On utopias

Lately, I’ve been reading a book called “The Tao is Silent”. It is a series of reflections on tao and taoism by Raymond Smullyan, a mathematician, musician, magician, philosopher and all-round trickster figure.

Long-time readers of this blog may remember that I blogged about Smullyan’s text “Is God a taoist” ages ago. The whole book is full of witty dialogues and thoughtful reflections trying to map the differences and similarities between western and eastern philosophies.

Smullyan has a lovely little story from the taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu, as translated by Thomas Merton:

When life was full, there was no history

In the age when life on earth was full, no one paid any special attention to worthy men, nor did they single out the man of ability. Rulers were simply the highest branches of the tree, and the people were like deer in the woods. They were honest and righteous without realizing they were “doing their duty”. They loved each other and did not know that this was “love of neighbour”. They deceived no one yet they did not know that they were “men to be trusted”. They were reliable and did not know that this was “good faith”. They lived freely together giving and taking, and did not know that they were generous. For this reason their deeds have not been narrated. They made no history.

Chuang Tzu indicates that there was a “once-upon-a-time” when life on earth was full. A sort of edenic scene. Such ur-topia goes well with the taoist notion that we live our fullest when we are as uncarved wood. Whole and unsplintered. It doesn’t mean that such a utopia has actually existed, but it is a way of describing that true power (or virtue) is within us and that it only requires us to find it.

Now, what I find really interesting is how Chuang Tzu says that in this utopia, there is no history. When all of the people there are living in effortless harmony with the Tao, it is unremarkable in its own right. They don’t consider it a story worth telling.

I think this is a remarkable insight on utopias in general: No one living in a utopia would have a need to describe it. But it is also a remarkable insight on how taoist philosophy transcends morality by suggesting that the considerations of morality lead us away from living in harmony with the Tao. As the Zen poet Seng-Ts’an says:

If you want to get the plain truth,
Be not concerned with right and wrong.
The conflict between right and wrong
Is the sickness of the mind.


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Smullyan’s book is one of my favorites along with several by Alan Watts. I really like how you tied the concepts of history and morality together. I had never considered the whole idea from that perspective before.

I finally got around to reading “The Wisdom of Insecurity” by Alan Watts, and it is a remarkable book. I look forward to reading more of his writing.

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