Western culture has long been fascinated with what the French call “Extrême-Orient”; since the times of Marco Polo, most probably since biblical times. We (the editors of a magazine that is, after all, a pure product of Western civilization) assign certain qualities to the thinking patterns of those regions: wisdom, calmness, thoughtfulness, and reflection. Eastern philosophy is often analyzed in counterpoint, in a tangential or even orthogonal fashion from its western counterpart: Confucius versus Aristotle; reason versus faith; extrovert versus introvert; yin versus yang; pandas versus grizzlies; Bruce Lee versus Chuck Norris.
Taoism, one of the tenets of eastern philosophy, emphasizes equilibrium and harmony with the Tao, a Chinese word meaning “The Way.” The concepts behind Taoism remind us of George Lucas, who liberally mixed these ideas and imagery from Akira Kurosawa into his movie franchise; or The Wachowskis, who similarly took literal cues from a Japanese manga classic to create The Matrix.
But this is not a phenomenon limited to Hollywood: Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Gustav Jung, Hermann Hesse, and many others have tried to build bridges from one side to the other of the Eurasian continent. Following a political agenda, the Nazi ideologue Martin Heidegger sought to instrumentalize the dichotomy between eastern and western philosophy as a justification for the unspeakable horrors that were to come.
Even if Jung, in particular, took a great deal of inspiration and perspective from the East, he clearly understood the underlying problems of mixing the views coming from both hemispheres of our planet (and our brain):
Great as is the value of Zen Buddhism for understanding the religious transformation process, its use among Western people is very problematical. The mental education necessary for Zen is lacking in the West. Who among us would place such implicit trust in a superior Master and his incomprehensible ways? This respect for the greater human personality is found only in the East.
(Carl Gustav Jung, “The Integration of the Personality,” 1939.)
Jung wrote the introduction to the German translation of the “I Ching,” the “Book of Changes,” by Richard Wilhelm. Later translated into English, this book and its introduction had a lasting influence in the “counterculture” of the 1960s, with broad impact spanning from Philip K. Dick, to Jorge Luis Borges, to Douglas Adams, to the Beatles.
Software engineers are not always aware that our cherished Silicon Valley was a side effect (with apologies to our readers fond of functional programming) of said San Francisco counterculture of the late 1960s. Such movement and its devotion to LSD gave us Scott McKenzie singing at the Monterey Festival (where a certain Ravi Shankar made its debut in front of an American audience,) and it also sparked influential software companies with names such as Lotus, Sun, and Apple.
Speaking about Apple, its founder spent seven months in India seeking wisdom from Neem Karoli Baba, only to find that the guru had died a few months before his arrival. Steve Jobs later suggested that Bill Gates should have “dropped some acid” because apparently tact is not a tenet of eastern philosophy. The teachings of Neem Karoli Baba inspired other famous figures of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, such as Julia Roberts, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Page.
As an anecdote, it turns out that one of the ashrams dedicated to Neem Karoli Baba is in Taos, New Mexico, USA. What goes around comes around.
Anyway… In only a few paragraphs, we traveled from the 4th century BCE Far East, to 19th century Germany, to 20th century California. Geoffrey James understood this lineage better than anyone and “translated” (wink wink) this absolute gem of a short book called The Tao of Programming in 1987.
The book is short enough for you to read it entirely right after you finish this article; by the way, it is available for free in at least three locations: on the MIT website, on GitHub, and on canonical.org (whatever that is.) And it has had enough impact to be cited by at least 22 scientific papers since its publication.
As with anything that has to do with eastern philosophy, Geoffrey James’ “translation” hits the nail effectively and, strangely enough, with rare comprehension. Divided into nine sections (“The Silent Void,” “The Ancient Masters,” “Design,” “Coding,” “Maintenance,” “Management,” “Corporate Wisdom,” “Hardware and Software,” and “Epilogue”) it traces the evolution and life of legendary programmers, in times before history, who struggled to understand the ghosts animating those shells from within. Some of them attained such wisdom that “their hair was long and unkempt and their clothes were wrinkled and old.” They understood that an operating system was easier to design than an accounting package, and that
A well-written program is its own heaven; a poorly-written program is its own hell.
Hard to deny. In any case, few authors reach the summit of writing that James reached in this opus, which consists of creating a work of art that makes you think and laugh simultaneously.
This book sparked countless similar titles: the Tao of Node (strangely featuring a Greek temple on the cover), the Tao of Microservices, and even this author’s own 2014 speech called the Tao of Swift. And if it is not about the Tao, it can be the Zen of something: come to mind the Zen of Assembly Language by Michael Abrash and Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds.
As Jung said,
The wisdom and mysticism of the East have very much to say to us, even when they speak their own inimitable language. They serve to remind us that we in our culture possess something similar, which we have already forgotten, and to direct our attention to the fate of the inner man.
(Carl Gustav Jung, “The Holy Men of India,” 1944.)
In this magazine, we have long advocated (and will continue to do so) for ideas usually associated with “eastern philosophy;” such as patience, collectivism, meaning, empathy, ethics, and unity. Not in the vague or vacuous sense of “changing the world” or “put a dent in the universe” but in the basic idea of building a new world through ethical, conscious, and quality software.
We do not need any more counterpoints or dichotomies but the deep understanding that our fate as a species relies on our capacity for collaboration and brotherly love from East to West and from North to South.
Thus spake the author of this article: May the Tao be with you.
Cover image found online.