My Contemplations on Tao blog series (at the Society of Friends of Epicurus site) was an attempt to explore the parallels between Taoism and Epicurean philosophy which become evident when we study Taoism and read the Tao Te Ching. Sometimes the insights we get from both traditions mirror, complete and complement each other.
Nature must not be forced. – Epicurus
The first thing we must note is the shared insistence on being engaged in the study of reality, on naturalism, and on naturalness as a virtue: we should only try to be what we are: natural beings. In Epicurus, this leads to acceptance of our mortality and of our natural limits, whereas Tao accentuates the imperfection, the incompleteness of things, the rough stone, the cut piece of wood.
Taoists reacted to Confucian philosophy, which stressed formality and societal roles, in a manner not too different from how Epicureans reacted to the philosophers of the polis. In fact, in On the Architecture of Pleasure, I discuss how the architecture of the Epicurean Garden itself communicates certain values, the welcoming back of nature into the polis, of greenery into the cement, into the physicality of the city. The tension between culture and nature is explored and nature is favored, we are called to a reconciliation with her.
Both traditions share an eco-philosophical sensibility, and both value softness, yielding, femininity. In Taoist scripture, we read about how the soft overtakes the hard and we read about the Spirit of the Valley, the functionality of emptyness and the yielding properties of water, which make it the most powerful element. In A Few Days in Athens, we meet some of the women who studied philosophy together with men, which was scandalous and uncommon in antiquity in every other school, and we learn that the divine patroness of the Epicurean Garden is Aphrodite Urania.
As regards to cosmology and the ultimate nature of things, I also saw a parallel between the yielding and the assertive forces of ying/yang, and on the other hand the atoms and the void of Epicurean tradition. It seemed to me like these were different perspectives and ways to describe the ultimate reality. While Epicureans and ancient Greek atomists presented their doctrine as an early scientific theory, Taoists studied the processes of yielding and asserting, drawing curious insights that were applied to politics, to military science, and even to martial arts.
These facts about ultimate nature have many practical repercussions, and in fact both Epicurus and Lao-Tse are presented as life-coaches, teaching us to plan for the long-term by focusing on short-term efforts. Based on our study of the nature of things, we can draw insights from the atomist assertion that all complex things are made up of progressively smaller parts up until the smallest particle. This paradigm of emergence means that large projects are made up of progressively smaller ones: and so it is with our lives and our self-creation. The little things here-and-now matter.
Many more similarities between the traditions of Lao Tse and Epicurus are explored in the blog series, which evolved as a collection of Epicurean interpretations of the chapters of the Tao Te Ching. Please enjoy reading the Contemplations on Tao series.