Comments on the Tao Te Ching
using the D.C. Lau translation (Penguin Books, 1963)
- Book I: The Tao Te Ching, , the "Classic of the Way and Virtue" (or, the "Power of the Way," etc.), is divided into two books. This was often thought to be an arbitrary division; but recently a manuscript was discovered in which the order of the two books was actually reversed. An interpretation has now been offered that the two books are intended to be about the Tao  and Te . Book I does begin with statements about the Tao, and Book II with statements about Te. Since the Tao might be thought to be more important than Te, the format that reverses the books may then simply reflect that judgment.
- Chapter I: Comparing our edition with other translations of the Tao Te Ching, you may discover that they can be wildly different. One problem is just that ancient Chinese really is a different language from modern Chinese. This can create uncertainties even in translating Confucius, who was trying to be clear and simple. But the problems multiply with Taoism, which is often deliberately obscure and paradoxical. Why Taoism is that way is explained by the first verse: the Tao really cannot be spoken of or named.
- Verse 1 [see Chinese text and literal translation at right]: "The Way that can be spoken of/ Is not the constant way." The Tao Te Ching begins with a pun: "Way" and "spoken of" ("said") are the same character (Dào). So the first line says: "The Tao that can be tao-ed is not the constant Tao." "The name that can be named..." Here the pun can be maintained in English, where "name" can be both noun and verb. The quality of a translation of the Tao Te Ching can usually be determined from the rendering of these lines. Those determined to unpack the meaning of Taoism in the translation, according to their own interpretation of Taoist doctrine, will often render these terse sentences into a paragraph, sometimes with irrecognizable renderings of the key words. The affection of a translator for Taoism cannot excuse a method that only obscures the nature of the text itself.
Let's look at some translations, old and recent, of just the first six characters.
- Most venerable of all is that of James Legge in 1891: "The Tâo that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tâo" [Dover, 1962, p.47].
- Then we have D.T. Suzuki and Paul Carus in 1913 & 1927: "The Reason that can be reasoned is not the eternal Reason" [Open Court, 1974, p.74].
- Next let's see Archie Bahm (whom I knew at the University of New Mexico) in 1958: "Nature can never be completely described, for such a description of Nature would have to duplicate Nature" [Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1958, p.11].
- D.C. Lau in 1963: "The way that can be spoken of / Is not the constant way" [Penguin, 1963, p.5].
- Hua-Ching Ni in 1979, with what appears to be more an "elucidation" than a translation: "Tao, the subtle reality of the universe cannot be described" [Seven Star Communciations, 1979, 2003, p.7].
- Tam C. Gibbs in 1981: "The tao that can be said is not the everlasting Tao" [North Atlantic Books, 1981, p.20].
- More recently, we get Victor Mair in 1990, who switches Book I and Book II, displacing the 1st Chapter to the 45th: "The ways that can be walked are not the eternal Way" [Bantam, 1990, p.59].
- Michael LaFargue in 1992, who insists on completely rearranging the chapters, displacing the 1st to the 43rd, under the larger heading of "Knowledge, Learning, and Teaching," with ten other chapters: "The Tao that can be told is not the invariant Tao" [State University of New York Press, 1992, p.84].
- The science fiction novelist Ursula Le Guin in 1997: "The way you can go / isn't the real way" [Shambala, 1998, p.3].
- Moss Roberts from 2001: "The Way as 'way' bespeaks no common lasting Way" [University of California Press, 2001, p.27].
- Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall, who have a slightly different Chinese text, in 2003: "Way-making (dao) that can be put into words is not really way-making" [Ballantine, 2003, p.77]
- And finally let's try Charles Muller in 2005: "The Tao that can be followed is not the eternal Tao" [Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005, p.3].
The worst temptation here was an interpretive, rather than literal, rendering of , like "Reason" or "Nature." A serious question about translation is with tào as a verb. Since the noun can mean "road, way, path," both Legge, Mair, Le Guin, and Muller are tempted to produce a corresponding verb, "tred," "walk," "go," or "follow," However, although Mathews' Chinese Dictionary [Harvard, 1972, pp.882-884] gives verbal meanings for the character as "speak, tell" (or even "lead, guide"), "tred," "walk," "go," or "follow" is not among them. Interestingly, no one has tried the translation, "The Tao that guides is not the constant Tao." The feeling seems to be that the Tao does guide. On the other hand, if the line denies that the Tao can be followed, this would seem to void the purpose of Taoism. By Not-Doing, after all, one can "tred," "walk," "go," or "follow" the Way. The approach that began with Legge would deny the possibility, not of speech about, but of conformity to the Tao. This does not otherwise appear to be the thrust of the teaching. The renderings that are the most interpretative rather than simply translating are Bahm, Ni, and Roberts. Roberts seems to be at pains to take "way" in its simplest and most literal meaning, and not as referring to the hidden and obscure entity, the force behind "not doing," that everyone else takes the Tao to be. But construing the sentence his way requires an awkward locution and liberties with the wording.
- Verse 2: "The nameless." The Tao is really nameless. Why it is called the "Tao" we will see later.
- Chapter III
- Verse 10: "Do that which consists in taking no action, and order will prevail." The basic principle of Taoism, that order results from inaction, while disorder results from action. Attempting to control things actually messes them up.
- Chapter V
- Verse 14: "Heaven and earth are ruthless..." Although Taoism sometimes sounds very pacifistic, it is possible to wage war on Taoist principles; and here it is recognized that nature, and so the Tao, is not always kind. Indeed, "ruthless" here translates , "not kind," "not benevolent." Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall in their "philosophical translation" apparently don't like the implications of this, so they translate it as, "The heavens and the earth are not partial to institutionalized morality" [p.84]. This might indeed be a Taoist sentiment, but it is perhaps an over-interpretive reach as a translation of a line with only four characters. In a footnote, their justification of it is that rén represents "a suspect Confucian value that emerges only when genuine moral feeling has been overwritten by conventionalized rules of living" [p.206]. This is not quite right. The substance of the Confucian virtue is not suspect; it is that the virtue is subverted by Confucian speech about it. Is that the implication here? It doesn't look like it to me. The more sensible reading is the obvious one, that nature is not always benevolent, as indeed it is not. On the other hand, whatever the interpretation ought to be, the purpose of a translation is to render the plain meaning of the original, not to obscure it with an editorial. The worst feature of the Ames and Hall "translation" is that it is impossible to tell even remotely what the original wording would have been. The reader is simply not allowed to interpret the text for himself. The implication further in the section of the Taoist sage treating the people as "straw dogs," easily conformable with the "not kind" translation, is not spelled out and is subject to varying interpretations.
- Chapter VI
- Verse 17: "The spirit of the valley..." Here is the beginning of the yin, , imagery of the Tao Te Ching. While the Tao is beyond the opposites of yin and yang, , the principles of Not Doing () and No Mind (), which allow the Tao to operate, have a much greater affinity with yin (passive, receptive) than with yang (active, aggressive). The Tao Te Ching therefore illustrates Not Doing with extensive yin imagery. Here the "valley" (), the "female," and perhaps the "gateway" are all yin images.
- Chapter VII
- Verses 19-19a: "The Sage puts his person last and it comes first....without thought of self that he is able to accomplish his private ends?" If someone pursues their self-interest (practices the "doing" of self), they defeat and destroy it. By practicing Not Doing, the sage therefore allows the Tao to pursue his self-interest for him, which it will do. This all explains why the sage Lao Tzu, , the presumptive author of the Tao Te Ching, may not have existed: the author or authors of the Tao Te Ching would not put themselves forward to claim authorship. That would not be putting one's "person last." It would be a much more Taoist move to deny authorship and attribute the book to the "Old Master," which is what "Lao Tzu" means. Whether one author or many, critical references to Confucian doctrine in the book (especially Chapter 38) imply that it was written during the Warring States Period, while the tradition is that Lao Tzu was a contemporary of Confucius -- that they even met.
- Chapter VIII
- Verse 20: "Highest good is like water." The supreme yin image of the Tao: Water. Nothing is so essential to life, and so yielding and receptive; but water is also tremendously powerful and irresistible, as the Chinese know well from devastating floods of the Huang He and Yangtze rivers. "Settles where none would like to be." Water goes to the lowest position, which is not a status that people commonly fight over. Thus Not Doing avoids conflict, "does not contend."
- Chapter X
- Verse 24: "Can you...govern the state/Without resorting to action? ...Are you capable of keeping to the role of the female?" When we hear about the "role of the female," it is easy to dismiss the whole thing as some traditional, patriarchal instruction to women to stay in their place. However, this will not do for the Tao Te Ching. For one thing, in the traditional, indeed patriarchal Chinese society of the time, women mostly would not be able to read. They would not be reading the Tao Te Ching. So the advice is not to women, it is to rulers. The rulers are being told to keep to the "role of the female," i.e. the yin interpretation of Not Doing.
- Chapter XI
- Verses 27-27a: "Adapt the nothing therein..." The Tao, in contrast to objects, appears to be Nothing, but it underlies and governs all things. So, "by virtue of Nothing," "what we gain is Something," as the Tao generates growth, usefulness, beauty, etc. This is compared to the nature of mundane objects like bowls: their Emptiness is what makes them useful. The material of a bowl merely enables us to use the Emptiness to put things in. Similarly, the spokes of a wheel enable us to use the emptiness of the wheel; the emptiness of doors and windows enables us to go in and out and to have light and air in a room, which itself is useful through its Emptiness. This Emptiness of the Tao then appears in Chinese art, which can often be very busy and densely decorated, but under the influence of Taoism can also be very plain and undecorated. Chinese landscape paintings especially may be mostly empty space, with mountains and clouds trailing off into misty distance. The emptiness in the painting is just as important, or more important, than the painted part: It represents the Tao.
- Chapter XII
- Verse 28: "The five colours make man's eyes blind." The classic Taoist paradox. One might think that without the colors, one would be blind; but Taoism says that the colors themselves are blinding if you are thinking about them rather than seeing them. To think, "Oh, colors," is not to see them. Only with No Mind, without thought, will they really be seen. Similarly, thinking about notes or tastes is to close out the actual sounds and flavors. Also note the sets of fives here. The world is already being ordered in reference to the five Chinese elements.
- Chapter XVII
- Verses 39-41:
"The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence..." The essence of Taoist political advice. The ruler practicing Not Doing will not even be noticed, whatever it is that he is literally doing. "The people all say, 'It happened to us naturally.'" Thus the ruler's actions are not distinguishable from natural events, since they are indeed at one with the Tao. This would be unwelcome advice to any modern politician. Nevertheless, a ideal that a "government that governs best, governs least" was expressed by Thomas Jefferson -- the ideal of a liberal democracy, a government of limited and enumerated powers. This has been a difficult ideal to enforce or maintain, and now has largely been given up by political elites and in popular consciousness. The most Jeffersonian American President of the 20th century was probably Calvin Coolidge, who presided over tremendous growth and prosperity, yet is despised by intellectuals precisely for being "a shadowy presence" -- although he gave frequent radio addresses and news conferences, now forgotten (also the last President to daily greet ordinary visitors to the White House). "Next comes the ruler they love and praise." This would be the Confucian ideal of a ruler, who conspicuously sets an example of goodness and so who will be loved and praised. "Next comes one they fear." A ruler who uses force may be obeyed, as long as the force is credible. The best historical example would be Shihuangdi (246-209), although he probably reigned subsequent to the composition of the Tao Te Ching. Shihuangdi was ruthless enough that he was effective during his lifetime, but after his death the Qin Dynasty (255-207) rapidly crumbled. "Next comes one with whom they take liberties," like the younger son who succeeded Shihuangdi and was overthrown.
The translation of this passage is vulnerable to wildly different interpretations. Thus, it begins with two characters, , that can mean several things. James Legge renders it as "in highest antiquity," but then he proceeds to interpret the reference as otherwise to the ancient and best rulers [op. cit. Dover, 1962, p.60]. Forgetting about rulers altogether, Charles Muller translates, "From great antiquity forth they have known and possessed it" [op.cit., Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005]. He seems to think that the passage refers to the Tao, but then to get this he leaves out the negation. Indeed, the Chinese texts of the Tao Te Ching available from various sources often leave out either the character , "below," or the character , "not." Muller is apparently relying on there not being a negation. He also takes to mean "have" rather than "exist," which is an alternative meaning. Unless he also leaves out , however, or is simply translating it as "they," he misses the point that "below" contrasts with "above," which is taken by other translators to mean the "subjects" as contrasted with the ruler who is "above." The expression , according to Mathews' Chinese Dictionary, can mean "heaven" or "a title of respect" [p.862]. "Heaven" would not be the same as the Tao, as Muller might be thinking (as an alternative to "great antiquity"), and the "title of respect" is what implies that this is a ruler. While D.C. Lau has a charming expression that the ruler is "but a shadowy presence," if the text says that the subjects don't even know that he exists, this hardly needs such embelishment. Similarly, while Lau ends the sequence that the ruler will be one "with whom they take liberties," the blunt statement that the subjects will insult him again hardly seems in need of an alternative expression. Another curious variation in the text occurs in Paul Carus [Open Court, 1974], who has instead of in the middle of "love and praise" [p.34]. This doesn't affect his translation very much [p.84], but it does otherwise seem awkward in the structure of the passage.
- Chapter XVIII
- Verse 42: "When the great way falls into disuse/There are benevolence and rectitude." Again, this is the opposite of what we would expect. Without the "Way," benevolence and rectitude would disappear, not appear. However, what Taoism means is that without the Tao, we talk about benevolence and rectitude, which have actually disappeared. Thus, you ordinarily don't notice or appreciate how healthy you are until you get sick. Then you talk about health. Talking, however, doesn't bring it back. Similarly with the moral qualities. It is significant that "benevolence and rectitude" (rén and yì) are the two principal virtues of Confucius. Talking about benevolence and rectitude is what Confucius actually did. The Taoist critique is that the talking doesn't help. Indeed, talking about it really will prevent the Tao from restoring the real things. "When the six relations are at variance/There are filial children;/When the state is benighted/There are loyal ministers." Similarly, when filial piety is not observed (the principle of all the "six relations"), then we talk about, and prevent there being, filial children; and when the state is in bad shape, then we talk about, because there aren't any, loyal ministers. (Note, "loyal" here is chung, , which could be better translated "conscientious.") "When cleverness emerges/There is great hypocrisy." This is something else: Taoism wants a simple, rural life. It doesn't like "cleverness" or "novelties." It is hard to imagine the Taoist sage in a city -- he is usually to be imagined as a hermit or wanderer in the forest (), mountains (), or countryside, often only uttering paradoxical statements. We see this in the character , "an immortal," which contains the character for "mountain" with the radical for "person," . The idea seems to be that immortal beings live in the mountains, either because that is where the divine belong (as on Mt. Olympus) or because that it where Taoist adepts, who achieve immortality, practice their asceticism. Thus, Taoists themselves can be called , the "immortal-ists" or "school of the immortals." The Confucian sage, on the other hand, is intrinsically urban, and most easily imagined actually in a Chinese judge's robes (like the Chinese god , whose name can mean "success" or "official salary"). "Immortal," however, can be contasted with , "common, vulgar, worldly." This contains the "valley" character () with the radical for "person." What is down in the valley is then common, mundane, and vulgar.
- Chapter XIX
- Verse 43: "Exterminate benevolence, discard rectitude,/And the people will again be filial." This gives away the paradox: Filial piety will return when we stop talking about moral virtues.
- Chapter XXII
- Verse 50b: "He does not show himself, and so is conspicuous." The Taoist sage, again, practicing Not Doing. By trying to be inconspicuous, that is the Not Doing of being conspicuous, so then the Tao makes one conspicuous.
- Chapter XXIV
- Verse 55: "He who shows himself is not conspicuous." The opposite of verse 50b. Always reminds me of Hollywood, where those who try the hardest to be "celebrities" fail the most miserably.
- Chapter XXV
- Verse 56: "I know not its name/So I style it 'the way'." Why the Tao is called the "Tao." There is nothing else to call it, since "silent and void" it has no real name.
- Verse 58: "Heaven on the way." The only place where the yin imagery of the Tao gives way to a yang image: Heaven is very much a yang thing, and it is subordinate to the Tao, but here it subordinates earth, which might be thought the supreme yin thing short of the Tao. Evidently, the Chinese regard for Heaven was too much even for Taoism.
- Chapter XXVIII
- Chapter XXIX
- Verse 66: "Nothing should be done to it. Whoever does anything to it will ruin it." Not Doing political advice.
- Chapter XXXII
- Verse 72: "Heaven and earth will unite and sweet dew will fall." A hint that miraculous effects might be expected from Not Doing: Nature will even produce good weather if we are in harmony with the Tao. This would have unfortunate consequences in some applications of Zen. "And the people will be equitable, though no one so decrees." Again, political advice, not so different from Confucius, since, if the ruler is good, people will be good without being ordered.
- Chapter XXXIV
- Verse 76: "The myriad creatures depend on it for life yet it claims no authority." A line I wish I could have quoted to my parents as a teenager. "It clothes and feeds the myriad creatures yet lays no claim to being their master." Ditto, though I don't think they would have been persuaded.
- Chapter XXXVI
- Verse 79a: "The submissive  and weak  will overcome the hard and strong." The "role of the female" is made more specific: "Submissive" (jou in Wade-Giles and róu in Pinyin) is a significant, evocative term. The dictionary definition of róu (Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary, Harvard, 1972) is "soft, pliant; yielding, gentle; to overcome by kindness." "Submissive" in Taoism, however, is not always what it might seem. We have all seen the Japanese pronunciation of róu in the word judo (), the "Submissive Way." But Judo really doesn't look very "submissive": throwing people to the mat isn't exactly "to overcome by kindness." As a form of Not Doing, however, the idea in Judo is not to originate an attack and not to use one's own strength: the strength of an attacker is turned against him. This idea was often articulated in the old "Kung Fu" television series of the 70's, with David Carradine.
- Chapter XXXVII
- Verse 81: Summary of the ideas in Book I. "The way never acts.." D.C. Lau has taken a liberty with the translation [p.42]. The text has "name," not "act." A similar statement, however, with "act," is below at 48:108. "The myriad creatures will be transformed of their own accord....The nameless uncarved block/Is but freedom from desire." Notice the similarity with the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita. The gunas were all forms of desire, and liberation was therefore freedom from desire. But freedom from desire in the Gita is the means to avoid rebirth, while freedom from desire in the Tao Te Ching is the means of liberating the Tao, which provides all the things that we might otherwise have desired anyway. A very great difference between world-denying India and world-affirming China.
- Book II: Now possibly interpreted as the book specifically about Te, which might be placed before Book I, about the Tao.
- Chapter XXXVIII
- Verse 82: "A man of the highest virtue [Te, ]," doesn't talk about virtue, and so actually practices it. "A man of the lowest virtue," makes a big show and a big noise about virtue, and so is most likely a hypocrite who doesn't actually practice it. Compare to Jesus's complaints about those who only give alms publicly (Matthew 6:2) or stand on the street corners praying (Matthew 6:5). "A man of the highest benevolence  acts..." The beginning of an implicit critique of Confucianism. Rén is the highest virtue for Confucius. Taoism doesn't have too much of a problem with that. "A man of the highest rectitude [righteousness, ] acts, but from ulterior motive." Righteousness (yì) is the next highest Confucian virtue, but Taoism suspects those who invoke it of pursuing some self-interest. "A man most conversant in the rites [propriety, etiquette, good manners, ] acts, but when no one responds rolls up his sleeves and resorts to persuasion by force." Good manners (li3) is the next Confucian virtue, but Taoism expects nothing but intolerance and violence from people who talk about this. This is similar to attitudes in the 60's, when people felt that "good manners" were superficial nonsense and the preferred "counter-culture" behavior was rude and crude. This was not too good; but now, when certain kinds of rude behavior or speech can be prosecuted as federal civil rights offenses ("hostile environment" interpretations of anti-discrimination law), the Confucian opposite feared by Taoism seems to have been reached. "Hence when the way  was lost there was virtue ; when virtue was lost there was benevolence ; when benevolence was lost there was rectitude [righteousness, ]; when rectitude was lost there were the rites [manners, ]./The rites are the wearing thin of loyalty [conscientiousness, ] and good faith /And the beginning of disorder [, Japanese ran]." A nice hierarchical listing and evaluation of moral terminology according to Taoism.
- Chapter XLIII
- Verse 98: "The most submissive [róu] thing in the world can ride roughshod over the hardest in the world..." Remember Judo.
- Chapter XLVI
- Verse 104: "When the way prevails, fleet-footed horses are relegated to ploughing the fields; when the way does not prevail in the empire, war-horses breed on the border." The Tao can be expected to produce peace, but not always. War can be waged by Taoist means, as recommended in Sun Tzu's Art of War [note]. Although the stereotype of the Taoist Sage is an asocial recluse, wanderer, and hermit, there is nevertheless the tradition that such a person may nevertheless turn out to be the wisest in practical, including military, matters. A striking example of this is in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, , where Liu Pei (Liu Bei), who would become the first Emperor of the Shu Han dynasty, seeks out the Taoist recluse Chu-ke Liang (Zhuge Liang), known as Kung-ming (Kongming). Liu Pei travels three times to find Kung-ming before obtaining his services. Then Kung-ming serves the Dynasty with superior administrative, diplomatic, strategic, and tactical abilities. Thus, while the prevalent political ideas of classical China are Confucian, there is the suspicion that the Taoists may actually know more about the way things work -- including magical abilities, which Kung-ming also uses occasionally.
- Chapter XLVII
- Verse 106: "The further one goes/The less one knows." As in verse 108, knowledge is seen as a form of Doing. No Mind is produced by Not Doing, but the Tao takes care of everything.
- Chapter XLVIII
- Verse 108: "...and when one does nothing at all there is nothing that is undone." The essential paradox of Taoism.
- Chapter XLIX
- Verse 111: "Those who are good I treat as good. Those who are not good I also treat as good. In so doing I gain in goodness..." Compare to Jesus at Matthew 5:44-45: "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rains on the just and on the unjust."
- Chapter LII
- Verse 119: "To hold fast to the submissive [róu] is called strength."
- Chapter LVI
- Verse 128: "One who knows does not speak; one who speaks does not know." Probably the most famous line in the Tao Te Ching, though the authors have done an awful lot of speaking if they are supposed to be ones who know.
- Chapter LVII
- Verse 131: "Wage war by being crafty." Taoism does not mean pacifism; and a Taoist war strategy, as described by Sun Tzu, is to avoid the enemy's strength and instead undermine, like water, his weaknesses.
- Verse 132: , "The more taboos..." is an interesting expression. It can mean, "to shun the use of sacred names; to avoid things taboo; superstitious avoidance of things; taboo; prohibitions." The question then might be whether the Tao Te Ching means specificially religious prohibitions, or legal prohibitions in general. Or perhaps both. "The more sharpened tools..." The phrase here here is , where is "profit, gain, advantage," or "sharp, cutting; witty," and means, "vessel, utensil, implement, instrument" (see the use of this by Confucius). The expression can mean "edged tools" or "cutlery," or the meaning may be more metaphorical. Either "sharp" can mean mentally so, or we could take the primary meaning of lì and say "profitable tools." The statement thus could be about the fear of violence from weapons, or it could imply the general Taoist fear of novelty and wealth from productive technology. An ambiguity would be characteristic of Taoism. "The further novelties multiply": Again, Taoism wants a simple, rural life. "The better known the laws the edicts/The more thieves and robbers there are." Taoism is not going to care much for laws (), and it is certainly true that the multiplication of laws in effect creates more crime. The prisons today are full of people who have broken laws (mainly drug laws) that simply didn't exist a hundred years ago, while a great deal of litigation is about issues (e.g. over discrimination) that would have been considered private matters even seventy years ago.
- Verse 133 [see Chinese text and literal translation at right]: "I am not meddlesome and the people prosper of themselves." This line can also be translated [third line at right], "I do not serve, and the people themselves become wealthy." This suggests the "Tao of capitalism," since the principle of the free market is to leave people alone (laissez-faire), by which the "Invisible Hand" of Adam Smith (the Tao) will be able to create wealth for everyone. Such a result would not necessarily be what Taoism had in mind: "I am free from desire and the people of themselves become simple [like the uncarved block]" [fourth line at right]; but a free market economy, by created unprecedented wealth, does just the opposite. Taoism wanted a simple, rural life, without "cleverness" or "novelties," but leaving people alone to become wealthy means that they will -- which produces a vast consumer market of "cleverness" and "novelties" far from simplicity.
- Chapter LVIII
- Verse 134: "When the government is alert/The people are cunning." Sounds like people's response to the IRS.
- Chapter LX
- Verse 138: "Governing a large state is like boiling a small fish." A famous but very obscure line. Lau's footnote (p.121) says that "a small fish can be spoiled simply by being handled." Other interpretations are seen.
- Chapter LXI
- Verse 140: "...the lower reaches of a river..." Water imagery for the Tao again.
- Verse 141: "The female always gets the better of the male by stillness." The "role of the female" for the Tao, again. This is a stereotype of female action that feminists would certainly say is the result of their powerlessness. Taoism, of course, is not real big on what other people would consider "power."
- Chapter LXVI
- Verse 159: "River and the Sea...lower position." Yin imagery.
- Verse 161: "The sage takes his place over the people yet is no burden..." The opposite of countless dictators and self-important politicians.
- Chapter LXX
- Verse 170: "My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice, yet no one in the world can understand them or put them into practice." Another of the most famous statements in the Tao Te Ching. The only way in which Taoist political advice has ever been put into practice has been through principles of limited government and the free market.
- Chapter LXXV
- Verse 181: "The people are difficult to govern:/ It is because those in authority are too fond of action." Of course, when those in authority find the people difficult to govern, they demand more authority and promise more action. Too many people still think that is a good idea. Thus the "war on drugs" destroys the Fourth Amendment (and others), but this is regarded and allowed as "necessary" for the noble purpose of depriving us of control over our own bodies.
- Chapter LXXVI
- Verse 182: "Thus the hard and the strong are the comrades of death; but the supple [soft, pliant, yielding, róu] and the weak [yielding, ruò] are the comrades of life." A strikingly new version of the yin and yang imagery: The yin side is now simply life and the yang death. This is especially noteworthy because the identification does not persist: Later Chinese tradition, even in religious Taoism, comes to associate yang with life and yin with death. The spirit of religious Taoism is often very different from earlier, philosophical Taoism, and this turnabout is a good indication of that.
- Chapter LXXVII
- Verse 184a: "It is the way of heaven to take from what has in excess in order to make good what is deficient. The way of man is otherwise. It takes from those who are in want in order to offer this to those who already have more than enough." This could be interpreted in different ways, and might be thought to justify programs to "redistribute" income from the rich to the poor, i.e. from "those who already have more than enough" to "those who are in want." However, political action to "redistribute" income commonly takes from those with less political influence to give to those with more, which means that "middle class entitlements," like Social Security and Medicare, vastly outweigh "lower class entitlements," like public housing and welfare. Social Security and Medicare themselves tax the young, who vote less and are less wealthy, in order to pay the elderly, who are far wealthier, vote regularly, and are more politically active. The "way of heaven" would then be to abolish all such political redistributions and allow the free market to do its Taoist "invisible hand" job of creating wealth for all.
- Chapter LXXVIII
- Verse 186-187: "Nothing more submissive and weak than water." Yet water, the ultimate symbol of the Tao, is irresistible. Noteworthy is the statement that the "submissive  overcomes the hard ." The character here for "hard" we find in , the term for the vajra, the thunderbolt of Indra, the symbol of power in Vajrayana Buddhism, and the name of the Japanese battleship Kongô. Even Taoist war, of course, is indirect and undermining, not hard and frontal -- as, again, we see in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
- Chapter LXXX
- Verse 193a-c: "Reduce the size and population of the state." A long statement expressing the Taoist preference for a sort of simple, Jeffersonian rural life. Weapons, ships, and carts will be ready at hand, but apparently unused. Whether the weapons are to be used, of course, may well depend on the actions of others. Ships and carts, however, may be the instruments of peaceful trade and travel, activities that are here condemned. "Yet the people of one state will grow old and die without having had any dealings with those of another." This is much more extreme than even the Confucian dislike of trade and foreigners. One of the four traditional Chinese classes, merchants , would simply disappear in the Taoist ideal.
Yin & Yáng and the I Ching
Zen and the Art of Divebombing, or The Dark Side of the Tao
History of Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy
History of Philosophy
Copyright (c) 1997, 1999, 2000, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved
Comments on the Tao Te Ching, Note;
Sun Tzu and Flavius Vegetius Renatus
Sun Tzu sounds the most like a Taoist when he counsels against frontal attacks. One should direct one's army as though it were the supreme example of the Tao, water, . Water overcomes obstacles by flowing around and undermining them. The ideal battle for Sun Tzu is won before action is even joined.
One of the most important pieces of advice in Sun Tzu is stated very briefly: "[B]e sure to leave an opening for an army that is surrounded" [Victor H. Mair, The Art of the War, Sun Zi's Military Methods, Columbia University Press, 2007, p.104], or "When you surround an army leave an outlet free" [Lionel Giles, Roots of Strategy, The 5 Greatest Military Classics of All Time, edited by Brig. Gen. Thomas R. Phillips, 1940, Stackpole Books, 1985, p.40]. Sun Tzu does not explain why one should leave an opening. The effect of it, however, we can see in the Battle of the River Sajó (or Mohi), fought by the Mongols under the Khân Batu against King Bela IV of Hungary in 1241. After some Hungarian success, the Mongols surrounded the Hungarian camp. Leaving a gap in their encirclement, the Mongols tempted the Hungarians to flee, which they did, and could then be cut down on the run.
Where we find an explanation of this practice is in the Roman strategist Flavius Vegetius Renatus (De Re Militari, Lieutenant John Clarke, Roots of Strategy, The 5 Greatest Military Classics of All Time, op.cit., pp.65-175]):
THE FLIGHT OF AN ENEMY SHOULD NOT BE PREVENTED, BUT FACILITATED. Generals unskilled in war think a victory incomplete unless the enemy are so straightened in their ground or so entirely surrounded by numbers as to have no possibility of escape. But in such situations, where no hopes remain, fear itself will arm an enemy and despair inspires courage. When men find they must inevitably perish, they willingly resolve to die with their comrades and with their arms in their hands. The maxim of Scipio, that a golden bridge should be made for a flying enemy, has much been commended. For when they have free room to escape they think of nothing but how to save themselves by flight, and the confusion becoming general, great numbers are cut to pieces. The pursuers can be in no danger when the vanquished have thrown away their arms for greater haste. In this case the greater the number of the flying army, the greater the slaughter. [p.164, boldface added]
Nothing could so vividly describe the result of an action like that of the River Sajó. The reference of the "golden bridge," however, has not always been understood in military history. Thus, the Marshal Maurice de Saxe of France (1696-1750) in his "My Reveries Upon the Art of War" says:
The words of the proverb: "A bridge of gold should be made for the enemy," is followed religiously. This is false. On the contrary, the pursuit should be pushed to the limit. And the retreat which had appeared such a satisfactory solution will be turned into a route [sic]. A detachment of ten thousand men can destroy an army of one hundred thousand in flight. Nothing inspires so much terror or occasions so much damage, for everything is lost. [Brig. Gen. Thomas R. Phillips, op.cit., p.299]
De Saxe apparently is thinking that the "bridge of gold" means that one should allow the enemy to escape. He cannot have recently read Vegetius if he believed such a thing. But he is clearly aware that a retreating enemy can well provide an opportunity for attack. He does not express, however, as Vegetius does, under what circumstances a retreating enemy can be fruitfully attacked. We return to Sun Tzu again, who says, "Do not pursue an enemy who simulates flight" [Lionel Giles, op.cit., p.40]. An orderly retreat may be as difficult to attack as a resolute defense. Vegetius sees opportunity when the retreat of the enemy is a flight in panic, which can be induced by providing the "bridge of gold" to an army already demoralized. We must aways guard, however, against deception by an enemy who wants us to think that they are fleeing in panic. This was how the Arabs defeated the Romans at the Battle of Yarmuk in 636, delivering Syria and Palestine permanently into the hands of Islâm. The Arabs gave way and appeared to flee, but then they turned on the pursuing Romans, who had become disorganized in their own enthusiasm. In more subtle fashion, Hannibal had given way before the Romans at Cannae, to lure them into a pocket, where they were slaughtered.
The Taoist way of war is thus not so unique after all, and it even clarifies the value of Sun Tzu's advice when we compare it with strategists in Western military history. We might say that Vegetius does a much better job of explaining Sun Tzu than Sun Tzu does.
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Philosophy of History, Military History