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The Way of Politics, Chapter Three

This column originally appeared as part of The Way of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Way of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.

In the third chapter of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tse begins by touching on two seemingly unrelated ideas that actually hover around a central axis. Let us initially explore each thought separately.

If you overesteem great men,
people become powerless.

In this first sentence, Lao Tse might be describing our tendency to put inspirational leaders - like Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi, for instance - on a pedestal, to make them seem as imposing and larger-than-life as a father or mother must appear to a small child.

Of course, both King and Gandhi have been linked in recent decades to forms of intimate expression that some argue tarnish their legacy. However, from my perspective, these revelations only make their lives that much more inspiring and empowering, if a bit more dangerous and true to life. For while they seemed perfect but distant, they remained on a pedestal, their remarkable lives perhaps just another illustration of God's periodic intervention in human affairs.

But when these two men are revealed as simply human, bearing their crosses as best they could, wrestling with many of the same fears and compulsions as others, then there is suddenly no bar to mere mortals like you and me attempting to follow in their footsteps, and become the King and Gandhi of our generation.

And once that bar is lifted, their power to inspire us returns in all its former glory. Indeed, they become dangerous again - a danger to our complacency, to our habitual inaction, and lamentable self-absorption - which, come to think of it, is exactly how I suspect they'd prefer to be remembered.

With his second sentence in Chapter Three, Lao Tse shifts his focus from an unnatural esteem of particular people to things.

If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal.

Here Lao Tse is telling us that when material possessions are placed atop that same pedestal, when they are made virtual gods - as they appear to be to many in America, especially among that circle that President Bush describes as his "base" - then people will employ extraordinary means to obtain them, and keep them. Some will continue in this mode long after the day when they satisfied any reasonable urge to acquire either money or things.

Evidently, within this quasi-religious frame of self-reference, one's demonstration of their superior virtue is best expressed through a progression from Chevrolet, to Mercedes, to Hummer or Rolls Royce. And just as naturally, those who cannot quite afford these gaudy symbols of economic virtue will nonetheless attempt to acquire them - using whatever means, legal or otherwise, they have at their disposal. Seen in the context of our aggressively materialistic consumer society, perhaps even stealing should be considered a form of faith-based activism!

With both of these passages, Lao Tse is again (as he did in Chapter 2) directing our attention back towards an awareness of the unhealthy dynamics introduced through dualistic thinking - good and bad, high and low, or great and not-great. This is a theme he will return to again and again.

He concludes this chapter by urging us to get beyond hero worship, materialism, intellectual complacency, and even the recently celebrated ideal of a "purpose-driven life", and instead choose more emotionally centered, spiritually rich lives.

The Master leads
by emptying people's minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think that they know.

Practice not-doing,
and everything will fall into place

Still, one wonders if even The Master could impact the mindset of the Bush Administration - where so many remain so sure that they know, even when each and every action they take beget greater uncertainty in the nation, and greater violence and confusion across the planet.

Note: This translation of the Tao Te Ching is by Stephen Mitchell, copyright 1988. It is available in paperback editions from Harper Perennial Classics (ISBN: 0060812451) and Harper Perennial Persona (ISBN: 0060812451).

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on March 20, 2005, as part of The Tao of Politics series.