Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Twenty First Century Taoism

John Gray's book Straw Dogs is an attempt to cover the course of human history and modern global affairs from an evolutionary perspective.
Nothing new there. But as a writer he does three interesting things:
1. He writes very well; his sentences are short and he doesn't use five words where two will do; or jargon.
2. He writes from the point of view that humans are animals. How surprising that this should be unusual, since we obviously are.
3. And he quotes from the 6th century BC Chinese taoists. Taoists believe that everything follows its own nature, and the best of all possible worlds happens when we let them get on with it. Interference just makes things worse, even when done with the best of intentions, unless you are acting directly as a result of contemplation and your own nature (this is a Zen-type paradox, and must not be taken facetiously).
So, he believes, you have first to understand the "nature of things", including humans, with care. That's what this book does, and then it tries to apply that understanding to modern politics.
The result is a radical viewpoint that has offended and shocked many and earnt the admiration of many others - including Will Self, who made it his book of the year.
Read a review here.
This is a rather negative review and is based on a misunderstanding of Taoism and of Gray's attitude.
Yes, the book is pessimistic in the sense that it lays open reasons to fear the way the world is going. Can anyone be really optimistic about this?
But it posits a way out of our dilemmas. Far from being a recipe for totalitarianism, as the reviewer suggests, the maxim that real freedom lies in having no choice, is another Zen paradox. The modern mantra of freedom of choice is based on the doctrine of individualism that has its roots in marketing theory of the early twentieth century.
Contrast this idea of freedom with that of an animal or an aborigine, eking out their daily survival. Naturally you or I do not want to live like this. They may be free, but their options are limited since they can't watch a DVD or fly to Disneyland.
But, the aboriginal way of life is certainly the most sustainable, since modern aborigines can accurately interpret Stone Age cave drawings - which betrays a continuity of culture we find astonishing if we think about it.
Freedom of choice does not equate to happiness. Nor does totalitarianism.
But in a world where basic needs (as in Masnach's hierarchy) and human rights are met, the addition of further choices (eg between ten types of washing powder, or 1000 models of car), can create unacceptable stress, because the infrastructure to supply that choice necessitates a world which is based on the exploitation of the majority (the world's poor), and destruction of the world's resources, natural and mineral.
Unless you can suggest another way?

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