Oinoanda: “What the Truth Was Before it Turned into Ruins”

Even if you carve the truth on a gigantic rock mass, in the end, there will be no one to understand it. It will eventually merge into the soil and keep waiting to be understood. As human beings occupy themselves with empty beliefs instead of searching for the truth, we should take it our destiny to ask curious and wailing questions wondering “what the truth was before it turned into ruins”

– Quote from the documentary “Gigantic Jigsaw Puzzle: The Epicurean Inscription of Diogenes of Oinoanda

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April 13 is Hitchens – Jefferson Day

In solidarity with fellow blogger Secular Super-Humanist and with other followers of Epicurean intellectuals, I’d like to wish everyone a Happy (upcoming) Hitchens-Jefferson Day!

Adrian Fort’s original idea for the secular holiday was for people to give their friends copies of great books to nurture a robust intellectual life (and for contrast against the people who believe in the “one book, no fun” religions). I gained a historical awareness as a humanist after watching the film Agora, which depicts the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and the killing of female philosopher Hypatia. I don’t think humanists think in terms of history as much as we should. Reading certain books fixes that.

Books help to connect us with the entirety of human experience across vast spans of time. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed philosophical works from as early as 4,200 years ago from Ancient Egypt  (the Maxims of Ptahhotep, or Bika Reed’s intriguing commentary and translation of the Dialogue Between a Man and his Destiny), science fiction from as early as the second century of CE (Lucian‘s The True Story), AC Grayling’s The Good Book: a Humanist Bible and, of course, Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines, or Philodemus’ scrolls from Herculaneum.

It may be a great chance to get and/or give copies of my own books, Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014) and my review and study guide on A Few Days in Athens.

Speaking of secular holidays, I must not neglect to mention upcoming Openly Secular Day in April 23, a day when we pledge to “tell one person” at least. Openly Secular is an organization dedicated to making the world safer and friendlier for non-religious people in view of the fact that atheists (in spite of their rising numbers) are the most hated group in America.

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Seventh Taoist Contemplation: Nature as Echo in a Cave

It appears, when we read Lao-Tse’s description of the nature of things, that in his naturalist doctrine the vacuous nature of Tao is such that, in life, we get what we put in. This feedback loop is almost described in mystical terms. The universe mirrors our projected reality of it. Just like Nietzsche posited, our narrative is power, creation, and nature really does mirror what we put out as our creation.

What this means, if accepted as truth, is that angry people really do attract anger and resentment and conflict; peaceful people really do attract serenity; happy people really do attract and increase joy, and sad people do attract sorry situations. It remains to each one of us to study and observe nature to see if, and to what extent, this is how nature operates, if it really is like the void that the Tao says it is which not only serves as context, but also echoes back, as if we were in a cave; if it’s true that we can hear the resonance, that we co-create reality in much more subtle ways than we previously thought possible.

Thus those who follow the Tao are with the Tao
Those who follow virtue are with virtue
Those who follow loss are with loss
Those who are with the Tao, the Tao is also pleased to have them
Those who are with virtue, virtue is also pleased to have them
Those who are with loss, loss is also please to have them
Those who do not trust sufficiently, others have no trust in them

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 23

If this is the case, then it is important to have a healthy relationship with reality (Lao-Tse, in fact, reminds us of this from time to time), and this accentuates the importance of gratitude, satisfaction and mindfulness of the good things.

In practical terms, Lao-Tse elaborates this by explaining that moral authority is protective (chapter 55) and that unattached action affects others. This is a view that Confucius assumed also. We can influence others and affect their behavior with our own, by our own example. We are all role models in our world. People will treat us how we treat them, and how we let them treat us.

In the realm of government, Lao-Tse argued that the distrust of the part of government trickles down to the people and makes the people distrust authority as a result. In the realm of human relations, Lao-Tse argued that when we engage in violence, we teach our enemies and subjects to also engage in violence, perpetuating it in the world.

When people no longer fear force
They bring about greater force

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 72

Online Versions of the Tao Te Ching:

DC Lau’s Translation

S Mitchell translation

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The Problem With a Terrifying and Loving God


Another great Sarvodaya blog entry. Enjoy!

Originally posted on Sarvodaya:

One of the first things that caused my religious faith to waver was the paradoxical way in which the Christian God was conveyed (at least by my particular Catholic church): infinitely loving yet presiding over a cosmic system whereby sinners and nonbelievers suffer for eternity without pardon (a punishment that is literally unsurpassable in its harshness).

Now of course, there were always caveats, namely that God does not want anyone to end up in hell (despite first creating and still maintaining such a system), hence Jesus, the work of the church and its missionaries, etc.

Setting aside the ethical and theological scruples, I also took issue (and still do) with the way that Christians themselves use this contradictory nature as some sort of stick and carrot to cajole their opponents (be they nonbelievers, adherents of other religions, or even more liberal Christians).

Captain Cassidy over a Patheos captures this approach perfectly:

When a Christian…

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Sixth Taoist Contemplation: Lao-Tse as Life Coach

Efficient people do one thing at a time. They work on one project, bring it to completion, then move on to the next task. In On Why Materialism Matters, I made the case that in nature we observe what I call the paradigm of emergence. Complex things emerge from simpler things.

Notice the sense of emergence that is presupposed in materialism.  We believe that, first, there are atoms and molecules, then progressively more complex things.  We believe that from inert matter emerges living matter, and that living things evolve by developing complex symbiotic relations with each other, and only then there emerges egoism, the self, the me versus another in struggle or cooperation, identity and consciousness.

This principle was also elaborated by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura. All things in this way are composed of progressively smaller things. To build greatness, we must orchestrate the building of many small things in harmony with the great vision, inspired by it.

What this means is that progressively larger tasks can be best tackled as an amalgamation of smaller, focused projects and that, over the long term, if we persevere, these minute projects will unveil the great work of our lives. Therefore, a sage who understands the nature of things must keep in mind both short-term and long-term projects, and hold both small and large guiding visions.

Lao-Tse teaches means to achieve success in life along these lines when arguing for managing without meddling, and for attention to detail.

Plan difficult tasks through the simplest tasks
Achieve large tasks through the smallest tasks
The difficult tasks of the world
Must be handled through the simple tasks

The large tasks of the world
Must be handled through the small tasks
Therefore, sages never attempt great deeds all through life
Thus they can achieve greatness

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 63

The sage also invites us to think creatively of situations and strategically on when to act. Things achieve completion in their own time, and when one intervenes can be more crucial than how much force one intervenes with. Therefore, the sage who understands the wisdom of non-action minds the timing of his smaller tasks in view of the larger work, sowing the seeds for future harvest, and establishing the foundations for future construction. It is here that Lao-Tse pronounces his famous proverb, which is today paraphrased as: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”.

Act on it when it has not yet begun
Treat it when it is not yet chaotic
A tree thick enough to embrace
Grows from the tiny sapling
A tower of nine levels
Starts from the dirt heap
A journey of a thousand miles
Begins beneath the feet

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 64

Notice that this is incredibly practical advise. Here is a wisdom tradition that leads to success in all of our life projects.

The following verse deals with perseverence, which is of course always essential if we have a long-term project which requires many smaller tasks. We have to always keep in mind the larger guiding vision. We must continue being as careful and detail-oriented at the end of the large project (close to completion) as we were in early days of the great task.

People, in handling affairs
Often come close to completion and fail
If they are as careful in the end as the beginning
Then they would have no failure

Therefore, sages desire not to desire
They do not value goods that are hard to acquire
They learn to unlearn
To redeem the fault of the people
To assist the nature of all things
Without daring to meddle

These verses echo Epicurean teachings on how nature has made the things that are natural and necessary easy to procure, and the things that are difficult to procure nature has made unnecessary, and also serve as antidotes against the anxieties that we feel when we’re in the middle of large projects and lose our guiding vision. It is easier to remain productively engaged if we keep long-term perspectives in mind.

Online Versions of the Tao Te Ching:

DC Lau’s Translation

S Mitchell translation

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Fifth Taoist Contemplation: Military Advice

A good commander achieves result, then stops
And does not dare to reach for domination
Achieves result but does not brag
Achieves result but does not flaunt
Achieves result but is not arrogant
Achieves result but only out of necessity
Achieves result but does not dominate

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 30

I was surprised to find military advice in the TTC, a book that emphasizes non-aggression. But then I remembered that Taoism provides the philosophical underpinnings for many martial arts traditions.

Many warrior traditions take Taoism as their philosophical underpinning and starting point, teaching to use yielding and flow to one’s benefit when one is fighting, for instance, by dodging blows. In this manner, the opponent gets tired and his own force can be used against him. Martial arts are excellent arenas to explore the play between yielding and asserting, and how both qualities can be strong, wise and useful in a fight.

Things become strong and then get old
This is called contrary to the Tao
That which is contrary to the Tao soon ends

Because things are constantly in a state of flow and change, there is only a natural measure of military aggression that nature allows before the vitality of a military body diminishes. We are reminded of the exagerated size of the US military, which has earned us so many enemies and planted the seed for our harm and danger, and planted the seed for our economic and political downfall as a world power. This year China finally replaced the US as the dominant global power.

The size of its military is a great part of what brought the Roman Empire down. When we are too forceful, Taoism teaches that we are counter-productive. All things ebb and flow, no matter how great, even nations and military powers in the stage of history.

Chapter 78 in particular warns against excessive violence carried out by the state, arguing that when enemies of the state are victimized publicly they oftentimes become countercultural heroes. The execution of Jesus by the Roman empire and the destruction of the Jewish temple in the year 70 is one example of this: within four centuries, the entire empire was worshiping a Jewish rabbi. The flogging of Raif Badawi by Saudi authorities is having a similar effects: it’s galvanizing global opposition against the excesses of Saudi Islamo-fascism and the liberal blogger is now being considered for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Soldiers in battle die like cattle. – Philodemus, On Death

In chapter 42, the Tao Te Ching says that “the violent one cannot have a natural death”. Like our own sages, Lao-Tse warns against military involvement and says a military career is not a wholesome profession. Taoism teaches that we must only engage in war out of necessity and that in war, even victory should be treated as a funeral.

When using it out of necessity
Calm detachment should be above all

Victory without glory.
Victory in war should be treated as a funeral

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 31

Taoism teaches the doctrine of non-violence, however I did not find any specific strategies for non-violent resistance through a boycott (as in Jainism and Hinduism), or through exposure or comedy (as in Epicureanism). Instead, the sage is told to simply lower himself.

The great generals are not warlike
The great warriors do not get angry
Those who are good at defeating enemies do not engage them
Those who are good at managing people lower themselves
It is called the virtue of non-contention
It is called the power of managing people

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 68

Finally, in chapter 79, Lao-Tse advises that after dispues are settled, the sage must still remember that hostilities may remain and be mindful. He should not request vengence or payment of debts.

Online Versions of the Tao Te Ching:

DC Lau’s Translation

S Mitchell translation

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Fourth Taoist Contemplation: The Tao of Atheology 

The Tao is empty
When utilized, it is not filled up
So deep! It seems to be the source of all things

Empty, and yet never exhausted
It moves, and produces more

Tao Te Ching, Chapters 4-5

Tao can’t be seen, heard, or touched (Tao Te Ching 14-15). It’s nameless and without conventional qualities.

The mystery of the void is that it is non-being and has no inherent existence, but yet it exhibits relational attributes, it has no ending or limits, it ever flows and changes like a river, it serves as context for matter and reality. It’s the realm of infinite possibility. It’s impartial, and ever moves and produces new forms effortlessly just by yielding.

There is no jihad in the Tao. Jihad means struggle. If you don’t contend or fight, there is peace.

Only rebellion against the nature of things, which includes non-being and the void, produces needless jihad. This struggle is a symptom of existential anxiety, a needless desire to express aggression and action for the sake of “God”, which then replaces non-being.

The man who invents God could have accepted the nature of things, but he instead chooses to invest in a needless effort, which is wasted. He is trying to fix something that does not need fixing. Through this effort, he dodges insights into true nature and into his own nature, which is incomplete, but perfect in its incompleteness because nothing is ever complete and perfect except in Plato’s imaginal realm.

Yet yearning for Perfect Being or Perfect Nature or some other arbitrary, imaginary idea, men who rebel against the nature of things invent a personal divinity, personify the cosmos as a Supreme Being instead of accepting atoms and Supreme Non-Being (the void). This action, this effort, is detrimental, counter-productive and produces confusion about the nature of things. Atheist spirituality can be understood, from the perspective of Tao, as an effortless approach to reality, one that does not struggle or rebel against the nature of things, that accepts the Supreme Non-being underlying ultimate reality.

Who can be muddled yet desist
In stillness gradually become clear?
Who can be serene yet persist
In motion gradually come alive?

Online Versions of the Tao Te Ching:

DC Lau’s Translation

S Mitchell translation

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