Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Concordances: Taoism, Pirates - and Deadwood.

This post, rather than advancing a particular, actual thesis is more an intellectual hike, a wander along a couple different trails of thought. I hope that some larger sense arises out of this rambling, even if that larger sense is obscured. That being said, what one person calls a hike another person calls being hopelessly lost why the hell don't you just ask for directions? So bear with me.

According to the New Yorker, the governments of pirate ships were surprisingly egalitarian. Now in the 19th Century, if you were in the normal, non-pirate Navy and you weren't the captain - your life sucked. The captain was the ultimate and final law at sea, able to rule anything and everything he wanted. He decided how much food you got to eat, who you would fight, and got to take in a whole lot more booty than anybody else on board.

But on pirate ships, captains were elected, only had absolute control during battle and got paid only twice as much as normal sailors. Pirate ships often would have simple constitutions, even. If you were an average sailor, your life would be far better on a pirate ship than on the ships of more civilized, law-abiding, non-peg-legged Navy. But why did pirate ships develop such liberal institutions outside of the law, while ships governed from within the law needed to rule so harshly? Wouldn't it be the other way around? That the law-abiding sailors would need less strict governance?

The problem is that on a pirate ship - adrift out in the ocean, with no nation, law, kinship, king or anything - nothing demands the obedience of the crew except for those bare expedient practicalities like money or work or survival. Let's it this way: you want everybody to follow the rules so everybody can get the benefit of cooperation. But if you (an individual pirate) don't follow the rules, you still get to partake of the booty. And there's nothing much to coerce you to obey. Except, you know, force. But that's not efficient. It's the classic prisoner's dilemma.

So even though pirate ships were adrift outside of the normal strictures of law, they had to subscribe to a jury-rigged, egalitarian law to make certain that there was enough incentive for everybody on ship to co-operate. Now, in our day-to-day unscripted affairs, we tend to do the same thing - we develop jury-rigged sets of laws to deal with recurrent situations in a way that ensures long-term cooperation. These are those little unwritten laws of conduct like, Don't make out with your best friend's ex-girlfriend; or, Don't swear in front of your grandma. We come to these laws almost unconsciously, so it's hard to articulate them. But we know them nonetheless - and when somebody breaks one, we get pissed off.

This situation - of order arising outside of law - is exactly what David Milch was thinking when he jumped into Deadwood - probably my favorite show on the face of the earth. He said in an interview with Salon that:

I had proposed to HBO a series about the city cops in Rome at the time of Nero. What had interested me was the idea of order without law. The Praetorian Guard, who were the emperor's guards, understood how they were to proceed. But for the city cops, who were called the Urban Cohorts, there was no law at all. So they were sort of making themselves up as they went along. I wanted to focus on that idea of how order is generated in the absence of law. They [HBO] were already doing a show about Rome in the time of Caesar, so they asked if I could engage the same themes in a different setting, and that was how I decided to do the western.

So when people get together, we kinda naturally clump together into some sort of order, if you wait long enough. From pirates to Roman policemen to Deadwood, we humans like to have sets of rules and laws that we live by so we can know what to expect. This, to me, looks like a nice bit of synchronicity, pointing to an underlying reason to human affairs. But turn the situation around, look at it from another angle, and what looks like a sort of triumph of human sympathy and understanding becomes farce. We think rules are so great. Well, they're just arbitrary, meaningless, and all the more meaningless for their universality. Just look at Chuang Tzu:

An apprentice to Robber Che asked him saying 'Is there then Tao in thieving?'

'Pray tell me of something in which there is not Tao', Che replied. 'There is the wisdom by which booty is located. The courage to go in first, and the heroism of coming out last. There is the shrewdness of calculating success, and justice in the equal division of the spoil. There has never yet been a great robber who has not possessed of these.'

Thus the doctrine of the Sages is equally indispensable to good men and to Che. But good men are scarce and bad men plentiful, so that the good the Sages do to the world is little and the evil great.

For Chaung Tzu, since the light of reason shines on both good and evil alike, then the light of reason isn't really all that good. We may think that our intelligence and understanding add to the beauty and joy of the world - but the universality of order means that order itself is not a good, but something neither good nor bad - something that actually exacerbates the badness of the world!

Indeed, Chaung Tzu sees the distinction between good an evil as one that wisdom imposes on us: just and unjust, worthy and worthless, the distinctions between colors and shapes - are all mere trappings that we hang on an otherwise beautiful natural order. The human order - the laws that we impinge on our conduct - is what corrupts life. It is only when the wisdom of the sages is forgotten, Chaung Tzu says, and even when we forget beauty and color and words, that we will live in true harmony. The harmony of nature, where nothing is divided.

But if order arises somewhat naturally in people - if it's used as readily by pirates as by politicians, by dole-bludgers as by CEOs - then how is it unnatural? People, it seems, live a life swimming in a sea of language, law and distinction. Chaung Tzu fails to see the naturalness of this, its inevitability. The insight, though, is that following the law is not the end-all and be-all of morality. Or even necessary for morality. Because everyone follows laws, and not everyone is moral, then being moral is something more than simple rule-following.

As I close this post, I want to come to some sort of concluding insight - but I can only motion vaguely to something I believe. That morality is not as simple as it seems. It is a natural human capacity, but one that must be cultivated - and that cannot be cultivated by law or stricture or coercion. I dunno. I hope I have given the pieces of something larger, and that you can fit them together as you will.

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