The Way: 46 – Wanting Less


When the world’s on the Way,

[source]

they use horses to haul manure.
When the world gets off the Way,
they breed warhorses on the common.

The greatest evil: wanting more.
The worst luck: discontent.
Greed’s the curse of life.

To know enough’s enough
is enough to know.

------ divider ------

On occasion, I’ve gotten into heated debates about “what is a religion?” including one memorable debate on Pharyngula that went on for several days – the question being whether things like deism or buddhism are religions. That doesn’t even begin to get to the question of whether taoism is or is not a religion.

I beg your indulgence, this time, because I am about to go a bit afield and throw out opinions that I can’t really support with solid arguments. These are ideas I’ve had for a long time, but they are kind of half-formed and thus, hard to defend.

Is taoism a religion? It may as well be. Yet, my appreciation for taoism comes from the fact that it’s not. Here’s how I think of it: religion is not just a question of whether or not you believe in some personified higher power, it’s where the system’s knowledge comes from; religion’s answer to the question “why?” is “because!” The core of religiousity is authority. We know the “truth” of a particular religion’s philosophy or core beliefs because: someone said so. As much as I enjoy taoist thought, it’s a bunch of unsupported assertions: some old guy who was clearly very wise said a bunch of stuff a long time ago. Therefore… what? It’s true?

Taoism is as authoritarian as buddhism and I ding buddhism pretty heavily for reliance on “proof by assertion by an enlightened being” – which may as well be proof by university professor for all that it’s more valid thereby.

What I come around to is, perhaps, not that authoritarian assertion of beliefs makes the religion, it’s that people who accept rules about their lives and meaning, based on authority, are followers of the religious mindset. So, when I read the Tao Te Ching I think of it as some interesting ideas to stimulate thought, but not as precepts for how to live. And I certainly don’t worship Lao Tze, though I’d have been happy indeed to have a conversation with him. Among those who adopt taoism as an authority, I’d say it’s a religion, and they’re not any less in error than the poor fools who worship statues of the buddha. And, yes, there are statues to Lao Tze, as well – indicating that he has followers that don’t follow him at all, worshippers that managed to completely miss the point.

Comments

  1. Holms says

    I know absolutely nothing about Taoism, and so can’t answer your musing on that one in particular… but in my view, religion requires supernaturalism in addition to being a system of rules delivered by an authority. Without that, I view it as more of a philosophy or moral framework. Stoicism I think is a good example of this, in that it contains plenty of instruction on how a person should and should not behave, but no supernaturalism that I know of; and I have never seen anyone consider it a religion.

  2. Dunc says

    he has followers that don’t follow him at all, worshippers that managed to completely miss the point.

    And one or more of them probably wrote the Hua Hu Ching and attributed it to him. Although I’ve also suspected that the Hua Hu Ching is manual for how to deal with wealthy and powerful patrons who completely miss the point…

    Of course, the historicity of Lao Tze is a matter of some debate.

  3. says

    Holms@#1:
    but in my view, religion requires supernaturalism in addition to being a system of rules delivered by an authority.

    I’m wrestling with that. Up until a few years ago I would have immediately agreed with you, but I don’t know how to frame the “build a massive statue of a ‘philosopher’ and burn incense (make sacrifices) at its feet” – is that supernaturalism or not? I’d say yes, generally, especially when people start doing something that is indistinguishable from praying, but I’ve encountered sincere people who say no.

    Your point re: stoicism is well taken.

  4. says

    Dunc@#2:
    Of course, the historicity of Lao Tze is a matter of some debate.

    Yup.

    Generally, that’s a problem for me. I know the buddhists assert that siddartha was a real person, but then there are lots of them who think he stepped out of a hole in his mother’s side. I know the muslims assert that mohammed was a real person, but searches for historical mohammed are come up pretty thin. I know that the christians… I’m comfortable assuming that there was a person or persons unknown, who may or may not have had whatever the name is, but who certainly did not speak to god or step out of the side of their mother or any of that. (Though it’s very interesting how much of “mohammed”s writing was plagiarized from the jewish bible) I’m comfortable with the idea that lao tzu may be a composite of a whole collection of wise-guys who were writing and handing down a book of wisdom.

    I don’t like the uncertainty of any of those things, especially since the premise of the teachings is authoritarian – believe buddha because he was enlightened, believe mohammed because he talked to god, believe lao tze because he was enlightened, believe jesus because he was a god, etc.

    I am not familiar with the Hua Hu Ching, but I will be!

  5. Dunc says

    The problem with “supernaturalism” is that most people, for most of history, didn’t think there was anything supernatural about what we now consider supernaturalism – they just thought that was the way the world worked. It’s difficult to draw a hard line between supernaturalism and “proto-scientific ideas that didn’t pan out”… Really, what’s the conceptual difference between, say, chi and phlogiston?

    Also, using a definition of religion based on the presence of supernaturalism would mean that e.g. Wicca could either be or not be a religion depending on the precise epistemological approach of any given practitioner – or even on how some third party chooses to interpret the precise epistemological approach of any given practitioner.

  6. Dunc says

    I am not familiar with the Hua Hu Ching, but I will be!

    I wouldn’t really recommend it, to be honest. It’s an attempt to graft some vaguely Taoist-sounding stuff onto a bunch of early first millennium Chinese and India folk beliefs about the actual nature of the world – so there’s a bunch of stuff in there about cosmology, re-incarnation, karmic law, elementalism, and so on. It’s kind of interesting from an anthropological point of view, I guess, but I mostly just found it annoying. Like I say, it seems (to me, anyway*) to have been written either by somebody who didn’t really get the idea, or as a manual for how to cultivate a rich patron who doesn’t really get the idea. (I particularly like the latter possibility, as it seems like quite a Taoist thing to do: “OK, you probably can’t change this rich, powerful asshole’s mind, but you can divert his attention in ways that are more-or-less harmless, maybe get him to do some good works, and put food in your belly to boot.”)

    (* Of course, I’m not really a Taoist, nor a scholar of Taoism, so I’m in no position to be deciding who did or didn’t get the idea. Maybe I’m the one who didn’t get the idea, and all that stuff about how you need to perform a particular kind of meditation in a particular way in order to get your chi flowing through your meridians smoothly really is an important part of it.)

  7. says

    Dunc@#5:
    It’s difficult to draw a hard line between supernaturalism and “proto-scientific ideas that didn’t pan out”… Really, what’s the conceptual difference between, say, chi and phlogiston?

    Good point.
    Hm, that immediately makes me think of Freudian psychology, darn it!

    or even on how some third party chooses to interpret the precise epistemological approach of any given practitioner.

    That reminds me, I’ve been meaning to do a posting on the problem of interpretation of vague ideologies. It’s nasty. i.e.: Am I a “liberal” or not? What if you say I am and I say I’m not – what am I? That’s a general problem with these things like buddhism or taoism, that have elements of worship and superstition, but many adherents claim are non-religious. Darn it, make up your minds!

    It’s an attempt to graft some vaguely Taoist-sounding stuff onto a bunch of early first millennium Chinese and India folk beliefs about the actual nature of the world

    Oh, yeah, no thanks. It sounds about as fun as reading the scientific parts of eugenics.

  8. Dunc says

    Well, it’s easy to sit here now and say that Freud was full of shit, but you’ve got to remember that at the time, the dominant paradigm for what we’d now call psychology was even worse: a model of the human mind so utterly divorced from reality that it is now only believed by economists.

  9. Dunc says

    Ooh, how’s this for an illustration of the “supernaturalism” problem: Is mathematical Platonism a supernatural belief?

  10. brucegee1962 says

    On the subject of vague beliefs — what exactly is “worship”?

    Building a big statue of something isn’t necessarily worship — we do that all the time with all sorts of people. Burning incense and sacrifice in front of them — is that any different from, say, leaving flowers on your parents’ grave as a sign of respect? Because you could certainly do that even if you don’t believe your parents still exist in ghostly form to watch what you’re doing.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about various forms of ancestor worship recently. If you view your life as a gift that your ancestors (back to the first protozoa) made sacrifices in order to bequeath to you, then that would seem to imply certain ethical obligations — not throwing said life away needlessly, for instance. But one could have similar attitudes of respect towards ancestors with or without supernatural beliefs added on.

  11. says

    Dunc@#8:
    the dominant paradigm for what we’d now call psychology was even worse: a model of the human mind so utterly divorced from reality that it is now only believed by economists.

    I’m not even sure what that was. Humors?

  12. Dunc says

    Marcus @11: I mean the idea that people are perfectly rational utility maximisers.

  13. says

    brucegee1962@#10:
    Building a big statue of something isn’t necessarily worship — we do that all the time with all sorts of people. Burning incense and sacrifice in front of them — is that any different from, say, leaving flowers on your parents’ grave as a sign of respect?

    I don’t know at what point we’d say that it had slid over into ancestor-worship.
    How do we say at what point reverence has crossed into worship? I’d say there’s probably some belief in intercession, or supernatural oversight, or miracles, or something like that. If I went to visit Voltaire’s tomb in the Pantheon, as I often do when I am in Paris, I am merely seeking some kind of fleeting feeling of remembrance for a great person. Or, more precisely, my idea of a great person since I never met him and probably would have found him smelly and annoying, if I did. I think it would be different if I burned incense at his urn, and prayed for him to grant me +5 Blog Powers.

    then that would seem to imply certain ethical obligations — not throwing said life away needlessly, for instance

    Interesting point!

  14. John Morales says

    brucegee1962 @10:

    If you view your life as a gift that your ancestors (back to the first protozoa) made sacrifices in order to bequeath to you, then that would seem to imply certain ethical obligations — not throwing said life away needlessly, for instance.

    Without additional premises, there is no such implication.

    (Do unsolicited gifts really imply an obligation to the gifter, in your estimation?)

  15. Brian English says

    Damn it, ok, Morales suckered me into commenting*. :)

    (Do unsolicited gifts really imply an obligation to the gifter, in your estimation?)

    Totally, I didn’t exist before I was born, and wasn’t legally able to make a deal until much later, due to mental inability.
    How could I possibly owe anything to my anscestors for their choices which I had no say in and didn’t engage in a deal with that had obligation?
    The response might be ‘but then you wouldn’t exist!’, and like an aborted fetus I’d give no fucks about that, as I wouldn’t exist….

    *Apologies for my over the topness last time, in my defense, I was a few sheets to the wind. wait, that’s not a defense!

  16. John Morales says

    [Brian, I think you mean totally not (wherein we concur), and no worries but thanks]

  17. John Morales says

    The greatest evil: wanting more.
    The worst luck: discontent.
    Greed’s the curse of life.

    To know enough’s enough
    is enough to know.

    In order of necessity, there’s stuff one requires for life, there’s stuff one requires for a good and healthy life, and the remaining stuff.

    I think the quoted apothegm is valid and meaningful only for that third category.

  18. lanir says

    That poem or whatever at the top of the post isn’t necessarily benign and useful advice like it sounds. It’s nice enough and all but it’s meaning changes quite dramatically depending on who is spreading that message. If a poor person is saying it, it’s a way to live and be happy. If a middle class person is saying it, they may have missed something along the way unless they’re actively helping poorer people improve their lives. If a rich person says it then it’s a con game and they’re trying to steal from you. The worst of them wear religious dress like leopards wear their spots: to camouflage them as they sneak up on their prey.

  19. Dunc says

    lanir: Taoism has never been particularly popular amongst the rich or the middle classes – they tend to prefer Confucianism. There are many other chapters of the Tao which fairly explicitly condemn the accumulation of wealth – even other translations of this particular chapter are more explicit on this point.

    (Aside: Marcus, you’ve definitely convinced me that I need to get a copy of Le Guin’s translation, I’m really liking it.)

  20. says

    lanir@#20:
    If a poor person is saying it, it’s a way to live and be happy. If a middle class person is saying it, they may have missed something along the way unless they’re actively helping poorer people improve their lives. If a rich person says it then it’s a con game and they’re trying to steal from you.

    Yes, that’s perhaps another way in which I find some “-isms” like taoism and buddhism to be similar to religion: they’re promoting rules that embed the status quo. As Dunc points out at #21, confucianism is worse. Christianity is even worse, still because it just asserts the authority of the ruling class (“render unto caesar…”) You’re right to read these things at multiple levels.

    PS – there have been various wars between confucianism and taoism but it’s hard for me to tell whether it’s over dogma or (more likely) class warfare, where one class or the other has tended to break in one way.

  21. says

    Dunc@#21:
    you’ve definitely convinced me that I need to get a copy of Le Guin’s translation, I’m really liking it.

    Well, it’s on my recommended reading list, so it’s “satisfaction guaranteed”!

  22. obscure1 says

    Another great post and informative commentators. Thanks to all. I’m a little surprised that no one has mentioned the early Taoist sage and all around joker, Chuang Tzu. The book by University of Pennsylvania professor Victor H. Mair titled “Wandering On The Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu” is profound, hilarious, and a most enjoyable read. With a cast of characters like Old Long Ears, Robber Footpad, Thorny Dimwit and Prickly Scatter Brain and many other anti-authoritarians this collection of poems, tales and parables has been described as one of the wittiest and most playful books in world literature. Chuang Tzu was an early Chinese literary stylist and was definitely not any kind of minister of the Taoist belief system. Highly recommended, 5 stars.

  23. says

    obscure1@#24:
    I heard of Chuang Tzu back in the distant misty past (1980s?) and never read any. Based on your suggestion, I’ve just queued up a copy, and I’ll review it eventually.

    Apropos nothing: I’ve been daydreaming about how many philosophical classics would come alive if they were dramatized; from what you say, it sounds like this might be a good candidate for that treatment. Hmmmm… I should do a posting about some things to do with dramatizing philosophy. (added to my monstrous “to do” list)

  24. brucegee1962 says

    (Do unsolicited gifts really imply an obligation to the gifter, in your estimation?)

    Interesting discussion!

    In one sense, I suppose you’re right. For instance, if my grandfather offers me $10,000 to pay for my tuition and says he wants me to study engineering, and I consciously choose to accept the money, then I probably have some ethical obligation to switch major. But if my mom says “Here’s $10,000 that your grandfather left for you in his will, and he also wanted you to study engineering,” then I’m not ethically obligated, because I didn’t need to choose whether to accept the money with conditions or not.

    But in another sense, I think that, if we have any ethical obligations at all, then the first one ought to be the obligation to our species, and more broadly to the biosphere of this planet. We’re all part of a big experiment on the part of the universe: Is this Life business a worthwhile use of matter, or is it a dead end? And if we say “nah” to the universe, then from my perspective, then we’re betraying every ancestor’s sacrifices for their offspring all the way back to the bacteria.

  25. says

    brucegee1962@#26:
    And if we say “nah” to the universe, then from my perspective, then we’re betraying every ancestor’s sacrifices for their offspring all the way back to the bacteria

    That does sort of bring us to the question “what do you owe your parents?” After all, nobody ever asked to be created. As Sam Kinison said, “I was light, I was truth. I was a spiritual being – then YOU had to FUCK! AND BRING MY ASS DOWN HERE! I didn’t ASK to be born – I didn’t call and say ‘Hey, please have me so I can work in a fuckin’ Winchells someday! Now you want me to pick up the tab? FUCK . . . YOUUUUUUU! !”
    Joking aside, he does have a sort of a point. Our parents and forbears created us through their own selfishness and fear of death, not as a favor to us.

  26. John Morales says

    brucegee1962:

    But in another sense, I think that, if we have any ethical obligations at all, then the first one ought to be the obligation to our species, and more broadly to the biosphere of this planet.

    I understand that you think that, but I don’t understand why you think that.

    Seems to me that stance must vitiate (or at least complicate) your concept of altruism.

    We’re all part of a big experiment on the part of the universe: Is this Life business a worthwhile use of matter, or is it a dead end?

    Um. The universe is a conscious entity and Life is its experiment?

    (Very mystical)

  27. lanir says

    What do you owe to parents? Well… Let’s look at a pet. You have a cat. You’ve fed it and cared for it because it’s your pet. It has kittens. Are the kittens born owing you for feeding their mother?

    I’d say no. And if that doesn’t carry over (after all you fed the mother while the kittens were growing inside her), why would the kittens owe their mother for being born but not owe you?

    I guess I draw a clear line between voluntarily feeling thankful for someone going to effort on your behalf when they could have chosen another option versus a compelled feeling of indebtedness. I’m adopted so I get to clearly demark birth versus raising. I’m thankful for my birth mother for having me. I’m thankful to my adopted parents for raising me from about a month old on. But this is only because neither of them compelled this out of me.

    If someone walked around telling me about how I owed them for my mere existence all the time I would consider being forced to deal with their ugly fantasy payment in full.

  28. Dunc says

    We’re all part of a big experiment on the part of the universe: Is this Life business a worthwhile use of matter, or is it a dead end?

    I’m afraid I’m going to have to concur with John Morales @28 in not finding this meaningful.

  29. says

    Reciprocity and practical applications? People can say they do not owe society things. But when enough people demand a thing it’s I’m the public consciousness. The people displaying selfishness will be increasingly described and identified. The feeling of desperation will drive enough of us to find and use effective social symbols for use among those of us working on the problem. The simple social communication needed to maintain a group is ancient. Before insects and mollusks let alone mammals or primates.

    The symbolism that manipulates it more recent.
    https://www.nature.com/news/homo-erectus-made-world-s-oldest-doodle-500-000-years-ago-1.16477
    I’m certain there are social tools that can be used to direct attention. The Selfish will hear about it at some point. The rest of us will communicate about what to do with them. I think humor is an acceptable example of thier existance. I tend to think they are more complex and diverse than many of us strategically pretend.

  30. says

    @#27:
    Our parents and forbears created us through their own selfishness and fear of death, not as a favor to us.

    I’d say they created us just because they enjoyed having sex and up until recently they had no contraceptives. And our more distant ancestors didn’t even have large enough brains to think about what they were doing. They fucked because of an instinct. That’s how evolution made them. So I wouldn’t call it “selfishness”, that’s just how things happened.

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