The Tao, and the Existentialist

I continued my long debate on Facebook with my friend where we argued the Tao, or the Way, and religion and largely talked past each other. I think I finally get his perspective, and it relates to a post I made last summer.

He claimed that I was just taking his perspective and adding a dross of mysticism to it. He spoke of “my Way” and being dogmatic that mine was the only way.

Here was my reply to him, and thus ends my interest in the debate.

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino;
se hace camino al andar.

[Walker, your tracks are the path, and nothing more. Walker, there is no path. The path is made in the walking.]

This poem by Antonio Machado and made into a song by Joan Manuel Serrat sums up your existentialist view. And I have no problem with it; it’s a good song too. The clergy who ran the school where I was educated, and where I was taught the song, presumably had no problem with it either, or at least with its being part of the curriculum.

Existentialism is a good weapon against literalism, but I am at heart not an existentialist. Our impasse is in that I believe we explore the Way from the inside; that it pre-exists, not in a prescriptive way but like the laws of nature pre-exist and you must work within them, but, like I said, you cannot derive the Way from the Laws of Nature. You seem to think, like Machado, that the negotiation itself is the Way. We could argue that ad infinitum.

You talk of my Way and your Way. To the extent it is my Way or yours, we have it wrong. This is Taoism. There are not multiple Ways, not if you’re doing justice to the perspective. Agreeing with it or not is a different matter.

This is not resolvable.

Update: My friend said the he is not an existentialist, but an absurdist, and this prompted my follow-up post on Facebook.

I’ve had interesting, and mostly civil, discussions this past week with atheists and believers. For me, the fulcrum point of Christianity is the moment when Christ says, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” There are interesting discussions about this all over the Web. It is, symbolically, not just the fulcrum for Christianity, of course; it’s the fulcrum of Western philosophy, between a meaningless universe and one in which there are fundamental principles of value expressed through humans. It the the singularity of doubt, where essentialism and existentialism clash.

The anti-theist, not necessarily atheist, would perhaps request a better symbol, one unencumbered by all the baggage of faith and sentiment and history. I think those “encumbrances” are rather its strengths. In any case, you must choose, and even refusing to choose is a choice, as Rush said in its song “Freewill,” and seemingly came down on the side of existentialism.

However, I also think that it is intellectually lazy not to maintain an open mind. Existentialism was critical to the Enlightenment, and is a useful tool for combatting literalism, which is a morbid tendency we all have, to mistake the map for the territory. One of my friends identifies as an absurdist, and that’s a respectable position. Though widely regarded as an existentialist philosophy, most famously championed by Camus, it strikes me rather as an attitude compatible with essentialism. The opposite of an absurdist, to me, is not necessarily a believer but a conceited person.

We’re all pretty absurd, so let’s have a laugh about it, guard our hopes, and not take ourselves too seriously.

About robertpkruger

Writer, editor, and software developer. Former president of
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