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.
Instead of writing,
they might go back to using knotted cords.
They’d enjoy eating,
take pleasure in clothes,
be happy with their houses,
devoted to their customs.
The next little country might be so close
the people could hear cocks crowing
and dogs barking there,
but they’d get old and die
without ever having been there.
Ursula K Le Guin’s version
Le Guin’s commentary:
Waley says this endearing and enduring vision “can be understood in the past, present, or future tense, as the reader desires.” This is always true of the vision of the golden age, the humane society.
Christian or Cartesian dualism, the division of spirit or mind from the material body and world, existed long before Christianity or Descartes and was never limited to Western thought (though it is the “craziness” or “sickness” that many people under Western domination see in Western civilization). Lao Tzu thinks the materialistic dualist, who tries to ignore the body and live in the head, and the religious dualist, who despises the body and lives for a reward in heaven, are both dangerous and in danger. So, enjoy your life, he says; live in your body, you are your body; where else is there to go? Heaven and earth are one. As you walk the streets of your town you walk on the Way of heaven.
Is this a utopia?
It’s hard to say, and it’s hard to say if Lao Tzu is even meaning for it to be.
I’d say he’s not, at least in any practical sense.
Mostly, it’s the idea of a place where people are content to live. They’re not chasing after the unknown or even the known. They’re living life, and that’s enough.
It’s been a trend for a long, long time. The idea that there’s something more for us out there. That life is meant to mean something. That the farther we go, the more humane we become.
I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t even know if it’s useful to think of it as sort of true.
I’ve traveled a fair amount. More than most people, I’d say. So it’s difficult for me to seriously say that it hasn’t influenced the way I experience and view the world, but I’m also not convinced that doing those things was necessary to my vision of the world. Or, to put it another way: I may have come to who I am through a different route.
Of course, such thoughts aren’t especially useful to think about, since hypotheticals about who I might be had I had a different life are, you know, boring and tedious and intellectually unsatisfying.
I think what Lao Tzu, and the Tao Te Ching, in general, are saying throughout the text is that you must come to learn who you are. You must find yourself within yourself. Travel and education may bring you more easily to the surface, but it’s not the only path, and it may not even be useful for most people.
Be like water.
Know yourself, and then no matter how far you go or what you learn, you will be content. You will be able to fit into any mold, adapt to any circumstance, and yet you will remain yourself.
Imagine a society so self-possessed that life is just contentment.
I don’t know if it’s a utopia, but it’s certainly a pretty idea.
In a time of so much self-reflection and intellectual insulation, I think this is especially important. To understand who you are you need to find some kind of quiet. A place to meditate and reflect.
The issue we have, I think, is that our self-reflection happens publicly. We post our self-reflections on the internet. Even this, one could say, is an example. I’m simply writing private thoughts down, but then I’m posting them where anyone with internet access can stumble upon them.
Is it really self-reflection when it’s projected through the internet?
Can we ever know ourselves when we’re so wrapped up in the lives of others?
That’s not to say we should imitate Descartes. I think his version of self-reflection as road to self-discovery is pretty stupid. Because it begins with the idea that humans are, at some point, entirely alone.
This is too easy to reject because it’s never true.
And the Tao is never about self-isolation. Almost every poem is balanced by a regard for the greater world. Questions for state, for power, for peace. Taoism is about engaging with the world while being yourself. By following the Tao, we discover ourselves, and in discovering ourselves, we demonstrate the Tao for others.
Bring the Tao to the world, but do it in your every word, your every action.
Be like water.