Comments on the Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching, , the "Classic of the Way and Virtue" (or, the "Power of the Way," the "Way and Its Power," etc.), is the first and principal Classic of Taoism. It is handed down with a division 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 [], respectively. 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, with the treatment of Te as an introduction or preliminary to the Tao. It is not clear that reversing the order would really make any difference in the teaching.

Joanna C. Lee and Ken Smith, who have a good translation and provide both characters and a Pinyin transcription (all but unheard of in other translations), simply break the Tao Te Ching into two separate little books, The Pocket Tao, Lao Tzu's Classic of the Way [A Museworks Book, Pocket Chinese Classics, 2012] and The Pocket Te, Lao Tzu's Classic of Virtue [A Museworks Book, Pocket Chinese Classics, 2013]. The order in which to read these is thus up to the reader.

This webpage originally wrote up the comments I would make in my Introduction to Philosophy and Asian Philosophy classes, from 1987 to 2009, and so sometimes comments are directly addressed to students. The classes used the D.C. Lau translation:  Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching [Penguin Books, 1963]. Over the years maintenance of the page has involved adding material, especially Chinese text, and more in the way of critique of the translations by Lau and others. Translating the Tao Te Ching is a challenge, as examined in detail for the first chapter below.

After this page was first on line, and most students still had no access to the Internet, the Valley College Bookstore would print out and bind copies of the file, which students could purchase. Soon, however, people could sit in class with their own laptops and read the webpage during the lecture. The phenomenon was just beginning, of background noise in classes, with people typing notes on their laptops, before I retired in 2009.

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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 always 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