Warning Against the Use of Force
He who by Tao purposes to help the ruler of men
Therefore a good general effects his purpose and stops.
(For) things age after reaching their prime.
Lin Yu Tang
Whenever you advise a ruler in the way of Tao,
Just do what needs to be done.
Force is followed by loss of strength.
Jane English and Gia-fu Feng
Chapter 29 is about being, and the sage counsels acceptance of things as they are. There’s a lot of philosophy going on about being.
Chapter 30 is about acting and doing, and the achievement of purpose, and here the sage offers cautions and guidance and observes the consequences of not acting and doing in cooperation with the Tao. There’s a lot of good advice going on about acting and doing.
Sometimes I wonder which is more useful, the philosophy of being or the advice about acting and doing.
In this chapter the sage advises us that force, pride, and violence in the pursuit of victory are wrong, no matter whether exercised by the individual or the tribe. Such actions produce waste and leave wastelands in their wake, and weak land and weakened people and early death.
Doing and Being. Earth and Heaven. Yin and Yang. The sage obviously accepts that there is a dualistic nature to human being, and does not favor one over the other. The counsel here is about balance of the two and mindfulness of each in what we do to achieve the purposes of our lives.
What are our purposes? We effect our purposes, we achieve results, that’s an obvious human characteristic. We have evolved as an adaptive, manipulative, thinking species which beholds fact, whether from the prehistoric cave or the megalopolitan high-rise. Then we act in response to the facts before us to effect the purpose of our existential needs.
What are those needs? Sustenance, shelter, safety. How do we get them? Work, cooperation, community. Are our needs any more complex in the megalopolis than they are in the cave? Perhaps, in the sense that the environment we navigate in the contemporary world is highly complex and interrelated. Our world is complicated by blurred lines between needs and wants, requirements and desires, and a burgeoning, ever-present stimulation of basic human appetites luring us to ever higher levels of aggressive, violent consumption. This is exactly the thing the sage counsels us to avoid.
And it is exactly the thing which, in spite of all our applications of our complex processing powers as existential beings in our pursuit of survival, we fail to process adequately. Aggression and violence will not serve human beings. Yet too often we remain unaware of how aggressive and violent our ways and means are.
What violence and aggression are present if I live and work according to the ways and means presented to me by the complex structure of my culture? Hell, in America the ways are legion, practically uncountable, and seemingly unavoidable. In order to get along I have to go along with the status quo. Yet under the smooth, complacent surface of accepting things “because that’s just the way things are now,” there is a dark depth of violence and aggression underpinning the dispensations we have available to us at the great, wasteful smorgasbord which our culture has convinced us is the place where we can slake the appetites our culture – not our nature, but our culture – has given us.
My culture is ruthlessly Darwinian, a place where, because of the standard of living which it affords me, the resources and energies and very lives of other people on this planet are aggressively, violently taken to serve it. Sometimes I look at all the things which are in my house, and marvel at the thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of human beings who have been involved in creating them. I am awed by the tremendous cooperation and complexity which it takes to do that, and I am appalled at the cost.
I live humbly, and my possessions are few, and yet even in these circumstances I am aware that what I have to meet my basic needs according to the terms of my culture is excessive, and wasteful. Human beings have died so that I might have what was taken from them. It is just that sadly, starkly simple. My physical security and comfort here are predicated upon violent and aggressive ways and means applied to my planet and my fellow human beings.
How can I reconcile that, how do I live with that? Well, obviously I do. I deplore it, I see it for what it is, I behold the fact of it and I wonder if there isn’t something that can be done about it. But is there? Really? I mean, it’s obviously a fact that this is the way things are these days, and I’m just going to have to get over the obvious horror of it and carry on, right?
How would the sage advise me to conduct myself in the midst of such imbalance, as a passive beneficiary of such aggression and violence? Is the sage shouting in the wind? Are these words being carried away by the storms of modernity which today show clear promise of the end of modern human civilization because of our violent, aggressive practices?
Perhaps. But I hear the sage’s words. If my species as a whole does not, it’s just another fact which, in pursuit of my own survival, I must confront. How do I survive the unwitting vector of my own species?
If the natural way has been lost and humanity as a whole is proceeding on an unnatural way, a way that achieves results through violence, how would the sage advise me to proceed? Would the sage soothe me with philosophy, reminding me of my true nature? That would be fine, that’s a good thing to remember. Yet I wonder what practical advice the sage might offer to guide me through the spiritual wastelands of our prevalent and current aggressive, violent human culture. Or has the sage already advised me here in this chapter about how to proceed?
The sage obviously recognizes violence and aggression, and advises against it. Am I to be non-violent and unresisting? Am I to accept even the violent ways and means employed which supply provision to me far beyond my basic needs at the cost of human and planetary life?
Apparently I am, and this does not sit well with me. What, on a practical level, beyond the simple soothings of philosophy, am I to do? How am I to act?