“Rule a nation with justice.
Wage war with surprise moves.
Become master of the universe without striving.
How do I know that this is so?
Because of this!
The more laws and restrictions there are,
The poorer people become.
The sharper men’s weapons,
The more trouble in the land.
The more ingenious and clever men are,
The more strange things happen.
The more rules and regulations,
The more thieves and robbers.
Therefore the sage says:
I take no action and people are reformed.
I enjoy peace and people become honest.
I do nothing and people become rich.
I have no desires and people return to the good and simple life.”
That was written by the Chinese sage Lao Tzu, nearly six thousand years before John Locke was born. It was written during a time of political upheaval and philosophical revolution. The nation was divided into dozens of different entities in constant war with each other, and its citizens were desperately seeking another way. Confucius taught that the way to order was through submission: submission of the child to the parent, of the wife to the husband, and ultimately, to the state.
At the same time, Lao Tzu was teaching another way – not just another way, but literally the Way, called the Tao. He spoke of the harmony achieved within oneself, with one’s environment – of a world in which man and the state simply left one another alone.
I’ve been taking Tai Chi classes lately, and it’s my first in-depth exposure to a soft style of martial arts. Most of my training has been in hard styles – I’m a red belt in Tae Kwon Doe – which consist largely of direct force, of muscle against muscle, bone against bone. And I have a lot of respect for that philosophy – if I’m in a fight with someone, it makes sense for me to hit someone as hard as I can, as fast as I can.
A couple of classes ago, one of the instructors did that thing that every martial-arts instructor does, y’know, where the scrawny old guy stands in front of you and says, “Okay. Come at me as hard as you can.” And you know you shouldn’t, because you know something fucking awful is going to happen to you if you do, but you just can’t help yourself, y’know?
First, he demonstrated the resistance of a hard style – pushing against me with all his strength, and we were about evenly matched. Then, he showed the resistance of a soft style – where I would lunge against him and just somehow fall *through* him or *past* him.
It was like pushing a noodle – because *it’s impossible to push against something that isn’t resisting you*. The more force you exert, the more damage you do to yourself. It’s the perfect illustration of Lao Tzu’s philosophy – that beautiful contradiction of resisting without resisting.
Unsurprisingly, the philosophy of Confucius ended up becoming the philosophy of the state, ultimately establishing four thousand years of varying degrees of tyranny. Lao Tzu, it is said, fled society altogether – his great work, the Tao Te Ching, was supposedly dictated to the gatekeeper of the Han Gu pass, who would not let him depart without leaving some tangible legacy behind.
That seems to be the response of so many of those who fear and despise state power – to abandon civilization altogether, from the Taoist monks, to the survivalist nuts running around in the woods today. And they’re an easy target of ridicule, but I can’t help wondering if there isn’t some merit to their approach. After all, talking about societal collapse isn’t paranoia, it’s history -- *every* society collapses, it’s just a question of *when*.
For my part, that kind of retreat is unthinkable, for at least three reasons. One, because I’m incapable of surviving outside of the boundaries of civilization. Hell, if I can’t get a pizza at three in the morning, I feel like I’m trapped in Lord of the Flies.
Two: because I’m in love with civilization. In fact, that’s a huge part of the appeal of a free market for me. Milton Friedman has this wonderful speech he gives (well, gave, sigh) in which he holds up a pencil and makes the assertion that there is no man on earth who is capable of constructing it. And he’s right – he goes on to list the thousands upon thousands of people involved in its creation, from obtaining the raw materials, to their refinement, to their ultimate combination. There’s a poetry to that, to the specialization and collaboration that city living creates, that I honestly can’t imagine living without.
And, three, although this is by far the least logical one – there’s a part of me that wonders if that kind of retreat from society isn’t simply another kind of submission. Perhaps there is no virtue in resistance – it may simply be the product of idealism and naivete – but I’m young enough yet to be that naive. And I’m tempted to observe that our country was founded by those idealistic enough to resist.
“Why are the people starving?
Because the rulers eat up the money in taxes.
Therefore the people are starving.
Why are the people rebellious?
Because the rulers interfere too much.
Therefore they are rebellious.
Why do the people think so little of death?
Because the rulers demand too much of life.
Therefore the people take death lightly.
Having little to live on, one knows better than to value life too much.”