Taoism is the first major philosophical and religious tradition explored by Peter Marshall, in his book Natures Web. Marshall calls Taoism the way of nature,emphasizing that this is the ideal religion from the perspective of ecological sensibility. Passivity is a key element of Taoist thought, and is a repeated concept in the primary Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching. The concept of passivity stresses that the wise person will not attempt to cause change in his world, but will rather be receptive to and allow natural changes to happen, as is the way of nature. Other Taoist principles concerning government, society, life, and death branch off from this concept. Marshall considers this religion to be a necessary foundation for an ecologically sound world and way of life, which is why he makes it the foundation of his book. However, Marshalls views may not be entirely realistic when we consider the practicality of the philosophy to our modern ecological crisis.
Taoism follows a much different idea of the chain of being, than that of the other major religions (i.e. Hinduism, Judeo-Christian, Islam), which is very important in consideration of the ecological sensibility which stems from it. As opposed to a God-over-man-over-nature view of the world, Taoism states:
Human beings follow the Earth.
Earth follows Heaven.
Heaven follows the Tao.
The Tao follows the way things are. (Tao Te Ching, 25)
This is important, for humans are urged by Taoist thought to place themselves below all else, especially the world, but also other people. The wise person will put another persons needs before their own. Within this frame of mind, selfishness must be eliminated in order for life and nature to be in order.
The passivity that is spoken of in the Tao Te Ching is not to be confused with inactivity or laziness. I equate it more with the idea of potential energy. The concept of potential energy asserts that all matter, although at a state of rest, possesses an energy that will be released when the matter is in an active state. Applying this to Taoism, a person is expected to be receptive to change and ready for it, but must not actively try to cause change.
Water is often used as the symbol for this passivity, because it causes change and benefits all things without struggle. (Tao Te Ching, 8) It flows without a purpose, but in doing so it does good, because it has no personal needs or desires. It is also a good symbol, for it is active (i.e. in motion) while at the same time passive (i.e. flowing without purpose).
An empty vessel is another symbol that is often used in this case. The usefulness of a vessel lies in its emptiness. It is constantly ready to hold water, if it is needed to do so. The vessel is always not-doing (as is the Tao), yet there is nothing it cannot hold, or do. It will hold whatever is placed in it, much as the wise person should do for the world whatever is needed from them. The wise sage should fill spaces that are empty, rather than take from those which are filled.
The Taoist sees the existence of government as both negative and unnecessary. To live by the ways of nature is to be both spontaneous and passive. The ideals of government promote structure and control. It is clear to see how the two oppose one another. A ruler is not necessarily bad in the eyes of the Taoist. But a good ruler by Taoist standards is not the same as the modern concept of a ruler one who controls, asserts power and authority, and makes decisions. The ideal Taoist ruler is more like a wise sage, who embodies the Tao and allows everything naturally to change. This figure would probably be more akin to our modern idea of a teacher, educating his subjects, but not controlling them. Government conflicts with nature, and is therefore in opposition to an ecologically sensible society. Control is artificial, and power exists only if one believes it does. Such is expressed in stanza 32 of the Tao Te Ching, where the sage states:
The Tao is always nameless
And even though a sapling might be small
No one can make it his subject.
Theoretically, these are all very useful concepts. If all convention could be dropped, and we could live according to our nature, focusing only on being open to natural change, we would be in an ideal Taoist society. Living by the philosophy, we would charge ourselves with the task of filling in the holes we have already made in natures web, and taking from nature only what we need.
However, the philosophy suffers from a practical viewpoint. Our society is far too settled into reason as the basis for all living. To abandon the structure of government, the comforts of technology, and the safety of having power would betray reason as we have come to know it. Government, in particular, is what our society is structured around. To abandon it, although it is for the better of the world, would leave people afraid and unsure what to do. Moreover, as we have seen in such situations as the L.A. riots, being left to our nature brings out our greed, violence, and most detrimental, our fear.
We live in a world where fear is a very real thing in most of our lives. By Taoist thought, however, fear should not be an issue, because fear prevents us from being open to changes that may come upon us. Using the vessel concept, fear is like a lid, covering the vessel to prevent unwanted liquids from entering.
Secondly, we live in a consumer society. People desire things throughout their whole lives it is by these things that we measure our happiness. To abandon this in favor of finding joy in the simplicity of compassion and passivity would go against the very way our society runs. The problem again goes back to government the major proponent of Taoist ecological thought and the creation of money. Everything in modern society is measured in terms of monetary value. Even life can be insured, placing a dollar value on a thing we can not even comprehend. To live by the Tao would be to live by the benefit of the world, not the self. Darwin would most definitely have to be put aside in a Taoist society, for survival of the fittest would have no place.
Therefore, the Taoist philosophy has no practical value for society as a whole. However, it can have individual practicality. If people can guide themselves to live for the sake of the world and others, they will benefit in some small way. Obviously, individuals cannot abandon government, so the fullest potential of Taoism is not reachable by individual standards. But, a person can possess compassion and be a spiritual vessel by being open to positive change in the world. For example, by being open to using more ecologically sound products in ones everyday activities (i.e. Seventh Generation paper products, non-aerosol spray bottles), a person allows more positive change within the environment, even if that involves some sacrifice of money or convenience. Technology can be a positive thing in this respect as well, for without technology, things like recycling and water filtering would not be possible (although without technology they may not have been necessary either). However technological developments cannot be depended upon completely if one wishes to live by Taoist standards, for they can create artificial desires and prevent self realization. (Marshall 18)
Taoism is not something with which we can expect to replace our modern standards successfully. It is more of way of live for the individual to utilize in hopes that enough individuals will eventually come together for the good of the earth, before saving the Earth is no longer a possibility. Marshall approaches the subject well in Natures Web, discussing the philosophy with a rather unbiased outlook (a luxury we are not afforded when he gets to Christianity). He emphasizes the good qualities that are stressed when one lives by the Tao, and how it truly begins the framework for the modern ecological concept of unity within diversity.
Marshall, Peter. Natures Web. New York: Paragon House, 1993.
Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Trans. Charles Muller, 1997. Tao Te Ching Home Page.