation. We need law and order, liberty and prosperity and, yes, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Balancing them is an art, not a science. As Plato understood long ago, there is no such thing as political science, only political philosophy, and even this is at the mercy of poetry.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 57: Abuses of Enchantment

Chapter 56: Mysteries of Power

“Who knows doesn’t talk. 

Who talks doesn’t know.

Closing the openings, 

shutting doors, 

blunting edge, 

loosing bond, 

dimming light. 

Be one with the dust of the way.”

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

Today’s fracas over The Joe Rogan Experience is not an isolated incident. Whenever you come across a flashpoint in the culture wars, it’s time to hit the brakes and consider the iceberg.

One of the keystones of our post-truth infoscape was laid down by Rush Limbaugh, what he called the “Four Corners of Deceit”: Media (!), Academia, Government, and Science (it’s fun to play with the possible acronyms—SMAG, which grazes the dragon Smaug, and MAGS, which flirts with MAGA). Limbaugh articulated key tenants in the tacit theology that would come to define not just right-wing talk radio and the conservative media ecosystem, but a sizable portion of the American electorate disenchanted with and distrustful of institutions in general. Each of the corners—and degree and mix of skepticism and paranoia that surround them—is different, but they are connected by three ideas: that the godless elites in charge are lying to you to maintain and increase their profits, power, prestige, and paternalism; that they think they are better than you; and that they want to destroy America.

Disregard for the moment that, as with Trump, the proper way to confront this attitude is to see it as either confession or projection. No one is more deceitful, cynical, supercilious, and unpatriotic than Limbaugh and latter-day MAGS acolytes like Tucker Carlson. Take your judgment out of the equation, and simply marvel at the scale of the achievement. One of the greatest tricks modernity pulled was convincing the world that the Middle Ages no longer existed. Put another way, that everyone in the Middle Ages was superstitious, and that everyone in the modern world is rational and scientific. We know better. As Nietzsche’s thoroughly modern last man chirps, “formerly all the world was mad.” Bruno Latour put it well when he said that we have never been modern, we have merely exchanged one form of enchantment for another. Our failure to see this is why we have trouble comprehending Trump, Fox News, and our post-truth condition.

The mistake is to write off the people bewitched by these charlatans as, well, bewitched—and, worse, as intellectually and morally inferior. The mistake is to brandish and bray about Science, Logic, and Facts in outrage and exasperation. It’s easy to quote the Daodejing and point out that the charlatans talk but do not know. It’s harder to recognize and resist your own tendency to do the same. If you react to those who talk but don’t know by just talking back, you will only compound their ignorance and betray your own. 

Before you “stand with” or “against” Joe Rogan, figure out where you are actually standing. It usually isn’t where you think.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 56: Baby Yoda, Baby Yoga

Chapter 55: Signs of the Mysterious

Being full of power 

is like being a baby. 

Scorpions don’t sting, 

tigers don’t attack, 

eagles don’t strike. 

Soft bones, weak muscles, 

but a firm grasp.

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

The instant popularity of Baby Yoda in Disney’s Mandalorian series is easy to understand. He fascinates us for the same reason Yoda did; he’s a tiny muppet that is more powerful than any Jedi. But he’s also a baby. A baby strong in the force is not something we’ve ever seen in the Star Wars universe. The combination—a creature endowed with prodigious power yet almost completely innocent and ignorant of its potential—is impossible to resist. And the contrast with his protector, Mando, only amplifies the effect: Mando is constantly clad in protective armor from head to toe.

When we exercise, the thermodynamics are straightforward and entropic: you start with a certain level of energy, you move your body around, and you spend that energy; afterward you feel wiped, exhausted, thrashed, and you need food and rest to restore your energy levels. Yoga is different. It is not so much exercise as exorcism.

A good yoga teacher will tease you if she sees you trying too hard, straining to hold a pose mimicking some beautiful dead person on the cover of a wellness magazine. In yoga, the mental and physical orientation is the opposite of conventional exercise. The challenge is not to exert, but to revert.

In a typical yoga class, you are almost guaranteed to adopt three basic poses before the end of the session: child’s pose at the start, savassana (“corpse pose”) at the end. Just after the final posture, though, you’ll be instructed to lay flat, turn to your side, tuck your legs up into a fetal position, and rest there for a moment before the end of the class.

This is the peak of the mediation. By this point, your body and mind have relaxed and shed the armor that accrues as we age and live and work and struggle and strive. The scorpions, tigers, and eagles or your obligations and neuroses relent; they bow down like all the animals before Pride Rock in The Lion King, as Simba is held up to the sun, powerless before “baby power.” Babies are like places where the universe opens; without effort, they spontaneously order the world around them. The baby is powerful because it is a pure conduit for the Dao. It has no kinks in its hose, no contractions in its self, no splits, no separations. It reigns without ruling.

The text does not say that babies are full of power, but that being full of power is like being a baby. The difference is that babies are helpless. The word ”yoga,” related to our work ”yoke,” means to unify or integrate—to live and move and have your being as it truly is, a Matryoshka doll of baby, child, adult, and elder, with birth, life, and death strung together on the same thread.

When you rise out of the fetal position and put your armor back on, you carry with you a memory of light. You see a little more clearly, move a little more lightly. Your grasp on things is a little firmer. Next time, it will be easier to let go.

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

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.”

Dao Du Jour II, Day 54: The Wisdom Economy

Chapter 53: Insight

“People wearing ornaments and fancy clothes,

carrying weapons,

drinking a lot and eating a lot,

having a lot of things, lots of money:

Shameless thieves.

Surely their way

isn’t the way.

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

LeGuin’s commentary on today’s chapter is blunt: “So much for capitalism.”

Not so fast.

John Locke was one of the first to marvel at the economic miracles a system of property rights and private enterprise produces: “There cannot be a clearer demonstration of any thing, than several nations of the Americans are of this, who are rich in land, and poor in all the comforts of life; whom nature having furnished as liberally as any other people, with the materials of plenty, i.e. a fruitful soil, apt to produce in abundance, what might serve for food, raiment, and delight; yet for want of improving it by labour, have not one hundredth part of the conveniences we enjoy: and a king of a large and fruitful territory there, feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-labourer in England.

It is true that Locke’s case for the right to private property—that one must labor on the land, not waste its fruits, and leave enough for others—was exploited to expropriate land from the native Americans. It’s true that the “enclosure movement” in early modern England, for which Locke’s philosophy provided the charter, was the real tragedy for the environment, not what Garret Hardin called the “tragedy of the common.” It’s true, as Sebastian Junger points out in his book Tribe, that Ben Franklin and other colonists were perplexed that many British subjects who had been captured by native tribes and later freed chose to return to the natives because of their more humane way of life. And of course there is Marx’s critique of capitalism’s immiseration of the working class.

In the 1970s, as the environmental movement grew, calls for a new approach to economics grew—for limiting growth, ditching consumerism, and pursuing “steady-state” economies. British economist E.F. Schumacher published what became a bible of this movement, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, which contained the famous chapter “Buddhist Economics.” Today, the sentiment shows up in calls for “de-growth” and “dismantling capitalism.” And it might seem obvious that a Daoist economics would point in this direction.

But we needn’t go to such extremes. Neither capitalism nor socialism are monoliths. There never has been, nor will there ever be, a purely capitalist or purely communist society. A middle way is articulated in Catholic social justice teaching. In the late 19th century, the Church struck a middle way between communism and cutthroat capitalism in the encyclical Rerum Novarum.

Let us say that a man whose family is starving steals food from a grocer. Did he act immorally? St. Thomas Aquinas’ answer is not only no, but that the man did not really steal because he had a right to the food. The injustice lies not in his action, but in the social system that made it necessary. Assuming that the theft did not prevent anyone else from meeting their basic needs—that the social product exceeded collective need—then the food was being misallocated. According to the Catholic social justice tradition, this is the principle of the “universal destination of goods.” That is to say that the purpose of material goods is to satisfy basic human needs, and the political economy of a society must meet this standard if it is to be deemed just. Put another way, the right to private property is a right, but a limited right superseded by higher values.

At some point, capitalism does license theft—from the poor at home and abroad, from future generations, from the natural world. At some point, socialism does entail theft—from not just the rich, but from the poor at home and abroad, from future generations, and even from the natural world. The right balance cannot be struck by recourse to an ideology or a master plan; only by prudential judgments at every scale of action—individual, local, regional, national, and global.

The libertarian is wrong to deem taxation beyond the bare minimum required for cops, courts, and collective safety simply theft. But the socialist is wrong to regard the institution of private property as merely the legitimation of theft. A certain degree of economic inequality is as natural and desirable as a house having a floor and roof; the root of the word economy, after all, is “household.” As is the root for the word ecology. What is needed is an economics built according to human needs and in line with natural limits—whatever we call it. 

Ecological economists point out, quite rightly, the economy is a subset of ecology, not the reverse. But the further needed step is to recognize that both the physiosphere and the biosphere are a subset of what Teilhard de Chardin called the noosphere. An end to economic growth would entail an end to the growth of the noosphere, particularly in developing countries. These countries are not just developing economically, but mentally, morally, and spiritually. Globalization, properly understand, is not merely or mainly about the free flow of capital, labor, and goods across national borders; the world is not exactly “flat,” in Tom Friedman’s turn of phrase. And the world is not just an “interconnected” biological system, a tight web in which actions in one place reverberate ever more quickly in another. Globalization is also about the emergence of planetary consciousness, a process in which we are in very early days. The world is flattening in one respect, tightening in another, but deepening in another still. A Daoist economics—a wisdom economy, if you will—would take into account all three.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 52: TSDR

Chapter 51: Back to the Beginning

“Close the openings,

shut the doors,

and to the end of life 

nothing will trouble you.

Open the openings,

be busy with business,

and to the end of life nothing can help you.”

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

How many browser tabs do you have open right now? I wager 5-7–on this window. One of these is likely your work email. Another is maybe your personal email. Through both of these openings, anyone in the world can at any given time make a free withdrawal on your stock of attention. 

I am guessing you probably have another window with 7-10 tabs. Half of these are TLDR articles about e.g., the geopolitics of natural gas in Ukraine, the chances of democratic subversion in the U.S in the next few years, the latest climate-related weather disasters, whether we are in a crypto-bubble, and what, exactly, an NFT is. The other half are intriguing YouTube videos. All of these you’re planning to read and watch “sometime later this week.” They’ve been open for over a month.

If you’re reading this on your phone, I won’t even bother getting started.

The whole point of a matrix is that when you’re plugged into it, you don’t see it. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a prison.

In the Matrix films, the computer simulation in which humanity is trapped is initially presented as a prison for the mind. As the films progress, however, it is clear that there is more than meets the mind. After Neo escapes the Matrix created by the machines and wakes up in the “real world”—closing the openings and shutting the doors—we discover, at the end of the second film, that there is a “second” Matrix: the “real world” of the body and the senses is part of something deeper. Neo experiences a subtle, energetic connection with the machines, which culminates in a powerful gnosis experience in the third film: the machines and the humans are one, made of the same star stuff. Only from a superficial, dualistic perspective were humanity and the machines at odds, the true world opposed to the apparent world, the mind and body split.

The Matrix, in the fullness of time, is revealed to be not a prison, but a pregnancy.

Don’t be so quick to write off information technology as condemning us to a post-truth world destined to leach our humanity by capturing our attention. We must always remember that we are in early days—even when the hour grows late.

Here’s a thought experiment: rather than a culture of TLDR, we try “TSDR”: Too Short Don’t Read. Rather than taking sips from what technology critic Nicholas Carr calls ”the shallows,” we adopt the default of preferring the long and in-depth perspectives. By closing the many tiny windows, we open to the few bigger ones. We factor in the cost of these draws on our scarce attention the same way we need to factor the cost of carbon’s draws on the scarce resource of atmosphere.

Software engineering that solves for that—that would overhaul the attention economy of Web 2.0–would be a killer app indeed.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 52: Leading From Behind

Chapter 51: Nature, Nurture

“To have without possessing,

do without claiming,

lead without controlling:

This is mysterious power.”

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

Obama said many things that were grossly misinterpreted: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” “You didn’t build that,” and, of course, “Leading from behind.”

Except he didn’t say that last one. But you probably thought the did. These two facts are instructive. 

If there is one thing presidents of elite universities will tell you they are trying to instill in their students, it is something called “leadership.” Contrary to the traditional ethos according to which young people should first listen and learn, defer to experts and elders, receive guidance from the discipline and wisdom of teachers, bosses, or mentors, submit to a craft, a subject, an established body of knowledge—they should lead. Prior to the full development of their neocortex, they should lead. Before they are old enough to legally drink alcohol, they should lead. All of them.

What this really means is that they should conform to the values, norms, and mores of the Professional Managerial Class in order to join, or rather remain in, what Matthew Stewart calls the “9.9%.” Crush it. Kill it. Grind. “Lunch,” as Gordon Gecko memorably put it, “is for wimps.”

To lead means to win, to dominate, to reap the rewards of a zero-sum game. Rarely is it stated that there will be many losers. Through a strange ideological alchemy, the winners-take-all mindset of neoliberalism capitalism has been fused with the “everyone gets a trophy” mindset of progressive egalitarianism; this creates the illusion that everyone can be a leader.

Ignoring for the nonce that this is a terrible way to build a healthy society and thriving economy, it’s a misguided way of understanding leadership. Obama didn’t use the phrase “leading from behind” to describe his approach to foreign policy, but it does capture the spirit of his approach. During his campaign for president in 2008, he famously said that he was not opposed to war; he was opposed to “dumb” wars. The Iraq war was dumb in that it was launched from a dumb mindset—the heady intoxication of the “unipolar moment” after the end of the Cold War and the neoconservatives’ eagerness to promote democracy abroad—and in a dumb way—lacking legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. While Obama and the foreign policy establishment over-learned the pitiless lessons of Iraq—especially when it came to Syria and Russia—the instinct was sound.

Leading from behind means sounding out your allies, partners, and stakeholders—especially those who are “less powerful” than you. It means thinking and feeling into the perspectives of your friends and enemies. It means realizing that you’re not in control. It doesn’t mean not using overwhelming force; just that you should only do so when the winds and the waves are behind you. Otherwise, you are just puffing and bluffing. Putin is leading, but not from behind.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 50: Yorick’s Last Laugh

Chapter 50: Love of Life

“To look for life 

is to find death.

The thirteen organs of our living

are the thirteen organs of our dying.

Why are the organs of our life 

where death enters us?

Because we hold too hard on to living.”

So I’ve heard 

if you live in the right way 

when you cross country 

you needn’t fear a mad bull or a tiger….

Why? Because there’s nowhere in you for death to enter.”

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

There are three attitudes to take toward one’s qi: squander it, husband it, or augment it. Only the latter two concern us. A common mistake is to suppose that Daoism is offering a path to immortality by building up one’s qi to become as powerful as possible, invulnerable against the mad bull and the tiger. Today, this ancient impulse hails under the banner of “Transhumanism.” In relation to Daoism, this is a kind of Gnostic heresy.

The preferred path is preservation, to practice a kind of negative efficiency: not to be as “productive” as possible—to be “killing it,” a common phrase nowadays whose significance warrants serious consideration—but to be as effective as possible by leveraging your power in the right places. This is done by recognizing that your power is not, strictly speaking, “yours”—it is a tiny trickle in the endless ocean of the world. To hold too hard on to living is Hamlet’s mistake: “take up arms” against this sea, and see it as a “sea of troubles.” To “live in the right way” is to move from the standpoint of the ocean, not that of the drop.

When you “cross country”—when you move through the world—you needn’t worry about mad bulls and tigers because you will not bother them. They will not feel threatened by you because you will not see them as threats. There’s nowhere in you for death to enter because you have already let it in.

Yorick the fool is the perfect foil for Hamlet the heavy. The fool is an expert at husbanding qi because he sees the inverted world—or rather, he sees the myriad ways the world is absurd, contradictory, puffed up, pretentious, empty, and false—and points it out. He pulls the rug out from under those building Babel, trying to win a finite game, straining their organs to escape the round. Like an acupuncturist, he locates the pressures points in the social body and releases squandered energy.

Yorick doesn’t dwell on such questions of life and death and immortality. By poking holes of fun in the argument for augmentation, he shows that there is plenty of qi to go around.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 50: Extra Ordinary

Chapter 49: Trust and Power

“The wise have no mind of their own,

finding it in the minds

of ordinary people.”

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

“In my walks,” Emerson wrote, “every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.”

Several years ago, I was invited to a wedding in Woodstock, NY. To get there, I had to carpool with some of the bride’s friends. We met up that morning in the East Village. I arrived at the car rental place and spotted the woman I assumed I was looking for, as she was the only woman there. She smiled, shook my hand, and introduced me to an elderly man next to her—her “boyfriend”—named Philip. The age difference—which was quite possibly pushing half a century—was noteworthy but, I figured, it’s New York, and they were, like most of the crowd attending the wedding, artsy types.

I took the wheel, and we began our escape from Manhattan. Philip sat shotgun, his partner in the back. She was in the theater world. I asked Philip what he did. He was vague and evasive, saying he worked in an adjacent area, the arts, etc. We drove on. I finished my second cup of coffee. My mind began turning things over.

My body knew before my conscious mind that I was sitting across from Philip Glass.

I was only passingly familiar with his music—an old roommate used to play it in the background while he worked, and I remember loving his score from the film The Hours—but I had the sense that he was kind of a big deal. I resisted googling his name to get image confirmation lest I loose control of the car and kill the famous composer. But at our first rest stop and could safely use my phone, I came to learn not only that it was, in fact, him, but that according to Wikipedia, Philip Glass is generally considered one of the most influential composers of the late 20th century.

During our drive up to Woodstock, he peppered me with questions about my work in philosophy. I was at a crucial point in my career, having leveraged my twenties running down the dream of being a professor, beginning to conjure a plan B, wondering if Marge Simpson was right: that, as she tells Lisa, “grad students aren’t bad people, honey, they’ve just made a terrible life choice.” Philip was interested, enchanted, encouraging. When we arrived and parted ways prior to the wedding ceremony, he stopped me and gave a kind of “go forth young man you will do well” benediction.

When I saw him at the reception hours later, as the evening eased toward bacchanal, I asked him “Why didn’t you tell me you were Philip Glass?” He laughed and said, “Because then I wouldn’t have gotten to know you and learn from you. You would have treated me differently.”

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 49: Dao of Diplomacy

Chapter 48: Unlearning

“To run things,

don’t fuss with them.

Nobody who fusses 

is fit to run things.”

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

Who most fusses? Babies.

LeGuin points out that the word she glosses as “fuss” has been translated as “diplomacy,” “meddling,” “interference.” In this context, the counsel of the text is to be undiplomatic.

As Russia and the West stand on the brink of something like war over Ukrainian sovereignty, they are of course tied up in something called diplomacy. The text suggests that diplomacy involves some kind of dissembling; indeed, part of the word’s root means to “double” or “fold over,” as official communiques from leaders would have been in the early years of modern statecraft. 

I take the text to be saying not that diplomacy is bad, but that sometimes it means an attempt to deny reality—to defy the gravity of history, to smooth over the rough edges of nature, to pretend that all conflicts can be peacefully resolved. 

Dictators who meddle and interfere and act to gain are the fussiest of all. They do not trust things—and people—to run themselves. They make a fuss and force us to fuss over them. At its worst, diplomacy coddles them and encourages them to persist in their folly. The dictator is playing a different game than the diplomat. The diplomat pretends that we live in a world of grownups. The dictator understands that we never grow completely beyond middle school politics, and exploits that fact in his subjects and enemies. The democrat has to dance in the middle, knowing when to hold them and when to fold them.

The conflict of the day is not about Ukrainian sovereignty. It is about the capacity of the West to defend liberal democracy and democratic capitalism, and hold the line against the rising tide of autocracy. It is about the ability of petrostates to weaponize fossil fuel reserves in an age of climate change. It is about remembering the point of the post World-War II international order, and refusing to let the passage of time dull our collective wits and lull us into complacency.

As on the school yard, there is only one way to stop a bully, and diplomacy is not it.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 48: The Bad News

Chapter 47: Looking Far

“You don’t have to go out the door

to know what goes on in the world.

You don’t have to look out the window

to see the way of heaven.

The farther you go,

the less you know.

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

Why do we read the news?

“To see in front of one’s nose,” George Orwell wrote, “is a constant struggle.” These days, the struggle is, as we like to say, real.

The first thing to consider is that, in a deep historical lens, “the news” is a relatively recent development. It could only emerge on the back of a nexus of technologies capable of storing and shuttling information widely across space and quickly in time—the printing press and the telegraph, initially, then radio, television, computers, and the internet. 

From another perspective, though, “the news”—and the desire to know it—is ancient. Before civilization—that is, before technologies that could store “bits” in “its”—what we call the news was produced and consumed by a small number of people over a tiny territory. And for everyone except from the very, very earliest humans, the storehouse of past knowledge—disciplined by the iterative process of learning through feedback from the local environment, preserved and passed on orally by the elders from generation to generation—was much more complex and valuable compared to the details of the day. On average, basic life conditions wouldn’t change all that much from one day, week, month, or even generation to the next. Hence a psychological and cultural orientation toward the past: the time of the ancestors, who gradually pass from history into legend and myth. You had to hunt, yes, but you “did not have to go out the door” or “look out the window” to know what is what, in the most vital sense of the phrase.

Consider that this is the information ecology in which we evolved.

The second thing to consider is whether a kind of cognitive optimum, a balance between signal and noise, is necessary for a minimal level of sanity. Every organism has to “make sense” of its social and natural environment, to pay attention to certain things and ignore others in order to survive. Every organism, in other words, has a tacit ontology and axiology, what its nervous system identifies as real and valuable. We are no different; or rather, the way in which we are different makes making sense harder for us. 

If so, it follows that the default settings for that optimum developed prior to civilization. From there, it would follow that civilization is driving us slightly mad, and at an exponential rate.

This would explain a lot of things.

But it would be too hasty and easy a conclusion to draw. Evolution produced us: creatures that are capable of understanding (at least partially) the conditions of their creation, and of creating culture—symbolic forms of thought and communication that shape and are shaped by their environment. Calling us an “evolutionary mistake” is incoherent if you believe that evolution is nothing but “mistakes,” random mutations of genes and natural selection of environments; in fact, the very idea of mistakes makes no sense if evolution is not in some sense a sense-making process. If you buy Neodarwinism, you are not entitled to any value-judgments, because you are committed to value being a purely human construct. You are not entitled to claim that hunter-gatherer societies  were/are better than agricultural, industrial, and informational societies—only different. You are not entitled to claim, for instance, that secular humanism is preferable to religious dogmatism.

The third thing to consider is that we have gotten really good at acquiring information about “the earth” outside of our door and out our window. So good, in fact, that we have begun to entertain fantasies about leaving it. We have become really bad at acquiring wisdom about the way of heaven. “The news” has become a deluge, constantly flooding our homes and pouring through our ears and eyes; we live in the informational equivalent of water world. In that kind of information ecology, it is hard to think, hard to be still, hard to make sense—sense can only be made if there is leisure: free space and time set apart from the business of the world.

I speculate that the roots of organized religion—ritualized, collective worship in the broadest possible sense of the term directed toward the heavens in the broadest possible sense of the term—can be traced to this basic existential situation. Periodic retreat from the present—the news of the day, the business of the world, and so on—resets the mind, reconnects it to heaven, reminds it of the great inheritance on which it rests. Something like a sabbath, in other words, was a cultural invention in order to cope with a more complex information environment. Leisure, in Joseph Pieper’s words, is the basis of culture.

If true, it would follow that the erosion of sabbaths would re-introduce the problem. We would have to turn elsewhere.

This would also explain a lot. Conspiracy theories. Rapture ideologies. Cancel culture. Identity politics. Meditation apps. It would explain, in Philip Rieff’s phrase, modernity produces a kind of “anti-culture.”

Knowing heaven while neglecting earth is just as ignorant as knowing earth and forgetting about heaven. Wisdom is a divine thing, information a human thing. Knowledge, perhaps, is a bridge between the two. We must not retreat into heaven, or get lost in the world. We must find the middle way.

But the middle way always depends on the context. And these days, we should probably err on the side of heaven. The Trump era (which spans before and after his presidency) is if nothing else the near total victory of “the news” in the war for our attention. The production of “fake news” is the sign of the cancerous hypertrophy of information production; since there is too much information to make sense of, the signal/noise ratio in the culture is thrown out of balance, and people begin producing a simulation of the news in order to try and restore it.

Being informed is only desirable to the extent that we can fit the information we acquire into scaffolds of meaning, and climb those scaffolds to help us see new information that can help us build better scaffolds. The most important kind of information we are receiving now is not external, but internal—what our bodies, our hearts, and our minds are telling us about the information ecology we have built. More, at long last, is no longer automatically better. Paradoxically, a kind of intentional ignorance has to be coded into the choice architecture of our built environments in order to build a sustainable civilization. And sustainability needs to be understood not merely or even mainly in ecological and economic terms, but in psychological and cultural terms.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 47: Ghostbusting

Chapter 46: Wanting Less

“The greatest evil: wanting more

The worst luck: discontent.

Greed’s the curse of life.

To know enough’s enough

is enough to know.

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

In Wall Street 2, investment banker #1 (Shia Lebouf) asks investment banker #2 (Josh Brolin), “What’s your number?” How much money, in other words, would it take for you to walk away from the game of high finance dollar bill fuckery.

One word issues from Brolin’s granite rictus: “More.”

The investment banker is the stock image our minds summon when we hear the word “greed.” This makes it easy to assure ourselves that we ourselves are not greedy.

Buddhism warns us of the three root poisons: greed, hatred, and ignorance. Why these three? Because they correspond to our three centers—head, heart, and hara (the gut)—and how they get mixed up. Suffering is produced when one center thinks it’s running the whole show, and fails to recognize the intelligence in each. 

We can become greedy, not just for food, but for recognition and knowledge. 

We can come to hate not just other people, but our own bodies and the truth.

We can be ignorant not just of the way things are, but of our own feelings and bodily needs.

The Tibetan tradition offers a powerful image of greed: the “hungry ghosts” that occupy the lowest level of existence, cursed with tiny mouths and distended bellies, floating about forever empty. We all have a little hungry ghost—and a little investment banker—within. The question is not whether we are greedy, but into which form of greed we most tend to fall. That is the place to begin.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 46: Unconscious Upaya

Chapter 45: Real Power

“True straightness looks crooked.

Great skill looks clumsy.

Real eloquence seems to stammer.”

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

Several years back I attended a weekend Zen retreat. I arrived on the late side, and the only open cushion was on the left end of the outer horseshoe. I had been on retreats with this teacher before, and had the utmost respect and admiration for him. He was a natural, a “Buddha to the fingertips,” as they say: someone who in their movements, gestures, and voice radiates grace, self-possession, equanimity, lightness, and both humor and intensity all at once. After making a few introductory remarks, the roshi took his seat, which happened to be directly in front of me.

In zazen, you sit with your eyes open in soft focus gazing down a few feet in front of you, and given how still the room is, you notice the slightest motion in your field of vision. Halfway through our first twenty minute session, I noticed the roshi listing forward, then jerking back to an upright position…and a few moments later, doing it again, and a few moments after that, doing it again. The monitor—a senior student who keeps the time and rings the bell at the start and end of the session—was sitting across the horseshoe from him. I saw her see him and smile.

The Zen master was falling asleep.

Projection is an essential element of any kind of pedagogical dynamic. The student projects magical powers onto the teacher. His perception is a mixture of these projections, which are illusions, and correct apprehensions of superior skills, knowledge and qualities acquired after years of practice. The learning process involves the student mastering both his projections and acquiring those skills himself. A gifted teacher will not only model the technical competence to pass on the skills, but will use what in Buddhism is called upaya, “skillful means”: creative ways of imparting things that cannot be written down in a rule book or distilled into a neat verbal formula. Upaya are meant to disrupt the linear, logical mind, to disappoint expectations. The most powerful projection in Zen, and the hardest one to disable, is the student’s belief that the teacher possesses some kind of secret, special knowledge that he lacks.

Roshi Kennedy nodding off in the middle of zazen, I later realized, was an unconscious upaya: even Zen masters get tired.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 45: Almost Micro-Famous

Chapter 44: Fame and Fortune

“Which is nearer,

Name or self?

Which is dearer,

Self or wealth?

All you grasp will be thrown away.

All you hoard will be utterly lost.

Contentment keeps disgrace away.

Restraint keeps you out of danger

So you can go on for a long, long time.”

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

“I wish everyone could get rich and famous and everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” ~ Jim Carrey

One of the many odd affordances of our new information ecology is that it presents everyone with the plausible chance of becoming micro-famous. Social media is, of course, diabolical in its ability to tap into the most ancient and powerful drives in the psyche, and with fame it is no different. The desire for fame is the sick form of the natural desire for belonging; in Darwinian terms, the desire and the ability to “fit in” was arguably the most important form of “adaptive fit” in our species’ early history. Not just the natural selection of the environment, but the cultural selection of the tribe, was essential for survival.

As with calories, we evolved in conditions of relative scarcity when it comes to recognition. There were only so many people you had to appeal to, gain respect from, and burnish your reputation before; doing so was a requirement for attaining a sense of coherence, feeling yourself integrated with the social and natural world. But now, just as our propensity to feast on sweet and fatty foods is a liability, our propensity to get people to like us—normal, natural, and necessary for both survival and sanity—gets us into trouble. The evolutionary imperative—“more is better”—began smart but has become dumb. Eating, like making a name for oneself, is a means, not an end in itself.

We know this, of course. So why do we fall for the lure?

Cardinal John Henry Newman offers us an incisive distinction for cutting through this conundrum: “real assent” vs. “notional assent.” The difference can be seen by an example Michael Pollan gives in his book on psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind. Smoking addicts who successfully quit after taking a clinically administered dose of psylocibin were asked, months after the treatment, why they didn’t smoke anymore. Their answers were were complicated. Why would I do that to my body? Smoking kills you. And so on. In other words, they didn’t go through any kind of intellectual conversion or gain new insight; every smoker knows full well smoking is bad for you. What had changed was their relationship to their beliefs; they had moved from notional assent—an abstract understanding—to real assent—embodied, lived understanding. It’s a fantastic explanation for, e.g., why you find yourself complaining about social media one minute while doom scrolling the next.

The problem with wisdom is not that we lack knowledge, but that we forget it. The most important kind is the category Donald Rumsfeld left out: “unknown knowns.”

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 44: The Sandcastle Sutra

Chapter 43: Water and Stone

“What’s softest in the world rushes and runs

over what’s hardest in the world.

The immaterial


the impenetrable.

So I know the good in not doing.”

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

Carl Jung—the Swiss psychoanalyst and disciple of Freud whose ideas are enjoying a resurgence of late—inspired a novel form of therapy: “sand play.” Jung speculated that playing in the sand freed up repressed emotions and fostered a kind of circulation between the different and often dissociated parts of the psyche.

This raised a question: what is so attractive about playing in the sand and, in particular, building sand castles? Answer: sandcastles reflect the incarnation, in Christian categories, and the polarity of yin and yang, in Daoist terms. They are the diamond hard distillation of what draws us to the beach.

Sand stands in the bardo between water and stone. Sand is like water shot with a tranquilizer. Slow, dumb, and dead, it moves and flows, but unmusically. Wet, though, sand gives water shape, and plays at being stone. Like the rock of a cliff face, a sandcastle can resist water, but only for a time.

Water stands in for life and spirit, stone for death and matter. Inland, in the adult world, we forget that all castles are made of sand. However impenetrable we try to make our fortresses—our houses, our bank accounts, our psyches, our stories, our ideologies, our religions, our polities—the immaterial always finds the hidden entrance. We forget, in other words, that all castles are made, that time is a circle, that the tides—or the storm—will come.

This is a powerful spiritual teaching. The sandcastle is a sutra. The term, which is attached to Buddhist scriptures—the heart sutra, the lotus sutra, and so on—is related to our terms “thread,” or “string,” and “suture.” No doubt this has to do with the physical binding of the texts. But it also connotes the message of healing, weaving, and mending the texts aim to foster. “Not doing” is building in a spirit of serious play.

The Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus says, is “at hand,” and it is built of sandcastles.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 43: Pocket Astrology

Chapter 42: Children of the Way

“The ten thousand things

carry the yin on their shoulders

and hold in their arms the yang,

whose interplay of energy

makes harmony.

People despise

Orphans, widows, outcasts.

Yet that’s what kings and rulers call themselves.

Whatever you lose, youv’e won.

Whatever you win, you’ve lost.”

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

Why is astrology so popular?

It is too easy to dismiss it as magical thinking, a constellation to hang onto in the face of cold black space. If you wade through the woo, you’ll find a there there. The word “horoscope” derives from Greek terms for “time” and “observation.” Think of it as a cosmic positioning system.

In his seminal work, Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot identifies three marks of wisdom in ancient Greek thought: peace of mind (ataraxia), inner freedom (autarkia), and cosmic consciousness. The latter, he writes, is “the consciousness that we are part of the cosmos, and the consequent dilation of our self through the infinity of nature.” In this sense, the existential thrust of astrology is not that everything happens for a reason, as though our fate were fixed by the stars, but that we are, as Carl Sagan put it, “made of star stuff,” and the meaning we make of the world must take the world as its guide.

Modernity is marked off from this cosmocentric mentality by what Bruno Latour calls the “partitioning” of culture and nature; we separate the two and attempt to purify the former from the mess of the latter. Similarly, Charles Taylor explain how the ancient and medieval blueprint—the individual is ordered by society and society is ordered by the cosmos—came to be abandoned: the “Great Disembedding” of the modern project turns us from “porous” selves–in touch with and attuned to the cosmic energies suffusing and surrounding us–into “buffered” selves standing apart from nature and manipulating it at will. Modernity, in short, yangs.

Today’s chapter is not merely offering us a version of Biblical moralism—to care for the marginalized—but a metaphysics, and not an academic metaphysics, but a practical one. Our natural tendency to partition and purify—the sacred and the profane, the noble and the base, the clean and the dirty—is at odds with the Way. Rather than “carry the yin on our shoulders”—embracing weakness, darkness, and loss—we resist the current of the cosmos.

What we really turn our back on, however, is the orphaned and outcast parts of ourselves. To be a king or queen—to attain “inner freedom” and self-rule—is precisely to carry your yin. For Carl Jung, this meant embracing the “shadow” self, the disowned and unconscious parts of the psyche. Guided by the alchemical adage—“In filth it will be found”—we must tarry with the negative, and in doing so come to realize that the “interplay of energies” working itself out in us is the same drama playing out in the ten thousand things.

The only way to the Way is through the woo.

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

Episode #23: The Tom Morris Experience (Part 2): From Notre Dame to Corporate America

Tom Morris was doing public philosophy before it was a thing.

At the peak of academic success–a full professor at Notre Dame for 15 years, an accomplished scholar and acclaimed teacher–Morris found another calling: bringing philosophy into the business world. After discovering he had a knack for making philosophy practical for audiences outside the academy, he started appearing on TV and eventually found himself on the Today Show and Live! With Regis and Kathy Lee. From his website:

Imagine the wisdom of Yoda, Gandalf, and Dumbledore, rolled together and linked to the spirit and energy of the world’s most winning athletic coaches. Stir in the unexpected humor of a Seinfeld or Fallon, and you have an idea of what Tom’s audiences experience.

After this conversation, I definitely felt like I had had “the Tom Morris experience.” Listening to it, I think you will, too.

Continue reading “Episode #23: The Tom Morris Experience (Part 2): From Notre Dame to Corporate America”

Dao Du Jour II, Day 42: The Daoist Comedy

Chapter 41: On and Off

“Thoughtful people hear about the Way

and try hard to follow it.

Ordinary people hear about the Way

and wander onto it and off it.

Thoughtless people hear about the Way

and make jokes about it.

It wouldn’t be the Way

if there weren’t jokes about it.”

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

The reader is tempted here to pick the “correct” method of approach—to be thoughtful, ordinary, or thoughtless—as though the text were testing her. But what unites all three is that they only “hear about the Way.” They are all false paths to the Way, because all paths to the Way are false; they assume the Way is something out there, over there, to be found. But to paraphrase Ken Wilber, the Way is not hard to find, but impossible to avoid.

By offering three paths, the chapter disrupts our binary mode of thinking. Thoughtful and thoughtless are mutually exclusive opposites that would seem to exclude a third option. But ordinarily, we are always a little thoughtful and a little thoughtless, sometimes more, sometimes less. It’s a spectrum across which we are constantly wandering.

Perhaps then the chapter is itself a joke about the Way. Spirituality is much too serious a business, and the more it becomes like a business, the more serious it gets. If, as Anne Lamotte likes to say, “laughter is carbonated holiness,” that would make the standup comedian a kind of high priest.  

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 41: The Unbearable Lightness of Nothing

Chapter 40: By No Means

“Return is how the Way moves.

Weakness is how the Way works.

Heaven and Earth and the ten thousand things

are born of being.

Being is born of nothing.”

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

The question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is often taken as the most fundamental. It has the whiff of the beginning of many an undergraduate philosophy paper: “Down through the ages, the greatest philosophical minds have asked….” Raised by F.W.J. Schelling in the early 19th century, resuscitated to wonder-killingly loquacious lengths by Martin Heidegger in the early 20th, and re-engaged by physicists in the early 21st, the question is pesky. Despite Stephen Hawking’s protestations, reports of the demise of philosophy are greatly exaggerated. Try as they might, Richards Dawkins, Hawking, and the smug set of scientistic thinkers have not advanced the conversation one step beyond Aquinas’ reply to the objection that the world can explain itself when he considers the question of whether God exists in the Summa Theologica. But that is a topic for another day.

But the scientists afflicted with philosophy-envy have a point. Nietzsche smelled something fishy in Western philosophy. “Being,” he remarked, “is a vapor and a fallacy.” Being, in other words, is a meaningless word.

Buddhism and Daoism have a direct and disarming answer to the question in question:

“There isn’t.”

In Western metaphysics (in general), being is taken for granted: the world is made of substances. In Eastern metaphysics (in general), nothing is taken for granted: the world is made of processes. In Buddhism in particular, our language and concepts that divide the world up—being and nothing, self and other, etc.—are regarded as conventions. Wisdom is seeing beyond these conventions, and realizing that the mind’s incessant demand that reality submit to rational justification is the fundamental fallacy. Acknowledging the weakness of the logos allows the Way to work.

Nietzsche thought that it is only as “an aesthetic phenomenon” that the world can be justified, which is to say that it cannot be justified. Christian mystic Meister Eckhart wrote of the “rose that blooms without why.” The Way ways without why, and letting it take you will take away your existential questions. If you surf it, you will look back to shore and laugh at your former self, realizing that asking why there is something rather than nothing is like standing on the beach and asking why people surf.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 39: Hierarchies Sacred and Profane

Chapter 39: Integrity

“The root of the noble is in the common,

the high stands on what’s below.

Princes and kings call themselves

‘orphans, widowers, beggars,’

to get themselves rooted in the dirt.

A multiplicity of riches

Is poverty.

Jade is praised as precious,

But its strength is being stone.”

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

When you hear the word “hierarchy,” what arises?

The first thing to notice is that something is arising. That is to say that beneath or behind or within your conscious mind, there is a storehouse of memories, beliefs, associations that can be summoned to the surface and sorted through by something else. There are, in other words, levels, parts, structures that constitute what you call your mind. In pondering the word “hierarchy,” a hierarchy is doing the pondering.

Among the chattering classes on the left, hierarchy has been a dirty word for decades, but over the last few years, it has attained the lowest status possible; it is to discourse as sulphurous coal is to energy. You will have noticed, again, that the very act of assigning a value to the concept depends on the concept.

The word literally means “sacred order.” Hence the stakes: if you’re trying to overthrow a hierarchy, you’re either defying God’s will by tearing it down, or doing God’s work by replacing it with a truly sacred order. Hence the meaning assigned to the tearing down of Confederate monuments and the attack on the U.S. Capitol, or to the BLM protests and the associated riots, looting, and vandalism.

Our cultural confusion over hierarchy is a kind of decoder ring for understanding the culture wars. Hierarchies are not simply good or bad; their value is context dependent. The contexts that matter are the form they take and the content they contain.

The content has to do with ideology, which tells us that it means to be “noble and base,” higher and lower, on the top and on the bottom. In our culture, there are four ideologies.

The first is that of the Warrior, which cuts the world into predators and prey. This is the alt-right.

The second is that of the Traditionalist, which divides the world into saints and sinners. This is the social conservative right, which George Packer calls “Real America.”

The third is that of the Modernist, which sorts the world into winners and losers. This is the center-right and the center-left, which Packer dubs “Free America” and “Smart America.”

The fourth is that of the Postmodernist, which sorts the world into oppressors and oppressed. This the progressive left, which Packers calls “Just America.”

The form has to do with how each dyad is related. Ken Wilber draws a useful distinction between “growth hierarchies” and “dominator hierarchies.”

In the former, the higher enfolds the lower, includes it in a broader embrace, opens up new possibilities for it, nurtures it; the lower, in turn, supports and suffuses the higher. The higher is open to an even higher higher, and the lower is allowed the freedom to be a higher for an even lower lower. Its logic is nonzero sum and its lines of force are both top down and bottom up. It communicates with itself and what’s outside of it, constantly adjusting, correcting, adapting. A growth hierarchy, in other words, is alive, and life just is a growing hierarchy.

In a dominator hierarchy, the higher controls and represses the lower, sees it as a resource to be exploited and used up. It’s logic is zero sum and its line of force is one directional: top down. Its communication lines are down, and it doesn’t adapt to change, it just runs the same program ad infinitum. A dominator hierarchy, in other words, is either dying or dead.

The amount of resources—the “multiplicity or riches”—matters less than how those resources are deployed—whether the system has integrity. The system could be a polity, and economy, a company, a family, a psyche, or a cell.

Integrity is more than just a character trait. It is an organizing principle of the universe. This is the sense of the Stoic injunction to live in conformity with nature, and the Daoist idea of embodying the Way.

When you hear the word “hierarchy,” stop, notice what comes up, filter your intuitions through that 8-fold framework, and then respond accordingly.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 39: The Double Business

Chapter 38 (II)

“So: when we lose the Way we find power;

losing power we find goodness;

losing goodness we find righteousness;

losing righteousness we’re left with obedience.

Obedience to law is the dry husk

of loyalty and good faith.”

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

If you’re like me, the first thing you think of reading this selection is Yoda: “Fear is the path to the dark side; fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate…leads to suffering.”

You wouldn’t be wrong.

One of the few things the most recent Star Wars trilogy got right was the metaphysics and morality of the Force. In the second film, The Last Jedi, while Luke is training Rey on the remote island of Ach-To, there is an unmistakable giant yin/yang symbol on the floor of the hall in which they are speaking. He eventually confesses a secret to Rey, the truth about why he repaired to the equivalent of a Jedi monastery years ago. Sensing Ben Solo’s prodigious strength in the Force will lure him to the dark side, one night Luke had a Gethsemane moment, and found himself on the cusp of slaying the young adept. As with Oedipus, his attempt to outrun the prophetic vision fulfills it. Ben Solo becomes Kylo Ren, following the path of his grandfather Darth Vader.

Luke’s great realization—the reason he withdrew from the world, the reason he cut himself off from the Force—is that just as he created Kylo Ren, his former apprentice and nephew and the chief villain in the trilogy, the Jedi created Darth Vader.

The desire for complete control—for safety, security, order, and peace—conjures its opposite. In the Star Wars saga, the Jedi’s attempts to bring order to the galaxy, to expunge the dark side of the Force from the cosmos, are futile and counterproductive. They do not see their own shadow: the fear that drives them to cling to order is the small black dot in their proud white yang. It is the spec in their eyes they can’t see as they wrestle to remove the planks in their neighbors.

Nihilism, Nietzsche said, is the “will to the end.” The end of what? The cosmic play of light and dark, good and evil, form and emptiness.

The rift grows out of a basic distrust in the nature of things. Life is loss, loss, loss. This is not the final word, but the first. Today’s selection ends with the word “faith.” When this word used in the Bible, it typically means trust. When Jesus heals people, he repeatedly says “Your faith has healed you.” Jesus is not a magician zapping people’s leprosy away. He is awakening and restoring their original relationship to existence. The true power does not traffic in domination, the stuff of law and order and obedience and brute force, the domain of Leviathan; it is submission to the full Force, light and dark. We are, in Rene Girard’s words, “to double business bound.” True power is laying down on the floor of Hell—which, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, is wintry ice, not fire and brimstone—making snow angels, looking down, and realizing it’s Heaven.

As Joseph Campbell says, “If you’re falling, dive.” You’re going to fall, so you may as well fall upward.

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

Episode #22: The Tom Morris Experience (Part 1)

Tom Morris was doing public philosophy before it was a thing.

At the peak of academic success–a full professor at Notre Dame for 15 years, an accomplished scholar and acclaimed teacher–Morris found another calling: bringing philosophy into the business world. After discovering he had a knack for making philosophy practical for audiences outside the academy, he started appearing on TV and eventually found himself on the Today Show and Live! With Regis and Kathy Lee. From his website:

Imagine the wisdom of Yoda, Gandalf, and Dumbledore, rolled together and linked to the spirit and energy of the world’s most winning athletic coaches. Stir in the unexpected humor of a Seinfeld or Fallon, and you have an idea of what Tom’s audiences experience.

After this conversation, I definitely felt like I had had “the Tom Morris experience.” Listening to it, I think you will, too.

Continue reading “Episode #22: The Tom Morris Experience (Part 1)”

Daodujour II, Day 38: Whither Liberalism?

Chapter 38: Talking About Power

“The good the truly good do,

has no end in view.

The right the very righteous do,

has an end in view.

And those who act in true obedience to law

roll up their sleeves

And make the disobedient obey.”

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

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

~ W. B. Yeats

A central premise of classical liberalism is that when it comes to politics, we should be neutral about the Good. You are free to define and pursue the good as you see fit in your personal life. This is one reason the word “virtue” does not appear in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. The omission was deliberate. Where virtue was central to the politics of the ancients—the purpose of law, Aristotle intoned, was to make men good—the Founders, chastened by centuries of Wars of Religion—or, more precisely, wars stemming from the conflation of politics and religion—hypothesized that the Good and the Right must be separated. The purpose of the state must be to protect the rights of individuals, not prescribe how they ought to live: what kind of people they ought to be, what goods they ought to pursue, what gods they ought to worship. The state should protect people, not promote virtue. Another way of putting this is that the modern liberal state “has no end in view.”

But today, we see the modern liberal order under siege. The movement is disparate but not diffuse. It goes by many names—Trumpism, the alt-right, Christian nationalism, national conservatism, post-liberalism and, for all intents and purposes, the Republican Party—but it is united by a conviction held with passionate intensity: classical liberalism, the political philosophy undergirding the Enlightenment and the modern state, is a failed experiment, and it must be replaced by a philosophy and practice of governance that embraces a “substantive” conception of the good. The state, in other words, should “have an end in view.”

Like all movements, this one has an intellectual wing—the think tanks like American Compass, the scholars like Notre Dame’s Patrick Dineen, the public intellectuals like Rod Dreher, the budding celebrity-cum-pols like J.D. Vance. They tack left on economics and right on culture. The foot soldiers of the movement need no introduction. They are the stuff of Trump rallies, anti-vax campaigns, and Capitol riots, the real Americans defending law and order, willing to “roll up their sleeves” and “make the disobedient obey.”

Shortly after Trump’s election, one of Mitt Romney’s policy wonks, conservative pundit Avik Roy, had a revelation: that the conservative intellectual elites had deluded themselves, inflating their own importance and misunderstanding their voters. Republican voters, he realized, never really cared about principles like limited government, states’ rights, and low taxes. All of that, he now understood, was a smokescreen, an ideology stretching a bland, unthreatening mask over the true soul and power of the GOP: what Hamilton called the “great unwashed,” the incoherent blend of white identity politics and Christian nationalism that wants power, and specifically the power to punish and purge Them. Beginning with Goldwater and Buckley, modern conservatism was a tiny group of point-headed elites believing they were standing athwart history, when in reality they were riding shotgun in a monster truck.

And they are poised to make the same mistake again. They will think they can ride the tiger of Trumpism to bring about a conservative policy revolution, patiently and prudently poking and stoking the culture war as needed. Today’s chapter also reads: “Lesser power, clinging to power, lacks true power.” To ride a tiger, you have to cling, and if you have to cling, you are not riding; you are holding on for dear life. If you fall off, the tiger will eat you. Many will try to mount the tiger of Trumpism in the troubles to come. All will be thrown off and fail. “There is only one lord of the ring. Only one. And he does not share power.” The power of the ring is the reflex to cling.

There is, however, a piece of the truth that this disturbance in the force of conservatism grasps. Classical liberalism has not so much failed as it has been revealed to be constitutionally incapable of supporting a just and sustainable society. Climate change, COVID-19, and the carnage that globalization has wrought on the American heartland have made plain that the political atomism of liberalism, which reached its apex in the last 40 years under the Reagan-Thatcher consensus and the economic mythology of Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan, is metaphysically false. It is not so much liberalism that has failed, but its late stage mutation, neoliberalism. Another way of putting this is that Aristotle was right: we are social animals by nature, and we only flourish in communities ordered around a shared conception of the good. By denying this, liberalism attempts to plug round pegs in a square holes. It pretends not to “have an end in view,” but it turns out that this pretense to neutrality is just that: a story, a myth, a noble lie crafted in order to preserve law and order. While it may be a better story than what came before, it has reached the end of its life cycle as an adequate form of governance. This is why it is losing its legitimacy. It must be transcended and included by something new. The NatCons are right to want to transcend it, but wrong in wanting to replace it tout court.

The good news is that, unbeknownst to the post-liberals on the Right, that something is ready and waiting to be woven into a new story. Call it progressive liberalism, social democracy, post-progressivism. The post-libs are throwing out the baby of liberalism out with the bathwater of classical liberalism. They fail to see that progressive liberalism was precisely a response to the deficiencies of classical liberalism: whether it is the concern for historically marginalized groups, the dangers of economic inequality, or environmental degradation, at it best, progressive liberalism embraced a substantive conception of the good intended to redress the excesses of hyper-individualism; but one that, unlike conservatism, is world-centric rather than ethno-centric. This is why Joe Biden rightly cast the 2020 election as a “battle over the soul of America.” With the notion of a neutral public space unmasked as a story we told ourselves over and over and over again until we forgot that it was a lie, what ensues is a contest between two rival conceptions of the good.

The great task, however—the great power that is needed—is to weave the three stories into one. To paraphrase Plato, until our leaders become conservative liberal socialists, or conservative liberal socialists become our leaders, there will be no end to troubles for American society. Just as he who does not want to rule is the one who should rule, only he who acts with all ends in view can truly do good.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 37: The Understory

Chapter 37: Over All

“In the unnamed, in the unshapen,

is not wanting.

In not wanting is stillness.

In stillness all under heaven rests.”

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

These verses recall the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life is suffering.
  2. Suffering is caused by desire.
  3. There is an end to suffering
  4. The end to suffering is the Eightfold Path.

And key steps in the Eightfold Path—Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration—involve contemplative practices aimed at cultivating the cessation of desire, at sowing the seeds of stillness.

Many people chafe at what they perceive to be a pessimism pervading the Buddhist prescription. To snuff out desire would be to get rid of what makes life worth living in the first place: action in pursuit of what we want. Beyond this, it sounds like trying to fight gravity, to resist millions of years of evolutionary inertia. Finally, many of the things we desire are things we think are good to be, things that ought to be done, things that are needed for society to function. In short, the Buddhist path sounds neither desirable, possible, nor moral.

The paradox is that once we perceive that wanting is the problem, we want to stop wanting. That is where the real struggle begins.

The struggle is not really to eliminate desire, but to excavate the psyche, explore its root system, and begin to understand your “understory.” There are desires, and then there are desires. Some are like weeds: they multiply mindlessly, bear no fruit, are parasitic, have shallow roots, are easily pulled, and a waste of time.

Weeds represent a psychic economy of scarcity: I am incomplete and empty, and I need something else to fill me up. This is the first phase of Maslowe’s hierarchy: survival, safety, belonging, self-esteem. These are marked by what he called “deficiency needs.”

But some desires are like big old trees. They do not seize us with intensity in the moment. They tug on us with lunar gravity, gently, persistently. Their roots reach deep beneath the surface. They grow slowly. They reach high. They send forth an architecture that turns an empty space into a living place. Their roots plug into an underground network. Not to mention they sequester carbon, preserve soils, and provide habitats for living things.

Trees represent an economy of abundance: I am already full, and I need to empty myself to share my bounty. This is the second phrase of Maslowe’s hierarchy: self-actualization and, what is less widely appreciated, self-transcendence. They are marked by what he called “being needs.”

There is a reason the Buddha found his enlightenment seated at the foot of a tree. The Buddhist goal of eliminating desires is really about identifying and pulling out the weeds in order that we can find our true roots. The stillness we find there is not a withdrawal from life or an end to desire. It is the space that gives us the clarity to see which desires matter most.

And tells us where we need to weed.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 36: Dao of Diogenes

Chapter 36: The Small Dark Light

“What seeks to shrink

must first have grown;

what seeks weakness

surely was strong.

What seeks ruin

must first have risen;

What seeks to take

has surely given.

This is called the small dark light:

The soft, the weak prevail

over the hard, the strong.”

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

Sometimes it is better to sit with a chapter of the Daodejing as though it were a Zen koan: a paradox designed to disrupt the rational mind. More learned scholars may have already explored or established this connection but, given that Zen is almost certainly Buddhism filtered through Chinese Daoism, I wonder whether the method of the koan was inspired by the gnomic verses of Lao Tzu.

LeGuin offers us a lifeline in her commentary: “small dark light” is her gloss on wei ming, which other translators have variously rendered “subtle light” (Henricks), “wonderfully minute and obscure, yet brilliant” (Gibbs-Cheng), “dimming one’s light” (Waley). The latter, she notes, “explains that wei means obscure because very small, and also obscure because dark.”

Ah! Of course! Diogenes.

Diogenes the Cynic was sort of Socrates without the social graces; Plato allegedly described him as “Socrates gone mad.” Like Socrates, he challenged his fellow citizens to scrutinize the way they lived their lives; unlike Socrates, he was neither subtle nor solicitous. Where Socrates used a scalpel, Diogenes used a hatchet. Socrates made arguments in public; Diogenes took shits.

When venturing out from the rain barrel that was his dwelling, he would carry a lantern around the agora in the daytime, claiming that he was looking, in vain, for an honest man; intending, likely, to suggest to his compatriots that they were lost in bright darkness. When Alexander the Great came to visit Athens and requested to see Diogenes, he came upon the man sunning himself. Diogenes, squinting up at the most powerful man in the world, regarded by some as a living god and a latter day Achilles, kindly asked him to move to the side and stop blocking the sunlight. Every star, no matter how bright, is wrapped in darkness. A lantern and the sun shed the same stuff. An Alexander and a Diogenes both shit.

In his Confessions, Augustine tells a story about when he was a social climber in Milan. On account of his social connections and gifted tongue, he had been given the honor of delivering a panegyric, a public speech heaping false praise on the Emperor. Think speakers at the GOP’s National Convention—or just 99% of the public excretions of the mouths of Republican pols—minus the eloquence. But on the morning of the speech, on his way there, he noticed a beggar by the side of the road. Drunk, laughing, singing, and panhandling, the beggar seemed joyful. Augustine was pulled up short.

About to reap the rewards of his disciplined social climbing, he was a hot mess inside. Wracked by anxiety and insecurity over his public performance, the beggar thrust Diogenes’ lantern in his face, stopped him in his tracks, made it impossible for him to push down the pangs of conscience. Though the beggar enjoyed only a temporary, worldly happiness, he was more content than Augustine. The beggar, the kind of man Augustine looked down upon, may not have been living in the truth, but at least he wasn’t peddling lies. Suspended between the apex and the asshole of society, Augustine, in Nietzsche’s phrase, “began to go under.” He had seen the small dark light, and unsee it he could not.

It is always there. “Out of the dimness,” Whitman wrote, “opposite equals advance.”

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 35: Small Magic

Chapter 35: Humane Power

“Hold fast to the great thought

and all the world will come to you,

harmless, peaceable, serene.

Walking around, we stop

For music, for food.

But if you taste the Way

It’s flat, insipid.

It looks like nothing much,

It sounds like nothing much.

And yet you can’t get enough of it.”

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

The first line in today’s chapter sounds suspiciously like the formula of The Secret, perhaps the saddest brand of snake oil: “the law of attraction,” according to which your thoughts can change the world. “Setting intentions,” “manifesting,” “energy”—that sort of thing. Published in 2006 by Rhonda Byrne and translated into 50 languages, the book has sold 30 million copies and was made into a film in 2020 (the occurrence of which definitively disproves its hypothesis).

The Secret was a New Age retread of the “power of positive thinking” of Norman Vincent Peale, whose church, incidentally, Donald Trump attended with his family as a child. Childish is precisely what such thinking is: magical thinking is the infantile belief that you can think things into being, a cognitive vestigial organ we inherit on account of our cries as a baby swiftly summoning mother’s milk. Because our inner child is alive and well, we are forever vulnerable to its charms.

Reaganomics is a similar, secular form of the creed: if you’re poor, it’s your fault because you’re not working hard enough. The Secret is more insidious: if you don’t have what you want, you’re just not wanting it hard enough. It is easy to run an ideology critique: that The Secret is a clever adaptation of late capitalism, assuring the overworked and underpaid that the problem is not economic but psychological or spiritual, that it tries to cover up the true secrets hidden in plain sight: that the rent is too damn high, that child care, health insurance, and college are too expensive, that corporations are undertaxed and have too much power; that tech companies have adapted the psychology of the gambling industry to deploy algorithms that hijack our limbic system to sell ads to get us to buy stuff that won’t make up happy; and so on. The “music” and “food” we walk around trying to fill our ears and mouths with leaves us wanting. The “law of attraction” is a tool for distraction.

There is some truth to that story, and you can tell it all you want, but it is not a “great thought”: it will only bring you burnout, outrage, and despair. And the only defense you’ll have left is irony, a kind of self-righteous knowingness, the consolation that you can see the code of the Matrix. But you will have succumbed to the evil twin of the power of positive thinking: the dark secret of nihilism.

The Secret would not be so popular if it didn’t contain a piece of the truth. “To ‘see through’ all things,” C.S. Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man, “is the same as not to see.” In that text, Lewis uses the word “the Dao” as a catchall for the Logos, Natural Law, the Principles of Practical Reason, the Hindu notion of Rta: “that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple.” Because, as Rumi writes, “what you seek is seeking you,” it is easy to lose sight of the whale we are sitting on as we fish for minnows.

When we stop “walking around” and just sit, it is as though the lights have gone out. The way before is dark, “looks like nothing much,” “sounds like nothing much,” “tastes insipid.” But if we are patient, the darkness will begin to secrete shapes. Our eyes will adjust. We will see things anew. The “great thought” is to stop thinking entirely.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 34: Dao, Babel, and the Metaverse

Chapter 34: Perfect Trust

“Doing its work,

it goes unnamed.

Clothing and feeding

The ten thousand things,

it lays no claim on them

and asks nothing of them.

Call it a small matter.

The ten thousand things

return to it,

though it lays no claim on them.

Call it great.

So the wise soul

without great doings

achieves greatness.

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

As we approach the one year anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, we can expect much reflection about what it meant, why it happened, and what it forbodes for our democracy. Let me hazard an answer about the why: Babel.

Upon first reading the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, the first question many students have is, basically, “Wtf?” These people are building a great city, erecting a tower reaching up to the heavens; why confuse their speech, scatter them, and metaphorically knock the tower down like a cruel older brother smashing his little sibling’s lego set?

The obvious answer is that, like Adam and Eve, the people were trying to play God: reaching for the heavens and resisting God’s imperative to spread across the earth.

That is true enough, but incomplete. The real meaning of the tower of Babel is what stands next to it in the text. In Genesis 12, Abram is called by God to leave the country of his birth and go forth into the unknown, and promised that God will make of him a “great nation.” God even gives him a new name: “Abraham.” The contrast with Babel is clear: in that story, the motivation for building the tower is for the people to “make a name for themselves.” The Babel-onians aim to be a big deal, to be self-made men; the Hebrews are a small matter, destined to be made great by God. In Biblical terms, a “self-made man” is an oxymoron.

When the Metaverse began to emerge into our collective consciousness, I decided to go back and read the novel in which the term was coined, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). As many have pointed out, Zuckerberg’s, ahem, renaming of Facebook as Meta, as well as his creepy video touting the Metaverse as the future of the internet, are ironic given that the novel is a dystopia. The plot of the novel is that the eponymous drug makes people lose their minds when they are exposed to it digitally while plugged into the Metaverse, and join cults and begin speaking in tongues when they take it in what techies call “meatspace.” What results is Babel and “Infocalypse.”

Which brings us back to January 6th. The Metaverse is the tower Zuckerberg wants to build to reach the heavens. He is of course shamelessly, transparently attempting to rebrand his company in the wake of the revelations of whistleblower Frances Haugen. But Haugen was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back, a bookend to the Cambridge Analytica scandal; in between the two, 2016 and 2021, is the gradual degradation of our information ecology that eventuated in the storming of the U.S. Capitol. While Trump was the drug, Facebook and social media more broadly were the pipeline. They have thoroughly confused our speech and scattered us—into tribes, filter bubbles, echo chambers, pushed us toward conspiracy theories, chained us in Plato’s cave, plugged us into the Matrix.

But beneath it all is a two-pronged crisis: in trust and belonging. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has identified both; the first in his campaign, the second in his recent book, Trust. As traditional forms of belonging have eroded due to globalization, people have replaced them with artificial substitutes through social media and other drugs. This has led to the mainstreaming of a mentality that formerly flourished only on the fringes of American politics but had been fermenting for decades on the Right: the distrust of what Rush Limbaugh called the “Four Corners of Deceit”: media, academia, government, and science. Social media provided the informational ecology a demagogue like Trump could leverage to push this distrust to the hilt: a breakdown of trust not just in in democratic institutions, but in reality itself, a kind of low-level mass psychosis. Make America Great Again is a fundamentally Babel-onian creed. (It should not surprise that, according to his mother, when Trump was a child he would glue together the building blocks of his little brother. I leave you to ferret out the Biblical significance.)

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes argued that civilization was a fragile, thin veneer keeping at bay a state of nature in which life is “short, nasty, brutish, poor, and solitary.” It is worth considering the last in the context of social media, the pandemic, and Trumpism. As Hannah Arendt pointed out in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the latter takes root in societies plagued by a high degree of loneliness. People glom on to faux forms of belonging, like shipwrecked sailors clinging to driftwood to just stay afloat. Today, our flotsam is served up by algorithms as we drift through an ocean of noise. We do not even need to swim to the Sirens; they come to us.

But what the Biblical story of Babel—and this chapter of the Daodejing—suggest is that prior to trust in government, or the media, or science, prior to even the trust in your neighbor, is the fundamental trust in reality. When the term “faith” is used in the Bible, it usually doesn’t mean belief in a creed. It means trust. Basic trust in the nature of things is the foundation of trust in ourselves, in our neighbor, in our community, in our country, in humanity.

In this respect, Buttigieg figures as the anti-Zuckerberg. While the latter aims to build vertically, creating a new virtual infrastructure destined to alienate us even further, the former has been charged with building horizontally, creating a new physical infrastructure to reweave the social fabric.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 33: Core Power Yoga

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.”

Dao Du Jour II, Day 32: The Meme-ing Crisis

Chapter 32: Sacred Power

“To order, to govern,

is to begin naming;

when names proliferate

it’s time to stop.

If you know when to stop

You’re in no danger.”

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

We used to “analyze” things. Now we “deconstruct” them. The roots of this shift in our vernacular are worth pondering. They have much to do with the so-called “meaning crisis.”

The term deconstruction entered academia through the philosopher Jacques Derrida around the 1980s, and in the halls of the ivory tower it remained for a generation or so. Derrida’s basic idea was that meaning happens through differentiation—the meaning of “this” consists in how it differs from “that,” and so the meaning of “this” is deferred from the act of saying or writing it.  Put another way, “this” does not have a clear, fixed, self-contained meaning; its meaning depends on the context. This may sound rather obvious, but the important part is that there is no end to the process: we expect this at the beginning and middle of a story, but not at the end. As one of Derrida’s interpreters, Jonathan Culler, put it, the two tenets of Derrida’s neologism differánce are that “meaning is context bound” and “contexts are boundless.” Ambiguity is an original sin stamped on the DNA of language. Though commonly understood as a form of textual interpretation, analysis, and critique—a philosophy of language and semantics—it was much more.

Since nothing really ends, deconstruction spells the end of stories. Derrida came to be associated with the movement of postmodernism. In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard identified one of the pillars of the movement as a rejection of “master narratives.” The postmodern project was to deconstruct, debunk, and decolonize texts and traditions, to dismantle systems, to subvert hierarchies. This project has much to recommend it, but it didn’t know “when to stop.” And so began a proliferation of names: master narratives were just myths motored by things like “phallo-phono-logo-Euro-centrism” and the “white-cis-hetero-patriarchy.” The Great Awokening has been nothing is not a “proliferation of names.” Deconstruction contradicts an essential part of our humanity: we are storytelling animals. In this respect, it was just a more French, more pretentious, more pedantic form of Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead.” The basic bind is that we need myths, but we can no longer believe in myths.

And then something strange happened: these ideas started to seep into and structure mainstream culture; more precisely, they began to fuel what Philip Rieff called “anti-culture.” Bill Clinton’s “It depends upon what the meaning of ‘is’ is” may well mark the start of what we now call “post-truth” culture. From Richard Linklater’s Reality Bytes to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to Morpheus welcoming us to the “desert of the real” in the Matrix, the structure of feeling of the 1990s was fundamentally ironic. As Ken Wilber explains in Trump in a Post-Truth World, the postmodern condition is one of “aperspectival madness.” The design of our digital infrastructure incarnates and disseminates this idea, strip-mining meaning through the mashup, the personalized feed, the filter bubble, the echo chamber, the splicing and dicing and cutting and pasting of text. We are condemned, not to meaning, but to meme-ing. A thread runs from Clinton’s sophistry to Trump’s demagoguery. Little wonder that a mad world would find itself ruled by a mad king. As David Frum put it in reference to immigration, if liberals do not police their borders, fascists will do it for them. In this context, postmodernists love nothing more than “transgressing borders.”

The problem with differánce is not the first claim—that meaning is context bound—but the second—that contexts are boundless. When we say something is meaningful, we generally mean something like this: it is 1) internally coherent and 2) corresponds to reality. By robbing language and thought of this power, deconstruction consigns us to nihilism. Nihilism means many different things to many different people—indeed, to be logically consistent, we would have to say that it can mean anything to anyone, since the concept itself is, like all concepts, inherently meaningless—but Stanley Rosen’s formulation will serve: nihilism is the position that there is no meaningful difference between silence and speech. And people will choose empty speech over silence any day. When the social cost of false speech is low, and when confusion about what is true abounds, you will get a proliferation of false speech; more precisely, you will get lots of speech that is not so much false, but that isn’t speech in the proper sense of the term. In this kind of information ecology, language takes on a different function. It is not aimed at expressing what is true about reality, but is used to distort reality in order to augment the speaker’s real or perceived power, signal his tribal allegiance, and attack or confuse his enemies.

But this is not the way. As Jordan Peterson puts it, while there are a potentially infinite number of interpretations of the situation—and Web 2.0 creates an information ecology and permission structure that entertains all of them—there is a finite, bounded set of viable interpretations. What constrains meaning, beyond the stubbornness of facts, is the logic of meaning-making itself: how human consciousness and culture develop. And that development happens through a dialectic of transcendence and inclusion, differentiation and integration, yang and yin. These form an indestructible polarity. We are not storytelling animals through some freak accident of evolution. We tell stories because the cosmos itself is a “neverending story,” what Charles S. Peirce called an “infinite semiosis,” what Thomas Berry termed the “universe story.” While none of our narratives can master the universe, some are more true, more good, and more beautiful than others.

If names are not bound by a narrative, they spill over and pool into an ocean of noise. The sacred power of language is lost, and speech becomes cheap. A chief reason our country has become ungovernable and our democracy is in danger, why we have lost the plot, why we are polarized, is that we do not know “when to stop.” When to stop and what?


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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 31: War of the Word

Chapter 31: Against War

“Even the best weapon

is an unhappy tool,

hateful to living things.

So the follower of the Way

Stays away from it.

Weapons are unhappy tools,

Not chosen by thoughtful people,

To be used only when there is no choice,

And with a calm, still mind,

Without enjoyment.”

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

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

The refrain is part of the catechism of childhood and, like most such things, it blends truth and falsehood. As we get older, we learn that not only do words hurt, but that they are the chief weapons in the main arena of conflict in day to day life: our relationships not with our enemies but our intimates: family, friends, colleagues.

Just as Daoism might seem to preach pacifism in the theater of war, it can appear to counsel quietism in the theater of words. But this is not so. As the excerpt reads, weapons should be used only when there is no choice. So with words.

Language is the double-edged sword we are born to wield. It cuts—it separates this from that, separating what God has joined—but it also points—it illuminates this from the background of that. To use words in a “thoughtful” way, with a “calm, still mind,” is to remember what words are—that, as Emerson put it, “Every word was once a poem.”

The Word, then, is not really a word. It refers to the creative fount from which all words and things arise. When we read in John’s Gospel that “In the beginning was the Word,” we could translate that as Logos, as Dao, as Buddhanature. These are all super-cyphers to remind us that all words are poems, a kind of Rosetta Stone to help us decode the matrix of the mundane.

When God creates in Genesis, he does so in two ways that are really one: speaking and separating. Conventional Christian theology separates the Creator and the Creation, the Dao and the 10,000 things. But wisdom is crazy, not conventional: the nondual spirit of the Asian traditions can help Christianity see what it is truly saying: that, as Alan Watts put it, “matter is spirit named.” The message of the incarnation is not so much that spirit became matter or God became human or the Word became flesh at some point in time, as though it were just hanging out in some eternal ether with nothing to do. What we call creation is still happening. The Big Bang is still banging. The Dao is still Daoing.

When God said that each and every thing he created was “good,” he could say that because he created with a calm, still mind. He spoke and separated only with a view to love—and for the fun of it. That is why the Hindus regard the universe as lila, God’s play. In the Bhagavad Gita, it is only when Arjuna has realized this that he can take up his sword, do his duty, and join in the fray.

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

Episode #21: Grace Lockrobin on Community Philosophy in a Time of Crisis

Grace is a philosophy teacher, trainer, facilitator, scholar and advocate. Over the last fifteen years – through her many projects in the places people live, learn, work and play – she has enjoyed philosophical conversations with thousands of thinkers of all ages, backgrounds and levels of experience. Through her workshops, training, talks and writing, she has shared her thinking and practice nationally and internationally.

Working in the community, she founded Thinking Space in 2008. She is also an accredited trainer with SAPERE and Dialogue Works, a specialist with The Philosophy Foundation, a contributor to P4C.com and a board member of the European network SOPHIA.

Working in academia, she is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Leeds where she runs ‘Philosophy Exchange’ – a project that brings together philosophy students, teachers and children in weekly philosophical enquiry. She also consults with other UK universities, helping to set up similar programmes. Grace is currently finishing a PhD in Philosophy at UCL Institute of Education where she writes on ethics, education and aesthetics, funded by an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) doctoral award.

Continue reading “Episode #21: Grace Lockrobin on Community Philosophy in a Time of Crisis”

Dao Du Jour II, Day 30:

Chapter 30: Not Making War

“Things flourish then perish.

Not the Way.

What’s not the Way

soon ends.”

~ 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.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 29: Just Justice

Chapter 29: Not Doing

“Those who think to win the world

by doing something to it,

I see them come to grief.

For the world is a sacred object.

Nothing is to be done to it.

To do anything to it is to damage it.

To seize it is to lose it.”

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

Burnout is the bane of social activists. Their passion for justice is a double-edged sword that fuels and foils them. Yeats’ poem “Second Coming” is commonly invoked to contrast doubting, dithering, and divided progressives with militant, united, on-message conservatives: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

But the invocation misses four things.

One, today’s progressives are brimming with passionate intensity.

Two, if you are full of passionate intensity, you have no room for anything else. If you never empty out, you will always be running on empty, fueled by the fumes of grievance and resentment, the “fossil fuels” of fanaticism.

Three, if you are full of passionate intensity, convinced you are “on the right side of history,” you are no longer “the best.”

Four, the passionate intensity on the Right is grounded in something beyond politics: in a word, God. It is worth considering whether this is why they win, and whether we ought to see this as a sort of secret weapon that makes political conflict, like combating terrorism, a kind of asymmetric warfare. To be fair, the Right are neither terrorists nor holy warriors, and the religious bent of their politics is either cynical and craven, or benighted and misguided. But their ethos is rooted in a theology.

In the New York Times this week, Tina Harrison Warren shares her story of burnout as an activist, and how an encounter with a Franciscan priest changed her approach:

Soon after I graduated, passionate about justice and wanting to make a difference in the world, I ran a church-based group that helped support undocumented immigrants and provided tutoring to their kids. I ran into the friar and we caught up.

He looked at me and said matter-of-factly, “You do not have the life of prayer and silence necessary to sustain the work you are doing.” I was a little insulted. What the hell did he know? But over the course of the next two years, he was proved right. I simply did not have the spiritual rhythms and practices to cultivate the wisdom, humility, thoughtfulness and rest my work required. I burned out quickly.

If politics is all there is, every conflict is the Final Battle, every election is existential, and every aspect of cultural life is drawn into its orbit. The old concept of identity politics, “the personal is the political” has been inflated beyond measure: since everything is political, and the personal is the political, everything is personal. And for the extremely online set, the political has become a matrix from which they cannot escape, except the machines are now the algorithms monetizing their attention by hijacking their limbic system.

Put another way, if there is only history, it becomes what James Joyce said it was: a nightmare from which I cannot awaken. I will oscillate between outrage and outage, and soothe myself with ironic detachment. The philosophical ancestor of the activist Left is Marx. Whatever the merits of his critique of capitalism, his materialism entailed that there is no ultimate spiritual or moral justification for his alternative. As C.S. Lewis put it in another context, “such men are better than their principles.” Their ethic writes spiritual and moral checks that their metaphysic cannot cash. What results is a spiritual eschatology, in which transcendence is sought not beyond history, through revelation, but within it, through revolution. As Shadi Hamid recently put it in The Atlantic:

No wonder the newly ascendant American ideologies, having to fill the vacuum where religion once was, are so divisive. They are meant to be divisive. On the left, the “woke” take religious notions such as original sin, atonement, ritual, and excommunication and repurpose them for secular ends.

The goal of necessity becomes not to understand the world, or celebrate it, but to change it by “doing something to it.” When the world or other people resist such doings, the problem is not you, but them. They are on the wrong side of history and must be awakened and perhaps, in Rousseau’s words, “be forced to be free.”

But there is another, older way. Warren writes:

The literature scholar Alan Jacobs argues that we need to embrace “not a permanent silence, but a refusal to speak at the frantic pace set by social media.” He calls silence “the first option — the preferential option for the poor in spirit, you might say; silence as a form of patience, a form of reflection, a form of prayer.”


Contemplative silence and prayer becomes the means by which we learn the limits of words and action, and where we learn to take up the right words and actions. It’s where we learn to slow down and then to work again at the mysterious pace of the Holy Spirit.

There is a deep vein of Christian activism in American history that used to be called “the social gospel” and, of course, the social justice teaching of the Church. The opposition of social justice and Christianity in America is a relatively new phenomenon. The term “social justice” has become so politicized that perhaps we should abandon it and, well, just talk about justice. Martin Luther King, of course, grounded his activism in the gospel, not just theologically, but practically. In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he lays out the four principles of non-violent civil disobedience:

  1. Fact-finding to establish that an injustice has occurred
  2. Negotiation with the authorities
  3. Purification
  4. Direct Action

It is the third that is most important and that separates King’s approach from much of today’s activism on the Left.

That purification, of course, need not be carried out in a Christian vein. Eisenhower famously said that “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.” You can substitute the Dao for the Holy Spirit and not miss a beat.

How ironic that we now discover, in the endgame of late modernity, that we really can’t separate religion and politics? Prayer—understood broadly as the preferential option for silence—is the supremely practical secret to personal and political sanity.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 28: Three Ways to Carve

Chapter 28: Turning Back

“Natural wood is cut up

and made into useful things.

Wise souls are used to make leaders.

Just so, a great carving

is done without cutting.”

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

To comment on the passage seems hopelessly ham fisted. But we are condemned to meaning, to make our cuts with words in order to render things useful, true, and beautiful.

Today’s paradox leads one of three ways, what we might call the kenotic, the ascetic, and the aesthetic.

The kenotic path is that of Christ. Kenosis refers to the act of self-emptying, sacrifice, voluntary liquidation, and pure charity. Thought individually, it is Christ’s death (natural wood is cut up) and resurrection (made into useful things). Thought cosmically, it the Dao that courses through us that we harness, conduct, and channel to others—and the “other others” of nature. Transform the wood.

The ascetic path scorns the useful. Leave the natural wood as is. Let it be. Nature is already a great carving. Behold the wood.

The aesthetic path aims not for utility, but beauty. It does not “cut up” natural wood into commodities. Nature is indeed already a great carving, but she requests our help to display her magnificence. The patient poet can divine the shapes slumbering in the wood, and release them with winged words. The master carver apprentices himself to warp and woof, takes orders from the grain. She does not “cut,” she frees. Reveal the wood.

Which is the right path? Only the wise soul knows.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 26: The Three Skills

Chapter 27: Skill

“Good people teach people who aren’t good yet; 

the less good are the makings of the good.

Anyone who doesn’t respect a teacher

or cherish a student

May be clever, but has gone astray.

There’s a deep mystery there.”

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

Early in the Republic, Plato offers a rough definition of philosophy, and it isn’t smoking a pipe, wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches, and pontificating in an armchair: it’s “love of learning.”

For Plato, human beings have three basic loves because our souls have three basic parts: pleasure (appetite), honor (thymos or “spirit), and knowledge (reason). Put simply, we want to feel good, we want to be liked, and we want to know things.

But the philosopher is not the person who knows all the things. She is the person who wants to know all the things and loves learning about them. More precisely, she is the person who knows she doesn’t know most of the things, and can only teach others because she is a student of the world. She is drawn above and beyond the lame gravity of pleasure and prestige to find out what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful. She wants to see these things unwarped by the forces of fad and convention.

I always wondered: why these three? My colleague Steve McIntosh offers a brilliant way to understand this philosophical trinity. Each corresponds to a basic part of our being that grows through two complementary activities, and if we’re not exercising each, we will go astray. Think of it as the circulatory system of the soul.

Beauty is the dialectic of appreciation and creation. 

Goodness is the dialectic of devotion and service.

Truth is the dialectic of learning and teaching.

The first pole of each is more passive and receptive, while the second pole is more active and generative. In the first, we fill up. In the second, we empty out. Receive, give. Inhale, exhale. Following Aristotle, the goal is to hit the sweet spot, the mean between excess and deficiency. 

If you don’t appreciate the beauty around you, your senses will wither. If you don’t allow grace and gratitude to interrupt your days, you heart will harden. If you don’t follow your curiosity, you’ll become close minded.

Too much appreciation curdles into consumption. Too much service without devotion leads to burnout. Too much learning without teaching makes you a know-it-all.

Emerson wrote that ‘In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.’

In this way, the true teacher understands that the inner student is his primary pupil, and that his students are his true teachers. The more he respects his teachers, the more he will learn, and the more he will teach them to listen to their inner teacher.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 26: The Ark-imedian Point

Chapter 26: Power of the Heavy

“Heavy is the root of light.

Still is the master of moving.

So wise souls make their daily march

with the heavy baggage wagon.

Only when safe 

in a solid, quiet house 

do they lay their cares aside.”

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

The Greek mathematician Archimedes posed the idea of what we today call “the view from nowhere”: a point from which we can see all, objectively, without our own perceptions warping the world. Descartes recast his idea into the form we most commonly encounter it today:

“Archimedes, that he might transport the entire globe from the place it occupied to another, demanded only a point that was firm and immovable; so, also, I shall be entitled to entertain the highest expectations, if I am fortunate enough to discover only one thing that is certain and indubitable.”

Mathematicians, philosophers, alchemists, and the everyday laborer alike have sought the fabled Archimedian point, the philosopher’s stone, the exit from the Matrix, the secret to offloading the mental and material baggage we lug around.

Today’s chapter might suggest a hardcore training program: pile your wagon with as much baggage as you can carry. Toil away all day so that you can rest at night. Work heavy, play light. But that is not the sense of the thing.

The “solid, quiet house” is not the reward at the end of the road, but what enables you to lift any load. The still point is the mind attuned to the baggage of the moment. Of course, at some point the limits of your physical strength assert themselves, but respect for the load will prevent injury and expand how much you can lift. But mentally, the text suggests that there is no limit to what the heartmind can carry and, indeed, the heavier the load, the lighter we can become. Our baggage is our best teacher. We try to drag it, but it drags us, kicking and screaming, until we realize that the heaviest thing—what Nietzsche called “the spirit of gravity”–is inside ourselves. 

The Archimedian point is an ark, a vehicle, a mobile home that can carry anything. There is a reason that in Exodus, the Hebrews are told to build the ark of the covenant in the desert, and have to lug it around for forty years before they reach the Promised Land. Once you find your inner ark, you can lay your cares aside, and shoulder whatever load is before you.

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

Episode #20: “Post-Progressive” Political Philosophy with Steve McIntosh (Part 2)

Steve McIntosh is the founder of the Institute for Cultural Evolution, a think tank devoted to solving the problem of political polarization. His recent book, Developmental Politics, draws on integral philosophy to drill down into the causes of the culture wars, and proposes a bold new vision for how America can become a better version of itself.

More recently, Steve has collaborated with thought leaders such as John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods, and Carter Phipps on the book Conscious Leadership, and started an organization called the Post-Progressive Post.

Steve’s diagnosis of the hyper-polarization plaguing our political culture is the best I have ever come across; better, in my judgment, than those of media luminaries such as Ezra Klein and Jonathan Haidt. Join us for a philosophical tour de force of a conversation.

Continue reading “Episode #20: “Post-Progressive” Political Philosophy with Steve McIntosh (Part 2)”

Senior Fellow at the Institute for Cultural Evolution

I am thrilled to announce that I have been made a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Cultural Evolution, a think tank of “philosopher activists” focused on defusing political polarization, healing the culture wars, and building cultural coalitions to solve our country’s biggest problems.

I will be contributing to their flagship publication, the Post Progressive Post.

You can read my first contribution here: “Why We Will Grow Together or Grow Apart: Cultural Intelligence and Climate Change.”

Episode #19: “Post-Progressive” Political Philosophy with Steve McIntosh (Part 1)

Steve McIntosh is the founder of the Institute for Cultural Evolution, a think tank devoted to solving the problem of political polarization. His recent book, Developmental Politics, draws on integral philosophy to drill down into the causes of the culture wars, and proposes a bold new vision for how America can become a better version of itself.

More recently, Steve has collaborated with thought leaders such as John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods, and Carter Phipps on the book Conscious Leadership, and started an organization called the Post-Progressive Post.

Steve’s diagnosis of the hyper-polarization plaguing our political culture is the best I have ever come across; better, in my judgment, than those of media luminaries such as Ezra Klein and Jonathan Haidt. Join us for a philosophical tour de force of a conversation!

Continue reading “Episode #19: “Post-Progressive” Political Philosophy with Steve McIntosh (Part 1)”

Dao Du Jour II, Day 25: The Oddest Thing

Chapter 25: Imagining Mystery

“There is something

that contains everything.

Before heaven and earth

It is.

Oh, it is still, unbodied,

all on its own, unchanging,

all pervading,


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

One of the great and grounding questions of philosophy—great precisely because it is among those most likely to naturally occur to a child—was first explicitly asked by Leibniz: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

The Daoist (and Buddhist) answer is as simple as it is off-putting: There isn’t.

Or rather, the problem lies not in the world, but in the mindset that generates the question. The line the mind draws between being and non-being, form and emptiness, something and nothing is a function of our thinking, not a feature of our world. The blatant contradictions the text throws at us—the Way here is said to be both still and ever-moving—are not propositions whose truth or falsity we are meant to assess, but monkey wrenches aimed at wrecking our monkey minds.

“Monkey mind” is a phrase you hear a lot in spirituality circles. It’s an intuitive metaphor everyone can connect with: most of the time a raucous band of thoughts are bouncing around our heads, causing a commotion and trying to disrupt our plans.

But there’s a deeper sense in which it’s apt. Let’s tweak Leibniz’s question: “Why is there something called thinking in the human mind rather than no thinking?” If it’s true that, as is the case for all sentient beings, the primary driver of our cognition was survival, then it means that our basic relation to the world is binary: fight or flight, live or die. What if this same black and white bio-logic were so powerful that it extended into the higher reaches of our cognition, such that “logic” and its basic rules, such as the law of non-contradiction, were rooted in our mortality? This would not mean that logic is arbitrary—only that its scope is limited, its truth conditional, its attempts to grasp the entire order of things in concepts folly.

But you must be careful. You might conclude from the above that we are just freaks of nature, evolutionary accidents, confused animals. You might conclude that there is no Dao, no Logos, no Natural Law, no sacred order of things. That is the position of what has been called the neo-Darwinian view of the world, a thoroughgoing materialistic dogma, any deviation from which is dismissed as “woo.”

In the 1980s, physicist, Manhattan Project member, and inventor of the terms “black hole” and “wormhole” John Wheeler saw things differently. According to his theory, laid out in the paper “Its from Bits,” “every item of the physical world has at bottom…an immamerial source and explanation; that what we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-and-no questions….; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe.”

Our strange brains are not oddballs in an otherwise even universe. The universe, in this view, is fundamentally odd. Or rather, it is the odd oscillation between even and odd, yes and no, being and non-being, something and nothing. Mind monkeys through the cosmos as much as through our heads. The truly odd thing—and the true confusion—is that we have built our modern civilization on the assumption that existence is even.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 24: Consider the Centaur

Chapter 24: Proportion

“You can’t stand on tiptoe

or walk in leaps and bounds.

You can’t shine by showing off

or get ahead by pushing.

Self-satisfied people do no good,

self-promoters never grow up.

Such stuff is to the Tao

as garbage is to food

or a tumor to the body,


The follower of the Way

avoids it.”

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

One of the funniest memes of the Trump era was a series of photos superimposing the back half of a horse on the asses of Trump and his brood. The lampooner spied a curious feature of the Trump family posture: they stand like centaurs. Look it up. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

The mythological creature is both fitting and not.

Fitting, in that Trump’s flashy façade hid a monster. We think of the narcissist as someone who is supremely self-satisfied, but the truth is the opposite. They feel so worthless inside that they need constant validation from others to fill the black hole in their heart.

While Trump’s heart was a black hole so supermassive that it warped the fabric of political spacetime, he reflected the culture as much he directed it. As a colleague of mine recently quipped, “There was a Trump-shaped hole in the culture, and Trump walked right through it.” He did not need to “leap and bound.” He just needed to step onto that escalator and descend the stairway from heaven that we had built for him.

For Americans, showing off, pushing, and self-promotion are theoretical vices but practically practical necessities. From credentialing to virtue-signaling, from Botox to photo-shopping, from the Power of Positive Thinking to the Secret, American culture could be characterized as a “tragedy of the common”: a zero-sum competition over image, income, and influence. The categorical imperative is to hide your back side and project a seamless bust of perfection. The ethos of toxic positivity predictably generates its opposite. The garbage we create, the tumors we accrue (literal and psychological), are simply the cost of doing business. As with Garrett Hardin’s original tragedy of the commons, the sad irony is that each, in pursuing his perceived self-interest, ensures the ruin of all. (The scenario is apt: the overgrazed pastures filled with cattle to produce the hamburgers Americans that fuel obesity, healthcare costs, and climate change). The confused centaurs are worse than the cattle overgrazing the pasture, for they could have chosen differently. As Aristotle noted, “just as man when is perfected is the best of animals, so too separated from law and justice he is worst of all…. Without virtue he is most unholy and savage, and worst in regard to sex and eating.”

The collapse of any kind of ecological commons is both cause and effect of the collapse of any kind of semantic commons. We still cling to the image of a “public square” where something called “debate” about “issues” purportedly happens, but the state of our public life better resembles the cultural topography of the country we are presently withdrawing from: an aggregate of loosely bound and poorly governed tribes who can’t get along. But we do so not with the grip of strong hands but the futile clasp of blunt hooves.

But the centaur is not a good fit for Trump in a different respect. The most important centaur in Greek mythology is wise Chiron, the tutor of the young Achilles. The centaur is the integrated human being: the one who has tamed and harnessed the ancient energies of the beast within, whose body and mind are wedded in a symbiotic dance, who is attuned to nature within and nature without.

The less “centaured” you are, the more you will pretend to be, the more you will trample underfoot.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 23: Practical Poetics

Chapter 23: Nothing and Not

“Nature doesn’t make long speeches.

A whirlwind doesn’t last all morning.

A cloudburst doesn’t last all day.

Who makes the wind and rain?

Heaven and earth do.

If heaven and earth don’t go on and on,

Certainly people don’t need to.


People who work with loss

Belong to what’s lost.


Give yourself to loss

And when you’re lost you’ll be at home.

To give no trust

is to get no trust.”

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

In a desperate, funny, probing essay, “Against Nature Writing,” Charles Foster confronts the gulf between word and world:

“All names fall short of the shining of things,” wrote Andrew Harvey.3 To talk about mountains—to talk even about a squirt of bird shit—is to parody and misrepresent them sacrilegiously. It is a process of re-creating them in our own image. We don’t hear the wind at the summit ridge; we hear our own voice. We don’t smell the moth wings and digestive juice in the bird shit; we smell our own deodorized armpit.

If we earn money by writing about the natural world (as I do), this is bad news. I’m a fraud.

What’s to be done?

It’s a scary question. The next few paragraphs will decide whether there’s an honest way to pay my mortgage.

Much more is at stake than our dear writer’s mortgage. What is at stake is whether we human beings and our logos—both our strange power of speech and reason and, less vauntedly, the logos we stick onto the 10,000 things—are in any sense at home in the world. What is at stake is the whole ball game.

Lao-Tzu does not say that nature doesn’t speak—just that it doesn’t drone on. It somehow both takes its time and gets right to the point. Nature is all pith and marrow, yet leisurely nurtures both. Like Gandalf, nature is never late. It arrives precisely when it means to. And like Gandalf, it speaks in spells.

But the magic it practices often appears to us as dark; so dark that we cease to deem it magic and call it plain cruelty. If there is a wizard behind the veil of maya, he must be a dark one. This is Job’s suspicion. The whirlwind that takes his family and fortune and health doesn’t last all morning. Nor does the whirlwind from which God speaks to him near the story’s end. At bottom, Job’s case is “This doesn’t make sense. I followed the rules. You’re kind of a fucked up wizard. WTF?”

But when Job relents, everything changes. When he rests his case, he gets everything back twofold. The temptation is to conclude that this means Job was right all along, but that would be mistaken. Job’s case is the human attempt to make sense of the world through rule and line, to justify existence, and our main tool to make our case is language. When Job relents, he confesses to and embraces the weakness of the logos. Not it’s futility, but its weakness. But precisely in this way, the author of the prose-poem of the Book of Job summons language’s great power. Foster points to poetry as the solution to his bind:

Poetry can show the way. By allowing words to stand for themselves, poetry can escape many of the charges I’ve leveled against language by using language against itself: by subverting language. If we let words do that, they never stand for long; they fizz and spark like Roman candles, and set on fire all the words around them until the display looks like nothing the poet could ever have devised.

The ancient words of the Orthodox liturgy, or the Om mani padme hum, or the Upanishads, have an incantatory power—a power of invoking that which they seek to invoke—because they have been repeatedly uttered. But they have been repeatedly uttered because millions have trusted them. To take etymology really seriously is to trust words.

When we return to the root of a word, a sleepy spell is broken. I love telling my students that the root of our word religion is related to the word for “ligament.” All of a sudden, the entire cluttered constellation of ideas and memories and factoids and prejudices evoked by that odd region of human experience is veiled by clouds, and they must look down at the binding in their own bodies to see it anew. When we return to the root of a word, we remember, with Emerson, that “every word was once a poem.” And beyond that, every child’s first word is a poem. Far from being the most high-brow and sophisticated literary form, poetry is, at bottom, the most natural language.

There is no orientation toward life regarded as more impractical than the poetic. Yet there is no orientation that gives us a better chance at not only bearing the burden of being and the loss it entails, but receiving the gift of grace. When loss leaches away what we have come to call home, what calls us back is our original relation to things.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 22: How to Zag

Chapter 22: Growing Downward

“Be broken to be whole,

twist to be straight.

Be empty to be full.

Wear out to be renewed.

Have little and gain much.

Have much and get confused.


What they used to say in the old days,

‘Be broken to be whole,’

was that mistaken?

Truly, to be whole

Is to return.”

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

One of the reasons that John Kerry lost the 2004 election—and, perhaps, one of the reasons we are twenty years in Afghanistan and 20 years behind on climat change—is that he broke a cardinal rule of politics: thou shalt not flip flop. He infamously remarked that he was “before the war before I was against it.” Cue the predictably devastating attack ad of Kerry windsurfing to and fro, mixing indecision with out-of-touch New England Brahminism: “John Kerry: he blows with the wind.”

The same rule rules mainstream philosophy: thou shalt not contradict oneself.

In this chapter, Lao-Tzu appears to break this rule, explicitly refuting the first statement with the last. What is going on?

Before sorting that out, let us address the content. The text advances a piece of perennial wisdom. In Biblical language, it acknowledges that we are all “broken cisterns.” The Babel Project is the same as the ego project: brokenness and wholeness, earth and heaven, darkness and light, are opposites, and salvation is crossing from one to the other. Becoming whole is not an operation you perform or a goal you achieve, it is something given to you, a free grace you cannot make or manifest through your own physical and mental powers. It is something you cannot make sense of, for the gospel is that you are whole precisely as broken. You are not whole in isolation, but in relation and as related. Put another way, you are whole as a part of the cosmos, of the body of Christ, of the 9,999 other things.

To learn this, you must learn, as Richard Rohr puts it, to “fall upward.” The Fall in Genesis is commonly understood as a moral lapse and a kind of regression. But before the Fall, Adam and Eve do not know real relationship, either with each other, or with God. They are “whole” only in the sense that a fetus is attached to its mother; they live in the dream world of the amniotic fluid. The serpent, who will only come to confused with the Devil centuries later, is typically seem as a tempter and homewrecker, upsetting the placid natural order of creation.

But to run with the Devil for a moment. The term for the devil, diabolo, originally meant “to scatter.” What is God’s method of creation? Separation and division: light from darkness, the waters above from the waters below, carving out a space for the heavenly bodies and the birds and the beasts and the sea creatures, setting aside a holy day for rest. Indeed, the act of consecration, of making something holy, is precisely to separate it out and set it aside. And his command for humanity? To be fruitful and multiply, and spread out across the earth. As Ken Wilber puts it, we do not so much move out of Eden as up from it.

The Devil’s work, then, is the continuation of creation by other means. By separating humanity from God, man from woman, man from nature, man from man, and man from himself, he paradoxically, in the fullness of time, brings them closer to real relationship. He instigates the break necessary for true wholeness, like a doctor who must re-break a crooked grown bone. The Devil demands a more perfect union. As the serpent, he is the zag to the zig of creation, the trickster that twists the straight; or rather, he reveals to us how the straight is already twisted. Just as Adam and Eve are banished from the garden, we cast the serpent from the whole, and we exile our own brokenness.

But the twist in this chapter is the final line. Lao-Tzu seems to take back the nugget of perennial wisdom. What gives? I suspect his concern is not so much the truth of the adage, as our attachment to it. We are mistaken not in embracing suffering as an opportunity for transformation, but in mindlessly repeating slogans from the past to numb us to the suffering in the present. When we fall back on the “wisdom of the ancients,” we insidiously sidestep and emotionally bypass the reality facing us. Lao-Tzu agrees with George Carlin: “Language is by and large a tool for concealing the truth.” No amount of deep-sounding quotes on Instagram, or wise verses from the Daodejing, or magical word-spells can show me how to alchemize the broken into the whole. The only way is return—to silence, to solitude, to the present moment.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 21: Idiocracy and Isolation

Chapter 21: The Empty Heart

“The greatest power is the gift

of following the Way alone.

How the Way does things

Is hard to grasp, elusive.

Elusive, yes, hard to grasp,

Yet there are thoughts in it.

Hard to grasp, yes, elusive,

Yet there are things in it.

Hard to make out, yes, and obscure,

Yet there is spirit in it,

Veritable spirit.

There is certainty in it.”

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

This week, I tested positive for COVID, and was informed that I had to spend 10 days in isolation. The dread specter haunting and hounding the world the year last finally found its way into my body. After some hang wringing and teeth gnashing, after entertaining numbing myself for a week with Netflix and other drugs, I surprised myself. I decided to treat my isolation time as a retreat, to turn my quarantine into a quest, to receive the diagnosis as a gift. For reasons I needn’t share, it came at a most auspicious time in my life, where I found myself, like Dante, “midway through the course of life…alone in a dark wood.”

The Mike Judge film Idiocracy has proved prescient these last five years. The film depicts a dystopian American future in which people have become dumb to the point of barely being able to communicate, civic institutions have collapsed, a tide of garbage threatens to engulf everything, and no one knows how things work anymore, including how to grow crops. The material infrastructure of civilization is collapsing because its mental infrastructure has withered.

The film is aptly titled. When we hear the term “idiot,” we think of aptitude; it denotes a person with a low IQ. But the Greek term from which our word is derived was more about attitude; an idiot was a private person who did not concern himself with public affairs. In this latter sense, one could be a clever idiot. For not only the Greek philosophers but for the civic culture of the time, such a person was both morally and intellectually deficient; he lacked self-knowledge, and did not understand his place in the order of things. He not only failed to fulfill his obligations to the community, but to know that he had any, or that he belonged to one. He did not see that he was a node in a network, not an island unto himself.

The pandemic and the bungled response to it was, among many other things, a true apocalypse in the original sense of the term—an “unveiling”—that revealed the idiocracy behind the curtain of our culture. The isolation into which so many were forced was a function of the failure to see how interconnected we are. In 2016, Rebecca Solnit dubbed it the “ideology of isolation”:

What keeps the ideology of isolation going is going to extremes. If you begin by denying social and ecological systems, then you end in denying the reality of facts, which are after all part of a network of systematic relationships between language, physical reality, and the record, regulated by the rules of evidence, truth, grammar, word meaning, and so forth. You deny the relationship between cause and effect, evidence and conclusion, or rather you imagine both as products on the free market, which one can produce and consume according to one’s preferences. You deregulate meaning.

The ideology of isolation is what unites climate denial, vaccine reticence, and post-truth politics.

But the silver lining is that the pandemic forced us to face isolation itself, in its most carnal, naked form. You are forced to remove yourself from society because of how tightly bound you are to it, because a strange thing that can’t exist apart from human bodies courses through you, because your microbiome is bound to the microbiosphere. If you venture outside, you don’t just see other people, you see the empty space between you and them as a dense reality demanding respect. Like the kingdom of code in which we are virtual citizens, we are, in Sherry Turkle’s formulation, “alone, together.” You are forced to not just know, but feel, that you are part of the conspiracy of life. Plotinus pithily described the spiritual journey as the “flight from the alone to the alone.” From the alone to the all one.

How the Way does things is through storms swirling, pathogens spreading, climates changing, and regimes collapsing. These things are only hard to grasp because we are grasping. If we but follow them, they will ferry us beyond them. A gift cannot be grasped, and a grasp cannot give.

What thoughts and things and spirit and certainty await us in the inner outer darkness?

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 20: Mutually Assured Projection

Chapter 20: Being Different

“Ignorant, ignorant.

Most people are so bright.

I’m the one that’s dull.

Most people are so keen.

I don’t have the answers.

Oh, I’m desolate, at sea,

adrift, without harbor.

Everybody has something to do.

I’m the clumsy one, out of place.

I’m the different one,

for my food

Is the milk of the mother.”

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

Here, LeGuin casts Lao-Tzu less like an ancient, egoless Daoist sage and more like a modern, neurotically self-conscious urban dweller. What gives?

I suspect she aims to help the modern reader see the tortured constellation of her psyche more clearly, embrace it, laugh at it, and thus transfigure it.

The psychic condition toward which this chapter points can perhaps best be described as Imposter Syndrome, a condition so common nowadays that it has become all but existential. Imposter Syndrome is a function of perfectionism and toxic positivity. The social machinery here operates according to a logic of Mutually Assured Projection. We unconsciously project onto others all the qualities we wish to possess, and vice versa, and consciously conspire to project an image of “brightness,” of having “something to do,” of having it all together. We fail to see that everyone is improvising and, as the popular saying goes, everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. What results is an aspirational arms race in which no one can win. As in the film War Games, the only way to win is to quit the game.

Or, perhaps, to realize that it is just a game. If you’re a live player, you live to play, not to win; you treat the game as the real thing, not its end. In this regard, the opponent is not the other players, but yourself. As psychologist Robert Kegan likes to put it, “You either feast on your shadow, or starve on your ego.” The beginning of wisdom, as Socrates would agree, is the recognition of ignorance.  

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 19: The Rule of Beauty

Chapter 19: Raw Silk and Uncut Wood

“What works reliably is to know the raw silk,

hold the uncut wood.

Need little,

want less.

Forget the rules.

Be untroubled.”

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

Chaos gets a bad rap in the West. It’s the messy room. It’s the sink full of dishes. It’s the formless void from which God has to wrest a cosmos in the opening chapter of Genesis.

And in the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth on which Genesis was likely modeled, it’s Tiamat: the ticked off dragon goddess of sea and winter on a mission to wipe out her fellow deities. Jordan Peterson never tires of drawing on this myth as the origin and essence of the Western dialectic of order and chaos, good and evil, white and black. And while his follow up to 12 Rules for Life, Beyond Meaning, gestures at the upside of chaos, there is an unmistakable preference for order. Not without reason has he become a guru to the alt-right, Trumpers, preppers, the “law and order” crowd, and in general young men intuiting the need to channel their testosterone toward a higher purpose than porn and video games.

Kierkegaard called anxiety “the dizziness of freedom.” Pure possibility frightens us, and reasonably so. Raw silk and uncut wood can evoke fear and trembling, so with great dispatch we move to make them in our own image and likeness. We scramble to impose a reassuring form and familiar frame on the raw material rudely jutting into our little window on the world. We make to rule it and, what is hardest, we do so automatically and unconsciously.

But the Daoist understanding of the dance between order and chaos is less black and white. There is no such thing as purely raw material, just as there is no purely raw food. Uncooked meat is not “raw” to a lion. To know raw silk or hold uncut wood is to behold what is before you in such a way that it reveals itself; the subtle forms, the hidden laws, the tiny rules will emerge from the thing like the image in a magic eye painting. You just need dull your focus. This is how to make beauty the rule rather than the exception of your perception.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 18: Beware False Patriots

Chapter 18: Second Bests

“In the degradation of the great way

come benevolence and righteousness.


The disordered family

Is full of dutiful children and parents.

The disordered society is full of patriots.”

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

Lao Tzu’s direct target here is Confucius, but he’s really just referring to any society bereft of trust. But who could be against benevolence, righteousness, and doing one’s duty? Aren’t these precisely the virtues that create and sustain “law and order”?

Lao-Tzu is not so much casting these virtues as vices as he is skewering what we today would call “virtue signaling.” While it’s generally (often religious) people on the Right braying about progressives doing this on the Left—e.g., posting support for BLM on social media while continuing about their UMC/PMC bourgeoius lives, or sporting Bernie bumper stickers while opposing zoning changes in their tony, gentrified neighborhoods—virtue signaling is precisely what Jesus faulted the Pharisees for.

Virtue signaling—what Jesus called “hypocrisy,” a term derived from the Greek for “actor”—is a function of a lack of trust. If our bodies and hearts and minds are in sync with each other and with our surroundings, we don’t need to use magic words to know we are on the same wavelength. We don’t need flags and symbols and war cries and scapegoats. We just dance.

But once we lose the beat and drift apart, we get scared, and we start dancing to different rhythms, and the rhythms clash, and this noise frightens us, and we yearn for that original harmony. So we have to make up words and rules, and we have to crow about them, and anyone who doesn’t repeat our words and follow our rules is not one of us. And if we don’t repeat the words often and loudly enough, if we don’t follow the rules faithfully enough, we will be cast into the outer darkness.

But for Lao Tzu, the outer darkness is the place to be; or more precisely, being on what Richard Rohr calls the “edge of the inside”—the position of the prophet who plays by the rules of society but knows that they are just a game. The prophet plays the long game of creatively and cleverly bending the rules and expanding the box of who is included and what is permitted. The hypocrite, the virtue signaler, fears the outer darkness because he has not reckoned with his inner darkness.

Beware false prophets, aye, but beware false patriots ever more.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 17: The Dao of the Deep State

Chapter 17: Acting Simply

“True leaders

are hardly known to their followers.

Next after them are the leaders

The people know and admire;

After them, those they fear;

after them, those they despise.


When the work’s done right,

With no fuss or boasting,

Ordinary people say,

Oh, we did it.”

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

The Obama administration’s oft-ridiculed phrase “leading from behind” was meant to describe an approach to foreign policy that departed from neoconservative hardcore unilateralism in favor of a softer touch meant to coax allies into joining our causes and putting skin in the game. But it could just as well have described the army of civil servants who ran the federal government under his watch.

Biologist E.O. Wilson once wrote a famous essay, “The Little Things That Run the World,” where he pointed out that while environmentalists tend to wring their hands over the demise of charismatic megafauna like polar bears and rhinos, it’s actually the billions of itty bitty creatures we barely see—insects and fungi and microbes (and, as we say today, microbiomes)—that form the circulatory system that makes the biosphere (and our bodies) function. In The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis profiles the little people that run the world; not the political appointees who head federal agencies, but the dedicated career people who actually run them, from USDA to Energy to Commerce. The people no one ever hears about, but on whose work and expertise everyone depends.

Trump—the leader who was most feared, most despised, and most known—did more than every previous president to disrupt the smooth operation of the federal government, erode confidence in its competence, and cast doubt on its necessity. He did so because we was not a true leader, but a follower in two senses.

First, Trump read the room correctly—the gathering perfect storm of post-2008 economic malaise, anti-elitist and anti-immigrant sentiment, distrust of experts, and racial backlash against a black president for which Palin and the Tea Party had delivered proof of concept as a powerful political resource ripe for exploitation—and acted accordingly. Demagogues are usually referred to as “popular leaders,” but this is an oxymoron based on an ignorance of political psychology. The demagogue follows the people because he encourages them to follow their own base impulses, and because he is simply following his own hunger for power, fame, riches, or some combination thereof. Plato unforgettably profiles the demagogue in the Republic, noting that he carefully studies the sounds and movements of the inchoate beast of public opinion, and then slavishly imitates and exaggerates them to whip them up into an even greater frenzy. He leads them only in the sense of luring them even deeper into their confusion and crudity.

Second, Trump was following the advice of counselors like Steve Bannon, whose primary mission was the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” or what came to be called, pejoratively, the “deep state.” While the deep state was one of the less outlandish conspiracy theories of the Trump era–in the sense that unlike, say, QAnon or Stop the Steal, there is a factual state of affairs which it misguidedly attempts to describe–the actions taken to weaken it are arguably the most consequential.

Lewis tells the story of Max Stier’s quest to boost public awareness and appreciation of the unsung heroes of the deep state. Lewis writes that if you were to line up the entire American population “by each citizen’s interest in the federal government, and Donald Trump loitered somewhere near one end of it, Max Stier would occupy the other.” Stier adopted an unglamorous role to highlight umglamorous people and unglamorous work. His greatest challenge, Lewis explains, was “explaining the value of this enterprese at the center of a democratic society to people who either took it for granted or imagined it as a pernicious force in their lives over which they had no control.” The administrative state is deep, and that depth is both the source of its operational strength, and the reason the lack of awareness and respect the public have toward it—it’s largely invisible. Like the bugs and bacteria, it all moves silently under the surface of the soil and the skin, keeping things going. A better term than the deep state is what Suzanne Mettler calls the “submerged state.” Stier recently lobbied Congress to reverse the Trump administration’s efforts to increase the ratio of political appointees to career positions in the upper ranks of federal agencies, efforts that are tantamount to deforestation: the more you cut down the trees that have been around a long time that have deep roots in the soil, the more likely the surrounding soil will erode, and the less effectively the ecosystem will function and flourish. And, of course, the more carbon you’ll release into the air.

While the deep state is far from perfect, the alternative is the shallow state. When a Trump administration official finally swung by the Commerce Department to be brief about the organization he would soon by running and was told about NOAA, he replied, “What the fuck is NOAA?”

Now that the country has been through an administration and a pandemic that have made painfully plain how necessary a functional federal government is to keeping us safe, perhaps more people will see the deep state for what it is: not a cabal of corrupt bureacrats on the bankroll of George Soros, but ordinary people maintaining the ark of modern civilization and leading us toward calmer seas.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 16: The Tao and the Tabernacle

Chapter 16: Returning to the Root

The ten thousand things arise together;

in their arising is their return.

Now they flower,

and flowering

sink homeward,

returning to the root.

The return to the root

is peace.

Peace: to accept what must be,

To know what endures.

In that knowledge is wisdom.

Without it, ruin, disorder.


The body comes to its ending,

But there is nothing to fear.”

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

It’s customary to juxtapose Western philosophy as heady and complex and Eastern philosophy as embodied and simple. Though this cut does touch truth, the Greek philosopher Epicurus is an exception. His recipe for a good life was simple and straightforward. What came to be known as the “Tetrapharmakos,” the “four part cure,” tells you:

  • Don’t fear God
  • Don’t worry about death
  • What is good is easy to get
  • What is terrible is easy to endure

Epicureanism flourished in antiquity but became a minority report in the Western tradition because it was stamped out by the Vatican. A moment’s reflection on the recipe shows why, as Nietzsche quipped, “Christianity gave Eros poison to drink.” Despite the Church’s efforts, the root of Epicureanism proved too resilient, and it re-flowered and effloresced in the Renaissance.

Lao Tzu would have agreed with Epicurus, and this would appear to set him at odds with the Christian tradition. “To those who will not admit morality without a deity to validate it,” Leguin points out in her commentary, such advice “must seem incomprehensible, or illegitimate, or very troubling indeed.” Daoism does not see the need for the cosmos to have a backstop.

But perhaps things are not as they seem. Adam and Eve courted ruin and disorder only when they strayed from their roots—as creatures of the earth—and reached for the heavens, wanting to be like God. Mistakenly convinced that they didn’t already have it good enough and that it was terrible to endure their condition without escaping it, they tried to change things. They feared abiding in the Dao. They did not accept what must be.

Exiled from the garden, deracinated, they long to return to the tree whose plenty they didn’t notice: the Tree of Life. For the Daoist, every tree is the tree of life. When the Hebrews are told to build of the ark of the covenant to hold the tabernacle after they escape from Egypt, they have to wander in the wilderness for forty years lugging it around until they reach the Promised Land. Why?

Because it reminds them that God is always with them—even in the desert, where flowers can’t take root.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 15: Not Your Type

Chapter 15: People of Power

“Once upon a time

people who knew the Way

were subtle, spiritual, mysterious, penetrating,



“Who can by stillness, little by little

make what is troubled grow clear?

Who can by movement, little by little

Make what is still grow quick?

To follow the way

Is not to need fulfillment.

Unfulfilled, one may live on

Needing no renewal.”

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

There are about three types in people. What separates them is their attitude toward time.

The first kind romanticizes hunter-gatherers.

The second kind romanticizes the Middle Ages.

The third kind dreams about the future.

Each projects the Way outside of the present; they just project along different timelines and tell different stories about how we fell off the beam and how to get back on it.

The first kind—the Progressives—gnash their teeth over capitalism, consumerism, climate change, the industrial revolution, the agricultural revolution, and pretty much the entirety of Western civilization. You know them: they shop at Whole Foods, feel ambivalent and guilty about shopping at Whole Foods because it’s corporate and bougie and owned by Amazon, buy all their stuff from Amazon and feel said ambivalence and guilt about same, do yoga, virtue signal Wokeness, strive for Wellness, deny the progress that is obvious to everyone else, and document the minutiae of their lives on Instagram as a hedge against existential despair.

The second kind—the Traditionalists—gnash their teeth over abortion, the sexual revolution, the erosion of family values, the collapse of community, what Pope Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism,” Hollywood, porn, and Critical Race Theory. You know them: they take pride in having large families with Tradwives, they champion “religious liberty,” they’re concerned about attacks on free speech, they’re convinced Christianity and Western Civilization is under assault, they’re tickled by the Benedict Option but grudgingly relish the comforts of modern suburban living, and they probably voted for Trump.

The third kind—the Modernists—gnash their teeth over taxes, regulations, government bureaucracy, friction, inefficiency, and the political extremists on “both sides.” They believe that hard work, science, technological innovation, free markets, and economic growth have improved and will continue to improve the material standard of living and that the material standard of living is the standard of living. In the future we will cure disease and death, and the lucky among us will live on a sea-steading libertarian platform paradise, a New Zealand sheep farm, Mars, or plugged into the Matrix.

The careful reader will have noticed, and perhaps thought it a typo, that above I wrote types “in” people, not types “of” people. We are not the stories that ravel our minds. What all three of these types share is the projection of paradise outside the present. They imagine fulfillment was or will be found, or at least easier to find, in Star Wars or Star Trek—a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, or a distant technological utopia—in a quiet place or outer space. Game the scenarios out, and what you find is that the Progressives want to eliminate self-consciousness and evolutionarily regress to pre-human primates; the Traditionalists want to eliminate the modernity that offers them the freedom to practice their religion unmolested; the Modernists want to escape the human condition and ascend to the Cloud. What they share is the idea that if we move the furniture of the world around thus and so, we will find peace.

The problem is that the “once upon a time” in this chapter is allegorical.

Once upon a time you knew the Way, but at some point you started telling yourself a story, and your type took hold. But you can, by stillness and by movement, wriggle out of your type, and find clarity and foster growth. In Buddhist terms, samsara—the cycle of suffering, death, and rebirth—is not a set of historical conditions; it’s a story spinning in your head. Nirvana is not located in a lost golden age or a kingdom to come. As Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is “within you” and “at hand.” And as Emerson wrote, “Every age is a good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 14: The Face of Gaia

Chapter 14: Celebrating Mystery

“Look at it: nothing to see.

Call it colorless.

Listen to it: nothing to hear.

Call it soundless.

Reach for it: nothing to hold.

Call it intangible.

Triply undifferentiated,

It merges into oneness,

Not bright above,

Not dark below.


Call it unthinkable thought.

Face it: no face.

Follow it: no end.”

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

One of the many challenges the phenomenon we refer to as climate change presents is what to call it. “Global warming” masks many of its aspects, and conjures visions of balmy Caribbean beaches in our future. “Climate change” is vague and value-neutral. Even “climate disruption” doesn’t quite do the trick, since among business and tech people—i.e., the most powerful actors in the system—disruption is a good thing that yields wealth and innovation. Beyond this, all of these labels frame the climate problem as an environmental issue: they compartmentalize and cordon it off from politics, economics, and society at large. This language is a function of our modern dissociation of nature and culture. We imagine the climate, and nature is general, as something “out there” or “up there,” rather than something that not only surrounds and supports society, but suffuses it. As Vaclav Smil puts it, there is no such thing as the economy, there are only energy conversions.

But another reason we struggle to name the climate problem is that it is what theorist Tim Morton calls a “hyperobject.” Or to use Whitehead’s category, climate change lacks “simple location” (well, according to Whitehead’s process philosophy, everything lacks simple location, an ontological insight confirmed by quantum mechanics, and one that underwrote Fritjof Capra’s attempt to integrate the new physics with Eastern philosophies in the Tao of Physics). A hyperobject is something so large, so complex, and so distributed throughout time and space that when pressed to explain it, the mind balks. As Augustine confessed in his analysis of time, “If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one who should ask me, plainly I do not know.”

This paradox of knowing and not knowing is eerily similar to the state of anxiety; while fear has reference to a distinct object, anxiety is “about nothing”—it is more a cypher for the maw of the abyss of the future, for the singularity of the black hole, for Kali. And that drives us slightly mad: hence the apt title of Amitav Ghosh’s book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. If you follow this line of thought, climate change begins to resemble what existentialists like Martin Heidegger referred to as being itself; being as opposed to beings. When we begin to see climate not as merely or mainly as environmental, but as existential—and collectively existential—then our fumbling has laid hold of a genuine thread. And rather than flee that anxiety—crank up the AC, put the pedal to the metal, trust that economic growth and technological innovation will take care of it–we interrogate it, listen to it, and trust that it has something vital to tell us.

Morton—and the kind of environmental pessimist he stands in for—underestimates our abilities to grasp the climate problem. If we rely on thought alone, yes, due to cognitive biases and the propaganda of the fossil-fuel industrial complex, the deck is stacked against us. But in the face of the weakness of the logos, we can turn to the power of the mythos—of myth, story, image, and narrative. Bruno Latour suggests that we already have all we need—not so much a new religion, but an old goddess: Gaia. In Facing Gaia, Latour frames the climate problem not as exclusively environmental or even economic, but as mythopoetic and political. The saving story is sewn into the first fabrics of Western civilization. Coupled with scientist James Locklock’s Gaia hypothesis, which indicates that the thin, globe-spanning sphere that supports all life is a single, interdependent system, Gaia can plausibly serve as the “image of no image.” As the positive-sum, post-World War II, worldcentric, neoliberal order buckles, and a return to the zero-sum, 19th century, ethnocentric, nationalistic order looms, a planet-centric Gaiapolitik may be the way through. We have all the threads we need.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to properly naming the climate problem is seeing it as a problem in the first place. The most popular framing of climate is the aesthetics of apocalypse, but ironically, this doesn’t take the idea of apocalypse seriously enough. The term literally means un “unveiling” or “uncovering.” Seen this way, an apocalypse is not just an end, but a new beginning and, in that way, progress. In the fullness of time, we may come to see climate change not as a problem, but as a solution to arguably the greatest civilizational problem: how to build a global society without destroying ourselves. Nothing unites people like a common threat. For all of human history, that threat has been another person, another tribe, another country, another religion. The peril and promise of climate is that we have seen the enemy, and it is us. Nothing in human history has had the potential to unite all peoples and nations around a common goal, to catalyze planetary awareness at scale. If we frame the goal less in negative terms—avoiding disaster—and more in positive terms—building a new civilization—and see climate less as a burden and more as a blessing, we are more likely to solve it.

The chapter concludes:

“Holding fast to the old Way,

we can live in the present.

Mindful of the ancient beginnings,

we hold the thread of the Tao.”

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 13: Stress Test

Chapter 13: Shameless

“To be in favor or disgrace

is to live in fear.


Favor debases:

we fear to lose it,

fear to win it.

So to be in favor or disgrace

is to live in fear.”

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

Whatever your opinion of Tony Robbins, he made an insightful remark in an interview with Tim Ferriss: stress is what comfortable people call fear.

Fear, we sophisticated moderns tells ourselves, is something that happens to children and people in the Middle Ages. Charles Taylor offers a useful phrase to describe the shift from the Medieval to the Modern mindset: we move from the “porous self” to the “buffered self.” The porous self is constantly vulnerable to invasion from spirits good and bad (and, of course, plagues and pathogens), at the mercy of the forces of nature. The buffered self stands apart, autonomous, in control, choosing whether and how to engage the allegedly external world.

It’s easy to see why a buffered self would think itself—and think is the operative word here—above and beyond fear. “Stress” is something that happens to the foundations of a building, or the airframe of a plane, or a skeleton; it’s a physical business concerning weight, pressure, volume, density, and the like. Stress happens to bodies, not souls. By conjuring the spirit of stress, we sanitize our suffering.

Suffice it to say that the times have found us. From the internet to social media to the smart phone to climate change to the pandemic, the zeitgeist of the 21st century has unmasked the buffered self for the useful illusion that it always was. The Big Bad Wolf of the world has huffed and puffed and blown the house down. The buffered self failed the stress test of the last couple of decades.

Part of the story of classical liberalism, our modern philosophical anthropology and cultural DNA, is that we are independent individuals pursuing our own happiness. But the reality, as Rousseau understood, is that this just makes us more psychologically dependent on others—or rather, what we imagine others think of us. Favor becomes heaven, disgrace becomes hell. The steeper the scale of social and economic inequality, the more loudly and proudly the gospel of individualism will be proclaimed, and the more fear there will be of tumbling down the ladder into the pit of disgrace—for everyone, not just the bottom dwellers. Economist Richard Wilkinson has shown that counterintuitively, the higher a society’s level of inequality, the worse off the people at the top are in terms of well-being.

But if we drop the pretense that we are separate, that we secure, that we are actually adults, that we are just what Alan Watts called “skin-encapsulated egos”—that we are afraid—then we can rest at base reality. Favor de-bases in that it literally knocks us off base. We take the game too seriously. The irony is that even if you get a hit and round the bases without getting out, you end up in the same place: at home.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 12: String Theory

Chapter 12: Not Wanting

“Racing, chasing, hunting,

drives people crazy.

Trying to get rich

Ties people in knots.

So the wise soul

Watches with the inner

Not the outward eye,

Letting that go,

Keeping this.”

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

The French writer Blaise Pascal would beg to differ: he thought that we prefer the hunt to the capture. It’s not the chase that drives us crazy; we are driven to chase because we are crazy. More precisely, the bookends of the chase are beset by boredom, restlessness, anxiety. As Pascal put it, the sole problem with man is that he cannot sit alone in a room with his thoughts. In recent years we’ve gotten empirical support for his claim: in one study, most people preferred to administer a painful shock to themselves rather than sit quietly alone for 15 minutes. People often don’t like what the inner eye reveals. We prefer the diversions offered up by the outward eye.

Here we touch on a subtle seam that separates the Christian and Daoist perspectives. Like Luther, Pascal regarded humanity as a walking contradiction, both “wretched” and “great”: wretched in that we are sinners and, like every other creature in the universe, fragile bodies easily snuffed out; great in that unlike every other creature, we are spirits aware of our condition. Doing stuff doesn’t tie us up in knots—we are knots. And we cannot untie ourselves.

The Daoist has more confidence in humanity and reality. If we are knotted, then all we need do is gently tug at one of the loose strings, and trust that it will serve as our thread of Ariadne to lead us out of the labyrinth, as the unseverable umbilical cord tethering us to the 10,000 things.

And because they are all part of the same web, any string will do.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 11: The Value-Add of Emptiness

Chapter 11: The Uses of Not

“Hollowed out,

clay makes a pot.

Where the pot’s not is where it’s useful.

Cut doors and windows to make a room.

Where the room isn’t,

There’s room for you.

So the profit in what is

Is in the use of what isn’t.”

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

This inverted idea of emptiness—as useful rather than useless, as value rather than void—is often regarded as a nice lifestyle choice: a little feng shui, a little minimalism, a little simple joy of tidying up. Hardly a principle of macroeconomics. But it may be one of the necessary pillars of the carbon-based economy to come.

The inversion of our economic intuitions is the key to the economy of the future. What we see as full—the vast deposits of coal, oil, and gas underground—we must come to see as empty. What we see as empty—the sky—we must come to see as full.

If the economy is a play, the atmosphere—and the lithosphere, cryosphere, and biosphere—is the stage that makes the play possible. Climate change has broken the fourth wall; from here on out, every play must somehow incorporate the stage into its plot.

Countries that “do nothing”—that do not extract their fossil fuel-based natural resources—must be compensated for leaving it in the ground. Companies that remove carbon dioxide from the air or that make their business operations carbon negative by purchasing carbon credits must be handsomely incentivized to do so. Because we are about to run the industrial revolution in reverse, emptiness is the most valuable commodity.

It’s implied by what the wealthiest men in the world are chasing: space.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 10: Yogic Yoga

Chapter 10: Techniques

“Can you keep your soul in its body,

hold fast to the one,

and so learn to be whole?

Can you center your energy,

Be soft, tender,

And so learn to be a baby?”

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

The genius of Hindu spirituality is its diversity. In the tradition of the four yogas, you pick your path up the mountain: work (karma yoga), devotion (bhakti yoga), study (jnana yoga), or “yoga” as we in the West know it (raja yoga). What’s striking about this model is that there’s a yoga for both our three centers—head (jnana), heart (bhakti), and body (raja)—and our engagement with others and the world (karma).

And of course you don’t need to “choose” exactly…the paths switch back and crisscross in all sorts of ways, merging into each other and back apart as mountain paths do. But one path will call to us the most. The beauty of this model of spirituality is that it balances plasticity with rigor; there’s wiggle room for free play, but structure to foster true growth.

The word yoga means to “yoke,” to unify or integrate. A truly yogic yoga, then, would exercise all four of these dimensions because they’re all part of our being. The trick is find out where we are over- and under-developed, where the kinks in our hose are, where the breaks and dislocations and knots and snarls lie. If we aren’t truly centered, we need to find out what we are centered on, slowly relax our grip, and let the patient undertow of the soul gently guide us back.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 9: Place Race

Chapter 9: Being Quiet

“Brim-fill the bowl,

it’ll spill over.

Keep sharpening the blade,

you’ll soon blunt it.

Nobody can protect

A house full of gold and jade.

Wealth, status, pride,

are their own ruin.”

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

This weekend, Richard Branson will, assuming all goes well, claim bragging rights for winning first place in the billionaire space race (BSR). I remember some years back Branson did a publicity stunt to celebrate an inaugural flight of his airplane company by bungee jumping off the Palms casino in Las Vegas. The winds were stronger than expected that day, and pushed his backside to graze the building during his descent. As he slowed down for his dismount, Branson looked dazed, shaken, and in serious pain. He flashed a smile for the crowd and the cameras, then limped off stage.

When you think about the hype around this space soap opera, it’s odd: we’ve put people in space before. So what’s new? The commercial aspects: companies are funding it, and the purpose is tourism.

The contrast between this and the moon-landing in 1969 illustrates how we have become what Ross Douthat calls “the decadant society”: “a victim of its own success.” No one was unconsciously rooting for the Apollo 11 to blow up. But not a few people I’ve talked to over the last couple of weeks about the BSR have ironically quipped that they wouldn’t be that upset if Bezos and co. don’t make it back. When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon and intoned that it was “one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind,” it was a world-historical moment, the completion of a national project announced by JFK a decade early, and cause for collective celebration. Where Armstrong was a pilgrim, Branson will be a tourist. When Branson and Bezos go up, it will be one small leap for the 1%. As Jamie Wheal quips, the BSR space-capades are like Atlas Shrugged in space.

Wheal relays the story of when technology writer Douglas Rushkoff was invited by a band of billionaires to give a talk about the future of technology. Rushkoff assumed he’d be giving a lecture to a large audience, but it turned out that his $50,000 speaking fee was for talking with just five men. The question each of these men paid $10,000 to ask him was this: “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?” The “event,” Rushkoff explained, “was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.”

The idea here is that the Chosen will escape to their sea-steading platforms, their New Zealand bunker fortresses, their space colonies, or upload their consciousness to the Cloud when their bodies give out: that they can protect their “houses made of gold and jade.”

But just as there would be no SpaceX without NASA and no Tesla without the Department of Energy, there would be no market without the rule of law and money would have no value without civilization. The men asking that question of Rushkoff failed to realize that men of their class planning for the apocalypse were hastening its arrival, brim-filling the bowl and over-sharpening the blade. They are, in effect, shorting civilization. Betting on ruin is a symptom of ruin.

Branson’s stunt, and the city where it happened, are revealing. There is no greater symbol of decadence in American culture than the Sin City. And while Branson was moving in the opposite direction he’ll be going in this weekend—with gravity rather than against it—and though the scale was dramatically smaller, the physiological effect will be similar: a rush of blood to the head, a passing euphoria, a sense of self-importance that swiftly fades, and then a restlessness and a need to move on to the next big thing. But what could get you higher than space?

Perhaps the quiet of space will evoke a mystical rapture among the .01%, a cosmic consciousness that shrinks their egos down to size, a literal conversion in the sense of a turning around, shifting their gaze from the heavens and back to earth, to escape the urge to Escape and embrace the need to Return. Perhaps then we will be cheering on the billionaire place race—the race to terraform not Mars, but Earth.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 8: This is Ice

Chapter 8: Easy by Nature

“True goodness

is like water.

Water’s good

for everything.

It doesn’t compete.

It goes right

to the low loathsome places,

and so finds the way.”

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

I have at long last gotten around to reading Dante’s The Divine Comedy, the high-water (or perhaps low-water?) mark of medieval literature. In part one, Inferno, a central conceit of Dante’s cosmology is the “Harrowing of Hell,” an apocryphal anecdote in which Christ descended to Hell after dying on the cross and granted salvation to the deserving dead. It’s perhaps the most graphic depiction of the Jesus move: to embrace suffering rather than try to escape it.

One of the most surprising things about Dante’s Hell is that its floor is not fire, but ice. There is a “logical” reason for this in Dante’s cosmology: since the sun is the center of the universe and Hell is the center of the Earth, Hell is the farthest from the sun, with the sun, of course, representing God. Satan rests at the bottom of the world imprisoned in a block of ice, incessantly beating his wings and generating a fierce wind that keeps the ice frozen. Satan “competes” by trying to fly up to Heaven.

But ice, of course, is water in disguise. Stuck in the blackest pit of Hell, Satan is so surrounded by true goodness that he can’t see it. As Ken Wilber puts it, spirit is not hard to find, but impossible to avoid.

If you try to compete with water, you’ll always lose, because water is playing a different game than you are. Stop beating your wings.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 7: You, Tube

Chapter 7: Dim Brightness

“So wise souls

leaving self behind

move forward,

and setting self aside

stay centered.

Why let the self go?

To keep what the soul needs.”

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

“Out of the dimness,” Walt Whitman wrote, “opposite equals advance.”

Every organism stays alive by constantly policing the boundary between its self and its environment. There are always scouts tacking about the liminal space, the no man’s land between in and out, self and non-self, life and death. But every organism, so far as we know, is spared the ordeal of this osmotic operation—consciousness. Humans don’t just struggle to survive—we struggle with the struggle. We desire an end to the struggle—not death, but heaven, nirvana, happiness, fulfillment, self-actualization, flourishing, retirement, and on and on. “Cuz people believe…that they’re gonna get away for the summer,” as Oasis sang in “Champagne Supernova.” Nihilism, Nietzsche wrote, is the “will to the end.”

It’s all too easy to get tangled in the thicket of terms that frequent our talk about human nature—persona, ego, self, soul, conscious, unconscious, mind, brain, spirit. But if we let go of the terms, or at least relax our death grip of them, it’s pretty easy to sort out. Carl Jung called the conscious self the ego, the part we show the world the persona, the part we hide from ourselves and others the shadow, and the truest part behind and beneath all of that the Self. In this passage from the Daodejing, what Jung called the ego is called “self,” and what Jung called Self is called “soul.”

Building on Jung’s concept of the shadow—the ugly parts of ourselves we disown, repress, and project onto others—Robert X posited the idea of a “golden shadow,” the gifts we project onto others. We give away our gold because we are afraid of what others will think of us and, most importantly, of our own power. More precisely, we are afraid that our own power is not really our own, that some secret cord ties us to the center of the world, that the energy of the cosmos courses through us.

But we aren’t really giving away our gold, we’re just hoarding it. We hoard it because we have mistaken self for soul (or, in Jung’s terms, ego for Self). This keeps us stuck in place—not centered, but floating. The paradox with hoarding, of course, is that you never feel secure and never think you have enough. If you hoard your breath, you’ll die. If you let it go, you’ll live. If we boil down the psychobabble of our self-talk, what remains is spirit, but spirit is just breath—the most bodily business. The Earth, as philosopher Jason Wirth writes, is simply the “conspiracy of life.”

Alan Watts half-joked—the highest truths always trade in humor—that we are really just “tubes.” We’re organisms after all! What a relief.

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

Dao du Jour II, Day 6: Mackenzie Prime

Chapter 6: What Is Complete

“The valley spirit never dies.

Call it the mystery, the woman.

The mystery,

the Door of the Woman,

is the root of earth and heaven.

Forever this endures, forever.

And all its uses are easy.”

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

“The French novelist André Malreaux professed that the 21st century may or may not be religious. It will, however, be more feminine than the 20th century.” ~ Régis Debray

Western culture is oriented around Sky gods—Yahweh, Zeus, Marduk—and it is no accident that in our modern religion of technology and capitalism, what Neil Postman called “technopoly,” the pantheon of deities—Musk, Bezos, and Kurzweil—are Heaven-bent. Onward and upward to Space, Mars, the Cloud. Planet Starbucks awaits.

The transhumanist fantasies of Silicon Valley have a great deal to do with the denial of death and the typically masculine fear of it. The Great Men of the past were content to seek the immortality of their names in the historical record; those of the present are chasing the real deal.

The spirit of the Daodejing, however, offers up the matrix of a mythology for our time. If history has been dominated by the Escapism of the masculine ideal up through the 20th century, perhaps we are in the middle of a tectonic cultural shift; cultural moments like the #MeToo movement are the tip of an iceberg, a wisp of the emerging zeitgeist of Return. Fukuyama’s prophecy of the “end of history” was not so much wrong and incomplete. If History 1.0 is about differentiating humanity from the biosphere, History 2.0 is about integrating with it. History 1.0 was driven by a zero-sum logic of scarcity, conquest, and competition, of speeding and scaling, of transcending natural limits. History 2.0 will be driven by a logic of abundance, symbiosis, and cooperation, of slowing and rooting, of embracing natural limits. What we call “sustainability” is just a corporatized form of “forever.”

In the Ministry of the Future, novelist Kim Stanley Robinson envisions a new “structure of feeling,” a quasi-religion one character half-jokingly calls “Matriotism: “Gaia citizenship, or what have you. Earth citizen, commons member, world citizen. One Planet. Mother Earth. All these terms used by people who are coming to think of themselves as part of a planetary civilization. Main sense of patriotism now directed to the planet itself.”

This sounds naïve and silly until you realize that what we call “patriotism” is relatively new. The conservative instinct is to regard patriotism as “natural” and be skeptical of its meaningful extension beyond the bounds of the nation-state. The problem with this way of thinking is that the nation-state is a modern construct, not the state of nature. Patriotism is precisely the expansion of an individual’s horizon of care, loyalty, and belonging beyond their immediate kin and local territory to large groups of strangers and large amounts of land. If such an expansion was possible before, why not another? As more and more people are born into a worldwide web and a chaotic climate, it will become more and more natural for them to think in planetary terms.

Contrary to the dystopian bent of so much cli-fi, Robinson’s rollicking fable ends well. After all the geoengineering and carbon pricing and international coordination is done and the Keeling Curve is going down, the heroine, the Prime Ministress of the Future, does a flyover of the planet in an air ship, including a new port city built in the arctic to stabilize the polar ice cap. In a wickedly funny dig at the richest man in the world, Robinson names the city “Mackenzie Prime.”

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 5: The Great Bellows

Chapter 5: Useful Emptiness

“Heaven and earth aren’t humane.

To them the ten thousand things

are straw dogs.


Heaven and earth

Act as a bellows:

Empty yet structured,

it moves, inexhaustibly giving.”

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

According to legend, shortly before his death St. Thomas Aquinas, architect of the most systematic intellectual edifice of Catholic tradition, the 3,000 page Summa Theologica, was struck by a mystical experience on the proverbial road to Damascus and proclaimed, “All I have written is so much straw.” A great cathedral leveled by a bolt from the blue.

The paradox of mysticism is that it offers a kind of final consolation—a self-authenticating certainty that, amazingly, all really will be and already is well—yet after the rapture recedes, the world seems empty and pointless. Another way of putting this is that mysticism entails a kind of positive nihilism—from the “standpoint” of ecstasis, the revelation that the world has no meaning is a great relief, the search for “meaning” is shown to be fruitless because the world is its own magic. But when the music stops, the silence can feel unbearable, and the questions creep in: “Was it all in my head? Am I crazy? What’s the point, really?” And so on. A new dualism tries to worm its way into the mind—between mystical and mundane, transcendent and immanent, ecstatic and quotidian experience.

“Straw dogs” here refers to disposable objects, to impermanence. Impermanence only seems like a cruel and unfair feature of the universe from the standpoint of a permanent self—puffed up, holding its breath, trying to stop the flow of air, which is just a more concrete word for spirit. Only he who loses his breath will gain it. And losing your breath—emptying yourself—is the only way to receive the gift from the great bellows.

The emptiness of the great bellows is not the cold vacuum of space, not the eternal silence of infinite spaces that fill poor Pascal with dream, but a great cauldron of possibility that bodies the world forth. Would that Job had read the Daodejing. It would have given him a more satisfying answer by showing him the confusion of his question. Perhaps we are to understand his “reward” at the end as a sign that this insight is more valuable than any “straw dogs,” material possessions.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 4: Generation A

Chapter 4: Sourceless

“The way is empty,

used, but not used up.

Deep, yes! ancestral

to the ten thousand things.


Quiet, yes, and likely to endure.

Whose child? born

before the gods.”

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

Reread the passage, but this time substitute “the earth” for “the way.”

We are accustomed to imagining the earth as Gaia, the Great Mother of all life. We are less prone to picture it as a child, but in the scope of cosmic time, the earth is a newborn.

One of the articles of faith of the environmental movement is that humanity is destroying mother earth. The inconvenient truth for such apocalyptic environmentalists, however, is that the earth will be just fine. The earth is not a living thing, not a “super-organism,” and ironically, it is human hubris to think that our actions could cripple or kill it. Decimate animal species, disrupt the climate, and erode the conditions for our own survival? Yes. Destroy the world? No, that’s gods’ territory. But even in the great myths, the gods’ destruction of the world was only ever the destruction of the human world. The cosmos quietly endures, and the earth may be a young child of the universe, but it was around billions of years before us and our gods. Gods are the children of men.

Stewart Brand is correct to conclude that we are as gods, and may as well get good at it. But getting good at playing god means raising our gods well. If it is not a matter of being gods or humans, but of what sort of gods we wish to be, then we have to figure out how to stop being childish gods.

There is no greater mark of modernity than the abstraction of the ancestral. Our ancestors are foreign and strange to us, sealed off and separated by oceans, language, and revolutions political, cultural, and technological, as though they were from another planet. The “ancestor worship” of today’s indigenous holdouts present to us as superstition, perhaps more respectable than YouTube conspiracism but cut from the same spiritual cloth.

But just as the ancestral ethos was the backbone of hunter-gatherer society—i.e., the vast majority of our species’ life—ancestor worship may be the key to surviving our technological adolescence and saving our civilization.

Every ancestor was once a child, and every child is an ancestor in waiting. The presentism of our culture, the short-term mindset of the quarter in our economics and the election in our politics, the on-demand character of our consumer culture, even the retirement planning that governs our careers—these are all powerful temporal headwinds that make it hard for us to see the fullness of time. Children are raised to be achievers in the short game of the economy, not ancestors in the long game of civilization.

There is no shortage of critiques of how today’s “intensive parenting” involves a neurotic over-involvement with children that turns them into little cult objects. But maybe it stems from an unconscious recognition of the great task before us—not to get our children into Harvard, but to raise what philosopher Roman Krznaric calls “good ancestors.” Our words for culture and cult derive from the Latin cultus, which means worship. As David Foster Wallace reminds us, there is no such thing as not worshipping. We worship what we pay attention to. Every family is a kind of cult. The only question is what sort of cult it wishes to be.

The advantage our ancestors had was that life didn’t change all that much from one generation to the next, so by paying attention to the present, you were paying attention to the past and the future. Our problem is that, starting 10,000 years ago with the agricultural revolution, increasingly with the industrial revolution 300 years ago, and dizzyingly with the informational revolution 30 years ago, there’s been too much change too fast for each generation to make sense. The generation gaps grow as time speeds up, and each generation feels abandoned by the one before it, self-absorbed trying to make sense of its own strange seam of time, and lacking the spiritual, mental, and moral resources to hand things off to the next one. As Joseph Campbell put it, in modernity you can’t have a unifying mythology because before anything new can constellate it gets throw off. And as Zak Stein explains, when the conditions for intergenerational transmission of knowledge—in a word, education—break down, civilization cannot continue.

But the future has begun to encroach on our presentism. As the Boomers begin boarding the ships for the Gray Isles, the last three generations—X, Y, and Z—find themselves abandoned together on this little island of time at the end of history. It’s like a temporal Pale Blue Dot. How we respond is up to us: shrugging in nihilism or shouldering the burden of glorious purpose. The more we pretend we are not ancestors, the less likely we are to have descendants, and if we do, the less likely they are to worship us.

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

Dao Du Jour II, Day 3: Hushing

Chapter 3: Hushing

“So the wise soul governing people would empty their minds…keep people unknowing, unwanting, keep the ones who do know from doing anything.”

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

Here we see Lao-Tzu seem to embody the very patriarchal ethos he defines himself in opposition to: Confucian conservative command and control. Hardly the hippie libertarian trickster of latter day New Age culture encouraging you to embrace your funk.

But that presumes that the one governing thinks they are in the know, and that is precisely what is denied here. Much like Plato proposed in the Republic that the ones who should rule are the ones who don’t want to rule, Lao-Tzu is saying that the ones who think they know how to rule are the ones who must be kept from power. When you read the Yeats quote today, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” it’s natural to think of the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories today and the demagogues who fan its flames. Ironically, the attack on the “administrative deep state”—that is, the people who actually know what they’re doing—comes only ostensibly from the ignorant and uneducated. For they know a great many things that we don’t.

They know that Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya; they know that “Benghazi” [sic]; they know that COVID 19 was leaked from a lab in China; they know that Bill Gates arranged for microchips to be embedded in your skin through the vaccine; they know that the 2020 election was stolen. They know all of these things with passionate intensity, for knowing, in this sense, simply is passionate intensity. What started as the Tea Party, a noisy band of low libertarian, garden-variety anti-government barkers, and metastasized into the Trump Party (there can be no doubt that that is exactly what the GOP now is) actually started a long time ago: as the “Know Nothing Party” of the 1950s: nativist, isolationist, anti-intellectual, rooted in yeoman gnosis. It is what George Packer, in his essential essay in this month’s Atlantic, calls “Real America.”

Those of us in “Smart America” think we know better. But believe it or not—I suspect you may not because you are likely a Smart American—“I believe in Science” and “Science says” are a stone’s throw from “’Cuz Hillary’s emails.” Taylor Dotson has cleverly labeled this kind of politics—the brandishing of facts, fact-checks, and figures, of evidence, empiricism, and expertise, of “studies,” “research,” and so on to demonstrate that your position is clearly, obviously, self-evidently correct—“Fact-ism”:

Who hasn’t given in to the urge to reflexively drop a Snopes link, or to reference a scientific article whose abstract we only skimmed, in order to avoid thinking carefully about why a great-aunt or former college acquaintance doesn’t trust Anthony Fauci?

The basic logical problems with Factism are that it misconstrues the relationship between science and policy and the nature of science itself. Fauci’s knowledge about epidemiology is in a different galaxy than yours or mine. His knowledge about ethics is probably in the same ballpark, or even the same room. Science not only doesn’t give us certainty—especially probabilistic sciences like epidemiology and climatology—but even if it did, that wouldn’t tell us what we ought to do. Moreover, that “reflexively” reflects—you guessed it—passionate intensity.

But the knowledge of Real America is not what they think they know—the conspiracy stuff. It’s what they know we need: belonging. Belonging is what Real America thinks has been stolen from it, what the neoliberalism of Free America destroyed, what the meritocratic knowledge workers of Smart America don’t realize they need, and what Just America call “inclusion” and wants to engineer through social policy.

Dotson calls it connection:

If the underlying problem with scientism and conspiracism is the way each promises certainty, thereby fostering division, then we ought to look toward a politics that is preoccupied less with knowing and more with fostering connection.

Packer calls it patriotism:

“This feeling can’t be wished out of existence. And because people still live their lives in an actual place, and the nation is the largest place with which they can identify—world citizenship being too abstract to be meaningful—patriotic feeling has to be tapped if you want to achieve anything big. If your goal is to slow climate change, or reverse inequality, or stop racism, or rebuild democracy, you will need the national solidarity that comes from patriotism.”

Belonging, patriotism, connection—call it what you want. It’s the unspoken category of Donald Rumsfeld’s epistemology: the “unknown known.” If people have it, they’ll “want” and “know” less; they’ll just go about their lives.

Whether you deploy a Scientific worldview or a Biblical worldview, you think you know more than you do. Information without knowledge is empty—meaningless—but knowledge without wisdom is blind—dangerous. Being informed matters, being knowledgeable matters more, but being wise matters most.

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