Friday, 29 January 2010

'The Tao is silent', by Raymond Smullyan

Raymond Smullyan is a polymath and a great man. He is a philosopher, a logician, a mathematician, a prolific writer, a magician, a humorist, a poet and a pianist. In this book, first published in 1977, and first purchased by me in 1981, he praises the philosophy of Taoism, and applies it to modern life.

Taoism is a Chinese philosophy, expounded principally by Lao Tse and Chuang Tse, blending into Zen Bhuddism. Smullyan uses a gentle, subtle and humorous approach to persuading us to see and join the Taoist philosophy. He quotes ancient poetry and inserts poems of his own devising. It is not possible adequately to rehearse his text in a brief review – go an read the book, which will be a happy experience, I am sure. One of his techniques is to write dialogues, which develop into extended Socratic educative debates, and are most telling. His chapter 22 ‘Is God a Taoist?’ is a classic, for it is a brilliant dialogue between ‘Mortal’ and ‘God’, changing our views on many traditional Christian beliefs, such as whether or not we have free will.

One aspect of this book is its view of Nature. At the risk of a gross simplification, one could say that Taoism is about working with Nature, rather than controlling nature. ‘Nature’ is one of the trickiest words is philosophy and religion, admittedly. The ‘Tao’ is Nature. It is the life force. It is the universe and the way things are. You could say that the philosophy is about trusting nature, believing in its natural goodness, and the original goodness of human nature. This opposes the Christian belief in ‘original sin’. Lao Tse seemed to believe than man is fundamentally good, and becomes distorted and spoilt by restraint and too much stress on morality.

So Taoism, as expounded here, sounds like a ‘hippy’ philosophy – and indeed the picture of Mr Smullyan makes him look like a hippy. But do not be fooled, he has a brilliant mind, and I am sure you will like being guided by him, even if you do not agree with everything he says. Indeed he does not want you to agree with everything he says. Go with the flow.

Incidentally, there is a Western philosopher who came up with very similar conclusions to the Taoists, but by a completely different route. That is the Dutch-Jewish philosopher, Spinoza. By logic and critical thinking, he rejected much of the prevailing Jewish and Christian thinking of his time, and argued that God and Nature were inseparable – indeed they are one and the same thing. Since we are part of Nature, and Nature is everything around us, we are part of God and cannot be separated from him. The parallels are uncanny, and worthy of further investigation.

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