Beauty and Ugliness (a conversational exploration of Chapter 2 of the Tao Te Ching)

Look at that. Mr. Clark and Mrs. Ashmore are at it again. I don’t know where they find the energy to carry on like that… And all over a tree!

Mr. Clark loves that gnarled old beech tree, but, as you can see, it’s growing right along the border between his place and Mrs. Ashmore’s, and she doesn’t share his fondness for it. In fact, she’s been fighting for years to have it cut down.

If you ask him, he’ll tell you it’s the most beautiful tree in the world. If you ask her, it’s an eyesore and a hazard to boot.

Who’s right? Surely one of them must be…

You’re right not to answer. I suppose in the grand scheme of things, neither of them are right. After all, we all see beauty differently. That must mean beauty exists in our perceptions of the world rather than in the world itself.

Why bother arguing about beauty, then? It’s like two people looking into the same mirror from different angles and arguing about what they see there!

But look at them out there, doing just that. They’re both absolutely certain that what they see is the truth.

This is a great example of humanity’s bad habit of acting as if the world is defined by what we think of it. But our opinions don’t make the world beautiful or ugly. It’s all in our heads.

It’s quite easy to see this when you’re only dealing with issues of opinion. Personal taste is meaningless away from the people doing the tasting. It’s considerably more difficult to realize that this is also true for many things we take for granted as facts.

You’d hardly expect me to argue with you, for example, if you were to point out something as obvious as the difference between sound and silence, but even such a seemingly fundamental difference is meaningless without an observer to create it.

Let me give you an example. Think about a creature with no ears — no ability to hear sounds at all. Do you think a creature like that has any idea of what sound is?

What about silence?

You might think that such a creature, having lived its entire life without hearing a sound, must be intimately familiar with silence, but without noise to create a meaningful distinction, silence would be just as unimaginable as sound — perhaps even more so.

Even things like light and darkness are subject to the same reliance on the observer. Some creatures are blind, while others can see aspects of the light that we can’t even conceive of. To them, our particular way of seeing the world would be meaningless.

Still, some people go through their lives assuming that the world exists exactly as they perceive it, and this is a mistake.

I’m not saying, mind you, that there are no absolute truths. I’m just saying that truth in not always as simple as we pretend it is. What we call truth is, at times, a simplification of something far more complex than we are capable of experiencing. These simplifications can help us to function in the world, but they do not make us masters of it. Our observations, though they are meaningful to us, are meaningless to the universe as a whole.

That’s why a good teacher doesn’t let the teaching get in the way of the lesson. They show you how to look for yourself instead of telling you how things are. This way, the student can get a brief glimpse the universe in all its impossible complexity rather than being blinded by the false clarity of easy answers.

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