Episode 60 - Summer Book Club Book 3: Tao Te Ching

Dr. Bryce Christensen joins President Scott L Wyatt and Steve Meredith this week for the third book in the Summer Book Club: Tao Te Ching. They discuss Dr. Christensen’s experience with Chinese literature, the structure of Taoism, and ideals found in the Tao Te Ching like empowerment, community, and hard work.

SUU Blog: President Wyatt’s Summer Book Picks for 2019

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions to Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I’m your host, Steve Meredith, and I’m joined in-studio today, as usual, by President Wyatt. Hi, Scott. 

Scott Wyatt: Hello, Steve. It’s great to be together again and talk about another incredible piece of literature. 

Meredith: Yeah. I’m…this is book three out of four of our summer book series and I thought I wasn’t really smart enough to read and understand Hamlet, and I’m telling you that I felt even more that way about this book. [Both laugh] But why don’t you introduce our guest and he can help us understand better the Tao Te Ching. 

Wyatt: Yeah. We’re honored to have with us today Dr. Bryce Christensen from our English department, teaches literature, welcome, Bryce. 

Dr. Bryce Christensen: Thank you, Scott. I thank you for the opportunity to be here. 

Wyatt: We’re reading this because you suggested it and that…it has been a very interesting time and a reflective time talking through this. Could you kind of give us, first of all, kind of an introduction to yourself and then let’s talk about this book. 

Christensen: Well, I…my background is actually in British literature. My dissertation is about a very non-Taoist figure, Thomas Carlyle, and I for a time, actually, for a number of years, I taught English as a second language. And it was that that I began to tell myself, “I need to understand my students better, I need to understand where they come from.” So, I started to read in classical Asian literature. The Japanese, the Tale of the Heike and the Man'yōshū and then some Chinese, The Analects, the Arthur Waley translation of The Analects was one of my early readings, and then as I transitioned from teaching English as a second language to teaching English literature back to where my…really, my academic training had prepared me here at SUU, I…Professor S.S. Morty who had taught our Asian Literature and Translation retired and the department chair looked around, “Who can do this?” And somehow, I don’t know how she knew because I hadn’t really put myself forward, but Kay Cook said, “Will you do this?” And I read even more as I was teaching and so, I don’t come with a lot of academic study in this field, but I think reasonably wide reading and certainly intense interest. 

Wyatt: Well, and I think that you’re understating it a little bit. And, in fact, you’re going to be in Asia this fall. Again, right? 

Christensen: I am, yeah. I’ve been to Asia a number of times, but this will be for a long…I’ll be a Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan teaching at National Taiwan University for one academic year. I’ll be teaching American literature. I’ll be in their foreign language department and they expect me to teach in English, which is a very good thing because my Chinese is virtually non-existent, but I think one of the…I don’t know. I wasn’t in the committee meetings that identified me as a Fulbright Scholar and opened up this opportunity, but I suspect that my having taught Chinese Literature and Translation and I’ve taught quite a number of classes of Chinese literature and translation, a number of which have incorporated the Tao Te Ching in the curricula. I think that may have been one of the things that made the committee responsive to my application. 

Wyatt: Yeah. Well, you have a lot of experience in Asia and I would imagine that when you go over there and teach English literature, or British Literature, what you’ll find is…what they’ll find is, I should say, is that your understanding of their literature will help you teach them well. 

Christensen: I certainly hope so. And there are interesting…there’s always some danger of making too facile a  comparison, but still, there are some compare like Li He, the so called “Ghost Poet” of classical Chinese poetry is remarkably similar in some ways to Edgar Allan Poe. And Tao Ching is someone who leaves behind the imperial court to live, not on the banks of a pond, but still in a rural area, deliberately leaving behind the…is a little bit like David Henry Thorough. There are comparisons. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Christensen: And I hope that being able to make some of those connections will be helpful to my students. 

Wyatt: Your respect and understanding of their culture will help you help them understand our culture because they’ll see that you care and are interested. That will be a lot of fun to hear your reports when you get back. 

Meredith: That will be. 

Wyatt: But let’s set the framework. So, we live kind of in siloed worlds, don’t we? We know the people in our neighborhood, and we know the stuff that our parents read, and our neighbors read, but the book we’re talking about today is massive and probably most people in America have never heard of it before. 

Christensen: It certainly is massive in its cultural impact. It actually, as a text, if you lay the John Minford translation includes a good bit of commentary as glosses on the…if you take out the commentary, the text itself is relatively short. What is it? The great scholar of world religions, Houston Smith, says of the Tao Te Ching, “Read it in an afternoon, contemplate it for a lifetime.” It’s not that long just as the text, but it reverberates in the mind and in the heart. 

Wyatt: I don’t have a good translation, but Tao Te Ching means, “The way, virtue, and scripture” right? 

Christensen: The key term, and it’s an ambiguous term, Tao Te Ching, the “Ching” means “book.” 

Wyatt: Or “scripture.” 

Christensen: Well, yes, or “scripture.” It can mean that, it can mean “text” or “sacred text.”

Wyatt: The Bible has that word in it. 

Christensen: Mhmm, mhmm. And the “Tao” and the “t” “d” distinction is not phonemic in Chinese. So, you’ll see “Tao,” you’ll see “Dao,” they’re the same thing. And, as I said, it’s not a phonemic distinction in the Chinese language. The “Tao” means “the way” and it’s a word that appears in the intellects of Confucius. But the Confucian way and the Taoist way are remarkably different. The…I think Houston Smith gets it right when he says that most Chinese combine these two traditions and usually a third tradition, that of Buddhism, in their lives. There…you can find Chinese individuals who emphasize one of these three classical strands of culture. We speak appropriately as Du Fu as the great Confucian poet, Li Bai as the great Taoist poet, and Wong Wei as the great Buddhist poet. And those are…but if you look at any one of them, you can find strands of the other. For instance, for instance in Du Fu in his [inaudible] and he’s a very Confucian poet and Confucianism is all about moral commitment. It really is…and self-cultivation as something that you strive for. It’s morally strenuous…much more morally strenuous than Taoism, but there’s this wonderful couplet at the end of [inaudible] where Du Fu says, and I’m relying as Stephen Hinton as a translator here, “It is here in idleness I become real.” That’s a Taoist moment. That’s not Confucius. Well, there are some contemplative…some invitations to contemplation in Confucianism, but that isn’t the characteristic tone. The characteristic…whereas Taoism is much more receptive. The word that, and I don’t…I can’t read the original text, but the character that Hinton has translated as idleness, “It is here in idleness…” Idleness might sound like, “He’s goofing off.” No, no, no, no, no, no. That’s not what it is about. It’s an openness. It’s the leisure that the German philosopher Pieper refers to, Josef Pieper. Leisure the Basis of Culture and Pieper, in that wonderful book, says that westerners don’t even know what true leisure is anymore. We just think it’s loafing or resting up for the next job. Pieper explains, and I am going across cultures and going across centuries, but I am confident that the idleness that Du Fu refers to is the leisure of Pieper, and Pieper says, true leisure is contemplative. It’s meditative. And, good Catholic that he was, Pieper says that it’s akin to worship. It is what is invoked when the Lord through the Psalmist says, “Be still. Be still and know that I am God.” That that’s the idleness. It’s not a nothingness, it’s a receptivity to that which is larger than the ego. 

Wyatt: It’s being present, thoughtful. 

Christensen: Yes. 

Wyatt: Not having your mind cluttered with things so that you can contemplate, think, ponder. 

Christensen: And also, and this is one of the things I’ll want to get to, we Western, and I speak of someone who…I wouldn’t self-identify, self-characterize as a Taoist, but I’ve found valuable insights in Taoism. Things that I think maybe help put my life in a little better balance. I think we, Americans, even more broadly, Westerners in general, tend to be very agenda driven. We have things we want to do. And that can lead to what the British poet Elizabeth Jennings called, and I love her phrase, the phrase I’m about to quote, “A kind of tutored willfulness.” The willfulness, we want to impose our will on at least a piece of the universe. We want…the world becomes our project. We’re going to turn the world into something that serves our desires. Sometimes just our appetites, I think modern America is very appetitive. Whereas what Taoism invites us to is a very different mindset. We let go of our agendas, we let go of our willfulness. We go into what the…a key concept in Taoism, John Minford translates it as non-action. I’m going to give you another translation here in a minute which I like, maybe, just a little better, but it’s the transliterated is “wu wei”. And wu wei is…the John Minford gives “non-action,” another translation is “wise passivity.” An image to my mind comes from a film I use a number of times with students when I was talking about Taoism and it shows this leaf floating on the stream. This leaf floating, and I think that’s an apt image for wu wei. There is no personal deity in Taoism, but there is this: there’s a trust in that which is larger than the self. There’s a trust in a cosmic pattern which is larger than the self. And there is a willingness…well, the phrase, in fact, that’s the title of one of John Minford’s sections is “Letting Go.” There’s a letting go. “I’m not going to impose the world”…excuse me, “I’m not going to impose my will on the world today. I’m going to be open, responsive. I’m going to trust in the ebb and flow of the cosmos.” 

Wyatt: Let’s…before we get too far into this, let’s…I think it’d be helpful to define some of the things you’ve mentioned. One is Buddhism, which is a religion that started in India…

Christensen: Right. 

Wyatt: And then came to China. Taoism, which is a religion that we…and this book we’re reading is a foundational text for that, but it’s not a religion in the sense that we see it with one leader and a whole structured organization. It’s more of an informal…informal is the wrong word, but…

Christensen: Spontaneous.

Wyatt: Yeah. And Confucianism is…Confucius was a philosopher and a lot of people think that he was starting a religious movement, but it wasn’t really religious, it was a…he’s a philosopher. 

Christensen: Right. 

Wyatt: He’s like Plato or Socrates. 

Christensen: Yeah, Confucianism was a social philosopher. He tells us nothing about God. One of his disciples one day asked him about the hereafter and he sort of waves off the question. He says, “We’ve got enough trouble trying to get things right here without worrying…” Now, he doesn’t deny, he’s not an atheist…

Wyatt: It’s just not interesting to him. 

Christensen: It’s not part of his field of vision. 

Meredith: Hmm. 

Christensen: So, Confucianism is a social philosophy. Taoism I think is, in some ways, is more fundamental. It’s more cosmic. Confucianism is very, “I’m apologetically anthropocentric.” The man is the center, human concerns are the center. And there is a passage in…there are other passages that suggest a somewhat different perspective, but there’s a passage in the Tao Te Ching where the…let’s say, Lao Tzu, there’s some question as to whether this mythical figure, Lao Tzu actually existed, but let’s go with the tradition and say Lao Tzu wrote it, and Laos says…

Wyatt: Before you go there, though, you said something before we started recording that I thought was fun. 

Christensen: OK. Yeah, the…Confucius existed. There’s no doubt, he was a historical figure. Lao Tzu is a very sort of mystical legendary figure, maybe existed, maybe doesn’t, but my attitude toward the historical existence of Lao Tzu is sort of…it doesn’t matter, it’s sort of like what Mark Twain said about the author of The Iliad and the Odyssey. He said, “It was either Homer or someone else of the same name.” [All laugh] It doesn’t really matter so very much. 

Meredith: Right. 

Christensen: We have the text…

Wyatt: It’s either the person or a group of people. 

Christensen: Right. 

Wyatt: And we call that group the same name as the person. 

Christensen: Right. We have a somewhat similar thing with the Cold Mountain series of Buddhist poems. There is a name attached to the text, but some scholars think it was a group of monks who…Buddhist monks who wrote it. Do we really care? I mean, we have the bones. We have the poems, that’s what matters. That’s what matters. 

Wyatt: You’ve always been an advocate for education for the sake of the education itself. Not because it’s leading us to something, necessarily, but just because the experience of reading something fantastic is a worthy goal in and of itself. 

Christensen: Absolutely. 

Wyatt: And when I read through this book, I thought, “I can see why Bryce loves this book.” Because this…that’s what the Tao Te Ching is about. It’s about just contemplating, thinking, not imposing your will, not being too stressed about the future, just the way. 

Christensen: It’s the way. The way. And there is…one of the things I like about the John Minford is his introduction, in which he says, “I haven’t written this for scholars. I haven’t written this for intellectuals.” And I think that’s wonderful. One of the things I tell my students, and not only when I’m teaching Chinese Literature and Translation but British literature, is once a work of literature becomes the exclusive property of academics, it’s dead. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Christensen: It’s dead. That isn’t to say that academics don’t have a legitimate place in studying, but when it becomes the exclusive property of academics, it’s dead. Real literature is part of, you know, the truck driver’s got a copy on his seat next to him and the homemaker’s got a copy that she reads and that real literature is a part of the lives of the people with no academic credentials that somehow license them to lay hold on the text. 

Meredith: Right. 

Christensen: Real literature is part of living, and I think the Tao Te Ching is a wonderful text for people of…you don’t have to be…in fact, being an academic, Confucianism is a very…fits very much in academic life. Taoism sort of invites you to skip that class. “Skip that class. Go out and…” 

Wyatt: Yeah, yeah. 

Christensen: And so, being an academic might actually keep you from getting in the spirit of Taoism. 

Meredith: Right. I felt that reading it too. There’s a kind of a Gossamer quality to it. That the further you try to push into it academically, you lose the thread a little bit. 

Christensen: Right. 

Meredith: It sort of is in opposition to what the poem is actually inviting you to do and engaging in that thing that we as academics always do, “Hey, I want to get to the bottom of this. I want to understand every single word of this fully.” You end up ripping up the poem all of the sudden. 

Wyatt: Yeah, that’s a great way to look at it. And, in a very poor analogy, but nevertheless, I’m going to make it anyway because it’s a poor analogy, but in some respects, looking at this I’m thinking of Benjamin Franklin and Poor Richard’s Almanack. Because it’s just really simple advice. It’s just advice for everybody. 

Christensen: Yeah. Though…

Wyatt: But not…like I said, it’s a poor analogy. 

Christensen: Yeah, the think about Franklin, he is more…

Wyatt: Motivating you to…

Christensen: Yeah, exactly. He’s more practical. He’s more practical. He gives you advice, the, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes man healthy and wealthy and wise.” And the wealthy…may thou wealthy part too that…yes, the Tao Te Ching there are passages that indicate that following the Tao will lead to a…this is, doesn’t use the exact thing, but kind of human flourishing, but it’s not as utilitarian as Franklin. 

Wyatt: Yeah. Franklin was talking to the common person. 

Christensen: Right. 

Wyatt: And this book talks to the common person. 

Christensen: I think it talks to everyone. 

Meredith: Everyone, yeah. 

Wyatt: Everyone. 

Christensen: Certainly, the common person. And the…but it’s the kind of text that offers layers of meaning. It’s sort of like Jesus’ parables that they yield a level of meaning to someone who’s sort of paying attention with a piece of his or her mind, but a deeper meaning to…and I think the Tao Te Ching, if you pay attention to it just casually, that you’ll get part of it. It will yield a meaning, but if you look at it more with fully, more intently…

Wyatt: Would you say that it was more clearly understood at the time it was written? Or what you’ve just described…so, when I read it, I’d read, you know, a page and think, “That one sentence was really cool and the rest of it I’m going to have to think about because I don’t have the faintest idea what he was talking about.” But originally, this is…I’m trying to remember when this was written, but it was more than 2,000 years ago. So, about 25…

Christensen: Yes, roughly the same time as the Analects. They come out about 2,500 years ago. 

Wyatt: Yeah. Would a person then read this and say, “I’m following this perfectly well.”

Christensen: Well, perfectly may be a stretch, but it would be peculiar, it would be astounding if a text were not, at least some aspects of a text were not better understood by the contemporaries of the author than by the people living 2,500 years later. What kind of time traveling text would be better understood by readers 2,500 years after the author…that just…

Wyatt: In the sense of parables, as you described…

Christensen: Mhmm. 

Wyatt: A person that lived at the time of Christ and heard a parable, some understood it, and some didn’t.

Christensen: Well, that’s true today. 

Wyatt: Would you say that’s a comparison for this back then? Or was it more obviously understood by people when they were in that culture and time? 

Christensen: Without question it would be better understood by…and I think there are certain aspects of American culture that push us away from understanding this text to begin with. There are passages where Lao Tzu speaks of…I’m going to what’s called verse 65, you might call it section 65, “Of old, Taoists did not impart…” and then it goes on, but I just want to start at the first line. “Of old…” His standard, and this is one of the places where Confucius connects somewhat, I’ll do the somewhat here in a second, Lao Tzu looks to deep antiquity as a standard. “Of old they had it right.” Americans, as the UCLA historian Joyce Appleby says, “For Americans, the future is a blank screen on which we project our desires.” This idea of looking to deep antiquity as a standard, woah! That’s alien. That is really alien. I mean, we advertise cars saying, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” “We’re better, we’re moving on, the past is dead, there’s nothing there. This is a different…”

Wyatt: Including the Oldsmobile. 

Christensen: What’s that? 

Wyatt: Including the Oldsmobile in that. 

Christensen: Including the Oldsmobile, right. [All laugh] But this…and the difference here, “Of old…” Confucius looks to five sort of mythical legendary ancient rulers. He sees them as…and he, Confucius frames his effort as an attempt to recover what they knew. To recover what these ancient rulers knew. Lao Tzu goes further. He goes back to a deeper antiquity even before civilization to a kind of almost tribal. And this is, let me go to this 65, “Of old, Taoists did not impart of illumination, they kept the folk foolish. Too much wisdom makes them hard to rule. To rule through wisdom is to rob the nation. To rule through absence of wisdom is to bless the nation.” In some ways, that resonates with Rousseau. Rousseau is very kind of understanding of civilization as an invitation to artificiality and in authenticity. And it’s one of the places I frankly balk a little bit, but…and yet I, to some…who has not been in a meeting or been in a bureaucratic procedure and said, “You know, I’d rather be out there in the woods.” That civilization is an accomplishment, but there’s a loss and gain. Civilization sometimes does entail some of the problems that Lao Tzu speaks of and Rousseau speaks of. Civilization is, “I’m not going to take off my clothes and run naked through the wilderness, but I am going to reflect and think there’s a downside to civilization and sometimes does mean a kind of repressing of spontaneity and a lack of connection with our deepest primal impulses and instincts.

Wyatt: One of the interesting pieces of this for me was how he describes leadership and those kinds of things. If you just jump to the 66—and I have a different translation than yours—but…

Christensen: Which one do you have? 

Wyatt: I’d have to…

Christensen: Yeah. This is one of the most translated…

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Christensen: Texts in all the world. It’s right up there with the New Testament, with the Baga Baguita, but yes, there are many, many translations out there and it’s good to read many of them and compare them.

Wyatt: It’s interesting when he says, “If you would guide the people, you must serve with humility. If you would lead them, you must follow behind. In this way, when you rule, the people will not feel oppressed. When you stand before them, they will not be harmed. The whole world will support you and will not tire with you.”

Christensen: And that, of course, resonates with the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. “Who of you would be greatest among you will be servant of all.” 

Meredith: Right. 

Christensen: And there was this kind of…when the Jesuits first went into China, there was this kind of debate over whether the Confucianism or Taoism offered the more natural…the more promising, let’s put it that way, the more promising entry point for these Christian, these Catholic missionaries, and the…there are some Jesuits who said, “Confucianism. I mean, look. The Bible says honor your father and your mother and that’s right at the heart of Confucianism. And the Bible teaches us to be virtuous and Confucian dei is very much about duty and there’s…but, I think the Taoists among them maybe had a better argument in that they said that when Jesus says when someone strikes you on the right cheek and you turn, that’s more Taoist. And there is a wonderful, just astonishing passage that…the first time I read it was in the Lin Yutang translation and I’m going to refer to that briefly here, but “Whosoever is willing to accept the nation’s filth will be Lord. Whosoever is willing to absorb the nation’s misfortune will be king.” The Lin Yutang translation, the character says, “Whosoever takes upon him” I think he’s going the “filth,” “Whosoever takes upon him the sins of the world, he is the king of the world.” 

Meredith: Hmm. 

Christensen: Which…yeah. And Lin Yutang is a very respected translator. In fact, Minford at one point uses some lines from Lin Yutang as a gloss on his translation. 

Wyatt: Yeah. It’s a different concept of power. It would be good for all of our leaders to read this and think about leading with humility. 

Christensen: Yeah. And the whole idea of empowerment is kind of a god term in education. If something is empowering, it means it’s good. Right? Right? Right? Well, Lao Tzu raises some doubts. Lao Tzu raises some doubts in verse 38. He says, “Higher power is no power. But lesser power…” So, the higher power is no power, so if you have no power at all, that’s when you really have power. “The lesser power does not let go.” Those who actually have lesser power do not let go. “Is not power at all. Higher power does not act.” And yet, that’s back to Wu Wei, “And yet all is accomplished.” “Lesser power acts and fails to accomplish…” And there’s one other passage here that I think harmonizes with that. And the…if I can find that…oh, it’s water. “Water…” This is eight. “Water does not contend. It abides in that which the multitude abhor. So, it is close to the Tao. The best dwelling depends on the terrain, the best heart and mind depends on depth.” And this, “Water does not contend” and going back here to this 78, again, “In all under Heaven, nothing is softer and gentler than water. And yet it prevails over the hard and strong. Yield and you win.” The direct…it’s kind of vaguely buy pervasive Nietzsche-ian will to power in our culture. The “must have power, must have power. Those who have power…” And this is a pushback…pushback puts it the wrong way, it sounds like it’s engaging it on the same level. This is simply an opt-out. It’s just a, “No.” “Nothing is softer and invites us to be soft and gentle like water. And yet prevails.” Water…what made the Grand Canyon? 

Meredith: Mhmm. 

Christensen: The soft and gentle presence of water.  

Wyatt: Consistent. 

Christensen: Yeah. 

Wyatt: Soft. We mentioned this in our last discussion because this was…but it follows the kind of train of thought that you have just been speaking of, this is in 76, “We are born gentle and weak, but at death are stiff and hard. Green plants are tender and filled with sap; at their death, they are withered and dry. Therefore, the stiff and unbending is a disciple of death; the gentle and yielding is a disciple of life.”

Christensen: Yes, yes.

Wyatt: The more rigid we are, the more difficult it is to truly be alive and be successful. 

Christensen: Right. And why are we rigid and stiff? I suppose there can be a number of reasons, but one of them is we are so intent on having our way. And that makes us contentious and rigid. That the…I think we’re, particularly in modern education, it’s all about fostering positive self-image, and I suppose that’s not entirely bad, but there is a danger there. There is a danger and Taoism is more an invitation to humility and self-effacement. “Whosoever,” this is 24, “Whosoever displays self does not truly shine. Whosoever vaunts self is not truly radiant. Whosoever boasts of self does not prevail. Whosoever brags of self does not endure.” I think of the, in my mind, marvelous social philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain has written, I think, very insightfully about what she calls, “The Sovereign Self” which sees as way to prevalent in modern America. And by the sovereign self, she means the self which insists on having his or her own way. There is…that does not yield to the cosmic rhythms but is determined on creating the rhythm that he or she will live by. And Elshtain says that the multiplication of sovereign selves is ruining our social ecologies. And…yeah, I think she’s right. I think she’s right. That if we maybe were a little more Taoist, a little less intent on advancing our personal agenda and satisfying our personal appetites, our personal desires, there is…where is it? It’s a wonderful…about the great calamity of desire. And, in a way, this harmonizes perfectly with Buddhism, because Buddhism is all about letting go of personal desire and ego. In fact, Minford points out in his introduction that Taoism in China helped to incubate a particular strand of Buddhism called the Chan, in Japan, it’s Zen Buddhism. 

Meredith: Right. 

Christensen: And in his commentary on Bai Juyi, a classical Chinese poet, David…Minford says that Buddhism and Taoism run together and that there’s really no separating the two in Bai Juyi’s thought. That Taoism and Buddhism are just…they are the same. They are the same thing. 

Wyatt: I’m looking at 37, and at the end of that…this is an interesting contrast of culture or however…at the end of 37, “Without desire there is tranquility and in this way, all things would be at peace.” Now, obviously, if you won’t want anything, you are at peace. 

Christensen: Right, right. 

Wyatt: And self-improvement or world improvement or societal improvement only comes when that peace is broken because there is some kind of change. 

Christensen: It…yeah. And there is…yes. And I do that Taoism is an incomplete life philosophy in some ways that I want to come back to in a minute. There’s no desire. The…46, that was the passage I was actually looking for earlier. “The greatest calamity is discontent. The greatest harm is the desire to acquire and achieve.” Particularly in the superlative, “the greatest,” I think that we might entertain some doubt. But certainly, an excess of acquisitiveness. “He who dies with the most toys win.” This…and not just things, but acquisitiveness for more power, for more wealth, for more property…it is a kind of calamity. It is a kind of calamity that yes, sometimes desire can be a good thing. It can lead to social improvement, it can lead to personal improvement, and if there is a blind spot in Taoism, and I think there is, I think it’s a very significant one, is one identified, I think perceptively, by the Bulgarian born French scholar, Tzvetan Todorov, in his book Facing the Extreme. He is looking at the life Etty Hillesum who was…who died in a Nazi death camp and left behind a journal. And Todorov recognizes that there are some things about Etty Hillesum’s life which are completely admirable and deserving emulation, she was a very compassionate person, but he sees in her attitude towards the Nazi’s a troubling attitude in that…and I mean, troubling as something he can’t accept, he characterizes, I want to stress that, he characterizes Etty Hillesum as Taoist in her perspective, and she never so identifies but in that she simply accepts the world as it is. Simply accepts, you know, “There are Nazis in my time, that’s the world I have.” She doesn’t fight, doesn’t really resist, she’s very compassionate with other fellow prisoners and, by way of contrast…by way of contrast, Todorov points to a group of prisoners in a death camp—I did not know until I read his book—there was one successful escape from a Nazi death camp. I can’t remember if it was Auschwitz or Buchenwald, I can’t remember which camp, but it was made possible by a group of men who had already lost their wives to the gas ovens and…who agreed to be this suicidal rear guard for this group making the escape. And that’s, Todorov says, he says he admires Etty Hillesum in many ways, but he admires in a more intense and complete way these men who were determined to kick evil in the teeth and to give others chance…that what they did was not a very Taoist thing. They didn’t go with the flow.

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Christensen: They didn’t practice wu wei. They kicked enough Nazi guards in the teeth for long enough, though it cost all of them…the rear guard were eventually, they all died, but it gave some a chance, and he said…and I think that is sort of the…

Wyatt: Yeah, that’s interesting. 

Christensen: The blind spot. And here, if you have…and there’s a good and a bad side of this. This is 49, “I consider the good to be good, the not good I also consider good.” And then in the commentary, you find a gloss where Duyvendak says, “The Taoist has no fixed views, he is morally indifferent, he admits both good and evil equally.”

Meredith: Yeah. 

Christensen: “Good and evil are simply the yin and the yang.” And I think that’s what Todorov’s picking up and I think it’s a real…the metaphysics of evil in Taoism is inadequate. It doesn’t acknowledge the reality of evil as something that must be strenuously resisted. 

Wyatt: Yeah, and as a reflection of culture, thinking of this as being part of the Asian culture, when I visit China, I don’t see any of this. For example. 46, “No greater curse than discontent.” That the world is OK just as it is, don’t push things, don’t change things. 

Christensen: Right. 

Wyatt: For me, it was my discontent that pushed me to go to college. My discontent that motivated me to get a job and my discontent that motivated me to try to make the world a better place. 

Christensen: Right. 

Wyatt: And that seems to be the opposite of Tao, and I wonder if we strictly took this where we would be. But as I go to China, what I see is there’s got to be more cranes in China than the rest of the world. 

Meredith: Yeah, they are building. 

Wyatt: Because building is crazy. 

Christensen: Right. 

Wyatt: Those guys…I don’t see Tao thinking at all. 

Christensen: No, no. No, I…Houston Smith says that he was saying, and he said this decades ago, but certainly the communist party is not passing out copies of the Tao Te Ching.

Wyatt: [Laughs]

Christensen: They are actually, after a time, and there was a time during the cultural revolution when Mao Zedong swore that he would destroy that futile mummy, Confucius. Those days are gone. They are now quoting Confucius, but somewhat selectively. And the ren, the humaneness part of…no. But, the part of striving and self-improvement, there are strands of Confucianism they are picking up on and advocating. Sort of soft pedaling or ignoring or editing out some of the, I think the more humane and humanizing strands. But Taoism is not a tool, it’s an invitation to meditation. So, why are the masters of the People’s Republic of China going to push…

Wyatt: Push that. 

Christensen: They’re not. They’re not. 

Wyatt: There are some interesting pieces to this I think culturally, that culturally are pretty evident. For example, in the West, we’re based largely in the United States on individual rights and liberties…

Christensen: Right. 

Wyatt: And those kinds of things that stem back to the Declaration of Independence and all that train of philosophical thinking. China is more societal rights first. 

Christensen: Yes, yes. 

Wyatt: And that’s reflected in the fact that we have a personal space and it seems like they don’t. 

Christensen: And that is…and it’s not just China. There’s a proverb in Japan…

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Christensen: That says that, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered.” [All laugh] And there is a kind of group identity. And to some degree that stifles innovation, stifles creativity, but you can go too far that way and I fear…I heard the sociologist David Papineau say that modern America is the most radically individualistic culture that has ever emerged in any country in any place at any time in the history of the planet. And he was not saying this to praise us, he was saying our individualism has gone too far. And you look at—some of this is true of western Europe, too—you look at large American cities and the fraction of single person households has skyrocketed in recent…you don’t have to believe in the scriptural text that says it is not good for man to be alone to have some doubt about all these single person…it suggests a loss of what sociologist descended from the heights of Taoist philosophy to the depth of sociology, a loss of social capital. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Christensen: All these people living alone. There are many reasons for that. Well, one of them is a vigilant concern about the self. That it costs something. Every good thing costs something. A friendship costs something, a marriage costs something, and if you’re so absolutely zealously concerned about the self that you’re not willing to pay the price of a friendship, or a marriage, of parenthood, what do you get? You getting a bunch of people living…Clive Staples, the British philosopher, sorry to go there again, but talks about the surge, the rising number of people who die with no one but a medical professional present. 

Meredith: Hmm. 

Christensen: The ultimate isolation. That a growing number of people die with no one but a medical professional present because during a lifetime…

Meredith: There is no one. 

Christensen: Yeah. Because of this radical individualism which I think Taoism helps to push back. 

Wyatt: Yeah. Well, we believe that governments were instituted to protect our rights and in most countries prior to at least the Declaration of Independence, if not all, governments existed to protect themselves. 

Christensen: [Laughs]

Wyatt: The monarch. The people were there to serve the monarch and that creates a very different environment from which to grow. But this text is interesting in that it kind of pushes back on all of our…it seems to me that it pushes back on growth and progress. If I was to take a cynical view of it, it would…it tells us all to just sit down and let the world go. Think, contemplate, be one with nature.

Christensen: “In idleness…”

Wyatt: Don’t try to change the world. 

Christensen: “In idleness I become real.”

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Christensen: There is that…

Wyatt: You can’t build a house that way. [All laugh]

Christensen: No, you can’t build a house that way. And probably there are limits as to what you can do with any institution, but…

Wyatt: Bryce, how literal was this? 

Christensen: How literal is what? 

Wyatt: This text. What I mean is was it intended to be literally a person’s way of life the way I read it? Or was it intended to say, “Go to work, work hard, build your communities, but when you come home at night, just relax and think?” Or was it, “Think all the time?”

Christensen: There are people who take it quite literally. There is such a thing as a Taoist monk. In fact, the very moving, I think very powerfully moving conclusion of The Dream of the Red Chamber, the greatest of Chinese novels, when the protagonist dies, it’s interesting, a Buddhist and a Taoist monk come for his soul. The…and I guess, back to Houston Smith, he says that most Chinese in their social lives are Confucianists and their private meditations are Taoist. 

Meredith: Hmm. 

Christensen: And I think you can go too far in compartmentalizing your identity, but I think there might be some way that we can allow for the…if all of your life is an agenda driven, “I got to get this project…”

Meredith: Right. 

Christensen: I think we do become sort of spiritually desiccated. Some sort of spiritually flat. We have to…one of my favorite poets, W.H. Auden says, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” And the utilitarian will say, “OK, well then poetry is no good. Throw that. It’s not a tool, it doesn’t launch, doesn’t do any building.”

Wyatt: Doesn’t do anything. 

Christensen: Doesn’t do anything. But if you read it in context, Auden is not dismissing poetry as worthless. He’s dismissing it as useless, but not worthless. Many people are so utilitarian they don’t even catch the distinction. They don’t understand that some things can be useless but infinitely valuable. The invitation to medication, and this is an invitation to meditation, is useless but very, very valuable. 

Wyatt: He’s saying the art is an end of itself. 

Christensen: Exactly. 

Wyatt: It might have a utilitarian value in building communities and economic development, but we should have art in our communities because it’s good for us as people just for the art. 

Christensen: Right. And if you read poetry because it will help you get a higher score on the LSAT, which is probably will, I worry for your soul. [All laugh]

Wyatt: But I’ve got to get into law school, Bryce! I’ve got to get into law school! [All laugh]

Christensen: But…

Meredith: I was going to say something about I’m worried about your soul if you’re talking the LSAT. [All laugh]

Christensen: Well, there’s a point of connection between Taoism and Confucianism, they are very different, but one is both Lao Tzu and Confucius distrust the glib rhetorician  . . . Which is another way of saying, “the lawyer.” 

Meredith: [Laughs] Sorry, President.

Wyatt: [Laughs] No, this is fun. I’m having a great time. It’s…I’m making this argument all the time. Because at Southern Utah University, we have the Tony Award Winning Utah Shakespeare Festival that we invest in heavily. And we do it for two reasons and both of them stand alone, stand strong separately, but both of them are good. And the one is the utilitarian view that it gives jobs and helps people, all that kind of stuff, which is a great thing. And the other one, equally important, is that it just makes our lives better because the art itself is worth spending time with. 

Christensen: It’s…

Wyatt: And I don’t think they’re exclusive. They’re…we can pursue both ends. 

Christensen: No, they’re not. But I think you can in your personal thought give priority to one over the other and acknowledge the pragmatic necessity of the one, but the deep, spiritual transcendence of the other. That…and sometimes I wrestle with my conscience, I always win unfortunately, and I think I’m turning, when I…in my literature classes, I’m turning these great works of literature to some degree into tools that serve my interest. These great works of literature which invite us to contemplate the cosmos, they become tools for me to get my next paycheck. And I try to transcend that, I try to get beyond that, but it’s in there and it unsettles me. Because I want…it’s a sort of odd assignment and there’s tension in it, maybe even self-contradiction in it, but in every class, every literature class, I require my students three or four times during the semester and say “Take something we’ve studied, take some text, a poem or piece of a play or short story, whatever, and go share it with a family member or friend in a non-academic setting. I’m not going to script how that sharing will go, I don’t want a report other than just say you’ve done it, just let you and your friend find your path in this text.” Because I’m convinced when you move out of the academic setting, when you move out of the “Oh, yeah, I need this many points to get an ‘A.’” And when you move in with just friends, just family members talking about a text, you go…and there’s a sense, I stand before my students as a credential stranger for the most part and they have reason to trust maybe my academic and intellectual expertise, but they have no reason to trust me on a deep, emotional level. They just don’t. And some literature will yield up its deepest treasures only to…in a dialogue with people that you trust emotionally. The conversations I’ve had with my wife about poetry and literature go places I could never go with my colleagues or my classmates because my wife and I have this deep sense of emotional intimacy and that emotional intimacy opens aspects of literature that simply will resist exposure if you approach them simply in an intellectual academic setting. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: But, the piece of this reading that was so interesting to me, and what I love about great literature is not necessarily that I agree, but rather that it provokes me to see things differently and to evaluate how I feel about things. And in that sense, this is spectacular. The conflict that it leaves me with that I wrestled with is what if we all actually followed this? 

Christensen: I understand what you’re saying. 

Wyatt: We’d have no food to eat. 

Christensen: I understand what you’re saying. 

Wyatt: So, I wonder, “What was his real intent?” Was his intent that this should shape our entire lives? Or was his intent to find a piece of your life when you can just be quiet?

Christensen: Yeah. I can’t speak to Lao Tzu’s intent. I think what is the…I know the struggle you speak of. It’s the struggle in some degree I have with this text, when I teach John Ruskin in his…he has this passage in his Stones of Venice where he attacks division of labor as it’s practiced in factories. He says that it’s not really the job that we’re breaking into little pieces, it’s men that we’re breaking into little pieces. They’re no longer complete human beings, and he’s calling for an artisan way of producing things. 

Wyatt: Yeah, yeah. 

Christensen: And I tell my students, “I understand what he’s saying,” and I’ve worked in a factory when I was between my senior and…and I understand what he’s saying. It is sort of dehumanizing and it’s mind flattening, but I said, “How many of you could afford the clothes you wear and the shoes you wear if they were all made by artisans of the sort that Ruskin is speaking of?”

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: None of us could afford them. 

Christensen: Exactly. Well…

Wyatt: Well, some. 

Christensen: There may be a rich kid there and back, but very few. Very, very few. And so, I said, “All this does is make me uncomfortable when I go to Walmart.” [All laugh] Because I know everything there is coming out of exactly the kind of dehumanizing factory that Ruskin…but I said, you know, I think it’s valuable to a certain degree to recognize that these factory workers need to be given opportunities for recreation, for art, for music, something beyond what they’re doing. Let’s not give them a 16 hour day in a factory. That it’s hard, probably impossible, to go all the way with where Ruskin wants to go. Probably impossible to go all the way with where Lao Tzu wants us to go, but we need to leave some space. We need to leave some space in our life. 

Wyatt: Yeah. But, the things that give me…and again, what I love about this is thinking about what he’s saying and trying to find how I feel about it and how it might shape my future or how I behave or think. But the things that give me the greatest satisfaction are the things that I would describe as ambition. Because when I really get out and do things that help other people and work really hard and try to make the world a better place, in this case, the school a better place for students, that’s meaningful. When I just sit and contemplate all day, I feel great because it’s fun, but at the end of the day, I think, “For what purpose am I on this earth? And have I done that today?”

Christensen: Let me challenge your word “fun.” 

Wyatt: I use the word fun very liberally. 

Christensen: Well, one of the meanings…one of the meanings, if you check the Oxford English Dictionary, of fun is “trick or illusion.” And so, I think Disneyland is all about fun in that sense. It’s illusion.

Wyatt: To me, reading a great book is fun. 

Christensen: Well, for me…and I would…here we go. In Confucianism there is something called the rectification of names. And Confucius insists that getting names right is essential for making right decisions and making progress. And to bring up one issues I’m not going to…in the debate over abortion, the pregnant woman, what is in her? Is it a fetus or is it a…rectification of name. Once you have the name, everything follows. Once you have the name, everything follows. But the Taoism, Taoism right at the beginning is a repudiation of that way of thinking. 

Meredith: Right. 

Christensen: “The Tao that can be named is not a true Tao.” And, in fact…

Meredith: Nothing can be named. 

Christensen: One of the marvelous, marvelous commentators on the Tao Te Ching, [inaudible] who is actually…[inaudible] says that names are the guests of reality kind of depending on the translator, but I love that phrase. The guests of reality. Names come and go. Names come and go, reality abides. But the…I guess enough there’s enough of Confucius in me that when I hear someone say, “Learning is fun,” well, maybe. Some of the most important learning may be harrowing, may be humbling. 

Wyatt: Well, it…I use the word “fun” very liberally. 

Christensen: OK. [Laughs]

Wyatt: Because to me, climbing to the top of the mountain is fun. But it is harrowing, and it’s arduous. But there’s…part of my struggle with the text is, as we’ve been talking, that my life is fulfilled, and I am happy when I see myself making the world a better place. And this text says, “Stop trying to change the world.” 

Christensen: [Laughs]

Wyatt: I think that summarizes as well as I could the conflict I feel with the text. 

Christensen: Let me go outside of the text and go to the 18th century. 

Wyatt: I knew you would go to some 18th century British literature. 

Christensen: 18th century British poet. It appears in a poem by Goldsmith…it was actually written by his friend, we have a little bit of collaboration going on here, Samuel Johnson, let me…give me just a second, I’ve got the rhyme in my mind, I just need to get the meter. “How small the part that…how small the part of all that human hearts endure…” No, no. Let me backup. I’ve got to get the…”How small…Of all the human hearts endure, how small the part that laws or kings can cure.” “Of all that human hearts endure, how small the part that laws or kings can cure.” Which points us to really fundamental existential things that are…yeah. The…

Wyatt: I agree with you, but if I shovel my neighbor’s sidewalk, I have made the world a better place. 

Christensen: Sure, sure. 

Wyatt: If I build something, a beautiful garden, then people can enjoy it. If I grow produce, they can eat it. 

Christensen: I agree. And when I read Todorov’s criticism of Etty Hillesum, because it is that, I mean, he admires her in many ways, and I understand his point and I endorse his point. That at some point, you can’t just go with the flow. At some point…but if you’re…I think we become, just as it talks about, we become brittle and…if all we have is what, referring to Elizabeth Jennings, is tutored willfulness, if we’re always trying to advance our agenda, our will, I think we become brittle. And I think there needs to be a letting go sometimes when you just contemplate the cosmos and say, “Wow. There’s a whole lot more than…I’m a little piece in a marvelous cosmic tapestry that…and it is arrogant and finally, silly, of me to think that by my will I’m going to budge the axis of the universe.” It’s not going to happen. 

Wyatt: Yeah. This may be a place where we find a coming together on this issue, which is, there is a lot in this writing that talks about self-motivation. Motivation to improve yourself or to get glory or power.

Christensen: Right. Right. 

Wyatt: If you win something and you boast about it, you haven’t won anything. 

Christensen: Right. 

Wyatt: So, maybe what we can conclude, at least in part, is this ambition that he seems to be pushing against is maybe personal, self-centered ambition rather than a genuine humility in trying to help others. Because he does talk about leadership as humility. 

Christensen: He does, he does. 

Wyatt: Leading from the rear…

Christensen: Right, and some of the language there is very much parallel to what Jesus says when he says he would be the greatest among you, let him be the servant of all. That’s very Taoist…well, it parallels. It parallels Taoist thinking in a significant way. We’re probably about out of time, there’s one other passage I want…

Wyatt: We’re probably over, but please, yeah. This is fun. 

Christensen: The next time you have Founder’s Day, this is a very important Taoist concept, return to the root. That you should…that we should recognize the Taoist nature of Founder’s Day. The…each…”I watch their return, each thing in the world’s profusion, returning to its root. It’s true life destiny. The return to root is calm.” And there’s this emphasis on returning to your roots to remind yourself who you are, what you’re about, and what brought you into this world. I think the Taoist conception of return to roots is a neglected concept. We’re so busy pressing on the next innovation, we forget about our roots. We forget to return to our roots, and I think that Taoist concept of returning to our roots is something, as I said, there are aspects of the Tao Te Ching that I resist, but this is one where I largely think it is valuable, helpful, and emotionally and spiritually nurturing to return to roots.  

Wyatt: You can’t…like the saying, “You can’t plant cut flowers.”

Christensen: [Laughs]

Wyatt: Now, there are some plants that you can do that with, but the idea that you need the roots. 

Christensen: And I think that…you said you were in China and I’ve been in China a number of times and there isn’t much of a Taoist presence and I think that that is going to harm Chinese culture to some degree, only partially. Only partially the Chinese have returned to Confucian roots. I think they’re blotted out, censored out some important parts of Confucianism, particularly the ren, humaneness, the civil rights record of China is not…is pretty horrific. But to some degree, there’s been a return. There’s a reason that our institute here is called the Confucius Institute. 

Meredith: Right. 

Christensen: There’s been…to some degree, there’s been a return to…but there’s been no return to Taoist roots, and I think, in the long run, that is going to hurt China. I think that the absence of a contemplative, reflective…a thousand years ago, there was a vibrant…vibrant seems like the wrong word, it seems too active and aggressive, but a living, a living and flourishing Taoist presence in China and it’s…I’m sure you could find people who read Tao Te Ching but it’s not much of a presence in China today. 

Wyatt: The interesting note about Confucius Institutes, which Southern Utah University has, they don’t call it Confucius institutes in China. It’s called Hanban and it’s called Confucius Institutes in America. So, they know, I think, that Confucius is more popular in America and a stronger connection for Americans or people in other countries to China. But they don’t call it that there. 

Christensen: That’s interesting. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Christensen: So, the return of the Confucian roots maybe is less complete than I had supposed. 

Wyatt: Yeah, but in the community where he grew up, they’re very proud of him. 

Christensen: Right. And I do know that there have been occasions because I’ve read, where communist officials have quoted Confucius…

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Christensen: For their purposes. And they certainly wouldn’t have done that during the cultural revolution when they were trying to…the Red Guard was out smashing Confucian shrines. 

Wyatt: One of the things that I have loved about visiting China, and you would probably have the same response, all of us would, is that the Chinese people are the most wonderful people. They see the world as more social than we do sometimes. 

Christensen: Right, right. 

Wyatt: That they have an obligation to others and…but the students from China that we have spent time with have caused me to realize that people are wonderful everywhere in the world. Sometimes our governments get things mixed up because of their non-Taoist attitudes. [All laugh] To the extreme. But, the Chinese people have been…have really made my life more enriched. 

Christensen: And I think there are many reasons for that, but I think one of them is the enduring, maybe even in some cases, below the level of conscious awareness, the enduring influence of Taoism. 

Meredith: I have really enjoyed this conversation and I have so many questions I want to ask you about recurring thematic things throughout the Tao. It…like the words, “The One,” there’s constant reference to “arc” which, to me, makes me think about their art, their movement, their music, the way that the language is curved, the people spend an entire lifetime learning the curvature of that calligraphy and so forth, but we’re out of time. So, you and I can continue that conversation off mic. 

Wyatt: Well, the challenge is, of course, if we answered every question about this book, there would be no reason to read it. 

Meredith: Right. 

Christensen: Right, right, right. 

Meredith: That’s right. 

Wyatt: Hopefully this is motivation to dig in and read it a couple of times. 

Meredith: President, in answer to your, “Is this a ‘what to do at night’ thing or…” I’m seriously considering asking my wife if I can just be a Taoist on Saturday. [All laugh] And just sit and contemplate. 

Christensen: When my wife tries to get me off the couch, I say, “I’m practicing wu wei.”

Meredith: There you go. There you go. You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We’ve had as our guest in studio today the delightful Bryce Christensen from our literature department and we’ve been discussing the Tao Te Ching which has been just absolutely fascinating and about which I have just a hundred more questions. Anyway, we hope that you’ve read along with us, if you haven’t, we encourage you to read this book. Our next book in the series, our final book in the summer book series, is Pride and Prejudice and I suspect that more will be familiar with that book, but we look forward to our guest that will be joining with us on that, Dr. Jean Boreen. Anyway, we appreciate all of you joining us as our listeners and our readers and we’ll be back again soon. Bye bye.