The Machine Age

I’m about two-thirds of the way through Hamill’s The Essential Chuang T’zu and am having a hard time deciding how to accurately convey the essence of the work. In a novel I could discuss some of the themes using short passages; in a book of poetry, it’s easy to quote a few poems that are representative of the poet’s theme and writing style.

I’m not about to quote five or pages pages, though, and if I simply quoted a few lines it might well sound like the Taoteching. So, I’ve resorted to quoting some of the shorter tales in their entirety, even though those don’t always seem as meaningful to me as the longer sections.

Keeping that in mind, this is a tale that seems like it must have been written for modern men who type their response on machines they neither understand nor control:

[From Chapter 12]

TZU-KUNG WENT SOUTH TO CH’U, AND, RETURNING BY way of the state of Chin, he was passing along the south shore of the Han River when he saw a big fellow working in a one-acre held of vegetables. He was climbing down into a pit well with a pitcher, then climbing out and pouring the water on his crop. It looked like he was working himself to the bone without getting much advantage from his efforts.

“There’s a mechanism for this,” Tzu-kung said, “and with it, in a single day you could inundate a hundred acres. It doesn’t take Mach effort, and it yields a great advantage. Wouldn’t you like to have one?”

The gardener rose up and gave him a look. “How’s it work?”

“It’s a machine constructed of wood, heavy at one end, light at the other. It lifts the water like a dipper, lots of it, so much that it gushes out as if it were boiling over. It’s called a well sweep.”

The gardener made an ugly face, then said with a laugh, “I’ve heard my teacher say, ‘Where there are machines, there will be machine problems; where there are machine problems, the mechanical will find entry into the hearts and minds of the people; when people’s hearts and minds become mechanical, what’s pure and simple is spoiled. Without the pure and simple, the spirit knows no rest. And when the spirit knows no rest, even the Tao can’t carry you on.’ It’s not that I don’t know about your machine, but that I’d be ashamed to use such a thing.”

I’m glad I don’t have to draw my water from a well or three miles away from the nearest creek, but I suspect that many of modern man’s problems do stem from the overuse of machines. Some seem to think that our machines have allowed us to transcend Nature, but I’m not one of them.

We’ve traded the stress of scratching out a subsistence from the land for the stress of trying to keep up with the machines we’ve created.

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