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.


Anonymous said...

I greatly enjoy your blog and find it very insightful and educational! Please keep on posting!

John Gathercole said...

Thank you for the compliment. I've just recently moved from one country to another and haven't updated in awhile. From now on I hope to update more regularly.