Glimpsing the Moral Tao … But not able to Grasp it

In the 2nd video of Session Two I summarized the ethical teachings of major world religions of today.  What I found striking when I first studied them was their degree of congruence.  Every teaching upholds honesty, truthfulness, self-control, chastity as morally right.  None teach that cowardice, fickleness, unfaithfulness, dishonesty, greed etc. are virtues.  Though there are differences in emphasis and detail there is uniformity in direction.

We also looked at moral teachings from ancient Egyptian & Babylonian religions.  Again we noted the striking degree of congruence in their moral teaching – with each other, with us, and current world religions.  C.S. Lewis noted this congruence of values across cultures and called it the Tao, borrowing the term from the ancient Chinese.  He used it to signify an intrinsic values ‘compass’ that exists in people.  He explains:

“In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta … Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality.  Plato said that the Good was ‘beyond existence’… The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao.  … It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road…. It is also the Way which every man should tread in … conforming all activities to that great exemplar.

This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’.  … What is common to them all is something we cannot neglect.  It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain values are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are….[it is to] recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not”[1]

Examples of the Moral Tao from ancient moral thinkers

Consider the following from esteemed thinkers in history – again coming from diverse cultures -articulating ‘good’ and ‘right’ behaviour.

Analects of Confucius – Ancient Chinese

  • Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.
  • The master said, “Respect the young”.
  • Gentlemen must learn to be faithful to their superiors and to keep promises.

Cicero De Off. 1. Vii – Ancient Rome

  • Men were brought into existence … that they might do one another good

Homer  Iliad ix 340 – Ancient Greece

  • Every good man, who is right-minded loves and cherishes his own

Christopher Hitchens Helps us Glimpse the Moral Tao

Though not trying to advocate objective values, well-known humanist Christopher Hitchens (whom I covered in these previous posts: The Passing of Christopher Hitchens: Carrying Misconception to the Grave, Christopher Hitchens and the Efficacy of Pascal’s Wager, Christopher Hitchens & North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il: Is it really Religion that Poisons Everything?) gives a modern-day example of what Lewis means by the Tao.  Hitchens tells the story of how a Muslim cab driver searched him out to return a large amount of cash that his wife had mistakenly left in his cab.  When Hitchens offered him some money the cab driver refused saying that he was only doing his duty in returning the forgotten money.  Hitchens comments:

“And if all Muslims conducted themselves like the man who gave up more than a week’s salary in order to do the right thing, I could be indifferent to the weird exhortations of the Koran.  If I search my own life for instances of good or fine behaviour I am not overwhelmed by an excess of choice.  I did once, shivering with fear, take off my flak jacket in Sarajevo and lend it to an even more frightened woman who I was helping to escort to a place of safety.”[2]

It was the ‘right’ thing to return the money.  It demanded a response from the cab driver that he was free to make or not.  Hitchens, the cab driver – and we ourselves – recognize this.  Hitchens admires this value so much that he says he would move from hostility and opposition to Islam to being neutral about it – if all Muslims would consistently exhibit this Tao in their behaviour.  Hitchens thinks in his own life that it was ‘right’ (in a situation that demanded a response which he was free to make or not) to help someone more vulnerable than he when they were both in a dangerous situation.  In these situations the basis of what made the action good had nothing to do with benefits to society or preferences of the individuals.  They were just what ought to have been done.  The Tao, to borrow from Lewis, is the Way – the Good Way – that we can all glimpse.

The Moral Tao – Hard to Grasp

But Hitchens also lets us on to something else.  He does not find this conformity to the Tao in the behaviour of most Muslims.  But closer to home, he says that in his own estimation about his own life he is not overwhelmed by evidence of actually practicing – or grasping – behaviour demanded by the Tao.  In fact, elsewhere he says it is impossible.  His own Tao is able to judge his own actions – and by his own words he does not find many instances where he himself grasped the Tao.

The Tao: Glimpsed but not Grasped by the Vikings

Being of Swedish origin I learned much about the activities of the Vikings 1000 years ago.  Though they were fearless explorers, discovering and colonizing Iceland, Greenland and even North America, they were also feared throughout Europe for their plundering, raping and pillaging raids.  They also traveled east raiding the Byzantium Empire and used the Volga River to launch raids into Russia.  Therefore I had always assumed that my ancestors of that era had no sense of moral values – a Tao – to speak of.  How surprised I was to learn something of what they taught about values.  Consider the following:

In Nastrond (=Hell) I saw … murderers … beguilers of others’ wives … the perjurers

Volospa 38, 39 (i.e. these things are vices)

Brothers shall fight and be each others’ bane

(Account of the ‘evil’ age before the World’s end showing that fighting among brothers to be a vice) Volopsa 45

This first I rede thee; be blameless to thy kindred.  Take no vengeance even though they do thee wrong

Sigrdrifumal 22

Anything is better than treachery

Havamal 124

Their ability to glimpse the Tao resonates both with ours as well as that of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians from the 2nd video of Session 2. But when we read of their raping and pillaging raids that terrorized Europe in the Middle Ages we see a discrepancy between what their moral intuition glimpsed and what their actions grasped – a discrepancy that parallels (though perhaps not as big) the discrepancy that Hitchens noted in his own life.  We noted this ability to glimpse the Tao (but not the term) along with a corresponding inability to grasp it in the previous post about the Iranian movie A Separation, amongst both the religious and the less religious in the modern Shia Islamic society of Iran.

The Tao: Glimpsed but not grasped today in Hindu India

The world’s largest recurring festival, the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival where devout Hindus travel long distances to wash ‘their sins away’, also shows how our ability to glimpse but not live morals crosses cultures, languages and religions.

The Biblical View of Morals

How do we explain this paradox that we humans can glimpse the moral, but not grasp it in how we live?  The Biblical explanation is that we were originally made in the image of God – giving us our moral Tao – but then mankind had a fall into corruption, so that we cannot grasp in practice the moral plumb line that we can glimpse.  The Biblical view shrewdly captures the essence of our morality, and from the beginning of its narrative unfolds the Divine Plan to restore us from our condition.

CS Lewis was a theist – a Christian even.  His view of morality was foundational to his belief in God.  Surprising as it may seem, Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most prominent atheist today, also frames an objective basis for morals.  How he does so, and what it means, we look at in our next post.


[1] C.S. Lewis.  1944.  The Abolition of Man.  p.10-11.  This book, though not as well-known as his other books, has influenced me more than his other writings.  The moral statements from Confucius, Homer, Cicero & The Vikings come from the appendix in this book.  They, in turn, come from the Encyclopedia of Religions and Ethics (ERE)

[2] Christopher Hitchens.  god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything  p. 188