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.
You can’t have the idea of good without bad, or the concept of right and wrong.
This is why justice, for example, can (and should be) difficult to precisely define or to hand down in a court of law. Justice is both the balancing act and the understanding of all the variables that make up the continuum of right versus wrong. If you go too far to one extreme, you have a completely anarchist society; on the other side, you have dictatorships, religious extremism, and fascism.
Returning to the purpose of this essay, too much collectivism can be harmful, just as hyper-individualism can be corrosive to social structures, the common good, and human dignity.
Humans have evolved over millennia, as have our social structures
History records the changes in social, religious, and political systems.
Not too long ago, society functioned as packets of collectives based on smaller groups or tribes in rural villages, or groups of people living in larger cities following the rules of an imperialistic state or religion. Individual rights were barely a concept. Instead, your purpose was to serve the head of the family, the king, or the head of the church.
“…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.” (Stewart)
Over time, the social pendulum has swung from collectivism to individualism.
The rise of the self-serving individual has led to the moral and existential crises we are witnessing today — which is not to conclude that individualism is good or bad; right or wrong.
Ironically, this is happening at the level of the private or solitary individual. Too many people see only themselves as a virtual reflection of their online social media activities. They share content and images seeking external (and virtual) emotional and ego-validation — not for how they might humbly contribute to a cause, society, or humanity at large.
For example, in the USA, the word considered the most noxious — even to many apparently on the so-called ‘Left’ — is socialism. What an unfortunate reflection of the irrational fear of helping others, of allowing those who have less to be uplifted and no longer ignored or disregarded — as if helping others would deplete who you are. Improving the well-being of society for the collective good is anathema to most Americans.
The USA has taken the core value of individual liberty to its most extreme and destructive end: If I can’t have it, neither should you.
We witnessed how this tragic hatred toward socialism — caring for others as part of the greater good — played out during the Pandemic.
770,000 people died in the United States from COVID-19 as of November 30, 2021.
An unfortunate number of the dead refused to wear masks, socially distance themselves, or get vaccinated to reduce the spread of the Coronavirus — all for the irrational reason that it is an affront to one’s personal freedom. Or worse, they died of COVID-19 because they were infected by someone whose individual liberty was more selfishly important than respecting other people’s health and mortality.
How did we arrive at this denial of objective truth and reason?
Stewart explains how over time, we began to see our inner lives — our inner selves — as more powerful than the discernible outside world. As we moved away from collectivism and saw ourselves as an organic part of nature, we turned inward toward the ego. We turned away from unity and away from the patterns and truths we can witness in the world — in the natural world.
This turning inward has led to the development of truth as subjective and relative.
“This development has now culminated with a complete denial of any objective truth or validity. When this view establishes itself, people feel that they are at liberty to make up their own fiction and assert it as reality, even if their fictional version stands in stark contradiction to objectively verifiable facts, established law, accepted custom or self-evident ethical principles. Any objective evidence that seems to be in conflict with their views they reject as an infringement on their rights as an individual.” (Stewart)
The Paradoxical Influence of Religions as Collectivist Systems.
Another condition inherent in my thoughts above is how some faith-based ideologies have survived over the millennia but have not evolved in the same way as society and the development of the sciences.
Religious ideologies are highly complex, collectivist systems that are based on intellectual fictions of an unverifiable past, one that pre-dates historical records. The more dogmatic variants of organized religion like Christian Evangelicalism and Islamic fundamentalism assert themselves through a hierarchical, patriarchal structure that is egotistically perverted to the singular benefit of those who hold the reins of power over their subjugated, manipulated flock of unquestioning sheep.
These old world religions take a flat-earth approach to modernity, seeing individual freedom — consciousness, freedom of speech, sexual and gender equality, and human rights — as the greatest threat to traditional patriarchal power and its control of the binary morality of right or wrong. This is hegemony at its most extreme.
Old-world religious ideologies stand in stark polarization to our modern world. They are a kind of culture shock — like trying to use a European plug in an American outlet. It won’t fit, and it’s the incorrect voltage.
If you think critically and observe the world ’scientifically’ — but not with the blind assumption science is the a priori holy grail of what’s right and wrong — you can’t help but notice the paradox of religious fundamentalists using modern technology. This attempt to control and limit critical thinking and freedom of expression is most easily facilitated by the same modern technology.
Maintaining the collective unconsciousness.
Collectivism and tribalism functioned as a kind of collective unconsciousness. This statement is not a judgment, rather I’m drawing the distinction between how society operated more for the larger collective rather than the needs and wants of the individual.
Social structures are not universal, but the freedom of information is certainly making it more difficult for oligarchies and fundamentalist religious organizations to maintain a veil of ignorance over their people.
For example, we see how countries like Russia maintain and reinforce the collective unconscious through corruption and media manipulation.
Vladimir Putin is a self-created oligarch who manipulated the Russian Church to create a narrative diversion with the intention of protecting his power and legacy, as well as the future oligarchic control of Russia. This diversion is called the Cathedral of the Armed Forces, and it “blends militarism, patriotism, and Orthodox Christianity to controversial effect.”
In the Guardian article by Shaun Walker, “Angels and artillery: a cathedral to Russia’s new national identity,” we learn from Bishop Stefan of Klin,
“…who heads the Russian Orthodox church’s department for cooperation with the army and regularly holds services at the cathedral, where he is the patriarch’s designated representative” that, “Only a nation that loves God could build such a grand cathedral.” (Emphasis mine)
Walker explains the controversial choice of mixing religious symbology with military history, quoting the religious scholar, Sergei Chapnin:
“For many priests, who were young in the 1970s and 1980s and personally came up against the repressive Soviet machine, which targeted the church, they are in shock and they can’t get over it… This is not really an Orthodox cathedral, it’s a cathedral of our new post-Soviet civil religion.”
The reason given by Bishop Stefan for the mixing of these symbols is that,
“we are talking about the fact that our armed forces have sacred help from above, from God and from the heavenly saints. That’s what the cathedral is about.”
The indoctrination of sacrificing yourself for the survival of the state and for the glory of god is shockingly apparent in the article’s closing paragraph:
“Dmitry, a 28-year-old altar server working at the cathedral, claimed that the military and religious images on its mosaics, far from being a jarring combination, are in fact a perfect fit: “In the war, our soldiers martyred themselves so that we could be free and independent. Only Russians are capable of sacrificing themselves to save humanity, just like Jesus did.”
You don’t have to step that far back to see how this is outright brainwashing.
Yet, you also can’t help but admire the shocking brilliance of how tradition, tribalistic ritual, and symbol can be used to maintain power and control. This cathedral becomes a singular point of pride for the ever-caring state, taking eyes off Putin’s manipulations, and minimizing the polarizing influence of the capitalistic decadence of the West.
From our perspective living in North America, we see clearly that Putin’s actions have nothing to do with collective well-being; they are entirely self-serving.
There will never be a utopian world
The ego is the only reason for trying to create a so-called perfect world. But such idealism is folly. We can, however, still see through the cracks of what is not working in society to allow for and create better alternatives.
“Hegel’s idea is that we need to find the right kind of balance between the two extremes of traditionalism and individualism, one that would preserve the sense of community and solidarity that we find in ancient cultures but that would still leave space for the development of the individual.” (Stewart)
What we have lost in our modern world of technology and social media is our connection to nature.
If we understand and accept that we are of the natural world, and if we respect the ecology of the planet, we will experience human-heartedness and connection with others. This is the only way we can respect the uniqueness and the dignity of others as natural (and necessary) for the common good.
Remember where you came from.
It is vital to our well-being and the health of the planet that we remember we are an organic part of this earth.
We are of the earth, like every other animal, insect, tree, or microbe. We must accept and take responsibility for the fact that our actions affect all life on this planet. When we connect with nature — with humility and respect — we can witness the awe of it all. Our ego subsides when we are awed by our place in the natural world, and we realize how unimportant self-importance really is.
Experiences of awe minimize the ego.
Part of the challenge in our modern world of hyper-individuality is that we have lost an understanding of the original definition of ‘awe’ relating to the natural world.
The etymological definition of awe is: “fear, terror, great reverence.” The more current meaning is: “dread mixed with admiration or veneration.”
Without access to modern technology, if you found yourself lost in the forest without food, shelter, or proper clothing and supplies, I think you would have a new appreciation and awe of the natural world. Perhaps our self-same lack of awe for nature, and how we falsely believe we can control it, is the reason we are killing the planet, and consequentially ourselves.
Our ego subsides when we are awed by our place in the natural world, and we realize how unimportant self-importance really is.
If and when we accept that we are better off helping others and not just ourselves — and this includes helping (caring for) the planet — then, “we need to find the right kind of balance between the two extremes of traditionalism and individualism” (Stewart).
Harmonious way-making cultivates respect for humanity.
When we find ourselves living harmoniously with the natural order and ecology of the planet, only then will we see ourselves as a part of the world, not apart from it. Being a part of the world connotes being connected to others.
To round out this essay — because a linear conclusion would be a contradiction — consider the following lines from Verse 65 of the Tao Te Ching:
The ancient Masters
didn’t try to educate the people,
but kindly caught them to not know.
When they think that they know the answers,
people are difficult to guide.
When they know that they don’t know,
people can find their own way.4
This essay has been revised and updated from the original published in A Philosopher’s Stone.
Think of this as ‘personal responsibility’ but without the moral implications associated with the word, responsibility. ↩
Lynn, Richard John, trans. The Classic of the Way and Virtue: a New Translation of the Tao-Te Ching of Laozi as interpreted by Wang Bi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. ↩
Ames, R. T., Hall, D. L. (2003). Daodejing: "Making This Life Significant." A Philosophical Translation. Ballantine. ↩
Mitchel, Stephen, trans. Tao Te Ching. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. ↩