A tentative first step: Tao and Anarchism

In our translational discussions of the Tao Te Ching, we often find ourselves on the topic of Anarchism. Anarchism and Anarchy are some of the most loaded words around, so we would recommend that anyone whose blood pressure is already rising at their mere mention should take an immediate look at our ever-evolving definition of Anarchism to — at the very least — make yourself aware of what we are and are not talking about. These words get thrown around a lot so it is very important that — every time you hear them — you acquaint yourself with the particular definition of the person using the word.

Since we’ve never dealt with this (hugely complicated) topic on the site before, I think it would be prudent to begin by just gingerly dipping our toes in.

To that end, here are three short quotes from three major Anarchist thinkers (Godwin, Bakunin and Kropotkin) that bear a striking resemblance to very specific statements that appear in the Tao Te Ching. Please make an effort to take the quotes for what they’re worth and not let your opinion be tainted by any preconceived notions brought on by the word “Anarchist.”

William Godwin (1756 – 1836):

The truly wise man strives only for the welfare of the whole. He is actuated neither by interest nor ambition, the love of honor nor the love of fame. He knows no jealousy. He is not disquieted by the comparison of what he has attained with what others have attained, but by the comparison with what ought to be attained. He has a duty indeed obliging him to seek the good of the whole; but that good is his only object. If that good be effected by another hand, he feels no dissapointment. All men are his fellow laborers, but he is the rival of no man.

Sentiments such as those expressed here by Godwin can be found peppered throughout the Tao. Here is one notable example (Nothing Just Is hasn’t translated this far, so the following is taken from D.C. Lau’s translation):

The way is broad, reaching left as well as right.
The myriad creatures depend on it for life yet it claims no authority.
It accomplishes its task yet lays claim to no merit.
It clothes and feeds the myriad creatures yet lays no claim to being their master.
Forever free of desire, it can be called small; yet, as it lays no claim to being master when the myriad creatures turn to it, it can be called great.
It is because it never attempts itself to be great that it succeeds in becoming great. – Tao Te Ching, Chapter 34

Mikhail Alexandrovitch Bakunin (1814 – 1876):

Powerful states can maintain themselves only by crime, little states are virtuous only from weakness.

Here are several excerpts from the Tao Te Ching (also translated by D.C. Lau):

In the wake of a mighty army bad harvests follow without fail. – Tao Te Ching Chapter 30

The submissive and weak will overcome the hard and strong. – Tao Te Ching Chapter 36

Weakness is the means the way employs. – Tao Te Ching Chapter 40

Peter Alexeyevitch Kropotkin (1842 – 1921):

Now, a mighty revolution is at present taking place in the entire realm of science; it is the result of the “philosophy of evolution.” The idea hitherto prevalent, that everything in nature stands fast, is fallen, destroyed, annihilated. Everything in nature changes; nothing remains: neither the rock which appears to us to be immovable and the continent which we call terra firma, nor the inhabitants, their customs, habits, and thoughts. All that we see about us is a transitory phenomenon, and must change, because motionlessness would be death.

From the Tao Te Ching (D.C. Lau):

A man is supple and weak when living, but hard and stiff when dead. Grass and trees are pliant and fragile while living, but dried and shrivelled when dead. Thus the hard and the strong are the comrades of death; the supple and the weak are the comrades of life. – Tao Te Ching Chapter 76

As I said at the outset of the post, this is meant to be but a faint sniff of a topic that we will be exploring at length as time goes on. Hopefully you can see some of the similarities between the quotes. It is not our stance that Taoism and Anarchism are equivalent, but that — at their most basic, fundamental levels — they seem to be growing in the same sort of soil.

2 Responses to “A tentative first step: Tao and Anarchism”
  1. schonflora says:

    I love your definition of anarchism and the connection it has to the Tao Te Ching!!

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