Taoism in the West – part 2

It would be easy to stop there and only consider the thematic similarities. What is more interesting, in my opinion, is to look at the underlying world-view of both Taoism and the Classical World. Simultaneously we must look at the often unspoken world-view that is the foundation of our modern life. Looking at one highlights the other, and in doing so reveals the driving forces of our age.
What Taoism and the Classical philosophers had in common was the implicit understanding that the Universe was not a thing, but a process. This becomes clearer when the religious traditions of the Classical Near-East are considered. The Greek creation myth is not one of a divine act which brought our world into being, but instead a generational conflict between old and new forces. The Greek King of the Gods, Zeus, killed his father, the Titan Cronus, who himself had castrated his father, the Sky-God Uranus. Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth) had emerged from the primordial Chaos at the beginning of Time.
There is a cascade of creation and metamorphosis that finally leads to the present moment. The Gods are just as much a part of creation as the Universe itself. The day-to-day interaction of the divine forces, of Nature, and of human beings could bring yet another transformation. The Universe is in a dynamic balance between these forces.
In contrast, modern Christianity, which provides the underlying world-view of the western world for believers and nonbelievers alike, describes a universe which is fixed.  The World was created as an act of will, and any change that was made to it was a further act of Divine Will. Indeed, some arguments today against the reality of Global Warming is that we humans are incapable of changing the weather, and only God could do such a thing. The Christian world is a self-contained and immutable.
These ideas have real-life repercussions. Even the most hard-nosed Western materialist atheist has to face the facts that most of our laws of physics today assume that the Christian viewpoint of a fixed universe is correct. For example, we assume that the laws of physics are the same throughout the universe, but that assumption relies on a theological argument that the Divine Creator made a single Universe at a single point in time with unified laws. There is no evidence of this unity, it is just assumed because of a logical leap of faith. Similarly, Einstein himself was quoted as saying that “God does not play dice with the Universe.” We could ask, why not? To a Classical Greek, if the universe was the result of the conflict between divine forces, how is a metaphorical game of dice any more improbable than any other conflict?
Closer to home, these two contrasting view-points shape our view of ourselves, and of our bodies. In a fixed universe guided by a Divine Will, our condition in life, and indeed our bodies themselves, are an expression of this same Divine Will. We view ourselves as a single point of creation (our soul, or Ego), trapped in a body of animated mud descended from Adam. Again, ask any atheist about how many souls he or she has. The answers will vary between one and none. Ask a Taoist, and the answer is five. We Westerners are trapped in a Mud Body that must be beaten and shaped through effort, a body that can break and betray us. That body is “our” body (a possession, which implies separation). But it is not “us.”
To Taoists and the Ancients of the Classical world, the body is the source of transformation. It is the gateway that leads to different states of being. By using various yogas and exercises, the Taoist transforms and purifies the Essence and Qi of the body in order to develop a stronger Spirit. Similarly, the body itself is the consecrated element in a ceremony, which is why sacrifice was so prevalent in Classical times. You can only sacrifice something of value to the Divine. You sacrificed bodies and meats and drinks because they were inherently expressions of a Divine creative urge. The body is the vessel of the spirit, not its prison.
To be fair, it must be noted that this body-soul conflict emerges out of the writings of Plato, who will have an enormous influence on the development of Christianity. But the Platonic view of the Soul was not shared by all, and is indeed undercut by the creation myths common to the Classical age.
This strict duality is the next flashpoint between the two world-views. Christian (and Platonic) duality is absolute. Good is the opposite of Evil, light is the opposite of dark. Theologically, what is not of God is therefore of the Devil. There is no middle ground, and no room for negotiation. This leads us to a stark place where we are allowed the bright, clear, masculine and physical part of the world (the parts belonging to God) but denied the dark, ambiguous, feminine and numinous aspects (those belonging to the Devil). A vast surplus of Yang energies with no Yin to tame it.
In contrast, since the Classical age was patterned on Nature and therefore cyclical, the natural condition was one of flow back and forth between two opposite but complimentary states. Opposite states were seen as mirror-images of each other, complementing each other. A clear example of this is the Egyptian goddess Nut, whose body forms the dome of the sky above our heads. But she is also the link between Earth and Heaven since the land of the dead, the Duat, is in her belly. She is simultaneously the goddess of the Above-world and the Under-world, as her body becomes the place where the souls of the dead reside, and the place where the sun goes at night.. She is both above and below us.
Similarly, the god Apollo has a surprising dual nature. Often thought of as the god of the Sun, he represents light, order and knowledge. But one of the main ways to become acquainted with His divine knowledge was by going into a cave and resting quietly in the dark. The Sun God was found in the dark places of the Earth[1]. Similarly, when the Greek heroes needed wisdom, it was to the Underworld that they would travel. There they would meet Persephone, the Goddess of Death whose touch would cure you, not kill you. Again, opposites in balance. Indeed both Apollo and Persephone point at the main characteristic of the useful Gods: action. Persephone was the Goddess of Death by marriage. Her husband, Hades, was the lord of the Underworld. He embodied the order that existed in the afterlife, and was therefore fairly useless. Persephone moved back and forth between the Underworld and the Earth (thus bringing Spring every year). Apollo as the sun, appeared and disappeared every day. It was his coming and goings that granted him wisdom and knowledge. He was the god of prophesy and art as well as intellect, his brightness counteracted by the numinous and intuitive. It was Apollo’s and Persephone’s transitions that made them powerful, not their fixed state.
This leads to far healthier states of mind, in my opinion. The birth of psychology in the West was based on the analysis of the conflict between the repressed aspects of ourselves and our inherent nature. Freud called it the Id, Jung called it the Shadow. Whatever the term, by not acknowledging this buried and dark aspect of ourselves we created neurosis. Yet both Freud and Jung saw how these dark aspects were also the home of Eros, of the urge to create, the urge to love. They were essential to our well-being. In Taoism, there is no good or bad emotions, they simply are. We can be rule by them, or rule them and use them to our advantage. There is no need for shame, no reason to view our impulses as inherently wrong, or bad, or sinful. They simply are, part of the turning and churning of our internal world.
Both Taoism and the Classical Near East share a world-view which embraces duality as complimentary and necessary forces. They are changing and changeable. The universe itself, and everything within it, is changing, part of a process of creation, destruction and transformation that continues and which we are part of.
In the West these ideas were carried on by the Hermetic tradition. This tradition was always hidden from the Church authorities because of the radically different world-view it represented. These ideas were almost lost to history with the destruction of the library of Alexandria and the fall of Rome. Thankfully the Arabic scholars saved and translated these ancient Greek texts.
This wisdom re-emerges throughout history, influencing scientists like Newton (who was an alchemist) and even the political movements that lead to the Enlightenment, and both the French and American Revolutions. Hermeticism is not some obscure and forgotten philosophy. It is the thread in Western history that connects the intellectuals, scientists and revolutionaries that brought us kicking and screaming into the modern age. It is the force that stood against the closed minds of the Inquisition and the darkest impulses of the medieval Catholic Church.
At the core of all these traditions is that there exists an underlying unity to the Universe, and that we are part of it. We are more than our physical bodies. We are connected to each other and to the rest of the material world through the bonds of consciousness, through which we can witness the grand movements of a Living Universe.
These common ideas, found in ancient Egypt and an emerging China, are part of our common human heritage. The philosophies of Taoism, Hermeticism and Parmenides are not some cultural or historical curiosity. They are the closest thing we have to a truly Universal Philosophy, a philosophy of freedom of the self, of freedom of the mind, while giving us a profound connection to the Universe itself and all of it’s inhabitants. It allows us to be truly ourselves and truly divine at the same time. It demands that we question our laws, our leaders and our institutions and recalibrate ourselves according to natural laws. This is why these traditions are not part of mainstream culture. They are profoundly dangerous to whoever is in power at the time and the proponents of this philosophy have been persecuted tirelessly, whether by the Inquisition or the Chinese Communists.


[1] “In the dark places of wisdom”, Peter Kingsley, pg 82

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