There is something completely nebulous
That predated the world.
Tranquil, formless and solitary,
It persists as it provides,
Like some vast cosmic mother.
I can’t compartmentalize it,
So I just refer to it as “Tao.”
However, if I were forced to try to describe it,
I might call it great, all-pervasive, and far-reaching,
Something which comes from the origin of all things,
And returns to the origin of all things.
It is the force of greatness which makes all great things greater:
Nature, the universe, earth, and leaders of men.
People often forget that there are entities greater than their leaders:
While leaders follow the laws of humanity,
Humanity follows the laws of the world,
The world follows the laws of nature,
Nature follows the laws of Tao,
And Tao follows itself.
Everything follows from this.
Though the Tao Te Ching starts off with the disclaimer that Tao is not something that can be described, this verse takes a stab at it anyway.
In ancient times there were no fields like genetics or evolutionary biology to describe how life evolved. Thus, to explain life on Earth, most religions came up the idea of a cosmic creator God or group of gods that made it all happen.
Taoism took a far different approach, one which is actually much closer to our modern understanding of the way living systems operate. Essentially, it employs a more organic, bottom-up view. Rather than being created by some transcendent cosmic engineer with an ambitious master plan, the world instead grows organically from a matrix written into the very fiber of all existence. Like an onion, it consists of layers built upon layers, expanding outwards. The genesis and vector of all of its development is fundamentally bottom-up, or from the perspective of our own consciousness, inward-out.
This verse seems to intuit what could only be properly explained many centuries later—that it is the nature of living systems to evolve by building upon the scaffolding of previous systems. It is a profoundly spontaneous and beneficent manner of unfolding—the Tao Te Ching uses the term ziran, which means “self-soing” to describe this organic, bottom-up way in which Tao works. Life, then, is the ultimate free lunch. You don’t have to pay for it—it’s something which comes from nothing.
As the 20th century has definitively taught us, bottom-up approaches are nearly always to be preferred to top down ones. Fascism and Communism sputtered while democracy and the free market flourished. Liberal cultures continue to produce far more innovation and wealth than Conservative ones, even though their more rapid pace of change can be unsettling to many of its members. That’s not to say there aren’t serious problems that arise in the evolution of systems, but applying more top-down design pressure rarely seems to achieve very much in the long run.
In identifying the principle of ziran, Taoism seems to invoke the spirit of science—and perhaps even a science of spirituality, should such a thing be considered to exist. In this we mean the idea that our physical and psycho-cultural environments evolve by building upon what has come before, wasting nothing, recycling everything. In engineering ambitious-but-synthetic top-down systems, powerful leaders seek to invert this enormous systemic momentum for their own benefit, or what they mistakenly believe to be the benefit of all. However, just as one can’t fight the laws of nature for long, neither can that which is turned upside-down remain stable indefinitely. Overly-coercive and dictatorial empires, businesses and personal relationships are always ultimately doomed to collapse.