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The Way of Politics, Chapter Six

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.

With Chapter Six of his Tao Te Ching, Lao Tse seeks to again remind his reader of the luminous power of the Tao. In this section, however, his focus is expressly on its feminine or “yin” dimension.

The Tao is called the Great Mother:
empty yet inexhaustible,
it gives birth to infinite worlds.

Steven Mitchell, in the poetic interpolation of Lao Tse's volume that has served as my source for these columns, employs the phrase “Great Mother” to encapsulate the feminine essence of this passage. But as Mitchell notes in his commentary, this first verse can be literally translated as:

The spirit of the valley never dies.
It is called the mysterious female.
The gate of the mysterious female
is the root of heaven and earth.

In either translation, Lao Tse is clearly attributing an extraordinary degree of power to the feminine. Yet, this attribution appears to bear little correlation with women's status in the manifest world. Why should this be the case? Could it be that men are somehow so intimidated by the power of the feminine that they have attempted to suppress it?

Nearly fifty years ago, anthropologist Ashley Montagu wrote a famous essay for High Fidelity magazine, entitled Why Wagner Was No Lady. In this essay, he postulated that men had a much greater need to compose music (and create in general) because, in some fundamental way, women were inherently more “complete” than men. If Montagu had been speaking in Taoist terms, he might have written that women typically embody a greater harmony of yin and yang – the archetypal feminine and masculine principles. According to Montagu's theory, men composed to connect with the feminine aspect of existence, to give birth to something. In contrast, women are capable of giving birth as part of their routine biological functioning. Montagu would add elsewhere:

"The natural superiority of women is a biological fact, and a socially acknowledged reality."

Female composers, and female artists of every kind, have become much more prevalent in the years since Montagu offered his theory. Plainly, changes in societal attitudes and expectations for women have changed this dynamic. Still, expressed in his era, or at virtually any time during the last twenty-five hundred years, Montagu's theory of female superiority would have been greeted as “fighting words” by men, and even some women.

It certainly appears that many of the controversies that divide us as human beings surround the role of women in society. Although the specific details of these controversies vary from culture to culture, and state to state, there can be no dispute that this tension between the sexes exists. And "fight" is a very apt description for what men have done to retain a position of dominance over women. That is, men have emphasized their physical and martial capabilities in an attempt to transform this equation in their favor.

Let me reiterate that the dynamic that I'm describing is not a merely a domestic phenomenon, but rather what appears to be a gender-based tendency that transcends culture. For instance, it's as true in Arab and Asian society as it has ever been in European or American society. But as Lao Tse adds in the concluding verse of this Chapter, another way is possible.

It is always present within you.
You can use it anyway you want.

What is always present within you? That would be the Tao, which is comprised of both an archetypal female and male mode of functioning in the world, regardless of whether one is a man or a woman.

An archetypical “yin” approach in the world might involve employing emotional intelligence, and appeals to reconciliation, when trying to find solutions to intractable conflicts, like the war on terror (or as it now being called, the “global struggle against violent extremism”). As a point of reference, the Bush Administration has emphasized an almost exclusively “yang” approach in attempting to combat this latest wave of collective insanity.

The President's characteristic strutting, and advocacy of violence, intimidation, and coercion diplomacy as solutions in a war of ideas, have predictably evoked an equally “yang” chord in the Islamic world – and actually swelled the ranks of the terrorists. Most dispassionate observers have been forced to conclude that this approach has failed miserably.

So, perhaps there is tremendous spiritual value in getting beyond a reliance on one mode of functioning, the masculine – and more than this, beyond the crutch of gender-based dominance itself. Instead of repressing the feminine, why not embrace it – both in oneself, and through welcoming the often very different perspective that women can bring to solving the world's problems.

The legendary poet-philosopher-scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe would likely have agreed with this remedy. Goethe saw all creative activity as ultimately inspired by the feminine. He concludes his towering final work, Faust, Part II, with this stanza:

All of the transient,
Is parable, only:
The insufficient,
Here, grows to reality:
The indescribable,
Here, is done.
Woman, eternal,
Beckons us on.

If Goethe was right, and humanity is on an inevitable journey, then should all wayward drivers stop their cars and ask a Goddess for directions?

This translation of the Tao Te Ching is by Stephen Mitchell, copyright 1988. It is available in paperpack editions from Harper Perennial Classics (ISBN: 0060812451) and Harper Perennial Persona (ISBN: 0060812451).
This translation of the "final chorus" from Faust, Part II was by Tony Kline, copyright 2003.
Ashley Montagu's essay “Why Wagner Was No Lady” was last reprinted as part of the long defunct magazine's Silver Treasury hardcover edition. It originally appeared in the magazine in March 1958.

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on July 31, 2005, as part of The Way of Politics series.