September 22, 2009

The Tao of Pope St. Gregory the Great

The Seven Deadly Sins and Wu Wei

Please don’t send corrections for the spelling of “Tao”. Yes, it could be “Dao”. Although, there is a certain humor in the controversy.

A rough translation of “The Tao” is “The Way,” and this philosophy/religion appears to have originated in China between 500 B.C. and 200 A.D. The broad dating is due to disagreements. It is attributed to Lao Tsu. For now, let us not debate the origins and distortions of Taoism. We will look at one aspect, wu wei, and consider Gregory’s list of seven deadly sins (attitudes) from this perspective.

Translations of philosophy from ancient languages to modern often pose a problem. Wu wei can be translated as “no purpose”, but the complete phrase is “wu wei and not wu wei.” Some translate the whole phrase as “do not act, yet act.” Huston Smith’s translation: “Don’t waste energy.” Some translate it as avoiding purposeful action, others as avoiding unnatural, affected actions.

Dante will be our guide, as we will use his sequence for the Seven Deadly Sins, starting with the least hellish attitudes and working our way toward the worst. Think of it as a conversation between Dante, Gregory and Lao Tsu.

1) Lust – From a Catholic perspective, Lust is the desire for pleasure run amok. Most people, reasonably, think of the drive for sexual pleasure as Lust. Quite literally, sex outside of marriage is useless activity. In marriage, sex can be a useful activity, bringing new life and strengthening the bond between husband and wife. In marriage, the couple has decades to pursue sexual closeness at a leisurely pace, without striving or artifice. Outside marriage, sex is a source of conflict, proof of power or beauty, commodity to be bought or sold, marketing tool or agent of death. The drive for illicit sex fuels a multi-billion dollar sex industry while human beings starve and kill each other. Men go to great lengths for sex, and women spend time and money to be more attractive to these men. What a waste of energy. And those who often succeed in these pointless pursuits find no happiness, just a desire for a different partner or experience.

2) Gluttony – Although it applies to food, let us consider the consumption of anything past the point of usefulness. Clearly, this is wasted energy. People eat more than they need, drive bigger cars than necessary, waste electricity on all manner of useless trinkets and have more shoes than they truly need. All of this while so many starve. Sadly, the world economy might collapse if people only consumed what they must. Not every treat is useless, though. Parties and desserts serve a worthy purpose, but lose their charm when commonplace. Gluttony is like a musical piece played entirely loud, with no soft passages.

3) Wrath/Anger – There is a kind of useful anger, as demonstrated by Christ in the Cleansing of the Temple, but most anger is a waste of energy. Shaking a fist at drivers who displease us, yelling at children for being children, resentment because someone didn’t do as we might have liked, these are all a waste of energy. People say, “No, it feels better to express it.” Maybe, or maybe not. Expressed anger causes stress for others and is not calming to the one who expresses it. It would be better to consider the “Serenity Prayer,” and accept what we cannot change.

4) Sloth/Laziness – This is a funny one, because some might consider wu wei laziness. But only taking effective action is taking action and far from laziness. And laziness is a kind of action, too. It can be difficult to do nothing, especially when others require our assistance. Children ask their lazy parents for a cup of water. Customers have a question about a product. The boss wants that report. Zeal does not seem wu wei, but it is. Not the foolish “zeal” of zealots, idealogues who “having lost sight of their goal, redouble their efforts,” but focused and effective action, and no more or less than necessary.

5) Avarice/Greed – Like Gluttony, this is about desiring to possess more than is useful. No matter how much is acquired, it is never enough, and there is no real enjoyment, only the fear of loss. This useless striving can never result in happiness, and is truly a useless activity.

6) Envy – In the first place, we can never have what is possessed by another. Possession is a matter of both what we have and who we are. This is why the same object may bring happiness to one person but grief to another. So to desire what another has is foolish because it will not be the same for us. Riches, fame, or power wielded well by one may destroy another, so wearing out our souls in envy is a waste of effort.

7) Pride – And so we come to the biggest waste of all. In the poem, “Ozymandias,” we hear the boasting of a mighty king long since dead. Death is indeed the great equalizer, coming to the great and small, and none avoid it. Ants and corporate giants both die, but for us there is also judgment. All pride is a waste because our view of ourselves matters not at all in the end, when our lives are revealed for all to see. All pretense, all show, all vain posturing is gone, and there is none but the self remaining, naked before its Maker. Far better to live in truth, simply and without spin or image. This is humility, prized by many but understood by few.

This article does not attempt to explain either Taoism or Christianity, but rather provide something to think about. More on Taoism and wu wei can be found through search engines, and more articles like this one abound on this site.

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