Originally published on Medium in December 2019, this is an article I worked on for a couple of months. My discussion about Vladimir Putin’s “Cathedral of the Armed Forces” is, in retrospect, an ominous warning sign about his decision to invade Ukraine in 2022.
I have updated and added new content to the article as I feel the message is evergreen, specifically in how we think critically about our personal responsibility for the common good and humanity.
Hyper-Individualism Leads to Social Disruption and Discontent
Individual suffering is something I have been thinking about since I read an article by Jon Stewart, “Hegel and the History of Human Nature.”
Stewart discusses how the philosopher Hegel documented the changes in society over thousands of years, specifically how it evolved from one of collectivism to individualism:
“Hegel analyses the ways in which what we today call subjectivity and individuality first arose and developed through time. He holds that, at the beginning of human history, people didn’t conceive of themselves as individuals in the same way that we do today. There was no conception of a unique and special inward sphere that we value so much in our modern self-image.”
The ideas Stewart shares in his article draw parallels to the universal and timeless advice found in the Tao Te Ching.
The Tao Te Ching was written over 2,500 years ago — during a time of collectivism and imperial rule. A careful reading today will show you how to live a life of integrity and humility in connection with others and the natural world in our current age of individual liberalism and social disruption.
What can you learn from the Tao Te Ching?
What I’ve learned, studying over a dozen translations and commentaries is that the Tao teaches a universal way of humble self-awareness toward living a meaningful life.
Through metaphor and paradox, the Tao Te Ching demonstrates how to live with moral integrity and human-heartedness based on observing the natural world and harmonizing with the natural order. There is no dogma, set of rules, or practice prescribed. Instead, the Tao invites the reader to contemplate with conscientious self-consciousness1 on the cyclical nature of things and one’s place within the unity of the natural order.
But First, What is Tao?
“The Dao that can be described in language is not the constant Dao; the name that can be given is not its constant name.”2
Nearly every commentary about Verse one of the Tao Te Ching is an attempt to explain what the word, Tao (also spelt, Dao) means. This, however, leaves most North American and European readers confused, without something close to a literal translation of the meaning of Tao. But to seem like I’m contradicting myself, this is the nature of Tao.
The Tao that can be named is not the Tao.
Tao is by itself so, changing and never changing, a fluid, cyclical paradox. Tao is both the spark of creation and all the manifestations of creation itself. Tao is not God; it precedes god as a manifestation of the creative potential of human minds.
The Tao is what we might call the natural order of things; the invisible force, energy, or the vitality and potential of life inert in the seed that can lay dormant for millennia before it is planted in soil and given water, causing it to generate and thus breathe into life.
Perhaps the best way to understand the meaning of Tao is something close to the active action of being on a path, of being on a ‘way’ — which are two common words used in translation. In the philosophical translation by Ames and Hall, they settle on “way-making.”3
Keep in mind that this idea of way-making is not a solitary endeavour.
The Tao teaches us that everything is connected.
Events rise and fall, observable patterns seem to return to the beginning and start over but always with generative variations. One of the core insights of the Tao Te Ching is to be mindful of extremes and the mutually arising nature of polarities. Simply put, you can’t have one without the other.