Nature is that which has always been there. This is the thinking of Heraclitus. In his eyes, it has always been made up of the world (cosmos) as what “was, is and will be.” This is to make Nature finite, to diminish its power. Nature did not create itself, that is to say permanently structure itself into the world, but unceasingly and tirelessly builds itself and becomes finite by forming itself into a multiplicity of worlds. This means that it breaks up into innumerable worlds that are not at all eternal, but are born and perish. It is like a perpetual laboratory of endless and multiple trials because it is not only one order (cosmos) that is born of Nature, but all systems of the order are born of it at one time or another.
By his cosmology, Heraclitus is the ancestor of Plato’s followers. However, by his panta rhei, “everything flows,” he is the prime example of all the philosophies of movement, from Montaigne to Bergson, before and after. Furthermore, what is the Tao, according to Lao Tzu, but “perpetual mutability itself,” that is to say Heraclitus’s river? Yet it must be added: with certain characteristics of Anaximander’s Phusis, because the “Path” (Tao), which is infinite in that it is unqualified, undetermined, and conceptually incomprehensible, is also the source and principle of birth and growth for individual beings: differentiating themselves and becoming finite, it thus deploys a generative force, Te – a word which is generally translated as “Virtue.” Nothing prevents this “Virtue” from showing itself in innumerable worlds.
Life is incomplete, but it constantly contradicts this essential incompleteness, not by the creation of forms, but by the fact that these forms last for millennia without any variation and are like impasses. Man knows himself to be incomplete. However, society is the place of fixed forms, and, by means of the State and its institutions, demands from the individual under threat, subjugation to these forms so that the individual is unceasingly dispossessed of himself, of his creative essence. Fixed forms do not evolve, or barely evolve.
Hence, at various times throughout history, there are processed a substitution of old fixed forms with new forms such as wars, coup d’états, and revolutions. The individual, who owed respect to a code, institutions, laws, and important people, now owes respect to a different code, to new institutions, to other laws, to other important people. He is told he must go to war. He goes and dies without having had the time to experience a reality of his own. Existence is necessarily a compromise between society and the self. One cannot completely escape from the pressure of fixed forms (which Plato, with his theory of Ideas, wanted to make absolute to establish his authoritarianism), and live a purely natural life, but one must strive to be in tune with oneself, with one’s Tao. It is necessary to reduce as much as possible, the level of obligations in life and to escape, if possible, from the contingent duties coming from fixed forms and from making any commitment that can be avoided.
Living in harmony with the course of things, the flow that unceasingly institutes and causes them, that is to say being in agreement with the natural innermost depths of our being; that is the advice of the “Old Sage.”
Certainly, there is no society without fixed forms, and there is no individual outside society. By means of education, society prepares the child to maintain or even perpetuate forms. Becoming an adult and a man of his time, he fulfills himself in forms defined by the spirit of the era. As he lives not in the immense time of Nature, but in the shrunken time, where ephemeral realities establish themselves like beings, he believes himself to be real, forgets the disappearance of things and nothingness.
The Tao Te Ching allows us, thanks to the power of thought, to establish a state of organisation of our being in its relations with itself and the world, similar to that which Nature herself produces spontaneously in the case of certain privileged individuals. These privileged natures are the artists, while the first are philosophers.
What is at work in the artist is nothing other than Nature herself, indefinitely incomplete, infinite creator, and pushing blindly the future forward. The man of action is the opposite of the artist, because he wants to know in advance all things concerning his actions, in order to move forward in complete safety. He wants, as much as possible, to avoid risk, which is precisely what the artist cannot avoid. To master Nature and the course of things by calculation is the dream of the man of action; nothing pleases him more than the progress of science and technology. The artist places his confidence in the flow of things, allowing himself to be led by inspiration.
The individual depends through his roles and functions on a society that encloses him in set obligations, which have been defined without him, and also by what is title, dignity, grade, mark of honour etc, all things that hold him captive. The Cynics had already noted that we clutter our lives with innumerable things that we do not need. Having pruned what is of no use to happiness is to be like uncut wood, not like wood that has been cut and worked. This is the origin of Lao Tzu’s advice: “Return to the state of uncarved wood.”
The objection could be made that this condition, where man is stripped of all the things that make up the action of life, would leave him in a void and in boredom. This objection is based on a misunderstanding. It is true that if the ordinary man finds himself “without passions, without business, without diversion,” he will be bored and in a void. But we don’t have concern for the ordinary man. If the Tao Te Ching has some effect on the ordinary man, it is a sign that he was not an ordinary man.
What sort of activity is that of the philosopher who follows the Tao? We can say it consists of a particular application of the method of “non-action” (wu wei). This method is universal and makes it possible, in all areas, to be efficient without conflict or violence. The way the philosopher applies it to the domain of knowledge consists of this: To be open to realities and to allow them to reveal themselves. “We will never succeed in having thoughts, they come to us,” said Heidegger.
What is required so that thoughts come to us? First, the soul must reach “freedom from anxiety” (ataraxia), serenity, a sort of negative happiness that we can call “wisdom” – a wisdom that is not the aim of philosophy, but its condition. Then and correspondingly, preoccupation with oneself must be absent. However, we shouldn’t attach so much importance to ourselves that we hate ourselves. We will avoid the trap of Cogito, which, by enclosing thought in self-reflection, separates it from things, depriving it of all immediate relations. Above all, it is necessary to empty oneself and put aside all cultural acquisitions – be they beliefs or preconceived ideas – so that there are only things themselves, their elusiveness, their infinity and their immensity under the horizon of eternal Time.
Marcel Conche, Philosophizing ad Infinitum: Infinite Nature, Infinite Philosophy.