The circle of the Tao

Vitruvian man.jpg

Leonardo da Vinci, “Vitruvian Man” (c. 1492)

Louis Markos is a professor of English at Houston Baptist University. In his book Restoring Beauty: The Good, The True, and The Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis, he gives the reader a helpful picture of the relationship between man and the Tao—a Chinese term that C. S. Lewis used in The Abolition of Man to describe “Natural Law or Traditional Morality.” Lewis said the Tao is “the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”

Picture, if you will, the figure of a man with his arms and legs spread outward in two large Vs (rather like the famous “Vitruvian man” of Leonardo). Now imagine that man inscribed completely within a circle that presses down on him from all sides, even as he presses outward with his hands and feet. The forces that press down on him from the outside are the forces of fate, of duty, of honor, of responsibility: in short, all those “oughts” and “musts” that fix his identity and limit his actions and desires. The forces that flow outward from the man are the forces of free will, of choice, of self-assertion and personal autonomy: in short, all those individual passions and volitions that make each of us so radically unique. At times the external forces seem ready to crush the trapped figure inside; at times the internal forces seem ready to shatter the circle. But always the man holds up under the weight, and always the circle maintains its shape and integrity. The apostle Paul expresses it this way: “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

Each of us lives out our lives within that circle, now succumbing to its weight, now resisting it with all our willpower. The struggle is a hard one, and there are times when we are all tempted to step outside the circle. But this is the one thing we cannot do. For the circle is what defines us as human beings, what supplies us with our meaning and purpose, what keeps us centered, focused, and safe. Were we ever to find a way to step outside the circle, we would find that we had gained our freedom at the expense of our humanity. If we wanted to give that circle a name, we might call it, simply, the “Tao.” Or, if we wanted to give it a more specifically biblical name, we might call it the “fear of the Lord.”

In canto 3 of the Inferno, Dante and Virgil watch with horror and fascination as the souls of the damned gather round the boat of Charon, eager to be ferried across the river into hell. Dante asks who these souls are and how they came to this terrible place, and Virgil replies that all souls congregate here who in life lost the fear of God. The Old Testament tell us (many times) that the fear (or reverential awe) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It is that which keep us on track, which allows us to discern between the good and the bad, the virtuous and the vicious. When we lose that fear, we go off course, and our discernment grows dark and dull. Yes, we do, in one sense, become free, but it is a freedom that is finally self-destructive and dehumanizing. For the most we cut ourselves loose from the oughts and the imperatives of God (and the Tao), we become enslaved to our own base, animal instincts.

Such is the fate of a man who steps outside the circle.

Such will be the fate of a society that attempts to do the same.

The last two-and-a-half centuries have witnessed numerous attempts by whole societies to step outside the circle: attempts to build a new, man-made utopia free from the oppressive weight of the Tao. In most cases, these would-be utopias ultimately metamorphosed into dystopias that bound rather than freed the dreams of their builders and reduced rather than expanded the human potential of those trapped within them. Indeed, I would argue, and I think that Lewis would agree, that all dystopic, totalitarian states (from Stalinist Russia to fascist Germany to Maoist China to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and France under Robespierre) are built and led by rulers who have put themselves outside the Tao and have seduced their people to do the same. This moving of an entire state or culture outside the Tao is generally accomplished in one of two ways: either one part of the Tao is sacrificed in order to fulfill another part, or the Tao is rejected altogether and replaced by a new morality.

Whichever path is chosen on this dual road to dystopia, the end is always the same: death, despair, and dehumanization.  

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