Daoist Nazi Problem – a response

[Guest poster and friend of the blog, Mark Saltveit, posts an extended response to Donald Sturgeon’s “Daoist Nazi Problem” below.]

Can There Be a Nazi Dao?

By Mark Saltveit

Of all the religious philosophies, Daoism is the one most concerned with practical, daily life.  Seeking and practicing the pure, perfect way to do something is itself a spiritual practice, a small Dao that may lead you to the Big Dao.  That’s why there are so many books with titles like “The Tao of Tool Crafting” and “The Tao of Large Animal Husbandry.”

Last October, Donald Sturgeon wrote a piece on Warp Weft and Way that raises a fascinating question:  does every task, no matter how “wrong” or unDaoish, have its own Dao?  Specifically, can there be such a thing as “The Dao of Nazism”?

This is one of the few topics I have some actual academic knowledge about.  I studied the Nazis for a while as an undergraduate, in my multidisciplinary social science major at Harvard.  (After a year, it got too grim, and I changed my focus to a much cheerier topic – the Vietnam War.)

I think the short story is that, if you choose to pursue Nazism, there are some less effective and more effective ways to pursue it; the more effective ways might be considered a sort of Dao of Nazism. However, both the goals of Nazism and the techniques you would use to pursue it inevitably corrode your ability to act in Dao, so it would prove quickly self-defeating. 

This is essentially what happened in real life.  The Nazi hit upon some powerful techniques that helped them come to power and win some early battles.  But their overall program, and the specific techniques they pursued, were so intrinsically self-destructive and inflexible that the gains were short-lived, and those same approaches carried the seeds of inevitable defeat.

As a general proposition, mastering a small Dao is a great way to approach the big Dao, as Lord Wenhui observes when marveling at Butcher Ding’s way (Zhuangzi ch. 3).  This is because the pursuit of many crafts or goals can help us hone our self and our ability to perceive accurately and act decisively, with well-honed instinct.  At its core, Daoism tells us to focus on improving our selves, our accurate understanding and emotional strength as well as physical power, before we worry about fixing others or the world at large.

However, some endeavors in themselves are destructive of our selves and our ability to follow Dao.  They color our perception with greed, feed our vanity and arrogance, or linger around temptations humans are rarely able to avoid (power, sex, fame and glory.)  The archer loses his accuracy when thinking of prize money; the emperor meddles too much in his kingdom, like someone overcooking a small fish, and ruins it.

Chapter 68 of the Daodejing says that we should approach war reluctantly and only when necessary. My reading is that this is not for moral reasons, but because the pursuit of battle is so destructive of ourselves, of our ability to think and act properly.  It’s the opposite of the self-cultivation Daoism prizes, something more like self-degradation.

The danger isn’t the physical damage of losing a battle, but the emotional risk of winning one.  It’s well understood that humans need to vilify their enemies to handle the terrible scenes and emotional extremes of war. If defining flavors and musical tones dulls our senses, how much more will separating nations into pure good (us) and pure evil (our enemy)? Perhaps most dangerous of all is the temptation of victory, the arrogance and blood lust, and even just the adrenaline addiction depicted in popular works such as The Hurt Locker and Michael Herr’s classic Vietnam book “Dispatches.”

If the excitement and assertion of power over life and death in a normal “good” war is so destructive, how – given human nature – could any person be expected to withstand the temptation of the absolute arrogation of power at the core of Nazism?  Daoism is relentless in its modesty, humility and subtlety. A large country should be governed as if frying a small fish; Nazism dynamites the lake and chars the chum on a bonfire.

One difficulty with this discussion is that it’s arguable whether there ever was a coherent ideology behind Nazism.  Fundamentally, the movement was built around the skills and obsessions of one very charismatic, almost certainly insane leader.  It may be a mistake to look for any sort of consistency in it, much less a deeper philosophical basis.

And yet, there were techniques that Hitler and his minions pursued that were novel and dramatically effective, which might be considered some sort of Dao.  Examples include the Blitzkrieg style of rapid, massive invasion, new forms of air attack, secret code technologies, etc.  But most of these are general techniques and tools of war and politics, not intrinsic to the governing style or horrible crimes of Hitler’s regime or movement.

Some of the more typical aspects of the German Wehrmacht were clearly liabilities as well as assets.  Its rigid order and hierarchy clearly helped cut through the fog of war and make certain battle plans more effective, especially at first.  But just as clearly, their inability to improvise gave the Americans and British a large advantage as the war dragged on, and the utter predictability of their secret messages was a vulnerability that the Bletchley Park codebreakers exploited to crack their ciphers and read many of Germany’s most critical communications, unbeknownst to Hitler and his lieutenants.

This proved decisive in the buildup to the D-Day invasion; German forces were massed at Pas de Calais instead of Normandy because of a massive deception campaign that our code-breaking made possible.  Hitler even ordered troops not to respond to the Normandy invasion, convinced that it was a diversion.

As for specific techniques that might be considered a sort of “Nazi Dao,” two come to mind from my study of the Nazi movement.  The first is one of these general tactics unrelated to ideology, a simple trick that seems to hold true for any public gathering, whether for politics or entertainment. Hitler intuited that scheduling any gathering in a room that is too small creates a feeling of excitement and a sense that an important event is taking place.  (The converse is also true; even a large enthusiastic crowd loses power when scattered around an auditorium that’s too large.)  My experience as a standup comedian has borne this out, time and time again.

The other technique is much more sinister and goes to the heart of Nazi pathology.  It is a good candidate if you are looking for something to identify as a Nazi Dao, not only because it had a dark, destructive force, but because it encapsulated a vital part of what made that movement both powerful and doomed.

This method explored and exploited coercive psychology, following (whether deliberately or not) the Freudian theories so popular at the time.  They hit upon a maniacally effective method of enforcing compliance, not out of fear but from deep, nearly insane rationalization.  I’ll explain.

As Nazis took control of local towns, they quickly forced everyone to make a choice; openly resist them, and face execution or concentration camps, or prove their loyalty by committing acts that they felt to be deeply wrong.  This left the new recruit with a psychological dilemma:  either admit that they were committing horrible crimes out of cowardice, or rationalize by accepting the Nazi ideology that justified this behavior.

As you might suspect, many if not most people choose rationalization, and those that didn’t were yet more intimidated by the crimes and insane avid zeal of their former friends and neighbors now committing these crimes.  Bizarrely, the more crazy the ideology used to rationalize the crimes, the more tightly bound are those who accept it, because the psychological fall they face if they accept their wrongness is all the steeper.

Arguably, most modern cults and some political movements use variations of this same technique.  (Scientology is a good example.)  Unlike the undersized room technique though, this method is clearly destructive and not sustainable.  It is a psychological Ponzi scheme that can grow very large but will then crash all the harder when it inevitably collapses.  Beyond the obvious human toll, this technique offends the Daoist sage because Daoism prizes clear perception and understanding, while this technique necessarily and deliberate separates the practitioner from reality, which of course makes its adherents less effective.

A small Dao will generally lead to the big Dao, but there are some tasks that should be avoided whenever possible, because even when done the “best” way, they are inevitably self-degrading.  Nazism provides a clear and extreme example.


11 replies on “Daoist Nazi Problem – a response”

  1. I think forcing people to chose sides is a frequently arising political problem that, despite often occurring negative outcomes, seems deeply ingrained in human nature. This, I would suggest, is why we see it so often appearing in the tragedies of 20th century political theatre. We want the either/or, the “with us” or “against us,” the easy division of hero-saint and Dr. Evil, for this is what allows us to wage war, and our animal instincts are only fulfilled when we are involved in battle of some kind.

    I agree absolutely that the Dao De Jing’s alternative is to avoid these conflicts altogether, even the labeling that we instinctively do (or, for that matter, are coerced to do in a particular fashion by our educational system). What Nietzsche described as a slave morality remains, despite Nazism, a major part of our present humanist discourse — something that frequently and ironically reduces humans to machines responding to impulses and does not allow the more complete and subtle doctrine of the Dao De Jing to receive its full articulation.

    What would a fuller articulation be? Certainly something that leads by example rather than force, by inspiration rather than censorship…

    • Excellent points. I guess I see Daoism as highly utilitarian, perhaps surprisingly so for a mystical philosophy.

      I don’t see any tool as completely beyond the Daoist pale, but war for example is reserved for only the most dire situations, because it is destructive to the user even when victory is complete and easy. There will always be many other tools and approaches whose use would be wiser, in all but the rarest circumstances.

  2. Re: “One difficulty with this discussion is that it’s arguable whether there ever was a coherent ideology behind Nazism. Fundamentally, the movement was built around the skills and obsessions of one very charismatic, almost certainly insane leader. It may be a mistake to look for any sort of consistency in it, much less a deeper philosophical basis.”

    While perhaps tangential to the question at hand, I don’t think it is arguable that there was a “coherent ideology” behind Nazism, as a particular variant of fascist ideology. Fascism is a coherent political ideology, and Nazism a variation on its theme(s). This is well documented and explored with some rigor in Roger Griffin’s book, The Nature of Fascism (1991) (one of his several books on the subject), although he is by no means the only one who has written with some persuasion on the substance of this ideology. Moreover, Nazi ideologues were not above selectively drawing upon this or that philosophical work to lend intellectual legitimacy to its leading ideas, even if this did not, in the end, make for philosophical consistency or integrity: “Their worldviews ran the gamut from mysticism and occultism to secularism and scientism, from thorough-going ruralism to dreams of Germany’s cities and industrial economy regenerated on racial lines. [….] The only denominator common to all this was the myth of national rebirth, or as a foremost expert [George L. Mosse] on the subject put it, the belief ‘in an inner spiritual revival which would bring about the true flowering of the German Volk.’” In short, while there may not be, from a philosophical vantage point, consistency or a deep philosophical basis to National Socialism, there is clearly a coherent ideology identified as “fascism” in general, and “Nazism” in particular.

    Second, I think it is misleading if not wrong to describe the movement as “built around the skills and obsessions of one very charismatic, almost certainly insane leader,” for this accounts for only one side of the equation. Any successful political movement will have one or several charismatic leaders, and in this regard fascism is not unique. A leader like Hitler is able to both canalize and crystallize widespread popular sentiments, contributing to their coherence as political myth and ideology, and Hitler fits within a model of malign power relations that is merely one in a limited repertoire of archetypal patterns which we as a species have a tendency to imbibe. The problem(s), in other words, lie as much with the subjects prone to succumbing to such malign power relations as with those who lead them in this dark enterprise. In short, much more would be gained by examining the social psychology of those support and directly enable such leaders to come to the pinnacles of power (think, for instance, of Erich Fromm’s pioneering Frankfurt School 1929 study of the German worker, translated into English in 1984 as The Working Class in Weimar Germany: A Psychological and Sociological Study, as well as that penned by his colleague on the Weimar psychoanalytic left, Wilhelm Reich: The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933); both works are groundbreaking and essential analyses of “the authoritarian personality” (or character type). Fromm of course followed up the aforementioned work with a broader psychoanalytic study, Escape from Freedom (1941) that applied to the social psychological dynamics of individuals in contemporary capitalist democracies as well. Indeed, I think we’re on the wrong track if we characterize Hitler as “almost certainly insane,” if by that is meant (or anything close to) a clinical sense, for it’s hard to imagine a political figure such as Hitler coming to power and leading a modern nation-state into war if was truly insane (in which case, we would appear to have a fairly large number of political leaders in the twentieth century deserving that appellation).

    Finally, I’m curious about reference to a Nazi method “that explored and exploited coercive psychology, following (whether deliberately or not) the Freudian theories so popular at the time.” First of all, I don’t see how this “coercive psychology” had any link whatsoever to “Freudian theories.” There is nothing peculiar to Freudian psychoanalytic psychology that would lend itself structurally liable to such exploitation, deliberately or not. Knowledge of “folk psychology” as it were, is sufficient to employ techniques of psychological coercion, and these techniques were utilized long before Nazism: it’s only the means and methods available in the politics, technologies, and institutions peculiar to the modern nation-state that give these techniques a systematic and ruthless power unimaginable to tyrants and despots of earlier epochs.

    • Errata: first para., last sentence: “In sum…;” second para., the first parenthetical comment closes as follows: “(…essential analyses of ‘the authoritarian personality’ (or character type)).”

    • Thanks for that, Patrick. On your first two points, my aside about inconsistent ideology was a caution against accepting my own conclusions too uncritically. I’m not deeply wedded to the details and welcome your amplification.

      On the Freudian point, I was simply referring to the exploitation of repression and denial. I have no idea if this technique was consciously based on Freud’s work, or intuitively ended up at the same place. I just found it ironic that the most distinctive psychological technique I found in the Nazi toolkit was so in sync with a Jewish psychiatrist whose books were among the first they burned.

  3. I will let Donald Sturgeon speak for himself, but I didn’t take his thesis to be that the historical National Socialist party had a coherent Dao that raises an objection for Daoism so much as the thesis that Daoism faces an objection insofar as it seems possible for their to be a vicious Dao that would lead to a life we would find undesirable.

    • I think you’re absolutely right, Andrew; hence Sturgeon’s use of baby-killing for sport as his example policy, rather than something more particular to the history of the Nazi Reich.

      However, I think that the actual reality of Nazism works just as well for the challenge to Daoism’s relative morality, and it has the advantage of historical facts to give the discussion some traction.

      My short answer to Sturgeon is that Daoism’s focus on effectiveness rather than moral judgment still precludes certain hateful goals and techniques, purely on the grounds of effectiveness. And I think hewing close to the historical facts helps inform this discussion.

      The interesting question is, can we imagine a Dao of some other morally objectionable policy that does NOT destroy its own effectiveness? I’m curious what you and others think.

    • I think the only way to render your conclusion is to import a metaphysics that Sturgeon is suggesting is foreign to Daoism.

      I take your argument at its simplest to be:
      (E) Any Dao is about effectiveness
      (M) Daos are only effective insofar as they correspond to the world / work towards the big Dao
      Therefore any evil effectiveness is self-destructive and not properly a Dao.

      This would roughly mirror Aristotle’s idea of arete where you can excel in little things but vices are not excellences or powers because they fail to map onto the real world — even if they are effective artifices.

      I think the big problem is getting the M thesis into Daoism, and that’s where Sturgeon’s Nazi Dao has teeth. What I’m not seeing here is an argument for M or something like internal to Daoism. We can say “well of course … only things that map onto the real world could be truly effective” but that seems to work against some of the more esoteric elements in Daoism.

    • I think my argument might be yet simpler than that.

      But on your last point, I should clarify that I am discussing Lao-Zhuang thought, not esoteric elements added with the original Celesial Masters, Shangqing, Linbao or later revelations. Nor am I convinced that the Nei-ye is a foundational Daoist document on a level with the Daodejing and Zhuangzi. Just to be clear. I should probably say Lao_Zhuang thought instead of Daoism.

      My simplest reading is that the Big Dao is the way the world works, on the deepest level (not the way it should be, as with other religions and philosophies). It’s a natural law, like gravity, but too subtle for man to perceive clearly or capture in words and concepts. Its apparent mysticism simply reflects the limits of our understanding. So our goal is to sharpen our ability to accurately perceive and act accordingly, so we can better adapt to this subtle reality.

      Any little Dao involves understanding the ziran of everything involved, and moving in concert with that.

      When you paraphrase me as saying “any evil effectiveness is self-destructive and not properly a Dao,” I think this begs the question; what makes something evil?

      The specific Nazi techniques that I discussed clearly violate key Daoist principles – extreme meddling/control, deliberately clouding the judgment of your key lieutenants, stoking anger against enemies, extreme categorization, etc. I don’t think there is a way that any similar fascist approach could be anything other than at complete odds with Dao.

      It’s not a question of not “properly” being a Dao by some ideology; it’s just that if you fight against gravity, or the tide, or the Dao, things are unlikely to go well for you.

      That does not mean that there couldn’t be some other form of ‘evil’ that would have an effective Dao, but you’d have to explain what frame of reference makes it evil. (Some might even say that the United States is an exemplar of Daoist evil, conquering the world with Hollywood movies and and McDonalds where our armies have failed.) I’m would love to hear some suggestions for counter-examples.

    • Three points in reply to your response.

      I didn’t at all mean to appeal to something outside of Lao-Zhuang in terms of the esoteric. The esoteric feature I’m referring to appears in the response you offer at two places: “My simplest reading … too subtle for man to perceive clearly or capture in words and concepts” and again later in ‘It’s not a question of not “properly” being a Dao by some ideology;’ In both, I’m referring to the claim that Dao refers to something beyond/above/beneath our comprehension. I get that the Dao is supposedly naturalistic.

      Second, I’m confused as to you’re claim about question-begging in terms of Nazi Daos. I guess I should be clear that I’m not referring to German National Socialists but using the term more generally as Sturgeon does for the supposed claim that a practice many find heinous is a Dao. I don’t at all intend to depend on a specific definition of evil. I take Sturgeon’s argument to depend centrally on the problem that Daoists don’t seem to be able to appeal to a concept of evil to exclude these things since that would require *knowledge* of the Dao that we cannot have — as you note.

      Third, I think you’re still making a sharply metaphysical claim that fits the form I suggest in your response. I think this hinges on the claims related to the Dao being the way nature is (where there is ambiguity as to whether this is the way nature is if we don’t manipulate it or its mere facticity) and referring to it as a “natuarl law” like gravity. Here, your argument as to why the German-Nazis must be wrong is elucidating. In it, you seem to make claims that imply an ability to know what big Dao nature is like. But to do so undermines the esoteric nature of big Dao.

      If we can have such clarity about big Dao, then it just seems like its a metaphysical *claim* or “ideology” about what the world is like. If we cannot, then Daoists have a knowledge gap that seems to prevent them from saying that any supposed little Dao cannot be Dao. I take Sturgeon’s objection to be that Daoists don’t have the apparatus to show these things are wrong. I take your argument to show that they can to amount to a claim that such metaphysical knowledge is possible — at least in the negative sense.

      At best, it seems the Daoist you describe can answer the question “Master, when will I know the Nazi dao is wrong?” with an answer like “When gravity knocks the Nazi down.” Moving further and claiming we can know from a Daoist perspective that Germany Nazi Dao or generic Nazi Daos are wrong seems unwarranted. It seems like you need to make an (M) claim to move further, and that’s what I think you end up doing.

  4. Andrew:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the knowledge gap; that’s the crux of it. It’s a very fine needle to thread at best; let’s see if the Daoists can do so.

    One thing is, your definition of esoteric — “the claim that Dao refers to something beyond/above/beneath our comprehension” – is perhaps too binary. It’s not that we have no idea whatsoever about Dao, or the world; it’s just impossible to capture all of its nuance with our clumsy words and concepts.

    I’m not sure if Laozi or Zhuangzi ever tell us whether a sage can apprehend all of Dao (or of the world) completely, through a combination of diligent physical action, meditation, getting beyond emotion, direct and well-honed intuition, etc. Either they can, but are unable to express it to us fully; or they can only approximate the experience in the first place, and communication approximates it further.

    The former implies a religious experience. I suspect the latter is true, which could support a secular Daoism; but in either case, even getting close to this powerful insight, the Daoist argues, is well worth the effort.

    This distinction matters because in cases where an entire project is grossly out of step with Dao, our imperfect apprehension and communication may still be sufficient to make a judgment. And for a Daoist who urges minimalist government, totalitarian fascists may well qualify. The answer to the question “Master, when will I know the Nazi dao is wrong?” might be “Duh, even a philosopher using logic can figure that one out!” Or it might be “Following the dao of Nazism will simply bring its inevitable failure more quickly,” which was my initial concept.

    But your point is well taken – who or what tells us that the Dao favors small government, flexibility, the movement of water, and the feminine, in the first place? If these are merely dicta, than you just have a traditional ideology based on scripture, cleverly hidden underneath parables and contradictions and presented as a method rather than a set of rules.

    On the contrary, I believe that Lao-Zhuang thought is clearly asserting that its findings are all empirical and reproducible, even if essentially mystical. But the mysticism simply reflects our limitations as humans. The fact that we have trouble grasping the reality of the universe completely doesn’t make that reality any less solid, any more than Mr. Magoo’s nearsightedness made the cars and buildings about him illusory. Empirically, the Daoist argues, careful work toward effortless action and improving our perception confirms these findings consistently.

    Now, you are forgiven for being skeptical. “Sure, you have superior understanding so I should just trust you, right Mr. Sage? That’s what they all say.” And like any mystic, the Daoist says, “Go ahead, try it and see for yourself.”

    I’m not sure there is any way to resolve that last disagreement. And I apologize, because I have no training in philosophy whatsoever. For example, I assume that the (M) in your argument stands for Metaphysical, but I have no clue what (E) stands for. So here is where I get weird and personal.

    I side with the Daoists on this question because I have taken up that mystic’s challenge, beginning decades ago as an adolescent when I picked up volume 1 of De Bary’s “Sources of Chinese Tradition” on my parent’s bookshelf. I was immediately taken by the Daoist writings, and began looking to test these assertions empirically. I don’t consider myself religious, but they have borne out consistently in a wide range of situations for 38 years. I can’t expect you to accept that as evidence, but that is how I bridge that knowledge gap.

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