Becoming Still in America: Thoreau vs. Rand

I recently encountered a sentence that struck me as perfect un-wisdom. It was perfect because, if you turned it completely inside out, it became true: it wasn’t a mixture of wrong and right, but a pure crystal of error. This made it usefully illustrative.

The sentence in question came from Ayn Rand: “In a fundamental sense, stillness is the antithesis of life.” What statement could be more aligned with the ethos of our world, in which all that distracts and provokes the mind into new contortions is hailed as advancement? Apologies to Rand’s worshippers, but the testimony of the world’s greatest mystics indicates the precise contrary: stillness is true life, the core of silence we carry in the midst of noise. (Rand hated mysticism). The busy-ness of the world, the constant hue and cry, are peripheral matters, constantly sweeping us out to the fringes of the universe, away from the still center of our being. As Meister Eckhart put it, “We are all asleep in the outer life”—implying that we are all awake in the inner life.

In America today, the Rand perspective is dominant. Her endless rhapsody to selfishness, Atlas Shrugged, is apparently America’s second favorite book, after (of course) The Bible. Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio have all cited Rand’s opus as though it were holy writ, awkwardly balancing themselves between chestnuts like Rand’s “Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your products by tears” and Jesus Christ’s identification with the poor of the world: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Yet, in the eyes of many Americans, the chasm between these two worldviews seems strangely obscure.

Many of us assume with Rand, on little evidence beyond the worried mutterings of our digitally-stoked anxiety, that the soul is like a shark, which dies when it ceases to move. The prospect of becoming mindful or developing a contemplative life seems like a prison sentence rather than freedom. But when Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond and sought out stillness, he found an infinitely more precious form of freedom, experiencing an intoxicating feeling of identity with all things and all people—which perhaps was part of the reason he supported the Underground Railroad, while Rand supported Barry Goldwater’s segregation-friendly presidential campaign in 1964.

To be clear—Rand opposed slavery, but objected to altruism, writing, “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake.” This statement grants little basis for one to become an abolitionist like Thoreau, and I think it ties into the stillness question. You can’t be empathetic if you’re constantly agitating your mind and treating life as a contest—it doesn’t provide any space for empathy and humanity to emerge. Rand supported Goldwater’s lenience towards segregation, based on the individual’s presumed right to only serve clients and customers of his or her choosing—not, she claimed, racism. Given the brutal images of violence against Civil Rights marchers, which were broadcast daily on TV and which Rand certainly saw, this constitutes a radical failure of empathy and understanding. Even if Rand technically was not a racist, hers was a woeful misreading of the times, not to mention permanently discrediting! On the other hand, Thoreau’s Underground Railroad work demonstrates an exceptional soul, transcending the typically racist views of the era, and actually doing something radical to counteract those views.

In light of this, is it sane and healthy to cultivate a state of mind in which one rails against moochers and fetishizes tycoons?  Are altruism and empathy dirty words? We rightly admire people who manage to create successful and socially-conscious businesses, but part of our admiration stems from the benevolence those businesses contribute to the world. We admire talent and self-reliance, and we admire natural expressions of human goodness: the choice Rand offers in her books, between an insidious life-hating socialism and capitalism-as-religion, is so transparently bogus. At any rate, those who stare with gape-mouthed admiration at the gold-plated seatbelts on “Trump Force One” (Donald Trump’s private jet), but cannot value the altruism of MLK or St. Francis, do not provide a compelling example of human flourishing.

Fortunately, there’s another side to the American experience—what you might call the underground or esoteric side of the American character. Consider Thoreau’s description of his condition during a summer on Walden, and feel free to measure this against any supposedly eloquent passages from Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead:  “Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.”

Which perspective offers water in the desert, Rand’s or Thoreau’s?   Is America packed with too many freeloading woodland sages at present—mere “moochers” purchasing sympathy with tears—or do we have too much of the contrary perspective, the Reptilian impulse to serve only the self? To any non-muddled observer—to anyone who has found at least a sliver of stillness within—the answer should be clear.

If we look at the life of Steve Jobs, we see how stillness can be the antidote, the necessary support system, to a life of action. (The fact that I use the most famous capitalist of our time to highlight my point should show that I’m not hostile to business and human desire—just that I think stillness can add proportion, humanity, and beauty to capitalist endeavors). Negative anecdotes about Jobs are commonplace, but there is something moving about how he turned to Zen meditation to cultivate a space in which his mind might settle. This didn’t kill his mind—wasn’t “the antithesis of life”—but refreshed him in the midst of battle, and evidently influenced the design of his most famous creations. Creativity doesn’t emerge from white-knuckled grasping, but from a state of relaxation and receptivity; as William Blake put it, “Damn braces, bless relaxes.”

Likewise, although Thoreau’s pond-side idyll seemed peculiar and worthless to his neighbors, it gave him the resources he needed to write Walden and to pursue his greater humanitarian project, working on the Underground Railroad and extending his sympathies towards the whole of life. After all, life—real life—is found not where we expected to find it, in the most ardent business maneuverings and political power games, but in the silent awareness of a soul at peace.

No Self, No Merit, No Fame

(A Brief Note on Taoists and Libertarians)

by Sam Buntz

“Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.

This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.”

Tao Te Ching

Libertarian thinkers have already noted certain apparent similarities between their philosophy and that of the ancient Chinese wisdom teachers, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu.  (For the record, many Western scholars claim Lao Tzu might not have existed and that his work was primarily a compilation of sayings.  They might have good reasons for reaching this conclusion, but I sometimes wonder if people one thousand years from now won’t wrongly claim T.S. Eliot or William Blake as invented personalities, as they have in the case of Homer, no less than Lao Tzu.)  Yet, it is difficult to corral the doctrines of, say, Ayn Rand, a common Libertarian idol, into the same pen as these Men of the Tao (Tao, for the benefit of the uninitiated, usually translated as “The Way”—though, according to Lao Tzu’s paradoxical saying, “The Tao that can be named is not the real Tao.”)  Indeed, both Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu praised “action-less action”, whether by the government or by anybody, but their meaning flowed from a different intellectual and spiritual vein than that of the “Don’t Tread on Me” Tea Party people.  Practically, many of the implications for government would be the same, but the Taoist Sages didn’t want to reduce the role of government in order to emancipate selfishness, and would’ve reacted with ironic amusement to the title and content of Ms. Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness.

I think that Chuang Tzu would’ve thought that someone who talked a bit too much about the utter-sovereignty and centrality of self-interest had probably fallen off the wagon so long ago, as to have forgotten what the human spirit really is, identifying it with mere desire, or (so much the worse) the critical intellect.  According to the Taoists, the spirit doesn’t want anything—that grasping instinct springs from a source far dirtier than that of the pristine spirit, which would imitate the turtle, who, in one of Chuang Tzu’s tales, prefers to remain alive in the river’s mud than to be stuffed up dead on a shelf in the emperor’s palace.  The contented spirit simply “abides” (in a manner similar and dissimilar to that of the ever-abiding Dude from The Big Lebowski).  When Ayn Rand attacked the Libertarians for being “hippies of the Right” and associating with “anarchists and scum” she was attacking the most noble side of the Libertarian movement, it’s would-be Taoists, who follow (however un-gracefully) the non-method of wu wei, “effortless effort.”  She would’ve reacted with bilious scorn to Chuang Tzu’s wonderfully blithe affirmation: “Therefore, I say, the Perfect Man has no self; the Holy Man has no merit; the Sage has no fame.”

Of course, the Taoists weren’t talking about being couch potatoes—yet the reflective couch potato often discovers a wisdom more sublime than that of the frenetic hot-rodder.  Such is the fertility of stillness.  Yet, the crucial term is, after all, “effortless effort”, which is different from plain effortlessness, the abyss of dark inertia.  The followers of Chuang Tzu—insofar as such an individualist can be said to have voluntarily had “followers” rather than a free assortment of interested parties—did not (and do not) seek a “triumph of the will”, a victory attained by force over either nature of their fellow human beings.  Nor was theirs a path of proto-hippie self-indulgence, wallowing in easy pleasures and mistaking it for transcendence. Far from it! The Taoist path is one in which the critical mind—that which makes judgments and distinctions—attains the freedom to drop off or slow down.  It is a sublime wriggling out of the chrysalis, a rupture of the cocoon, precipitated without aggression.  The Tao—the way of that which is naturally so—simply keeps going, “a river flowing everywhere, like a sea” (in Wallace Stevens’ words) and events occur as they occur.  It is a practical mysticism, one that does not baffle the soul with over-many metaphysical complexities (although “religious Taoism” does have a very complex and beautiful metaphysics and cosmology—but I’m speaking more of Taoism as a philosophy.)

In Taoist thought, the critical intellect may have good intentions—like those of so many communists and authoritarians who thought they could manage us into utopia—but it is unable to carry them out without reducing its object to the conditions of the police state or the gulag.  There is a famous parable from Chuang Tzu, describing how “King Chaos” (“Chaos” being taken not in a pejorative sense, as in the West, but in the sense of the Unconditioned, the state in which the Tao flows without impediment) hosted two visiting kings (representing, I believe, the ratiocinative intellect, the time-bound mind) named “Sudden” and “Brief”.  Chaos entertained them very well, whenever they visited, and so they wished to re-pay him.  Noting that King Chaos did not have any of the five senses, the other two kings decided to drill him some eyes and ears, a nose and a mouth.  Seven days after this operation, we are informed, King Chaos died.  The parable brilliantly illustrates a truth that has personal as well as political ramifications.  The attempt of the critical mind to carve up and manage reality—whether it is reality as one’s own household or neighborhood or reality as a contemporary nation-state—fails.  The patient dies.  The parable implicitly counsels calm abiding, and an intuitive acceptance of the “spontaneous order” of reality (the term “spontaneous order” being used by the Austrian School economist, F.A. Hayek, to describe the order that develops within free markets of its own accord—a shadowy and perhaps less-than-perfect image of the kingdom of King Chaos.)

Oscar Wilde was a “socialist” or an “anarchist”—though apparently of the voluntary variety, and hence consistent with libertarian principles—in addition to being one of the first admirers of Chuang Tzu in the Western World.  Wilde wrote a fascinating review of one of the first translations of Chuang Tzu, wherein he presents and summarizes the sage’s vision of the Ideal State (existing, one can suppose, more as a form or guiding image, than as an achievable earthly nation—rather like Plato’s Republic, except utterly departing from the incipient totalitarianism of that political model):

“Yes; incredible as it may seem, this curious thinker looked back with a sigh of regret to a certain Golden Age when there were no competitive examinations, no wearisome educational systems, no missionaries, no penny dinners for the people, no Established Churches, no Humanitarian Societies, no dull lectures about one’s duty to one’s neighbour, and no tedious sermons about any subject at all. In those ideal days, he tells us, people loved each other without being conscious of charity, or writing to the newspapers about it. They were upright, and yet they never published books upon Altruism. As every man kept his knowledge to himself, the world escaped the curse of scepticism; and as every man kept his virtues to himself, nobody meddled in other people’s business. They lived simple and peaceful lives, and were contented with such food and raiment as they could get. Neighbouring districts were in sight, and ‘the cocks and dogs of one could be heard in the other,’ yet the people grew old and died without ever interchanging visits. There was no chattering about clever men, and no laudation of good men. The intolerable sense of obligation was unknown. The deeds of humanity left no trace, and their affairs were not made a burden for posterity by foolish historians.”

Wilde and Chuang Tzu provide an idealism that is refreshing.  I don’t believe that such a Golden Age is something attainable through external reforms—but that’s exactly the point.  The Man or Woman of the Tao finds himself or herself already living in the Golden Age, once the mania of critical organization falls away from the mind.  The Western Wit and the Eastern Sage both recognize that relaxation is blessed—the most truly creative state—whereas all that braces or restrains ought to be thoroughly damned.  Plenty of young idealists today call for the removal of taboos, but their obsession with these taboos often belies an over-consciousness of them.  The worst taboos exist inside the head—obstructions and blockages that impede the Tao.  In a weird though effective metaphor, Lao Tzu likens the sage to an infant: “It knows nothing of the union of the male and female / And yet its virile member stirs.”

Do I intend these observations to function as a program for society?  Obviously not, given how self-defeating it would be to turn wu wei into a social program, with committees and spaghetti dinners.  However, I do believe that a heady dose of Chuang Tzu would perform wonders in our world.  The would-be world reformers in our society seek to reform the world through the very methods that have consistently made it un-reformable.  The real state of peace and abiding dignity that everyone claims to be looking for was found by Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu in that state of “effortless effort”, that primordial non-method of wu wei. In an America troubled by schemes added upon schemes, by over-management and bureaucracy, by senseless aggression and circular criticisms—like every large country that has existed or every large country that ever will exist (at least, in this Iron Age)—the wisdom of the Taoist sages has the capacity to confound our categories, disrupt the casual course of reason and good sense, and (most importantly) calm us down.  It even has the potential to inject a word we so frequently bandy about—I mean, Liberty—with a new and radical meaning.  Since the ethic of liberty lies in non-coercion, what better philosophy to uphold it than a philosophy that supports non-coercion not only in the international arena, but in the overlapping realms of the body, the mind, and the soul?