The Tablet of Yays and Nays

Here I sit and wait, old broken tablets around me, and also new ones only partially written upon. – Thus Spake Zarathustra

Zarathustra and Moral Realism

Studying Thus Spake Zarathustra shortly after studying Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape brought up many questions, many of them interrelated, about how and where we derive our values from.

While the re-evaluation of our values is a necessity in Zarathustra, I’m not sure that the work proposes that nature is without values: rather, it proposes that they must be created (1). By contrast, The Moral Landscape proposes that values do exist in nature, and that through the study of nature (science) we can discern true morality as it exists and is observable in nature. To confuse matters further, it’s more than likely that both possibilities are not mutually exclusive: values exist in nature, and can also be created in culture.

Here are the two great questions before every post-religious individual seeking to begin the intellectual tasks of moral philosophy. We find ourselves, like Zarathustra, between the old tablets of the Law and the new ones, which are yet to be sculpted.

It seems to me that, by proposing moral realism and by arguing for the existence of real good and real evil (whether they are articulated as fair and foul as in Polystratus, pleasure and pain as in Epicurus, or well-being and being un-well as in Harris) (5), the effect this has is to return to the original (Persian) Zarathustra and to naturalize his own moral philosophy. In other words, this at once contradicts Nietzsche’s so-called anti-realist premise, and yet vindicates Zoroaster as his choice of pivotal moral philosopher.

That which creates insuperable joy is the complete removal of a great evil. And this is the nature of good, if one can once grasp it rightly and then hold by it, rather than walking about tediously babbling about the good. – Epicurus

Here, an aside must be made on the issue of definitions to avoid getting into trouble with other Epicureans of the past and present. Cassius argues that “every discussion of realism has to answer the question: reality measured how?” By this he is referring to the Canon, the use of our natural faculties (our five senses, our pleasure/aversion principles, our anticipations) to measure reality. In this sense, there is a particular doctrine of realism espoused by Epicureans, which is unique and distinct from a generic realism. It is this realism that we refer to in our discourse.

There are many further issues with definitions of terms like good and evil. The sources in our tradition do refer to natural goods as the things needed to meet our natural and necessary needs and desires (safety, friendship, food, shelter, etc.). These were referred to collectively as the kyriotatai, or chief goods, (almost?) invariably in the plural. Polystratus also uses evils in the plural. Just as there is no “humanity”, there are individual humans, it may be that similarly there is no (Platonic) good and evil, but we may be able to argue that there are goods and evils in the objective sense, in nature.

On Tangibility

Zoroaster sought, as Epicureans would have it, to make moral philosophy tangible and to express it in concrete terms. Good and evil are abstractions in Zoroastrian cosmology, but they must also find expression in the tangible, concrete realms of mind, speech, and action. This is where the real battle rages between so-called good and evil (pleasure and suffering, ease and dis-ease). We can then say of Persian Zoroastrianism, to some extent, the same thing that Colotes said of Epicureanism: only a moral philosophy such as this one can be practiced (and only insofar as it is defined concretely).

On three noble ideals be ever intent:
The good thought well thought,
The good word well spoken,
The good deed well done.

Is this not morality? It it not integrity and authenticity, when all three are aligned? Our Masters have taught us that Nature, through natural selection and through the pleasure-aversion principles, gently guides us in our choices and avoidances to the avoidance of harm and to seeking pleasure (2). This is loosely called the moral faculty and leads to our well-being. There are Zoroastrian passages that seem to vindicate the consequentialist view that Harris also defends, as well as Epicurean and even Nietzschean arguments that posit good as the cheerful and evil as gravity (3).

Doing good to others is not a duty. It is a joy, for it increases your own health and happiness.

Was Nietzsche aware of these Zoroastrian views, and was he attempting to rescue and articulate them within a naturalist philosophy? Or was he being the earthquake out of which new fountains emerge, and trying to do away entirely with the old systems? It’s hard to make a definite case for the former, because Nietzche’s morality is individualistic, but in his own expression of morality he did follow his intuitions all the way to Zarathustra, I would argue, for a reason. On some level, perhaps, the Persian prophet made intuitive sense. Hence, I think (Persian) Zoroaster was initially on to something, and it’s unfortunate that his naturalist insights got lost in the trappings of organized religion and supernaturalism.

In all cases, the goal of studying and teaching moral philosophy (to us) is to encourage people to choose pleasure and to avoid pain for the right reasons and in the right manner (3). It is crucial to consider what these things looks like and feel like in nature.

To restate this in pop culture vernacular, Zarathustra would not only want us to choose between the red pill and the blue pill in the Matrix that would either awaken us or keep us dormant: he would also reach into the Star Wars wisdom tradition and choose the light side (lighten up) and avoid the dark side (depression, hostility, fear, suffering) of the Force. This is what moral realism would imply. In fact the term Jedi, in its original conception, meant “mystic at the center” between these two impulses, having to choose between Ashla and Bogan (the original name in the Star Wars canon for the light and dark sides of the Force).

A binary language for morality is inevitable in moral realism, even if the dance between the two primal forces gets so complex that multiple hues of gray and even other colors appear. The aversion against the binary terminology among some post-religious thinkers may reveal something about the difficulties of the task of a contemporary moral philosopher. Real morality, if there is such a thing, must lead to that which is both true (red pill) and pleasant (light side of the Force). Are we really basing our values on the study of nature, or merely reacting against our upbringing and disillusionment?

On the (Limited) Usefulness of Abstractions

The teachers of Epicureanism have always been insistent on pleasure and pain as the concrete terms for good and evil because it’s easy to misconstrue the meaning of good and evil and other abstractions that are divorced from context, from matter, from the body and mind of sentient beings. The usefulness of these abstractions, for didactic purposes, can at times be limited and the pupil must learn to always articulate moral truths in concrete terms. The teaching here is perhaps best articulated as: we must always make philosophy tangible.

Having said this, we may recognize yet another layer of relevance and usefulness for these abstractions. In Zarathustra, the issue of morality is intermingled irrevocably with the issue of whether morality exists for the sake of this world, or some OTHER world that has been postulated, but for which there is no evidence in nature. If we exist and must be moral for the sake of another world, then the decay of belief in that other world results in the crumbling of that morality. This is a bad foundation for it, literally akin to building castles in the air. For this reason, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra argues vehemently that a morality for this world is needed, and that we need to create meaning for this world.

The meaning and morality of this world are life-affirming whereas those of a posited other world are life-denying (6). The preachers of the other world and despisers of the body, then, become the enemies of naturalist morality. I’m tempted to call them the Sith. There’s a very popular cultural meme online on how much former Pope Benedict looks like Emperor Palpatine.

We can then express moral principles not only in binary terms of pleasures and pains, ease and dis-ease, comforts and dis-comforts, ataraxia and perturbances, comedy and tragedy, but also in terms of the life impulse and death impulse, and even in terms of Yay and Nay (affirmation and denial of life, of reality, of nature). Even as we say this, let us not forget:

But even here it should be remembered that, in the natures of things, there were principles which had existence anterior to the formation of these axioms or propositions, and on which they are founded, and on which they depend for their existence: as, extension and solidity … We can, indeed, describe our innate sentiments and perceptions to each other; we can reason, and we can make propositions about them; but our reasonings neither are, nor can create in us, moral principles. They exist prior to, and independently of, all reasoning, and all propositions about them. – Jackson Barwis

In other words, if our moral reasonings are, in fact, based on the study of nature, then they are describing something real that exists in nature independently of them. This we call the moral faculty. The compassion that we feel when we observe an animal or human being suffering visibly, and the desire to alleviate the pain if possible, is an example of a pre-rational impulse that might be related to this faculty, which is so prevalent in our species that people who lack it can be diagnosed as sociopaths and are frequently believed to be damaged or disabled in a way not too different from when someone is missing an arm or a leg.

Nietzschean-Epicurean Synthesis

Nietzsche appears to deny that good and evil exist except as an expression of our own creativity and meaning-making faculty and, inevitably, of our own power. However, he admits realism into his naturalist worldview by calling for meaning and morality suitable for this world, and he even praises physics. It seems that both power and the study of nature are at play here, and Cassius argues that the label anti-realist that has been attached to Nietzsche is unfounded.

It is possible to synthesize Nietzschean conceptions of value-creation with our realism and naturalism. I believe this is desirable and even unavoidable, and I will argue this by taking as my starting point Epicurus’ own division of pleasure as either abiding (katastematic) or dynamic (kinetic).

Epicurus taught that (katastematic) pleasure is passive: this is the steadier well-being, gratitude, cheer and existential health that are the natural state for a sane and mindful individual. It does not require externals and pleasure is not derived from acquisition of goods or experiences.

He also taught that (kinetic) pleasure can be acquired from achieving some desired objective. This pleasure is less stable, it comes and goes with the externalities that furnish it. Sports, sex, great foods, are examples of dynamic pleasures of this kind.

Epicurean and Nietzschean philosophies have two approaches to similar life-affirming concerns. In Nietzsche the discourse revolves around power and creativity: the pursuit of dynamic pleasure arises from the will to power, but the art of living, our self-chosenness, our sculpting of our selves and our worlds through the conferral of sense or meaning, might be what we term abiding or katastematic pleasure in Epicureanism. It is true that they both are acts of self-creation and of choosing, of will-to-power: men who have time for leisure may or may not experience it as pleasant abiding. They may be nay-sayers and use this time to hate themselves and others, their choices, their environment, their existence. The attitude of pleasant abiding can be seen as a choice, an art, an act of conscious self-expression.

For instance, the most prominent example of abiding pleasure is gratitude, which is an expression of will, of creation: it is a way of saying “This is who I am with regards to life or to this situation”, and therefore extends meaning and value, and ultimately power, into the world.

The key difference is that, in N., both abiding and dynamic pleasures are expressions of our choice and power whereas in E., there ARE goods in nature and we are simply perfectly suited for their enjoyment. We need not struggle against Nature, on the contrary: we have a natural tendency to thrive in her.

To us, the pleasure faculty is less about creation and power than it is for N. because there is inherent good in the world, whether in the conventional qualities found in the nature of things, or (most often) in their relational qualities (4). And so we have a synthesis of Nietzchean and Epicurean views: value and pleasure are created (as with art, play and creativity), but they’re also perceived. They are there, factual, objective (the kindness of a good friend, a refreshing glass of orange juice, etc.)

Offerings for the Divine Child

According to Zarathustra, in the final stage of philosophical development, the intellectual morphs into a child-like being: free, playful, loosened up enough to sing and dance. Most importantly, he’s innocent, that is, he has a natural tendency for pleasure and a natural aversion for pain. When we posit that goods and evils exist in nature and can be discerned directly through our faculties, we should immediately look to our senses for insight into the aesthetics of goods and evils (pleasures and pains).

After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. – Matthew 2:11, Christian Bible

I have, for many years, had a rule in my household that everyday trash must get thrown out because bad odors, naturally, bring germs and dis-ease. This had never struck me as a spiritual or moral insight, until I studied the live-foods lifestyle and realized that all the mammals smell their food prior to eating it, that the nose is a hugely important organ for all sentient beings. My relationship with food changed as a result of delving, for a time, in the live-foods lifestyle: I began to relish the aromas and flavors of the foods more mindfully than before. Furthermore, if we take evil to mean disease and suffering, then things can literally reek of evil. Some bacteria and germs smell bad and produce illness. By following my nose and my instinct and by throwing away the trash daily, I had been making philosophy tangible in my home for years, all by instinct.

The Magi of legend who brought incense to the Divine Child were Zoroastrian priests. Notice that their gifts were not abstractions like righteousness or justice, instead they were aromatic: good smells. The third one had solid value of its own weight in gold, literally. Similarly, anyone who has used aromatic baths for renewal and recharging of vitality after a difficult day or as a treatment for tiredness, understands the very real effects of sensual therapy. Water, particularly when made aromatic, can have great purifying and uplifting qualities.

Many Earth and nature religions pay great importance to this: in the Afro-diasporic faith of Santeria, sacred baths are prepared with omiero, a flower-, plants- and herbs-infused water. A cool head, they teach, is a sign of being an elder, a mature persons. In my book, I mention that this omiero, or sometimes simply cool water, is used in these traditions to wash someone’s head in order to cool down a heated-up temperament, and I encourage people to cool their heads in this manner if they’re ever tired, confused, or angry. It simply works.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, at one point, speaks in terms of a sacrifice of honey. In Afro-diasporic faiths, honey is also used to sweeten life when it is bitter, and to sweeten people.

We could make a survey of all five senses and the things that awaken pleasure and aversion for each one of the five senses, and come to a richer and more detailed understanding of materialist and naturalist ethics, with Epicurus’ favorite place (the Garden) becoming the symbol for all the goods: fruits that nurture the body and soul; fountains for refreshment; flowers, barks from which sandalwood and other incenses and aromas can be derived; a location of natural beauty that is also a feast for the eyes; let’s not forget the pleasant association of other seekers of the pleasant things, and so on. These are the goods, the pleasures and comforts of this world that bring ease.

Notice how the imperative to make philosophy tangible produces, ultimately, highly therapeutic, practical and useful new tablets of ethics and rules for living for this world and for this body. These, too, are the Yays of a naturalist morality that can be woven into our projects of self-creation, our wisdom traditions, and our art of living.


1. Cassius Amicus comments: “Yes I think so, but I think some people jump from must be created to we create whatever we want and that is dangerous. I think N.’s focus is that tradition is not the right way to go about things, and that we have to look at our own situations anew rather than rely on what people before us have said about their situations. So he is not saying: “don’t look at nature and derive your values from there“, he is saying: “be sure YOU look at YOUR circumstances and derive values from them”. So I would reconcile this with Epicurus by saying that the basic truths of nature that derive from elements (mortality, no supernatural god, canon of truth, pleasure, etc.) are indeed going to be the same for everyone, but that the way the elements combine are so innumerable that we simply can’t rely on the way others in the past have evaluated THEIR contexts. That I think is Epicurus message largely in the PD’s in the 30’s on justice.”

2. Cassius: “Nature gives us is the faculty of pleasure as a guide, but beyond that it is pretty dangerous to flirt with the idea that Nature has also decided what is good … There are limits and bounds as discussed in Book 1 (of De Rerum Natura), but within those boundaries we have lots of freedom on what to pursue. Going either direction too far — thinking that values are totally determined, or thinking that they are not influenced at all by nature — both are wrong extremes … which is why N. wrote Beyond Good and Evil … Keep in mind the comparison to the word “virtue” that is discussed even more extensively. Both words are pure evaluation, and have no clear intrinsic content, and efforts to give them intrinsic content without reference to pleasure, nature’s only guidance, invariably end up with religion, rationalism, worshiping logic, etc. –because the theory Epicurus appears to be saying is that Nature gives NO guidance but pleasure, and that our efforts to maximize pleasure require reasoning, but with no other goal than pleasure (not reasoning to some other allegedly higher goal) … Epicurus is saying that the only real rule Nature has given us is to follow the faculty of pleasure intelligently.”

3. Cassius says: “Is there a right reason for choosing pleasure? If so what is it? Remember the opening of On Ends where it is related that Epicurus refused to discuss it and it is said: Hence Epicurus refuses to admit any necessity for argument or discussion to prove that pleasure is desirable and pain to be avoided. These facts, be thinks, are perceived by the senses, as that fire is hot, snow white, honey sweet, none of which things need be proved by elaborate argument: it is enough merely to draw attention to them. For there is a difference, he holds, between formal syllogistic proof of a thing and a mere notice or reminder: the former is the method for discovering abstruse and recondite truths, the latter for indicating facts that are obvious and evident. Strip mankind of sensation, and nothing remains; it follows that Nature herself is the judge of that which is in accordance with or contrary to nature.”

4. Cassius says: “The qualities – the things we experience – arise from combinations of atoms, and they are never permanent or unchanging. But (1) their combinations and changes are limited by the propertles of the elements, and (2) they do not change so fast that knowledge is impossible and we cannot apprehend them. Point one would be derived from the letter to Herodotus and Lucretius; Point two is right out of Diogenes of Oinoanda“.

5. I’m not saying these categories are all the same thing(s). They are not.

6. Cassius adds: “Epicurus is looking to Nature and saying YEA, and following. These others are looking at Nature and saying NAY! I can come up with a better system than you did, Nature! I can deduce, reason, dialectic my way to a HIGHER code of morality! I think a LOT of what we are discussing comes down to those two opposite attitudes”.

Further Reading:

Reasonings on Thus Spake Zarathustra

Reasonings on Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape

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Second Taoist Contemplation: Wu-Wei (No Action) Principle

Taoism teaches that not-meddling assists the nature of all things: by letting them run their course, we find the best results. This lets them be, helps them function as they should. This seems to suggest a case against some forms of transhumanism and attempts to become more than one is, as pointless, excessive, arrogant and counter-productive. It also makes the case for for sustainable development, and in fact Taoism (like Epicureanism) exhibits an eco-spiritual sensibility.

 We must not force Nature but persuade her. We shall persuade her if we satisfy the necessary desires and also those bodily desires that do not harm us while sternly rejecting those that are harmful.Vatican Saying 21

Lao-Tse joins Epicurus in saying that we should have a healthy relationship with nature, with the world, with reality, but he at one point takes it to an extreme by saying:

Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.

The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 29

This idea of abiding in the eye of the hurricane is seen in many other contemplative traditions, and it’s useful at times, but Epicurus would not have agreed with it. The world can be improved, and examples of this abound. Everyday, there are innovative inventions, machines that do the brutal labor that humans and animals used to have to carry out centuries ago, increasingly efficient gadgets that save us time, etc. We do have means of controlling and improving our experience, and by all means we should use them.

The key is knowing when to yield and when to assert: this is the art that the philosopher must master. Let’s not forget that there is both abiding and dynamic pleasures in nature. Both ways of being can be efficient and virtuous.

The Wisdom of Non-Action

Having said that, let’s begin to consider the virtues and the wisdom of yielding within various contexts.

Chapter 18 of the Tao Te Ching says that sometimes good things can come from bad ones, and bad things can come from good ones. In the scriptural example, after injustice there may be justice, with intelligence may come deception, with mistreatment by others there may come familial affection, and with societal chaos there may be an increase in loyalties.

It’s also been observed that after a hurricane or natural disaster, there is a huge outburst of compassion and aid. There is an ebb and flow in history and in nature where difficulties can bring about acts of redemption. The commentary on the DC Lau’s translation says that we should “avoid idealized notions about how to conduct life instead of taking life’s circumstances one step at a time”.

The practical teaching we find in these insights is that things that seem unpleasant at first, carry the seed of pleasant effects, and ergo the sage remains detached. Alan Watts once related the Taoist parable of the dignatary whose son hurt his legs in an accident, and the entire town expressed condolences, but then the following day there was a war in the kingdom and his son didn’t have to go to war because of his accident whereas the neighbors had to send their children to war. We find these kinds of parables, where things are not what they seem and reality is in constant flow, throughout the Taoist wisdom tradition.

There are many teachings that demonstrate how moderation is rooted in wisdom and insight. Chapter 9 warns against too much action and teaches that only a natural measure of action is needed to be effective, offering the example of over-filling a cup and over-sharpening a knife. Only so much action is required: when we go beyond that point, action becomes inefficient and useless.

Chapter 74 offers the examples of chopping wood on behalf of carpenter and killing on behalf of executioner. It appears that these examples are a warning against exacting vengence with our own hands, as for those who do these things, “it is rare they do not hurt their own hands”. Taking justice into our own hands instead of relying on the authorities can lead to anarchy, disorder, societal chaos, gang warfare. Taoism teaches that people should see the fruits of their own harm.

I am reminded of how sometimes in creative projects, too much effort tires the mind. When we study, we sometimes have to put our books aside and rest, sleep on the ideas, and then we’re refreshed and have clear, new creative ideas the next day or the next week. It’s frequently more efficient not to put in effort for a while.

Non-action can also be a sign of wisdom in the realm of speech. The fifth chapter of the TTC says that “too many words hasten failure”, and praises silence. It’s true that there are instances where not speaking is more efficient and wiser than speaking.

Those who know do not talk
Those who talk do not know

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 56

Many wisdom traditions teach this. There are parallel teachings in the Havamal and the oracle of Ifa, which both contain warnings against ignorant or young people speaking up excessively or inappropriately among the wise and the elderly, and demonstrating their lack of knowledge. In fact, one technique for getting intelligence and information from people, according to the Havamal, is by getting them drunk and allowing them to run their mouth. We are advised there that we should always remain sober in speech.

Grassroots Virtue

Thinking you are good can make you bad. Thinking about positive behavior can encourage negative behavior. – Lao-Tse

Ziran (naturalness) is a cardinal virtue in Taoism. Lao-Tse makes the case for naturalness as a virtue by saying that when we try to be good or virtuous, we become arrogant and inefficient. It’s best to be unassuming, sincere, and spontaneous, having no agenda.

Therefore the great person:
Abides in substance, and does not dwell on the thin shell
Abides in the real, and does not dwell on the flower

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 38

The respect for Tao, the value of virtue
Not due to command but to constant nature

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 51

The idea is to do random acts of kindness and joy without being ostentatious about our good qualities. Epicurus also has this notion: people are naturally good, in normal circumstances, and therefore there is no need for commanding good or for authority-based morality. Moral authority emerges naturally from our nature and finds expression in our mores, legal codes, etc. I call this grassroots virtue.

The Tao Te Ching invites people to become the measure of the world and to become like infants, presumably innocent, pure, following pleasure, shunning pain, acting simply and according to their nature. This natural state of humanity is frequently contrasted with cultural corruption in Epicurus. This is what Taoist references to plain wood mean. A block of uncut wood is natural, uncorrupt, it has natural shapes. This roughness is considered virtuous. We should be natural, be ourselves, with no pretensions, with all of our complexities and nothing more.

Return to the state of plain wood
Plain wood splits, then becomes tools
The sages utilize them
And then become leaders

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 28

Even our vulnerabilities or softness is a virtue, if it’s what nature endowed us with. To return to the example of the hurricane, if a branch or tree is flexible, it will bend under the winds and will not break. It can then survive the storm. On the other hand, a branch that does not bend, that is not flexible, will not adapt to the storm and will break. The same thing happens with people, and even with armies.

All living things, grass and trees,
While alive, are soft and supple
When dead, become dry and brittle
Thus that which is hard and stiff
is the follower of death
That which is soft and yielding
is the follower of life
Therefore, an inflexible army will not win
A strong tree will be cut down

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 76

We are therefore encouraged to fully embrace our state as natural beings with our natural limitations and idiosyncrasies and to find the virtue in things as they are. Naturalness is a virtue.

The ultimate act of yielding lies in surrendering to the experience of death. Revering and embracing reality in this sober manner is the ultimate redemption and it’s a katastematic pleasure, understood as a pleasure found in yielding. This may sound hard to understand, but let’s ponder it: acceptance of our death does away with the intense fear and apprehension we may experience concerning our future state of non-being. If we surrender to our own nature and accept our identity as mortals, and to the extent that we do, these perturbances leave us and we are alleviated, liberated, at ease. This ease is experienced as a pleasure.

Nature here doesn’t give us a choice with regards to dying, our only choice is whether we yield, whether we are flexible or inflexible. We have to die but we don’t have to be perturbed by death: it’s only if we try in vain to fight our mortality, that we suffer. This is the prime example of unwise action and of wise yielding. This is wisdom: to learn to die. To accept death.

This ultimate surrender to the nature of things is one of the arts that naturalist philosophy prepares us for.

Online Versions of the Tao Te Ching:

DC Lau’s Translation

S Mitchell translation

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First Taoist Contemplation: the Yielding and the Asserting

Taoism is, together with Buddhism and Confucianism, one of the three great philosophical traditions of China. It is entirely indigenous and has had great influence in popular culture through Star Wars. Taoism inspired the once-fictional religion of Jediism, which is now evolving into a new religious movement.

The most revered text is the Tao De Ching, which consists of 81 short chapters, each with only a few paragraphs. These are short and to the point, but they’re not entirely clear and easy to grasp.

Doctrinally, Taoism can be seen as either a religion or a philosophy. As a religion, it has strong roots in indigenous Chinese ancestor reverence and shamanism, and recognizes a pantheon of folk deities. As a philosophy, it’s a naturalism. It recognizes Three Treasures: compassionconservation (sometimes translated as moderation), and not daring to be ahead in the world (sometimes translated as humility).


The Yielding and the Asserting

The central symbol of Taoism may be familiar to most readers: it’s known as the yin-yang and represents the union of opposites: the feminine and masculine, the yielding and the asserting in an eternal dance everywhere in nature.

Similar primal dualities exist in many other primal wisdom traditions. The priests of the Yoruba oracle of Ifá recognize two of their Odu (sixteen sacred oracular letters), known as Ogbé and Oyekún, as the most ancient mysteries in creation. They represent light and dark, day and night, the living and the dead, expansion and contraction. All the other Odu, or elements of nature, emerged from these two. In Norse mythology, the two primal principles that existed at the beginning of creation are fire and ice, which also exhibit the qualities of expansion and contraction.

Taoism teaches that nature, in its most fundamental expression, takes on two roles: that of passive yielding and that of asserting, of aggression.

I wish to go back to the very fundamentals of Epicurean doctrine to explain the intuitive brilliance of Taoism, and why it has been such an important project for me to study the Tao. The theory of the atom was originally proposed by Leucippus and his pupil Democritus some 2,400 years ago, at about the same time or shortly after the time that Lao-Tse was teaching his doctrine. The founders of atomism were rebelling against early philosophers who had been speculating (using reason) without relying on the senses (empirical evidence). Specifically, they rebelled against Parmenides’ idea of the All, where he taught there was no diversity and no movement, which is obviously false and against Zeno’s paradoxes like the one that imagined that things could be split into smaller particles ad infinitum. The atomists didn’t think there was a need for this, and posited that ultimately particles came to a point where they could no longer be divided, and named these indivisible elements atoms, from the Greek word for indivisible.

Now we can move our hands and bodies, we see movement everywhere, and we know that planets and heavenly bodies are also moving. In order for an object to move into a place, there has to be emptiness. If a space is filled, nothing can move into it. Therefore, the early atomists recognized atoms and the void as the ultimate reality underneath all things. This is the binary language of nature and of reality: being and non-being, atoms and the void, which then exhibit the qualities of assertion and yielding: atoms move into a place, the void allows them.

Many assert that the void is not a thing, that it is non-being, and that therefore it does not exist in a conventional sense. They argue that, clearly, it has no qualities, and therefore the void is not a thing in nature. While we recognize that the void is non-being, we also recognize this as dangerous word-play. We approach reality through our faculties and through evidence, and evidence points to atoms and void.

Also, it may not be entirely true that the void has no qualities: it has no conventional qualities, but does exhibit relational qualities. Upon interaction with atoms, with things, it yields.

Taoism teaches that all of nature and all of reality is a perpetual flow and dance between the yielding and the asserting.

The Pleasure of Yielding and the Pleasure of Assertion

Ease and pleasure are elaborated in both Taoist and Epicurean wisdom traditions. Taoism teaches that things naturally take their course, and if we learn to enjoy the movement and learn to profit from it, we maximize how life is pleasant and easy. Yielding also makes us more virtuous and efficient. This will be elaborated further in the discussion of wu-wei, or inaction.

Perhaps the emphasis on the teachings about yielding has to do with how society and conventional education and wisdom teaches that we must succeed via sacrifice or effort or action. Taoist teachings counteract conventional wisdom by showing how there are different ways to be effective and active in the world, and how things are oftentimes not what they seem. I will be exploring this in future blogs on the Tao.

If you would have a thing shrink,
You must first stretch it;
If you would have a thing weakened,
You must first strengthen it;
If you would have a thing laid aside,
You must first set it up;
If you would take from a thing,
You must first give to it.

This is called subtle discernment:
The submissive and weak will overcome the hard and strong.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 36

A couple of generations after Democritus, Epicurus taught that nature guides living beings through the pleasure-aversion faculties, and that there are two kinds of pleasure: katastematic or abiding pleasure is passive and happens when there are no desires being satisfied, both before and after active desires; kinetic or dynamic pleasure happens when desires are actively satisfied. These teachings he derived from the study of nature, and he asserted that although it appears that abiding pleasure is not actually pleasure, that the natural state of living organisms is wellbeing and health and that this state is one of ease and pleasant abiding.

This trust of nature is also seen in Taoism. It teaches that a sage learns to be at ease in all situations, to be in flow and to allow nature to follow its course; that people should act according to their own inherent nature, that it is pointless to repress or inhibit it.

Online Versions of the Tao Te Ching:

DC Lau’s Translation

S Mitchell translation

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Interesting Read: Decline of Democracy?

Originally posted on Sarvodaya:

From Aeon:

Neo-liberalism, which was supposed to replace grubby politics with efficient, market-based competition, has led not to the triumph of the free market but to the birth of new and horrid chimeras. The traditional firm, based on stable relations between employer, workers and customers, has spun itself out into a complicated and ever-shifting network of supply relationships and contractual forms. The owners remain the same but their relationship to their employees and customers is very different. For one thing, they cannot easily be held to account. As the American labour lawyer Thomas Geoghegan and others have shown, US firms have systematically divested themselves of inconvenient pension obligations to their employees, by farming them out to subsidiaries and spin-offs. Walmart has used hands-off subcontracting relationships to take advantage of unsafe working conditions in the developing world, while actively blocking efforts to improve industry safety standards until 112 garment workers…

View original 344 more words

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Seven Arguments against Paul .. and the Toldoth Jeschu Tradition

Argument 1: Paul’s immoral views on slavery, women and gays

In Ephesians 6 Paul told slaves to be loyal to their masters, comparing slave-masters to Christ. In 1 Timothy 6, he again advised submission, praising his own teachings by saying that they were a ‘sane doctrine’.

Jesus said by their fruits we shall know them. Paul’s teachings on slavery were used by the Portuguese crown in Brasil when they commissioned Antonio Vieira, a Catholic priest, to produce a slavist theology and to teach slaves to submit to their white Portuguese masters. The theology that Vieira produced was absolutely obscene. He promoted the ‘mark of Cain’ doctrine, whereby blacks were the children of Cain and blackness was a curse. Africa was compared to hell, and servitude to white Christians was the only way to salvation.

Paul also promoted a Taliban-ish attitude toward women: they had to cover themselves up, sit in the back of the church and never speak or teach.

And then of course there’s the long list of false witness that he bore against gays in Romans 1, where he even called gay people assasins, and then he concluded in verse 32 with his stance that gay people deserve to be murdered, as well as those who enable gay people. This is not coming out of the mouth of Reverend Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, but out of the pen of Paul: it was Paul who first wished gays would all just fall dead. There is still consensus among conservative Christians that it is okay to question gay people’s right to exist, although many refuse to admit this problem. But in the dark ages, gays were cooked alive in public and no one experienced guilt, thanks to Paul the Bigot.

Paul’s homophobia was the first thing that made me raise an eyebrow with regards to who he was and what he was doing writing epistles supposedly in the name of Jesus, whom he never met. I would like to share some of the facts that we can glean from scripture on this character, and let each person come to her or his own understanding and conclusion with regards to Paul.

Argument 2: “The lot fell to Matthias“, says the Bible

I believe that the first and most important verse to ponder is Acts 1:22 where Paul’s status as an apostle is flatly denied. When Judas was no longer considered an apostle, the disciples cast lots. Two candidates were considered, none of whom was Paul, and Matthias was chosen as the new twelfth apostle.

Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.
– Acts 1:26

Argument 3: “But do not ye be called rabbi“, says Jesus in Matthew 23:8

It is clear in the Bible that Paul was no apostle, however he claimed to be one in 2 Timothy 1:11. I wonder how Matthias felt … and the people who chose Matthias.

“And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher (rabbi).” – Paul

This verse is also an instance where Paul directly contradicts Jesus, who said: “do not have yourselves called teachers“. By having himself called “teacher”, he was challenging and contradicting Jesus. He clearly did not know that Jesus had said this.

Can someone who contradicts the Christ be considered a Christian prophet or apostle?

Argument 4: “They gave me nothing”

The mutual animosity between the apostles and Paul is evident in numerous verses of scripture: from Acts 9:26 we see that many did not trust or believe in Paul from the beginning. He had this to say about the apostles in Galatians 2:6

“As for those who were considered important in the church, their reputation doesn’t concern me. God isn’t impressed with mere appearances, and neither am I. And of course these leaders were able to add nothing to the message I had been preaching.”

Let’s brush aside the air of arrogance and jealousy in this verse (which we will see again in 2 Corinthians 11:5) and look at what he is saying. Other translations say ‘they gave me nothing’. The Spanish versions say they ‘taught me nothing’. Now, in those days the only way to learn the good news was hearing it from those who had heard it from Jesus because the Gospels had not been written. We know that Paul never met Jesus. This explains why Paul does not, ever, not even once mention one single teaching, one parable, or one event from the life of Jesus. If the disciples and apostles ‘gave him nothing’, then this can only mean that he basically made up his own gospel.

Argument 5: The vision on the road to Damascus

The claim that he had a vision on his way to Damascus has 3 different versions which all contradict each other in Acts 9:7, 22:9 and 26:14. In one version he falls to the floor, but in 26:14 they all fall to the floor, not just Paul. In one version the others hear a voice and see a light, in another they see nothing. One would think they would remember exactly what they saw and heard. It does not sound like a believable account. Furthermore, this is Christ’s veredict in the Gospels:

“… if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.” - Matthew 24:23

Argument 6: Paul’s confession

Paul himself, in his own letters, attests to his own dishonesty. This is as revealing as Jeremiah 8:8!

“Yet, crafty fellow that I am, I caught you by trickery!”
– Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12:16

Argument 7: The church in Ephesus

… I know that you … have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. - Revelation 2:2

Here we see that at least one of the authors of the Bible mentions that there were false APOSTLES. Notice that it is not false ‘prophets’ but specifically ‘false apostles’ that are mentioned here. We should then ask ourselves: who claimed to be an apostle without being one?

Revelation 2:2 mentions that at least one church will speak openly about this false apostle: the Church of Ephesus. In 2 Timothy 1:15, Paul himself admits that he had been rejected in Asia … and he concludes this chapter specifically mentioning that it concerned the Church of Ephesus.

The fact that Revelation 2 praises those who rejected Paul (I can’t think of who else they may have been refering to) is even more important and shocking if we consider the fact that this chapter concerns the final judgement. In other words, whoever wrote this was hoping that these verses would be diluscidated in the last days.

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. - Matthew 7:15

Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder. – Genesis 49:27

… I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. – Paul, in Romans 11:1

The Toldoth Jeschu Tradition

In addition to the above arguments, recently published a piece calling Paul “the most successful double-agent in history” and asserting “that Judaism has preserved for thousands of years that Paul was deputized and sent out by the rabbis of organized Judaism for the explicit purpose of spreading misinformation among non-orthodox Jews and other converts to Christianity“.

I’m not sure where this tradition derives from, but it certainly is a fascinating account of the origins of Christianity and may help to make sense of some of the contradictions and controversies mentioned above, some of which were also touched and expanded upon in my review of Reza Aslan’s Zealot, where the author also argues the case that there was irreparable animosity between Paul and the apostles, and particularly against Jesus’ brother, who sought to practice a wholly Jewish form of Christianity.

Further Reading:

Toledot Yeshu, from Princeton University’s Judaic Studies page

Schonfield According to the Hebrews

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Epicurus On the Three Kinds of Pupils

Epicurus remarks that certain men have worked their way to the truth without any one’s assistance, carving out their own passage. And he gives special praise to these, for their impulse has come from within, and they have forged to the front by themselves.

Again, he says, there are others who need outside help, who will not proceed unless someone leads the way, but who will follow faithfully. Of these, he says, Metrodorus was one; this type of man is also excellent, but belongs to the second grade. We ourselves are not of that first class, either; we shall be well treated if we are admitted into the second. Nor need you despise a man who can gain salvation only with the assistance of another; the will to be saved means a great deal, too.

You will find still another class of man, – and a class not to be despised, – who can be forced and driven into righteousness, who do not need a guide as much as they require someone to encourage and, as it were, to force them along. This is the third variety. If you ask me for a man of this pattern also, Epicurus tells us that Hermarchus was such. And of the two last-named classes, he is more ready to congratulate the one, but he feels more respect for the other; for although both reached the same goal, it is a greater credit to have brought about the same result with the more difficult material upon which to work.

Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, LII, 3-4



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