Political Lessons of Water in the Tao Te Ching

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Professor Gray is a political philosophy professor at Washington and Lee University. In this post, he briefly explains the significance of water in the writings of Lao Tzu who was the founder of Taoism. Taoism advocates humility and religious piety.

1. Fluidity of Effective (wu-wei) Action (in accord with self-difference and duality): idea
of the inner, self-contained dualities/differences and identity of opposites helps exhibit
the relativity of values (e.g., hard vs. soft), depending on where one stands and how one
approaches things—remember the key difference between knowing that (which is a
matter of believing in linguistic claims with rational justification—one knows that
Annapolis is the capital of Maryland) vs. knowing how (which is a matter of ability—one
knows how to ride a bike).

2. Here, think about water’s duality: it is soft if you approach it slowly and gently with your hand, but it can also be as hard as concrete and exhibit great resistance if someone approaches it quickly and from a distance. Therefore, water’s characteristics change and are themselves fluid, even without water changing its essential nature—what matters is how we approach it. In this sense, it changes without actually changing by being both soft and hard at the same time (think of yin and yang circle—opposites are contained within the same entity). Also, consider the example of a swimmer working with the water vs. non-swimmer who thrashes around and drowns. Analogue to politics: more effective rule is about “flow” and efficient action, not tension and resistance—melding with the natural environment, working with and not over/against. This idea provides an alternative form of “political naturalism” whereby the natural does not revolve around human nature or a human-centrism. The “primitive” and “simple” are not in fact so—look at all the complexities and depth around you everyday that does not require your overt, distinctive, grand projects and involvement…even something as apparently boring and simple as water!
3. Tolerance: Lao Tzu also plays upon the fluidity of water because it is a naturalistic
analogue to the rather unpredictable process of becoming, along with its internal
dualities, differences, and relativity of values. In turn, this supports a Taoist ethic of
tolerance. That is to say, we should refrain from passing immediate, strong judgments on a particular person, situation, etc. as “good/fortunate” or “bad/unfortunate” because the value of our values may change from moment to moment, especially depending on
changing circumstances—most of which we do not and cannot control ourselves. In this regard, Lao Tzu is a “contextualist” when it comes to ethical judgments, not a
“universalist” with pre-determined categorical valuations.

4. Humility: Water is adaptive and humble, seeking out the lowest places (try to keep this in mind when Lao Tzu talks about the sage ruler and how he rules). Someone following the nature of the Way (and mimicking the nature of water) does not see or approach the “low” as low in a moral or normative sense, which Lao Tzu claims is an arbitrary linguistic distinction anyway. Its adaptivity, from which we can glean humility, is not seen as a weakness but rather a power, as it gradually (note patience!) melts rocks and brings down large mountains—a further example of the Taoist conception of rule: supple and flexible, yet strong. Also, note the humility displayed in the politics of “mimicry” that is found in mimicking the natural world: believing that the natural world/nonhuman things have something to teach us, and that we are not (and should not) seek to be its master. This reverses a traditional western understanding by reversing the “humans over nature” hierarchy and placing ourselves beneath the nonhuman, which Lao Tzu believes will exhibit the political knowledge exhibited or contained in natural elements such as water. Correspondingly, Taoist political thought privileges absence and humility—doubly so by using natural, non-speaking objects as examples instead of human beings and logos-/reason-centered objects like books or grand pieces of art…here one might think of references to things like doorways, windows, and cups.

5. Clarity through Stillness (especially as a precondition for right/efficient action): water
attains clarity through stillness, and the world (along with the “shine” of its physical characteristics), tends to be distracting and takes our attention away from what is closest/within us. Stillness and not conscious, frenetic energy and effort, allows us to achieve this clarity and better understand and watch what is going on within our own minds. Contrast this, for example, with Socratic dialectic and dialogue (which we’ll be
discussing very soon), which constantly stirs things up, especially in his interlocutors partly by displaying his interlocutors’ confusion and incoherent beliefs. This often leads to aporia (lack of a clear path to move forward), perplexity, and/or impasse. Lao Tzu would say that spending more time blunting our physical and mental activity—especially as it is stimulated through complicated linguistic engagements—is an important method for gaining greater clarity, understanding oneself, and understanding one’s own mind.
6. Anti-Hierarchical, Anti-Competitive, Anti-Distinction: Water runs/flows from the
higher to the lower places and refrains (in many, but not all ways) from “competing” with the physical objects it encounters in an combative, agonistic fashion. From one point of view, competition and efforts at distinction actually make one weaker by making one more vulnerable. By standing out, we make ourselves a target and get increasingly caught in the web of resistance and value judgment (think of celebrities and how harangued they are!). One of the best examples of Lao Tzu’s point in the history of western political thought is in the Classical Greek Athenian practice of “ostracism,” which entailed ostracizing members of the democratic polis who had grown too “notable” and influential for a period of 10 years (it was thought that such individuals could potentially upset democratic political equality and become a tyrant). Hence, Lao Tzu suggests that rulers shun hierarchical distinction, which he believes leads to greater weakness and instability over time.

1 This distinction between types of knowing relates to wu-wei, or non-action/efficient action. Generally speaking, wu-wei is action that is non-self-conscious yet perfectly responsive to the situation. Here we might think of various examples in sports, dance, or theatre. Wu-wei is not mere idleness or lazy, disinterested engagement, but rather a powerful, creative quietude in the midst or flow of activity. It is akin to a virtuoso performance in dance or sports, as opposed to sitting listlessly in my chair. That is, when I am brooding in my chair I am focused on myself, but in the case of playing sports or dancing, I am focused on the performance and the game or dance. In other words, I am in the non-self-conscious “throw” of the activity, efficiently lost in the midst of it—“in the flow,” so to speak. To take a dancing example: at first, I am very clumsy and self-conscious, and everything involving “trying” and remembering the steps. But gradually, as I become more skilled, I have to “think” less and become less self-conscious of myself as engaging in this particular act or activity. This is what it means to move in the direction of wu-wei and mimic the nature of the Way. In wu-wei (non-action/efficient action), the strongly demarcated self disappears and there can then be pure responsiveness to the Way of things. Behavior and activity, then, become less atomized and become more like a “flow”—hence, the analogies to water.

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