Tag Archives: morality

“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 51” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

Tao gives them life,
Virtue nurses them,
Matter shapes them,
Environment perfects them.
Therefore all things without exception worship Tao and do homage to Virtue.
They have not been commanded to worship Tao and do homage to Virtue,
But they always do so spontaneously.

It is Tao that gives them life:
It is Virtue that nurses them, grows them, fosters them, shelters them, comforts them, nourishes them, and covers them under her wings.
To give life but to claim nothing,
To do your work but to set no store by it,
To be a leader, not a butcher,
This is called hidden Virtue.

This passage is interesting and somewhat challenging. I read it a couple times, and I think I have a sense of what Lau Tzu was trying to convey.

The Tao is the source of all existence, and hence, all things that exist in our universe, whether those things are animate or inanimate. Everything is a manifestation of the divine source, or, explained in terms of physics, everything is comprised of energy.

So how does Virtue come in to play? I think the problem is that we’ve been trained to relate virtue with ethics or some form of moral code, which really only applies to sentient beings. But I don’t think that this is what Lau Tzu was referring to. I feel that what he meant by Virtue is the interconnectedness and relationship between all things, that there is really no separation. We are part of the environment, and the environment is a part of us. We share an intrinsic connection with all living things, plant and animal, as well as a connection to the elements. To understand and respect this relationship is the source of wisdom, which is the goal of individuals on the path of the Tao.

I’m not sure if this is what Lau Tzu meant, but it is the impression I get from reading this passage. As always, if you have other insights to share, please do so in the comments section.

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“Chronicles of the Late Empire” by Umberto Eco

This short essay is included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. It’s an amazing book, and I have been slowly working my way through it, reading the occasional essay between my other literary indulgences.

In this piece, Eco looks at how Silvio Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister of Italy (who Eco jokingly calls the Great Communicator), created his own media scandal around his wife’s affair with another man. Essentially, Berlusconi disregarded the boundary that separates one’s personal life from the affairs of state, something that was en vogue in ancient Rome at the height of Roman decadence. He contrasts this to how Bill Clinton sought to keep his personal affairs separate from his affairs of state.

But the issue is of historiographic importance. Usually, politicians do their best to keep their domestic problems separate from matters of state. Clinton got caught with his underpants in his hands, but he glossed over the matter and even got his wife to rally around and say on television that it was an insignificant affair. Mussolini was what he was, but he worked out his problems with his wife within the four walls of his home, he didn’t discuss them before the crowds in Piazza Venezia. When he sent off a whole lot of men to die in Russia, it was in pursuit of his own dreams of glory, not to please his mistress Clara Petacci.

Where in history do we find such a fusion of political power and personal affairs? In the Roman Empire, where the emperor was the absolute master of the state. No longer controlled by the senate, he needed only the support of his praetorians, and so he could kick his mother, make his horse a senator, and force all those courtiers who didn’t appreciate his poetry to slit their wrists…

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 196 – 7)

We are still living in a time when we assume that a leader’s personal life should be made public to validate whether that person is moral enough to serve the state. While I agree that crimes should not be ignored because a person is in a position of political power, that person’s spiritual beliefs, family life, sexuality, and so forth, should be their own business and not part of the media spectacle that we call politics these days.

Eco’s wit and brilliance is unique. While I’m sad that he is no longer with us, I’m glad he left such a volume of work for us to think over.

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Thoughts on “Strangers Drowning” by Larissa MacFarquhar

This is the latest book that I read for the book club to which I belong. It’s a look at people who dedicate themselves to doing the most good that they can possibly do, often sacrificing their own happiness and well-being, as well as that of their families, for the sake of assisting complete strangers. MacFarquhar refers to this type of people as do-gooders.

She begins the book with her definition of a do-gooder.

This book is about a human character who arouses conflicting emotions: the do-gooder. I don’t mean a part-time, normal do-gooder—someone who has a worthy job, or volunteers at a charity, and returns to an ordinary family life in the evenings. I mean a person who sets out to live as ethical a life as possible. I mean a person who’s drawn to moral goodness for its own sake. I mean someone who pushes himself to moral extremity, who commits himself wholly, beyond what seems reasonable. I mean the kind of do-gooder who makes people uneasy.

(p. 3)

So why would a person who wants only to do good in the world make others uncomfortable? That’s a legitimate question, which MacFarquhar also addresses early in the book.

One reason may be guilt: nobody likes to be reminded, even implicitly, of his own selfishness. Another is irritation: nobody likes to be told, even implicitly, how he should live his life, or be reproached for how he is living it. And nobody likes to be the recipient of charity. But that’s not the whole story.

(p. 6)

The rest of the book explores the personal stories of various altruistic do-gooders—their motivations, challenges, and so forth. They are all really interesting, and many are inspiring, but when MacFarquhar examined social workers, it hit a little close to home for me.

At first the social worker may become too emotionally involved with his clients, so that when they fail he suffers, both because they are unhappy and because their failure is his failure, too. It’s hard to spend his days confronting devastating problems that he cannot fix—the misery and helplessness rub off on him.

Gradually, he learns to be more detached. He realizes that he needs to be tough, and to develop a thick skin. But if he becomes too detached, he stops caring about his clients at all.

(p. 163)

Many years ago, when I decided to go to college in my late 20s as a non-traditional student, I intended to go into counseling. As I started taking my basic required classes, I also took on a part-time job as a mental health technician in the chemical dependency ward at a local hospital. I had a strong desire to help people, and the primary residents in this program were pregnant teenage girls addicted to crack cocaine, so there was no shortage of suffering individuals to whom I could offer help. But the turning point for me was when one young woman completed the 28-day program, was released, went to a crack house, and got shot in the stomach. Her baby died inside of her. I had gotten to know this person fairly well during her four weeks there, and I was devastated. The pain and sadness were so intense, I realized that I could not do this job with the level of detachment needed to be effective, and maintain my levels of compassion and empathy for others. I decided then and there that I would need to pursue a different career path.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Not only is it thought provoking, it is very well written. It challenged me to look at how much I am doing for the overall good of the world, and how much more I could possibly do.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading challenging stuff.

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“The Invisible Man” by H. G. Wells: Belief in the Unseen

I figured I would start out the October spooky reading with the classic sci-fi tale from H.G. Wells. Not surprising, Wells weaves some thought-provoking social commentary into his story. While I discovered a lot of philosophical ideas within the text, the one that really stood out for me was the question of whether things unseen (such as God and the spirit) can exist.

My sense is that during the time Wells was writing, the dominant scientific belief was that if something truly existed in the universe, then it could be scientifically observed and studied. There was skepticism that unseen phenomena, such as God, could exist.

After the first gusty panic had spent itself Iping became argumentative. Scepticism suddenly reared its head—rather nervous scepticism, not at all assured of its back, but scepticism nevertheless. It was so much easier not to believe in an invisible man; and those who had actually seen him dissolve into thin air, or felt the strength of his arm, could be counted on the fingers of two hands.

(H. G. Wells: Seven Novels; p. 197)

I addition to a skepticism of the existence of things unseen, there is also social stigma attached to those individuals who do perceive beings that are invisible (angels, demons, spirits, gods, etc.). These people are often considered delusional or mentally ill, and that the unseen entities with which they are conversing are just creations of a diseased mind.

This stranger, to the perceptions of the proprietor of the cocoanut shy, appeared to be talking to himself, and Mr. Huxter remarked the same thing. He stopped at the foot of the Coach and Horses steps, and, according to Mr. Huxter, appeared to undergo a severe internal struggle before he could induce himself to enter the house.

(p. 198)

After Kemp, who symbolizes the scientific thinker, encounters the invisible man, he begins to ponder the existence of invisible entities. Essentially, he is contemplating whether the existence of God is a possibility.

“Invisible!” he said.

“Is there such a thing as an invisible animal? In the sea, yes. Thousands! millions. All the larvae, all the little nauplii and tornarias, all the microscopic things, the jelly-fish. In the sea there are more things invisible than visible! I never thought of that before. And in the ponds too! All those little pond-life things—specks of colourless translucent jelly! But in the air? No!

“It can’t be.

“But after all—why not?

(p. 223)

Another interesting point about this passage is that Kemp claims that the sea has more things invisible than visible. The sea is a common metaphor for the subconscious mind. Psychologically speaking, there is so much happening in the mind that is beyond the grasp of our ordinary consciousness. Science has not even scratched the surface of the deeper realms of consciousness. There is much there that is still invisible to us.

For me, the most powerful passage in the entire text is when the invisible man reveals to Kemp his plans for establishing a “Reign of Terror.”

“Not wanton killing, but a judicious slaying. The point is they know there is an Invisible Man—as well as we know there is an Invisible Man. And that Invisible Man, Kemp, must now establish a Reign of Terror. Yes—no doubt it’s startling. But I mean it. A Reign of Terror. He must take some town like your Burdock and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways—scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend the disobedient.”

(p. 251)

Here Wells is making a dual criticism. On one level, the passage expresses his views on the concept of a vengeful God, one that hands down orders “on scraps of paper” (symbolizing scriptures) and then doles out severe punishment to the people who fail to heed the word of God. Additionally, Wells is criticizing the concept of divine rule as embodied in an absolute monarchy. These rulers live in palaces, unseen by the common folk, and hand down laws (more scraps of paper) and decree punishment upon those villagers who fail to obey the laws.

What makes this book such a masterpiece is that it is a great story, and it also has deeper meaning if you look beneath the surface. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. Have a great day, and keep reading cool stuff.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 38” by Lao Tzu

1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades

High Virtue is non-virtuous;
Therefore it has Virtue.
Low Virtue never frees itself from virtuousness;
Therefore it has no Virtue.

High Virtue makes no fuss and has no private ends to serve:
Low Virtue not only fusses but has private ends to serve.

High humanity fusses but has no private ends to serve:
High morality not only fusses but has private ends to serve.
High ceremony fusses but finds no response;
Then it tries to enforce itself with rolled-up sleeves.

Failing Tao, man resorts to Virtue.
Failing Virtue, man resorts to humanity.
Failing humanity, man resorts to morality.
Failing morality, man resorts to ceremony.
Now, ceremony is the merest husk of faith and loyalty;
It is the beginning of all confusion and disorder.

As to foreknowledge, it is only the flower of Tao,
And the beginning of folly.

Therefore, the full-grown man sets his heart upon the substance rather than the husk;
Upon the fruit rather than the flower.
Truly, he prefers what is within to what is without.

This is an extremely challenging passage, and I can only interpret it based upon other mystic/occult ideologies with which I am somewhat familiar. Specifically, I see this as a parallel with the concept of emanation as put forth by Plotinus.

Emanationism is an idea in the cosmology or cosmogony of certain religious or philosophical systems. Emanation, from the Latin emanare meaning “to flow from” or “to pour forth or out of”, is the mode by which all things are derived from the first reality, or principle. All things are derived from the first reality or perfect God by steps of degradation to lesser degrees of the first reality or God, and at every step the emanating beings are less pure, less perfect, less divine.

(Source: Wikipedia)

So in emanationism, the Divine One is in the center of all existence, and then there are series of emanations moving away from the source, each being less divine than the previous. I see Lao Tzu’s example as being similar: the Tao is the divine center, and all other virtuous forms that emanate out are less and less like the Tao, until we get to the point where there is nothing but a shell of what was once the Tao.

If this is the case, we can use this hierarchy as a map to get back to the Tao, or center. If we begin by practicing ceremony, we may attain morality. If we continue living moral lives, then we may reach humanity. Once humanity is incorporated, we can work towards gaining Virtue. Finally, as we reach the state of High Virtue, we can step across the threshold to the Tao.

This is some very heady stuff, and I again emphasize that this is only my interpretation. For me, it makes sense, but I am open. If you have other insights into this passage, I would love to hear them. Feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

Blessings, and thanks for stopping by.

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Haunted Horror: #20

I’ve read several of these collections, and I always enjoy them. Basically, they are collections of old horror tales reprinted on the same type of non-gloss pulp paper used in the original publications. All the comics in this collection (there are six yarns in this issue) were all originally published in the 1950’s. Below the title page of each story, the original publication information is displayed.

What I find so interesting about these old comics are the moral issues that they address. Each of them has some issue woven in, and it seems that these were the types of issues that society was facing at the time: infidelity, greed, envy, loneliness, prejudice, etc. And while society is still grappling with these issues today, in the 50’s, society did its best to whitewash over them. But just as the decayed wood eventually starts to show through the white painted picket fence, so these issues began to show themselves in society. So graphic horror became a vehicle for society to safely examine these issues.

Just a quick mention about the writing and the artwork. They are both very much in the 50’s style. The colors and style of many of the drawings reminded me of the old Dick Tracy comics. And the language! I found myself chuckling internally at phrases like “’Good Grief” and “Great Scott.” But that is part of the nostalgia.

Hope you are enjoying the Halloween season! Cheers.

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Jungian Symbolism in “Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters” by Mike Grell

GreenArrow_LongbowHunters

I picked this graphic novel up at last year’s Asheville Comic Expo and got it signed by writer/artist Mike Grell. I have to say that Mike was not the friendliest of the writers and artists I met that day, but whatever. Maybe he was tired or having a rough day. Anyway, it took me a while, but finally got around to reading it and overall I liked the book. I watched the “Arrow” series on TV but had never read any of the graphic novels. I must admit I was happy with this one and would certainly consider reading more in the future.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, the Green Arrow is Oliver Queen, and he is sort of like a cross between Batman and Robin Hood. I actually like that he does not possess any “superhuman” powers and relies on his physical strength and prowess.

In this novel, he is aged and reflecting back on his life. It is during this time that a mysterious female assassin appears who also uses a bow. This woman is systematically killing members of a crime organization who have a shrouded history.

What I found most interesting about the story is that the mysterious woman, known as Shado, is essentially the Jungian shadow aspect of Oliver’s psyche. She is able to kill without remorse, whereas Oliver struggles with moral issues, not wanting to take a life even though doing so is justified.

The hits on the target are only the outward proof of your mastery… like the symbol of the dragon you bear – a symbol of dishonor. Both are meaningless. You have transcended goals. You are the artless art. You are Shado.

(p. 95)

Toward the end, when Oliver faces Shado, it becomes clear that the two are different aspects of the same self, symbolic mirrors of themselves. It is symbolic of Oliver facing that part of himself that he has sought to repress.

Oliver: Why did you bring me here?

Shado: You have been hunting me. At least this way I don’t have to wonder where you are. We are alike, you and I.

Oliver: No. I’m nothing like you.

Shado: No? You want Magnor for what he did to that woman. I want him for what he did to my honor. How is your vengeance different from mine?

(pp. 130 – 131)

I’d like to close this post by talking a little bit about the artwork. It’s very good. Most writers of graphic novels seem to rely on others to create artwork to accompany the story, but Grell handle both the writing and the artwork with equal skill. I was impressed with both, and the fact that Grell did all this on his own is a testament to his artistic talent and versatility.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading cool stuff!

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