Source of book: I own this.
This book is part of a single-volume set of the “Classics of Eastern Thought.” I read The Art of War a couple years ago, and now returned to read the next work in the book. The version is this book is a translation by James Legge, which includes an extended introduction giving background information on the work and the history of Taoism.
Like Confucius, whose life overlapped that of Lao Tzu (who was older by roughly 50 years - the two met multiple times according to Confucius’ writings), Lao Tzu lived during the 5th Century BCE. Thus, these writings are quite old, representing some of the earliest religious and philosophical traditions. Furthermore, both Lao Tzu and Confucius claimed that their treatises were the distillations of oral traditions dating back a couple thousand years earlier. (In this sense, they are similar to the Bible, which is believed by scholars to have been written down between the 8th and 2nd Centuries BCE, but which references much older oral traditions.) The Tao Te Ching is a short, unified work, and the evidence that a single author wrote it is strong. The exact identity of Lao Tzu - and whether this was a title or a proper name - is debated, but his authorship is widely accepted. This book is the first in a series of works by Taoist authors - the introduction mentions a number of the later works and how they refer to this book.
I wasn’t particularly familiar with Taoism before reading this book. Eastern religions in general are not that familiar to me, I must confess. Part of my learning process since I started this blog has been to expand my knowledge beyond the bubble in which I grew up (we all grow up in bubbles of various sizes…) and learn new ideas.
Because of my limited knowledge, let me be quick to say that my thoughts on Taoism, such as they are, are likely to be at best, incomplete and uninformed. They come from my small experience, my own biases and frames of reference. The point of this post is not to denigrate or judge a philosophical or religious viewpoint so much as it is to engage it. My intent is to weigh what I read, learn things, and dialogue with other ideas.
The “Tao” means essentially “the way,” or “the path.” I found this interesting because the early Christians referred to themselves as “followers of the way,” a very similar term. (“Christian” was a derogatory epithet - a “little Christ.”) In some 19th Century translations, “Tao” was translated as “nature,” with the additional meaning that “nature” was a personification of “God’s laws.” Later translators would point out that this was imposing a rather Western view on the text: following Aquinas and Enlightenment thinkers and their concept of “Natural Law” and so on.
In reality, Taoism doesn’t fit even the idea of being a thing, let alone a deity. As Chuang Tzu (a later Taoist luminary - who is quoted extensively in the introduction) wrote, “Tao cannot be regarded as having a positive existence; existences cannot be regarded as non-existent. The name Tao is a metaphor used for the purpose of description. To say that it exercises some causation, or that it does nothing, is speaking of it from the phase of a thing - how can such language serve as a designation of it in its greatness? If words were sufficient for the purpose, we might in a day’s time exhaust the subject of the Tao. Words not being sufficient, we may talk about it the whole day, and the subject of discourse will only have been a thing…”
I think that the translation as “way” or “path” fits better for that reason. Tao isn’t a thing, it is a journey, a phenomenon, a mode of being. There is no true English equivalent, but so what? Words are too clumsy to pin it down anyway.
It occurred to me after reading this section of the introduction that this is one idea that has sadly been lost within my own faith tradition. Our own conception of God has been reduced to a collection of words about God - that is, we limit our experience and conception of God to an ancient collection of words about the Divine. We think that our scriptures - and particularly our ossified interpretations of that text - are a perfect, infallible, unchanging, scientific description of God and the divine laws. Thus, any chance for change, growth, mysticism, or personal experience (or even empathy these days) is precluded, because the words are the important thing, not the thing itself.
There were some other intriguing parallels in thought that stood out to me. The first was another line from Chuang Tzu’s book: “Before there were Heaven and Earth, from of old, there It [the Tao] was, securely existing.” There is a parallel there with John 1, where Christ is said to have existed “from the beginning.” (On a related note, John 1 also makes clear that Christ is the “Word of God” - not the scripture. Similar to how the writings about the Tao are not that Tao.)
Another one was the description - again from Chuang Tzu - of the early state of mankind. It is a lot like our own Eden, a time before knowledge and desire ruined everything. A time when there was no need for thought or non-instinctive action. As the translator points out, this is a defect common to many religious traditions (and specifically to Taoism and Confucianism), namely, an unrealistic view of the past, and a tendency to discount the progress in virtue and ethics which has been made over the millennia. (Again, let me recommend Steven Pinker’s outstanding book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which, among other things, notes certain wars in Ancient China as having the highest death rates in history.) The translator does note that the Taoist opposition to knowledge ultimately became its downfall, giving Confucianism and later Buddhism the opportunity to capture minds and imaginations. Thus, at this time, Taoism is a shadow of the influential, vibrant tradition it was for centuries.
Having read the Tao Te Ching, I would say that it has a lot of interesting ideas, some great lines, and some food for thought. But it also - like any ancient text - has problematic passages, and ideas that seem rather harmful if taken too literally.
As I read it, central to the idea of the Tao is a certain passivity. It is rather the polar opposite of the Western (particularly the American) ideal, which is action. One can see an almost direct opposition to, say, Nietzsche. In the one sense, there are some parallels with the teachings of Christ - the use of paradoxes, and losing one’s life to gain it - but in another, the idea seems to be to do nothing and expect that problems will solve themselves. It seems to me to be a dangerous idea to apply to solving problems of oppression, for example.
Here are some of the lines which I found most interesting.
Book III - Keeping People at Rest
Not to value and employ men of superior ability is the way to keep the people from rivalry among themselves; not to prize articles which are difficult to procure is the way to keep them from becoming thieves; not to show them what is likely to excite their desires is the way to keep their minds from disorder.
Okay then. Of the three adages, the last seems useful (I rather deplore most advertising), the second depends on the interpretation (yeah, if we didn’t value gold, maybe, but people will steal to eat), and the first is hogwash. If anything, our current administration is an illustration of what happens when you don’t value or employ people of superior ability: the idiots and the malevolent end up running things.
The next couple, however, I thought were quite good.
VIII - The Placid and Contented Nature
The highest excellence is like (that of) water. The excellence of water appears in its benefiting all things, and in its occupying, without striving (to the contrary), the low place which all men dislike. Hence (its way) is near to (that of) the Tao.
Definitely a parallel there with the concept of humility and the upside-down Kingdom that Christ taught.
IX - Fullness and Complacency in Success Contrary to the Tao
2. When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honors lead to arrogancy, this brings its evil on itself. When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven.
That certainly seems to be a good antidote to the American obsession with wealth and celebrity.
XI - The Use of What Has No Substantive Existence
The thirty spokes unite in the one nave; but it is on the empty space (for the axle) that the use of the wheel depends. Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness, that their use depends. The door and windows are cut out (from the walls) to form an apartment; but it is on the empty space (within), that its use depends. Therefore, what has a (positive) existence serves for profitable adaptation, and what has not that for (actual) usefulness.
This is a distillation of the concept of passivity, emptiness that characterizes much of the Tao.
Another one that I rather disagree with is this one, rendered initially in poetry.
XII - The Repression of the Desires
Color’s five hues from th’ eyes their sight will take;
Music’s five notes the ears as deaf can make;
The flavors five deprive the mouth of taste;
The chariot course, and the wild hunting waste
Make mad the mind; and objects rare and strange,
Sought for, men’s conduct will to evil change.
2. Therefore, the sage seeks to satisfy (the craving of) the belly, and not the (insatiable longing of the) eyes. He puts from him the latter, and prefers to seek the former.
I’m not feeling that one, I’m afraid. If you are starving, sure, eat. But if your existence is reduced to filling your belly, that is mere existence, not transcendence. It strikes me that this one is the sort of thing the wealthy have all too often said to those they oppress - say, slaves.
On the other hand, the idea that you cannot attain the Kingdom (of God or the Tao) by grasping rings true.
XXIX - Taking No Action
If anyone should wish to get the kingdom for himself, and to effect this by what he does, I see that he will not succeed. The kingdom is a spirit-like thing, and cannot be got by active doing. He who would so win it destroys it; he who would hold it in his grasp loses it.
There are a couple of paragraphs on the subject of war, which I found interesting.
XXXI - Stilling War
Now arms, however beautiful, are instruments of evil omen, hateful, it may be said, to all creatures. Therefore, they who have the Tao do not like to employ them.
And then later:
LXIX - The Use of the Mysterious (Tao)
2. There is no calamity greater than lightly engaging in war. To do that is near losing (the gentleness) which is so precious. Thus it is that when opposing weapons are (actually) crossed, he who deplores (the situation) conquers.
Honestly, I really feel that the recurring mistake that the United States has made since our victory in World War Two has been to lightly engage in war. That is why we have caused calamity and destruction with little if anything to show for it. The Tao isn’t fully pacifist - defensive war is provided for. But war without justification, or undertaken without careful thought, leads to suffering.
Another passage which was interesting was the one on government. In many ways, it reads as a statement of libertarian principles. As with all things libertarian, I have mixed feelings. Certainly laws can be used to oppress. But the cure isn’t the absence of laws, which lets the rich and powerful plunder everyone else (and destroy the earth in the process.) Also, as with The Wealth of Nations, I think statements that appear libertarian need to be seen in context. In a 6th Century BCE world, or a Feudalist or Mercantilist society, there is bound to be a reaction against laws written to protect entrenched interests. That doesn’t mean that the cure is to eliminate laws against pollution, discrimination, or wage theft, as modern libertarians seem so eager to do. Anyway, here is the passage:
LVII - The Genuine Influence
1. A state may be ruled by (measures of) correction; weapons of war may be used with crafty dexterity; (but) the kingdom is made one’s own (only) by freedom from action and purpose.
2. How do I know that it is so? By these facts: In the kingdom the multiplication of prohibitive enactments increases the poverty of the people; the more the implements to add to their profit that the people have, the greater disorder is there in the state and clan; the more acts of crafty dexterity that men possess, the more do strange contrivances appear; the more display there is of legislation, the more thieves and robbers there are.
3. Therefore, a sage has said: “I will do nothing (of purpose), and the people will be transformed of themselves; I will be fond of keeping still, and the people will of themselves become correct. I will take no trouble about it, and the people will of themselves become rich; I will manifest no ambition, and the people will of themselves attain to the primitive simplicity.
So, yeah, kind of, right? Paragraph 2 does fit with regulation aimed at rent-seeking. And it seems a good description of that whole process, whereby people find it more profitable to game the system than to contribute to it. But the cure seems pretty useless. Sitting back and watching the rich plunder the poor doesn’t lead to an automatic correction. (Unless you mean a violent revolution, which would not be my preference.)
Let me end with a series of three quotes, which I think make an interesting progression.
XLVIII - Forgetting Knowledge
He who devotes himself to learning (seeks) from day to day to increase (his knowledge); he who devotes himself to the Tao (seeks) from day to day to diminish (his doing).
LVI - The Mysterious Excellence
He who knows (the Tao) does not (care to) speak (about it); he who is (every ready to) speak about it does not know it.
LXXI - The Disease of Knowing
To know and yet (think) we do not know is the highest (attainment); not to know (and yet think) we do know is a disease.
We are back to the idea (alluded to earlier) that Taoism - particularly the later works - aren’t in favor of increasing knowledge. That first one seems to lean that direction, particularly if you omit the filled in words. However, in the later passages on knowledge, there seems to be a shift not toward “don’t know,” but toward “don’t be too sure you know.” And that is an excellent lesson.
In the second one, Lao Tzu hits on a vital truth: those who actually know things aren’t all that busy yelling about it. Whereas those who loudly trumpet their knowledge generally don’t know jack shit.
And finally, in the last one, we have the source of the problem. As has been said, the greater part of knowledge is knowing what we don’t know. The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know, and the less eager you are to spout off to everyone else. This has, alas, become an epidemic in our “post-intellectual” age - as in “my ignorance is as valid as your verified facts.” It is truly a disease. This is how you get people thinking that their theological opinions (or political theories) determine reality. That they can somehow “know” exactly the meaning of everyone else’s genitals and what they do with them. That they can “know” that the cause of poverty is always and only laziness. That ignorant tweets are somehow as valid as decades of actual experience.
Lao Tzu offers a cure:
2. It is simply by being pained at (the thought of) having this disease that we are preserved from it. The sage has not the disease. He knows the pain that would be inseparable from it, and therefore he does not have it.
In order to avoid this, you have to be pained at the thought of being wrong, not at the thought of being shown to be wrong. If you are open to learning new things, to changing your mind, to seeing a different perspective, you won’t have the disease of thinking you know when you really don’t. That has been my goal for a long time. I want to be right. Which means I have had to change my mind in response to additional evidence. If you read early posts on this blog, you can see that I have changed, philosophically, theologically, and politically. I think that is a positive thing.
The Tao Te Ching was an interesting book. I obviously disagree with parts of it, agree with others, yet throughout found it a fascinating look into a different perspective.