Chapter 44 – When To Stop
Which does one love more, fame or one’s own life?
Which is more valuable, one’s own life or wealth?
Which is worse, gain or loss?
Therefore he who has lavish desires will spend extravagantly.
He who hoards will lose most heavily.
He who is contented suffers no disgrace.
He who knows when to stop is free from danger.
Therefore he can long endure.
Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)
This chapter begins with three questions, the answers to which should be obvious. Any reasonable person would love his or her life more than fame, would value life more than wealth and would rather gain than lose. Then two examples are given of the consequences of answering incorrectly. Finally, Lao Tzu tells us how the sage should live.
The sage is contented with the world as it is, so there is no attachment or desire to obtain fame or wealth. The sage does not hoard material things. The sage recognizes the natural flow of life. Knowing when to stop, he or she does not exhaust energy or resources.
I would like to now look at two events from recent world news from the context of this chapter. The first is the election that was held to make Crimea a part of the Russian Federation. The United States and other Western countries seem to view what occurred as a “land grab” (to quote Joe Biden) by Russia; and history seems to superficially support that view.
Western powers have gone to war with Russia over that very issue in the past. We call it the Crimean War, which lasted from 1853 until 1856. Some 200 years earlier, Russia had forcibly annexed the Eastern half of Ukraine, and since that time had been progressively extending its territorial boundaries.
For most of those two centuries, the Ottoman Empire was a major world power that controlled the territory between the expanding Russia and the Western European powers. However, by the mid-19th Century Ottoman might was decreasing, giving the Russians an opportunity to gain even more land. Based on the assertion that it had the right to protect Orthodox Christians who were being persecuted by the Ottomans, Russian troops and naval forces attacked. They quickly took control of Ottoman lands near the Russian borders and destroyed the Ottoman fleet in the Black Sea.
The French and British saw these actions as a threat and an opportunity.
French Emperor Napoleon III recognized an opportunity to restore some of the glory of the French Empire, so he asserted that the Russians and the Orthodox Christians were discriminating against Roman Catholics in the Northern Ottoman Empire and in the Holy Land. He appointed France the protector of those Catholics, just as Russia had appointed itself the protector of the Orthodox Christians.
England was concerned for its possessions and its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. Both France and England, and most other Western European states, were also afraid of the consequences if they were faced with an aggressive Russian army without the buffer of the weaker Ottoman Empire.
To make a long story short, the British and French and several smaller countries sent troops to the Crimea and nearby regions and finally defeated the Russians – at a cost of nearly half a million lives.
It is easy to see the current Russian annexation of Crimea as history repeating itself. That probably is not the case, however. More likely, the Russians are not seeking a “land grab” so much as they are trying to stop what may be the inexorable march away from old political paradigms.
The former Soviet Union has been deteriorating for decades. Here in the 21st Century what is left of the new Russian Federation has faced extreme and violent nationalism in areas such as Chechnya and South Ossetia. The populist ouster of the pro-Russian government in Kiev was certainly a dramatic wake-up call for Russian president Putin. It does not take much foresight to envision a Ukrainian civil war that could spill over the Russian border and ignite armed nationalist movements in other parts of the Federation.
In fact, it does not take much foresight to envision mass protests in Moscow finally bringing an end to Putin and his form of government.
Rather than risk those consequences, Russia has effectively re-taken the Crimean peninsula. Essentially, Putin is saying that, like the Taoist sage, he knows when nationalism should stop. However, as Lao Tzu has pointed out several times, nothing good is accomplished by the use of force. Here in the Western world, the official position is that Russia that should have stopped before exercising its military superiority over poor little Ukraine.
Clearly, one side or another may not have known when to stop. What will the consequences be?
We can’t answer that question yet, but it does lead into the other news story I would like to mention. A study funded by NASA’s Goddard Space Center which was submitted in 2012, but has only now been accepted for publication by the peer-reviewed journal Ecological Economics, warns that global industrial civilization could collapse within a relatively few decades due to the world’s unsustainable exploitation of natural resources and the inequitable distribution of wealth.
The paper postulates that serious famines will initially affect the Commoners – who are the poor and even the middle class – while the Elite use their power and money to continue the disastrous policies in order to maintain their own lifestyles. It is probably safe to say that many of the Elite are not Taoist sages, and they may not know when to stop. If they do not stop in time, we are told in this chapter that they will not endure.
Unfortunately, the rest of us may not endure either.
Since the paper has not yet been published, I cannot comment further at this time. Perhaps when it is available Mr. Putin and Western political leaders will read it and start to think about stopping the tensions that could lead to more serious conflict. After that, they may start to think about how to change the policies that are threatening the existence of all humankind.
We can hope, can’t we?