When the great Tao is lost
we have benevolence and appropriateness.
When cleverness springs up
we have great hypocrisy.
When the six relations are on bad terms
we have filial obedience and parental compassion.
When the nation is confused
we have loyal servants.

This passage is generally seen as a Taoist attack upon Confucianism, packed full of ironic sarcasm. Confucianism sought to specify and articulate the correct relations between parents and children, husbands and wives, and elder and younger siblings; also between ruler and subject, emperor and minister. Benevolence and appropriateness, ren 仁 and yi 义 (or 仁 and 義 in ancient characters) are the primary virtues advocated by Confucians.

The passage is saying that these things only get prescribed when things are already out of joint. Who talks about loyal ministers unless it has become the case that the majority cannot be trusted? Whoever talks of parental compassion - isn’t parental kindness so natural that it need never be mentioned? There should not even need to be a name for it.

When we have codes of manners and behavioural prescriptions, people indulge in great hypocrisy. A manual of right behaviour becomes a catalogue of ways to pretend and cheat. When people lose their natural responses to one another they can fall back on formulas, but behaviour based upon these is inevitably contrived.

Confucianism and Taoism were contrasting responses to the social chaos of the Warring States Period when disorder prevailed as warring factions strove for supremacy, lives were short and cruelty was everywhere. The Confucians thought that what was necessary was to establish order so as to drive out the chaos. The Taoists, on the other hand, believed in a return to the simpler ways of the preceding age. The Taoists thought that the Confucians were making matters worse by turning society into one vast hypocritical ritual.

Some of this makes me think of difficulties that arise in teaching people to be counsellors and psychotherapists. Counsellors and psychotherapists can be said to offer an artificial relationship when natural ones have run into trouble. The trainee counsellor learns to become conscious of how relationships unfold and what can go right or wrong with them. This increase in conscious knowledge is the exact opposite to what is being advocated in this passage. When teaching the ideas of the psychologist Carl Rogers, for instance, one might hear students say such things as, “I decided to use some empathy.” If empathy becomes a skill to be artificially prescribed, it has ceased to be real.

However, the best therapist is not so much one who never gains such knowledge, but rather one who somehow gets beyond it. When one talks to a really good therapist one might have no sense of therapy going on. It seems just like ordinary conversation with a good friend, yet somehow things do change and issues that had seemed insuperable are resolved. Such counsellors are rare.

It is also apparent that our modern society suffers from many of the drawbacks that Taoists were so  sensitive about. Sometimes it seems that we have rules, conventions and forms to fill in for almost everything. This is partly a derivative of our ideas about equality and justice which Lao Tzu would have found abhorrent. People are not actually equal in any respect and so to treat them as though they are is inevitably a cruelty and an artificial contrivance. A truly person centred approach is closer to the Taoist ideal, though the Taoist would still ask why just being natural is called “an approach” as if one is talking about artificially trying to be natural or planning to be spontaneous. We are much further away from naturalness even than people in Lao Tzu’s own time.

We can, perhaps, see from these examples that the Taoist philosophy is a million miles away from many of our efforts to make society more rational or better regulated. Whether the kind of benign anarchy that Taoism suggests is possible in our over-crowded world is an open question. Nonetheless, we can certainly learn something from its advocacy of having more faith and less rules, more relaxed relations and less formalities, and of trusting the natural order of things.

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