The Tao Is Silent

Raymond M. Smullyan

Book cover

My reading of this book falls into the sad category of “picked it up because the author died this year.” As happens when your dad is a philosophy professor, I had some books of Smullyan’s logic puzzles when I was a kid, so I recognized the name. Reading his obits, though, I learned about this book, which I hadn’t heard of before. I am also interested in Daoist thought, so I was eager to read this.

The book is an interesting mish-mash. The only part of it I would recommend unreservedly is the dialog “Is God a Taoist?” But you can read that online without getting the book!

The content of that dialog doesn’t have much to do with Daoism narrowly defined, but I suppose is informed by what Smullyan would describe as a Daoist outlook. The dialog touches on, and interestingly inverts perspectives on, a lot of important ideas regarding free will, moral responsibility, and good and evil.

The rest is more mixed. In a way it felt a lot like reading a blog avant la lettre. Smullyan is clearly a Daoism enthusiast rather than an expert (and I think he might well say that the only way to really learn Daoism is from an amateur enthusiast!). The tone of the book is very conversational, with a surprising frequency of exclamation points. I came to find this pretty endearing, although I can imagine it being offputting. The edition I read, at least, was also very poorly edited, with lots of spelling mistakes.

My biggest annoyance with the book was a sort of cultural essentialism that came across to me. There is already a pretty high risk with a western dabbler writing a book about Daoism. Smullyan very casually uses the terms “eastern” and “western” to characterize entire perspectives or ways of thinking about the world, and often sort of lumps Zen Buddhism and Daoism right together (admittedly they are related, but still). I’m mostly OK chalking this up to it having been written in 1977, but it did very much read like “a western person’s idealization of what some eastern religions mean.”

Anyway, overall I did find some value in the book. It’s certainly interesting to me that someone who cut his teeth on logic puzzles is drawn to the anti-dualist aspects of Daoism–kind of a “late style” type of thing. I like that he tries to take seriously the senses of apparently paradoxical or weird sayings like “the true dao is unnameable,” and discuss approaches to thinking about them, rather than just leaving it at “ponder this paradoxical saying!” I think the strongest “philosophical” aspect of the book is the multiple ways that Smullyan demonstrates (and enacts) wu-wei, the Daoist principle of non-action. He doesn’t talk about it much explicitly, but as the examples proliferate you start to see them falling under the same umbrella. A more familiar or modern way of putting it might be “not forcing it.” One of the more memorable examples is a dialog around the saying from Laotze to the effect that the good man does not argue. One of the dialog participants affirms this principle and continues to argue; when confronted with his (perceived) hypocrisy, he responds, “It just so happens that right now I feel more like arguing than being good!” There is a lot of discussion in the book about dispositions, and it’s clear that Smullyan sees changing people’s dispositions as much more worthwhile than convincing them rationally or imposing rules. This opens up a much broader field of discourse than the analytical philosophy tradition allows, including things like stories and Zen masters kicking people in the butt!

These ideas resonate a lot with a couple of other books I’m currently reading. In Seneca’s letters on ethics, he pooh-poohs the tradition of Stoic philosophers coming up with pithy (and sophistic) syllogisms on why certain things are or are not of value. His view is that basically a syllogism is not going to really convert anyone, and to do that, one needs a much richer approach (as embodied in his letters), reflecting on the issue earnestly, drawing on personal experience and stories, etc. Also, in Parfit’s “Reasons and Persons” (which I’ve just started), a lot of it is pretty dry analytical stuff of the “moral dilemmas” variety, but he does talk (rather obliquely) about how we can change our dispositions, and a moral theory could be “indirectly self-defeating” in the sense that organizing our lives around it could result in us doing worse at achieving the desired outcomes. (For example, it could be that for someone trying to maximize her own happiness, it is more effective to live according to some other disposition rather than consciously trying to maximize her own happiness–the old butterfly thing.) This seems to me like a fairly Daoist perspective.

Ultimately I do think that Smullyan has the courage of his convictions, and sees that his book needs to enact the kind of worldview he is talking about. It wouldn’t do to approach it in a traditional expository manner. It makes a lot more sense for him to tell us a bunch of stories that mattered for him, and let us sort it out for ourselves!

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars