Thursday, January 25, 2007


Give up holiness, and the people will benefit a hundred times.
Give up benevolence and relinquish righteousness, and the people will return to natural love.
Renounce profit-seeking, and thieves will disappear.

But these three things are as decorations, and inadequate by themselves.
Let people rely upon this:

Recognize simplicity and embrace plainness.
Let the ego recede and desires diminish.

At first glance this verse appears similar to the previous one, 18. However, notice that a concept used here with a positive connotation (hsaio tzu, which I translated in 18 as "filial piety" and here as "natural love"). The reason for my differential translation is that in Verse 18 the term is used as something to avoid, here as something to work towards. If the authors used the same word, perhaps they were trying to say something by juxtaposing opposite meanings in adjacent verses? It could be, but remember that each verse is itself a compilation of sometimes unrelated lessons that the Laoists taught their students in their ethics schools. The verses which appear adjacent in this text were probably not in original versions, and therefore it's unlikely that there is a hidden meaning coming from the fact that the word appears twice in a row with opposite connotations. Rather, it's more likely that the authors are referring to the negative aspects of the concept in Verse 18, and the positive aspects in Verse 19, the way we can use "appease" with a positive connotation when talking about how a president appeased his people, but a negative connotation when we talk about "appeasement" as a policy before World War II.

The authors here, as elsewhere, explain their belief that the most authentic and effective positive feelings come naturally from the human heart, unforced by a sense of philanthropy, guilt, or obligation. We may give pretty names to this forcing, but the authors of the TTC would rather people give up worrying about what they should feel, and concentrate on what they do feel.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


When the great Way is forgotten,
there arises kindness.

When knowledge and cleverness appear,
there arise lies and hypocrisy.

When family relationships are not in harmony,
there arises filial piety.

When there is disorder and discord in the houses of the state,
there arises patriotism.

This verse is a good example of how the Laoists strove to turn conventional morality on its head, or to appear to do so. From the first line, it is clear that something strange is going on, since the authors appear to be saying that kindness is inferior to following the Way. How can they mean this? There are two things we might infer. First, the authors might be saying that FALSE or forced kindness is a bad thing; they believe that following the natural Way will result in, not less kindness, but an equal or greater amount of more authentic kindness. Or, they might be saying that an excess of kindness is in fact inferior to the balance achieved by following the Way. Remember that one of the ideals of the Tao Te Ching is harmony with natural processes. It surely cannot have escaped the authors that natural processes hurt almost as much as they harm; a rainstorm in one season can save people from starvation, in another season it might drown their crops. I think that the authors had this idea of balance in mind when writing this passage, due to the positive connotations of the words they use for the "lesser values" (the words I translated as "filial piety" really refer to the love of parents and children for each other, and have a very strong positive connotation). The authors are trying to shock us by saying that exhausting ourselves to always be kind is not in harmony with the way the world works. However, from other passages it seems like the authors do prize kindness and compassion, and so it's likely that their true position is not as extreme as it might appear here. In other words, they believe that the values they disparage in this passage are important, just not as important as conventional morality says.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


The best leader is one whose existence is barely known.
Next best is one who is loved and praised.
After that comes one who is feared.
Worst is a leader who is held in contempt and disobeyed.

If you cannot trust others, they will not be trustworthy.

The sage is quiet, and chooses his words carefully.
He completes his work, puts things in order, and lets the people say,
"we did this ourselves."

This verse appears to be made up of three sections, possibly of different authorship. The first and third sections explain the virtues of a Laoist leader: he is invisible, does not boast or claim credit for his achievements, and guides the people gently where they already want to go. It may seem strange that the authors consider a leader who is loved and praised to be worth less than one who is subtle, but this idea appears elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching, for example in a passage saying that the Way (implying natural action) is more valuable than love, compassion, or filial piety. The authors are primarily concerned with the leader not dominating the people, and instead leading them where it is natural for them to go. They would probably feel that a leader who is overly popular runs the risk of forcing some people to do unnatural things, as well as being tempted by his own power.

As for the line in the middle, we might ask how it relates to the rest of the verse. Unfortunately, as with other seeming non sequiters, I can only say that it is probably meant as a comment by a different author. It certainly expresses a truth about human nature: people appreciate being trusted, and placing your trust in someone is a great compliment that often inspires them to act in good faith. However, if you are always suspicious and accusatory of people, they might not feel any reason to be trustworthy. After all, if it doesn't make a difference in how you treat them, why should they care? I'm reminded of Gene Wolfe's opinion that if you do someone a great favor, it is actually you who are indebted to them, because you have had the honor of helping someone and they have suffered the embarrassment of needing your help.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


Attain complete emptiness.
Hold firm to a steady calm.
As all things rise and flourish,
we can already see their impending return.
All things flourish and grow, and each one returns from whence it came.
By returning, it finds peace. This is destiny: the law of nature.

This destiny is the one constant in the world; understanding it gives you perspective; not understanding it brings recklessness and misfortune.
When you have perspective, you can be impartial.
Impartiality makes you noble.
This nobility means you are in accord with Heaven.
Heaven is in accord with the Way.
Being in accord with the Way, you will be free from danger all your life.

This verse seems to be all about one topic, although the second half may have been added later to reinforce the first half. The verse emphasizes a recurring motif in the TTC: the cyclical nature of all things. If you think about things falling apart and creatures dying, it's depressing, but only if you think about it in a linear way. Seeing it as part of a cycle, you see that as some things are dying, others are being born. As some things are being born, others are flourishing and yet others are approaching their end. According to the authors of the Tao Te Ching, this should instill in you a sense of calm and equanimity.

At the end of the verse we can also see a kind of phrasing very common in the TTC: "X leads to Y, Y leads to Z, Z leads to the Way, the Way will do something." Personally, I'm not sure how much attention to pay to the literal logical meaning of these passages; I get the feeling they are meant to be largely poetic, with their primary purpose being to express the desireability of the items on the list, without making serious claims about one necessarily leading to the other. Nevertheless, I've tried to render them in such a way that it's at least logical how attaining one item could lead to attaining the next, and so on. When dealing with something so far removed from our cultural experience, we should be careful about premature decisions about meaning.

Sunday, July 30, 2006


The sages of old were so deep,
no one could fathom them.
Because their minds were beyond understanding, we must be content with describing their appearance.

Careful, like crossing a frozen stream
Aware, as though watching all around
Courteous, like a polite guest
Yielding, like ice on the verge of melting
Simple, like an uncarved block of wood.
Open, like a broad valley
Turbid, like muddy water.

Remain calm, and even muddy water becomes clear.
Remain still, and movement brings you to life.
One who follows the Way does not wish to be always full;
For this reason he can pass through exhaustion and be replenished.

Commentary: More water metaphors in this chapter, in the context of describing a sage. A sage's mind is deep, like deep water, all we can do is describe his appearance. If there were a contest for the Ten Commandments of Taoism, this chapter would have a strong claim on the title, with its list of characteristics that make a good sage. Although these attributes of sages are suppposed to concern only their appearance, they are clearly meant to be indicative of the sage's mental state.

Why turbid like muddy water? The very next line says that remaining calm allows muddy water to become clear, presumably even for sages. The remaining lines bring to mind the Laoist idea of cycles and contrast: by focusing on moments of stillness, we are more invigorated by movement. By not wishing always to be happy, we are able to pass through periods of unhappiness more easily. This idea will be instantly familiar to anyone who's been troubled by insomnia, which often stems from an obsession with getting enough sleep. If we believe we can't tolerate sleepless nights, our fear of not being able to get enough sleep keeps us awake and torments us. But if we accept that some days we will feel rested, and some days tired, we can relax and take life as it comes.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Looked at but not seen, it is called invisible.
Listened to but not heard, it is called soundless
Grasped for but not held, it is called formless.
These three attributes cannot be analyzed,
since they are inseparable.

The top of the Way is not bright
the underside is not dark.
Drawn out forever, nameless,
Forever returning to nonexistence.
Without form or substance,
it is an indistinct shadow.

Stand before it, and you won't see its face.
Follow it, and you won't see its back.
But hold fast to the ancient Way, and you can understand the present.
Know the ancient beginning; this ties together the teachings of the Way.

This is the first metaphysical passage other than Verse 1, which is easier to translate both because the original Chinese is easier, and because it's been analyzed practically to death by other translators. Verse 14 is more challenging. It's clearly meant to be describing the Way, but what kind of attributes is it assigning to it? I think the descriptions here are remarkably consistent, and may all have been written by the same author at the same time. The Way is invisible, soundless, and formless; it can't be analyzed. This fits exactly with the claim of Verse 1 that the Way that be described is not the true Way. The second section reiterates this description, avowing that the Way cannot be described by recourse to physical metaphors like light and dark. There is some beautiful imagery here; The phrase I've translated as "Drawn out forever" is [sheng sheng], a repeated character which can mean continuous, neverending, and infinite, and which evokes a thread because it uses the thread radical.

The first part of the third section is more of the same: the Way cannot be described as having a front and back, at least not as we understand them. But what to make of the last two sentences? What is this talk about "ancient Way?" There are two things necessary to understand this. First, remember that the Way is said to be very old, in one verse it is even said that it predates the gods. Another important element to the meaning is that Chinese philosophers around the time of the Tao Te Ching used "ancient" as a way of referring to ideas or principles they liked. In later verses we'll see statements like "Ancient kings did X, and everything was wonderful." It's important to understand that the authors of the TTC didn't really base their recommendations on archeological evidence of what ancient kings or people did, they're just using "ancient" as a signal to tell you they agree with something. Of course, it's not completely just a rhetorical device, because records of ancient times were sparse and most people probably did believe, to some degree, that things really were better in the "good old days." Suffice it to say that according to other, opposing philosophical and moral traditions, ancient kings were said to be behaving very differently!

Monday, June 12, 2006


Both honor and dishonor are cause for worry.
Misfortune is caused by the self.

What does it mean to say that honor and dishonor are cause for worry?
The concept of honor is depressing:
You are worried about obtaining it.
Once you have it, you are worried about losing it.
That's why it is said that honor and dishonor are both cause for worry.

What does it mean to say that misfortune is caused by the self?
As long as you are attached to your self, you will suffer.
Without a self, what is there for suffering to affect?

One who regards his responsibilities as his self, however, can be trusted with anything.
One who loves the world as his self can be trusted with caring for it.

This is a very difficult passage to translate, especially since one of the characters is different between two different versions of the Tao Te Ching, the Wang Pi and the Ho Shang Kung (HSK). The fourth line, in Chinese, is only three characters long, glossed like this: [honor makes low]. That's in the Wang Pi version of the TTC, though. Another version, the HSK, has [dishonor makes low]. This is a very difficult situation because the two words used are opposites. Often, the cause of a discrepancy between two of the versions is that somewhere along the way, a scribe mistakenly copied a character as a similar-looking character. In that case, the mistake is easy to spot because in one of the versions, the character has a meaning that seems totally out of place.

Here, though, the two characters don't look anything alike, and so it's likely that what happened was a failure of memory. The copyist remembered the basic gist of the passage, but couldn't remember whether the word in question was honor or dishonor. How could they make such a mistake? Looking at the passage, it's clear; substituting "dishonor" doesn't actually change the meaning very much. In both cases, the passage is saying that attaining honor is stressful, and that getting dishonored is also stressful. However, due to the context I think "honor" is a more likely choice.