Words that Reconnect: “The Web of Meaning”, a book by Jeremy Lent

Hereunder is an extract from Chapter 1 in Jeremy Lent’s book called The Web of Meaning, where he talks about the “Tao” and why “yu-wei” steered human civilisation away from the wholeness of ecological considerations. This book provides great philosophical pointers towards the regeneration of an “ecological civilisation”, the type of civilisation that Earth needs today.


“There it sits, on top of a chest. A piece of ancient driftwood. I picked it up some years back on the windswept beach of a California seashore. It’s not that big, about the length of my forearm, and it’s shaped a bit like a bone. A femur, perhaps, with a big knobbly end tapering to a narrower point. If you look at the knobbly part from the right direction, you can almost see an animal face. A porpoise, maybe, or the cute bulbous snout of a beagle. Its grayish- blond color hints of the eons of sea and sun that have bleached everything else out of it. While smooth to touch, it still boasts a myriad of rippling lines showing its annual growth rings, along with sporadic perfectly round tiny dots of bygone worm holes.

It’s just a piece of wood. But it’s a beautiful piece, sculpted by nature, and it feels to me like the natural world peeking into my office, keeping me company. Above all, for me, it represents the Tao. ‘Tao everlasting,’ declared the ancient sage, ‘is the nameless uncarved wood. Though small, nothing under heaven can subjugate it.’

The Tao (pronounced dao and o en spelled like that) is one of the oldest concepts from antiquity that have survived to the present day. Emerging from the mists of ancient Chinese tradition, it is translated literally as ‘way’ or ‘path’, and it refers to the mysterious ways in which the forces of nature show up in the world around us. The ancient conception of the inscrutable Tao is about as far away as you can get from the grindingly busy, technology- based civilization that has come to dominate our world. And it’s partly for that reason that it’s a perfect place to begin our journey into the web of meaning.


A clue can be found in another Zhuangzi story about an archery contest. When the archers are playing for cheap tiles, they show top-notch skill. When they play for fancy belt buckles, they lose confidence; and when playing for gold, they become nervous wrecks. That’s because when the prize becomes more valuable, their goal orientation gets in the way of their natural skill, and they lose touch with their te.

The Chinese word for goal orientation, yu-wei, was the opposite of wu-wei, and represented the antithesis of living according to the Tao. As a result, according to the Taoists, it was a failing strategy. ‘ The world,’ states the Tao Te Ching, ‘is a spirit vessel which cannot be acted upon. One who acts on it fails, one who holds on to it loses.’

But isn’t acting on the world the very basis of our entire human civilization? Absolutely, argued the Taoists, and that’s precisely the point. Looking to the dawn of history, even before the birth of civilization, they saw the beginning of human separation from Tao as far back as the emergence of language. Language, in their view, was anathema to the Tao. In fact, the very first words of the Tao Te Ching read, paradoxically, ‘The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao.’ The piece of wood sitting next to me represents the Tao not just because it’s uncarved, but because it’s nameless. It has no name, no purpose.

It’s not just language that the Taoists see as yu-wei. It’s the kind of knowledge that leads humans to use language in the first place, and by corollary the kind of knowledge that language can transmit. ‘One who knows [Tao] does not speak,’ declares the Tao Te Ching. ‘One who speaks does not know.’ Being in touch with the Tao leads to a different type of knowledge that doesn’t need language either to apprehend or communicate.

But, of course, the language-based type of knowledge arising from yu-wei is necessary to build civilization. Realizing this, the Taoists portrayed an earlier golden age, before civilization, when people lived in harmony with the Tao. ‘The men of old,’ declared Zhuangzi, ‘shared the placid tranquility which belonged to the whole world … at was what is called the state of perfect unity.’ At that time, ‘people lived in common with birds and beasts, and were on terms of equality with all creatures, as forming one family.’

It was only when ‘sagely men’ appeared, with their new kind of knowledge, that everything changed. ‘People began everywhere to be suspicious. With extravagant orchestras and gesticulating ceremonies, men began to be separated from one another. The pure solidity of wood was cut about and hacked to make sacrificial vessels, even colors were confounded to make ornamental patterns. This was ‘the crime of the skillful workmen.’ As Zhuangzi tells it, it is as though every human act that built civilization was a crime against the Tao.”


Jeremy Lent

The book ‘The Web of Meaning’ is available in print and ebook at New Society Publishers

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