Friday, January 01, 2010

Culture and Tao, Dwellers in the Earth

As I read Erazim Kohak's wonderful and wondrous work, The Embers and the Stars, it keeps striking me that a Czech philosopher gives me deep insights into my own language.

In the chapter on the human being's place in ecology, Kohak pierces the conception that human culture must stand in some kind of opposition to the rest of "nature."

The opposition of nature and culture which we take for granted is itself a cultural product, the result of a skewed perspective which identifies "culture" with that branch of the entertainment industry [sic] which caters to the tastes of the educated and the affluent urbanite, specifically in the area of the arts. The term and the concept of culture, however, have very different roots. Culture is a matter of cultivation, echoing the Latin cultus, the yielding of respect, honoring the sacredness of all that is. The man of culture is one who cultivates, who honors the nobility of being. The husbandman is a man of culture, as words like agriculture and silviculture remind us, cultivating the field and the forest. The homo humanus of ancient Rome, the man of culture, is one who cultivates his life, not leaving it at the mercy of his momentary whims and their gratification but ordering it according to its moral sense. His task, like that of the husbandman and of all men of culture, is not an arbitrary one, displacing nature. Nature is his guide in the task of cultivcation. That is cultus -- and, in that sense, culture is not the contradiction of nature but rather the task of humans within it.

Throughout this work, Kohak is not referring to "morality" as a set of arbitrary ethical criteria, or rules made by humans who are speaking on God's behalf, but of the intrinsic rightness and harmony of creation -- a concept that is echoed throughout Lao Tzu and the conception he named "the way of things," or Tao.

This reminded me of Stephen Mitchell's rather free translation of the 39th verse of the Tao te Ching:

In harmony with the Tao,
the sky is clear and spacious,
the earth is solid and full,
all creatures flourish together,
content with the way they are,
endlessly repeating themselves,
endlessly renewed.

When man interferes with the Tao,
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles,
creatures become extinct.

The Master views the parts with compassion,
because he understands the whole.
His constant practice is humility.
He doesn't glitter like a jewel
but lets himself be shaped by the Tao,
as rugged and common as a stone.

Returning to Kohak, who regrets that "the basic metaphor of human presence is the bulldozer," we receive this observation:

If, in the course of the last three centuries, we have become increasingly marauders on the face of the earth rather than dwellers therein, it is not because we have bcome more distinctively human, more distinctively cultured, but rather because we have become less so. What is distinctively human about us is our ability to perceive the moral law in the vital order of nature, subordinating greed to love...

If we are to receover the confidence of our intrinsic place in nature, we need to do so by reclaiming, not by rejecting, our distinctive moral humanity, our task of cultivating the earth as faithful stewards. For humans, it is precisely culture, in its most basic sense of cultivation, of care and respect, not bestiality, that can be the way to reclaiming our place in nature. It is as beings capable of seeing our place in nature from a moral point of view that we can cease being marauders and can become dwellers in the earth.

[Photo: my friend, Chris, standing on volcanic tuff at City of Rocks in New Mexico.]

1 comment:

skroy said...

Thank you! Very valuable linguistic and sociological insight... I will have to share this with my fellow anthropologists.