Politics from a Taoist Perspective — Arguing for the Centre

Political commentators in Britain often say: “You can only win an election from the centre”. At the moment, however, there seems to be a move away from this trend, in that the Labour Party has moved significantly to the left under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and has become much more popular, and therefore electable, than expected. Some commentators have thought this sensible, in that it gives voters a clear choice, something which often seemed to be lacking in the 1990s and 2000s. From a spiritual perspective, however, it makes little sense, since it suggests that society’s thinking has become unbalanced.

My reason for saying this is based on my understanding of the philosophy of Taoism. Here is a summary of relevant thinking. There is an ultimate reality (usually conceived of as absolute nothingness), from which all forms, whether material or non-material, eventually arise. The most important Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching, describes it in these words:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.

Here are two alternative descriptions of the Tao from the Gnostic tradition:
“a boundless, impersonal, indefinable and absolutely transcendental field residing at the root-base of all consciousness and unconsciousness” (1).
G. R. S. Mead (in an attempt to reconstruct the thought of Basilides of Alexandria) describes something “beyond time, beyond space, beyond consciousness, beyond Being itself”, then quotes Basilides: “There was when naught was… There was absolutely not even the One [the Logos of the world of reality]… That ‘naught’ is not simply the so-called Ineffable; it is beyond that” (2).

The first manifestation (“the named” in the first quote) of this indescribable nothingness might be called in other traditions the One (as in the second quote) (3), the Word (Logos) as in the opening of Saint John’s gospel (or again the Mead quote), or the creative divine mind. According to Taoism, at the beginning of the process of creation, this Oneness divides and becomes Two. In the West it is now well known that the resulting two cosmic principles are called yang and yin. They are sometimes described as male/female (which may be the source of the idea of the great Father God and Mother Goddess). It is surely better, however, to think of these principles as the source of maleness (yang) and femaleness (yin).

Before continuing, it is reasonable to ask whether such ideas have any validity. They cannot be tested scientifically, but there is circumstantial evidence which supports them. Firstly, the ancient Chinese were not alone in thinking thus, for there are equivalents of the Tao in Hinduism (Brahman) and Buddhism (Dharmakaya) (4).
Also, the Sumerians believed that the sky-god An (yang) and the earth-goddess Ki (yin) had been simultaneously generated from Nammu, the primeval ocean (thus the ultimate reality, the Tao), locked in a cosmic embrace (suggesting the One, thus the union of yang and yin). From their union was born the air-god Enlil, who forced the copulating couple apart (into two separate principles) to create the cosmos as we know it (thus the source of everything).

This idea also featured prominently in Egyptian religion. As Charles François Dupuis says:
“The double sex of Nature, or its distinction into active and passive cause, was also represented with the Egyptians by an androgynal Divinity”.
“We are informed by Diodorus of Sicily, that the first inhabitants of Egypt… thought to perceive in Heaven two principal and eternal causes, or two grand Divinities, and one of them they called Osiris or the Sun (thus yang), and the other Isis or the Moon (thus yin)” (5).

An alternative Egyptian version is described by the physicist Paul A. LaViolette:
“Although texts often refer to Atum (6) as male, he was actually bisexual, ‘the great He/She.’ Masculine and feminine aspects emerged only later when he created his son, Shu, and daughter, Tefnut”.
“Shu and Tefnut… personify the concept of differentiation of the primal flux (Atum) into two distinct irreversible processes. Atum, who instills in them his ka, his vital essence, is the prime mover, the creator and activator of this flow”.
“Shu and Tefnut are similar in that they are both embodiments of the same process driven by Atum’s vital essence. They are different in that they are of opposite gender”. He also makes this interesting statement on the subject from the standpoint of physics:
“…the second important criterion for the generation of physical form, the emergence of the two primary ether transmutation pathways (an interesting description of yin and yang!) necessary for the creation of our physical universe” (7).

The same idea is also prominent in Gnosticism. As Stephan Hoeller says: “From this plenum eventually emerge emanations of differentiated being in series, with properties revealing the same field. In this fullness of undifferentiated potentialities, all opposites are still in a state of equilibrium. Only much later do they stir into gradual effective manifestation, first as two polarities (thus yin and yang)… In a very real sense all Gnostic systems have this basic realization in common”. He goes on to say that the Kabbalah “with its Pleromic equivalent known as the Ain Soph Aur”, and “numerous Christian late Gnostic systems such as that of Jacob Boehme”, all agree in this teaching (8).
A paraphrase for “these late Gnostic systems” might be Western esotericism, a primary example of which is Rosicrucianism. So evidence for Hoeller’s statement seems to be confirmed by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, who say that the Rosicrucian alchemist Thomas Vaughan believed “life itself is nothing but a union of male and female principles…” (9). It is therefore likely that other esoteric secret societies would think something similar.

In case any Christians reading this are thinking that these ideas have nothing to do with them, and only appear in other religions, “pagan” and “occult” traditions, let’s consider these words of St. Paul: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (10). Some commentators have interpreted this as an attempt to relativize human differences, seeing Paul, specifically on the last point, as some kind of early feminist. I suggest that the following quotation from Paul reveals his real meaning: “He (i.e. Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him” (11). Paul thus considers the Christ to be the firstborn of the invisible God (the Tao), and the source of everything created (therefore the One, or “the named”), including the male and female principles (yang and yin, since the opposites of male and female are contained within him).
Christianity, under the leadership and influence of the Roman Catholic Church, has tried to suggest that the Godhead Trinity is exclusively male, and that there is therefore no Divine Feminine. Let us note then that in Hebrew the “Spirit of God” (as in Genesis 1:2) is feminine (something which is lost in modern translations), the implication being that the feminine side of God instigated creation (12).

I understand that these ideas seem very remote from our everyday experience of the world, and therefore that none of the above will impress “scientifically” minded materialists. It is nevertheless possible that the ancients got it right — they often seem to have had a very deep spiritual understanding of metaphysics. In the context of the above, it is very interesting that all these diverse traditions had the same understanding.

Further circumstantial evidence which supports these ideas is as follows. It is logical that the next stage of the process would be that each principle further divides, thus for the Two to become Four. This is precisely what the ancients believed, the first division of the male and female principles being into four elements which were the source of everything visible. These elements were Air, Fire, Earth, and Water (which obviously refer to cosmic principles, and not to what we understand by these words). Two of these are masculine (Air and Fire, thus yang), and two feminine (Earth and Water, thus yin).
This idea was a central feature of Gnosticism. As Stephan Hoeller says: “Primal being was conceived as going forth from itself in a series of existences, each at a farther distance from the centre. One of the chief hallmarks of these emanations is that they are represented in pairs, one male the other female, and that their names usually describe contrasting or complementary pairs of being” (my italics) (13).
Something similar can be found in Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types; he found there to be four functions in the human personality, which would correspond to the ancient idea of the four elements — thinking (Air) and intuition (Fire) are the yang elements; feeling (Water) and sensation (Earth) are the yin.
The same idea is found in the four suits of the Tarot cards (intended to be a Book of Life) where the four suits correspond to the four elements and the Jungian functions: swords/air/ thinking, wands/fire/intuition, cups/water/feeling, and pentacles/earth/sensation. Also the twelve houses of the astrological zodiac are divided up into four groups of three, each of which corresponds to one of the four elements (14).

Can such ideas be applied to modern politics? Before I offer my own ideas, here the thoughts of two writers:
Joseph Campbell, arguably the greatest mythologist ever and a highly significant spiritual thinker, describes Taoism as a mythology of peace. “There is through all of nature an all-suffusing spiritual harmony: an orderly interaction through all life and lives, through all history and historical institution, of those two principles or powers, active and passive…”. “The way of their alternations through all things is the Way of all things, the Tao. And by putting oneself in accord with the Tao — one’s time, one’s world, oneself — one accomplishes the ends of life and is at peace in the sense of being in harmony with all things” (15).

Ray Billington says that “the application of these principles to the world of social problems and political affairs would probably be more effective than any other factor in ridding the world of its imbalance and bringing about a state of harmony, health and cooperation” (16).

So, if either of these writers is anywhere close to the truth, this strongly suggests that we should take Taoist ideas seriously in a political context. How are they relevant?
In this philosophy the whole of the universe, material and non-material, is derived from the cyclic interplay of these two opposite principles, yin and yang. If this is true, then it must be possible to understand political ideas in these terms.
The yang energy, as well as being the source of maleness, is described as active, strong, hard, outgoing, creative, enterprising, and the yin as female, passive, yielding, receptive, maternal, nurturing. (There are no value judgements here; both principles are considered equally important. Neither can exist without the other, and are considered interdependent and interchangeable.)
From this perspective, I suggest that we identify right-wing ideology as a manifestation of the yang principle, and left-wing ideology of the yin, the feminine nature of which is indicated in that, when it moves towards its extreme position, those speaking from the yang perspective call it the “Nanny State”. This seems to be confirmed by the recent Labour Party manifesto, which made extravagant promises to hand out lots of money, thus taking care of the needs of everyone — an ideal nanny!

According to Taoist thinking, the goal of life is to live in harmony with the Tao, the ongoing evolutionary process of the Divine consciousness. Furthermore, if there is a movement towards one extreme there will be a reaction triggering a move to the opposite principle (for supporting quotes, see footnote 17). In the well-known, apparently simple but profound, symbol the T’ai-chi T’u, otherwise known as the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate

each side contains a small portion of its opposite, thus containing the seed of its own transformation. It is also noteworthy that there is not a straight line down the middle, which would indicate a dramatic separation; instead the two principles seem to invade each other’s space, further indicating their interdependence. As Ray Billington says: yin and yang are a “single concept, since neither can be considered without reference to the other”. It is “impossible or, at any rate, unreal and unnatural, to look on either the yin or the yang aspect of anything or anybody as more important or more necessary than the other” (18).

It seems obvious, therefore, that one should seek to adopt a political philosophy which seeks a central equilibrium, balance, wholeness, since to be exclusively focussed on one side of the yin/yang divide leads inevitably to a reaction towards its opposite. As Chuang Tzu said: “Life is the blended harmony of the yin and yang” (19).
If one were to ignore this advice, one could argue that, following a period of Conservatism, we are due for a swing towards the Left (Corbynism, yin). But if we know in advance that, according to Taoism, this will inevitably lead to a return to the Right (yang), wouldn’t it be better to forestall this (apparently unconscious and unguided) process and adopt a middle way? This would be to make a spiritual leap. The purpose of human self-reflecting consciousness may indeed be to facilitate such leaps, thereby accelerating human understanding, therefore the evolution of consciousness, and therefore the evolution of society. In order to achieve this leap people would have to recognise that, despite its current attractiveness to some, left-wing Corbynism is unbalanced, limited and will ultimately prove to be unproductive.

In Britain, from a leftist perspective the centre is called Social Democracy, or New Labour, or Blairism after former Prime Minister Tony Blair. These are now described by yin-thinking Labour activists as “Tory-light”, obviously intended as an insult. From the right-wing perspective the centre is called one-nation or “compassionate” Conservatism (an expression described by one socialist yin friend of mine as an oxymoron!).
I’ll look first at Blairism (New Labour). The person Tony Blair has turned out to be a great disappointment — arrogant and hubristic — before we even mention his highly suspicious role in the Iraq war, which has severely tarnished his image. In the 1990s, however, he seemed a charismatic and appealing figure. His philosophy of being pro-business, while investing heavily in education and the National Health Service, and introducing a minimum wage, seemed to be an excellent example of a yang/yin balance. He went on to be the most successful Labour leader ever, winning three consecutive elections. This was not enough to impress those on the yin side; Ken Livingstone (20) once described him as the most right-wing Labour leader ever, which was obviously intended as an insult (21) — he would presumably have preferred a continuation of the yin policies of Michael Foot, which won the Labour Party nothing.
Such a philosophy seems almost indistinguishable from one-nation “compassionate” Conservatism. In principle this also seems to be an excellent example of a yin/yang balance. When figures like David Cameron and Theresa May make speeches advocating it at Conservative Party conferences, it sounds very inspiring; doubts arise if their actions and decisions seem not to be putting this philosophy into practice. There are also problems when hard-line capitalists (extreme, unbalanced yang people) seem to ignore its principles, which once led Prime Minister Edward Heath to use the phrase “the unacceptable face of Capitalism”. One of the major complaints of the left is that the rich seek to evade paying taxes by various means. This is an obvious example of the yang principle having gone too far, greed leading to an avoidance of social responsibility.

One further thought. Left/right politics and their resulting arguments are based on the assumption that one ideology is correct, the other wrong, and therefore the advocates find themselves in a battle against their opponents (enemies). However, the teaching of the modern science of quantum physics is that separation is an illusion, everything is interconnected, thus an undivided whole. From this perspective, which fits perfectly with Taoist thought, right and left politics are both part of an ongoing process. This might mean that if one person moves towards the right, this would necessitate someone else drifting to the left, and vice versa, in order to maintain a balance. If this is true, it suggests that it is pointless to be positioned away from the centre.

I hope, in the light of all the above, that from a Taoist perspective it is important (dare I say obvious?) that we should argue for Centre politics, and form a political ideology and system which incorporates the best of both yin and yang. We need the yang principle — enterprise, creativity, wealth creation, people who aspire to make a better life for themselves — and the yin — a caring attitude towards all citizens. One potential outcome of adopting such a philosophy is that we might end up with a consensus centrist position, to which all citizens can subscribe. Politics might become much less adversarial, which seems almost impossible to contemplate given our current situation, but which would surely be a good thing, all citizens coming together. After all, isn’t adversarial politics, especially the current situation in Britain, merely yang arguing against yin and vice versa? (Sometimes the scenes in the House of Commons are described as “Punch and Judy politics”, a possible unintended reference to Taoist ideas.) Such politicians should notice that they are part of the interconnected wholeness of the Tao.


Bibliography/further reading:
Billington, Ray: Understanding Eastern Philosophy, Routledge, 1997, chapters 9–11
Capra, Fritjof: The Tao of Physics, Flamingo, 1992, chapters 7 and 8
LaViolette, Paul A.: Beyond the Big Bang, Park Street Press, 1995, pp336–339

(1) Stephan Hoeller: The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead, Theosophical Publishing House, 1982, p68.
(2) Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, Theosophical Publishing Society, 1906, p256
(3) Ray Billington, p107, puts it like this: “the ‘One’ is T’ai-chi… often translated as ‘primordial breath’. In the I Ching… it refers unambiguously to the ultimate reality, the ground of being from which all else arises. It is the primal manifestation of the Tao, which cannot be named”.
(4) Capra, p117
(5) The Origin of All Religious Worship, The Michigan Historical Reprint Series, pp 70, 99
(6) The first divinity in the creation myth of Heliopolis

(7) LaViolette, p104–105
(8) Hoeller, (see 1), p68
(9) The Templar Revelation, Corgi, 1998, p216
(10) Galatians 3, v28
(11) Colossians 1, vv15–17
(12) Alex Evans, The Myth Gap, Transworld Publishers, p81, referring to Margaret Barker, Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment, Continuum, 2010, and Robert Murray: The Cosmic Covenant, Heythrop Monographs, 1992.
(13) Hoeller, (see 1), p74
(14) Aries, Taurus, Gemini are Air signs, Cancer, Leo, Virgo are Fire, (thus masculine/yang).
Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius are Earth, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces are Water (thus feminine/ yin)
(15) Myths to Live By, p191
(16) Billington, p117
(17) “The yang having reached its climax retreats in favor of the yin, the yin having reached its climax retreats in favor of the yang”. (Wang Ch’ung, quoted by Capra p118, referring to J. Needham: Science and Civilisation in China, CUP, 1956, vol IV, p7)
Or in Capra’s own words: “The Chinese believe that whenever a situation develops to its extreme, it is bound to turn around and become its opposite”.
There may also be an echo of this idea in Hegel’s belief in a universal spirit evolving through a process of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, in which two opposing ideas follow each other but are then combined into one.
(18) Billington, p107, p108
(19) Capra, p120, referring to Chuang Tzu, trans. James Legge, Ace Books, 1971, ch 22
An interesting comparison can be made with the Buddha’s spiritual search. There were periods when he tried extreme practices, but these proved unproductive. He concluded that the most appropriate lifestyle to be one of moderation, and this is now called the middle path.
(20) Most British readers will be aware of him. For the benefit of others, he has been a significant Labour left-winger since the 1980s, who went on to become Mayor of London.
(21) Margaret Thatcher (arch yang spokesperson) once said that her most significant achievement was Tony Blair, by which she meant that she had forced the Labour Party to move significantly towards the centre.

Originally published at spiritualityinpolitics.com.

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com