There are four books that I have handy when I am on the internet, because the right quotation from them can kill any argument. They are “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli, “Rules for Radicals” by Saul Alinsky, “Democracy in America” by Alexis de Toqueville, and “Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu.
Granted, many real Taoists would object to that last one being included in the group, but I feel there is a harmony between them that is undeniable. Each has the ability to rise above everyday life even as it informs the reader, and each is fundamentally about a kind of power. They form a quartet of four elements – Earth (de Toqueville), Air (Machiavelli), Fire (Alinsky) and Water (Lao Tzu). But it goes without saying that the most powerful force of them all is the most patient force, the water of the Tao Te Ching.
Lao Tzu is almost certainly not a real person, as the name means “Wise Elder”. A careful reading of the Tao Te Ching shows that it was written by at least 3 people, probably 4. Known to have been around for 2,500 years, it sprang up from Confucian China as an almost romantic counterpoint, and eventually became the state religion during the Han Dynasty (about 150 CE). Gradually it came to take its place with Confucianism and Buddhism as one of the three religions of China (which are often practiced simultaneously).
One way of explaining Taoism is taken from a Taoist painting called “The Vinegar Tasters”. In this, three figures representing Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu are shown around a barrel labeled “vinegar”, and each has clearly sampled the wares. Confucius has a sour expression on his face, because vinegar is sour. Buddha has a puzzled expression on his face, because he wonders why the vinegar is the way it is. Lao Tzu has a smile on his face, because it is simply a good batch of vinegar.
That’s what Taoism is fundamentally all about – taking the world at face value. The basic premise is that we as humans have a nearly unlimited ability to confuse ourselves with prejudice, fear, and even language. It is, in the end, a courtly work about how the sage rules a nation with a light hand without contriving and without being clever – because simplicity and honesty are the example that a people need.
It is not a long work, by any means, coming in at around 16,000 words. But this is dense poetry, and nearly impossible to translate out of Chinese. I’ll start with the opening two paragraphs and show you three versions in English. The first is the most authoritative and least poetic translation by John C. H. Wu, who did his work in the 1930s:
Tao can be talked about, but not the eternal Tao.
Names can be named, but not the eternal name.
As the origin of heaven-and-earth, it is nameless.
As “the Mother” of all things, it is nameable.
So, as ever hidden, we should look at its inner essence:
As always manifest, we should look at its outer aspects.
These two are from the same source, though differently named;
And both are called mysteries.
The mystery of all mysteries is the Door of all essence.
Now, I’d like to go to Stan Rosenthal’s translation, which is a blend of literal and flowery. You can find it as:
Even the finest teaching is not the Tao itself.
Even the finest name is insufficient to define it.
Without words, the Tao can be experienced,
and without a name, it can be known.
To conduct one’s life according to the Tao,
is to conduct one’s life without regrets;
to realize that potential within oneself
which is of benefit to all.
Confused yet? I’ll add in Ursula LeGuin’s translation, which is the most florid and accessible of all of them. I used the chapter titles from this translation as the chapter titles in Downriver, and in that work each chapter illustrates the part of the Tao Te Ching it takes its title from:
The way you can go isn’t the real way.
The name you can say isn’t the real name.
Heaven and earth begin in the unnamed:
Name’s the mother of the ten thousand things.
So the unwanting soul sees what is hidden,
And the ever wanting soul sees only what it wants.
I’m sure that by now you are confused, and I don’t blame you. It’s a lot to take in, and to see three ways of saying it which are so different doesn’t help that situation. But if you could follow the link above to Stan Rosenthal’s version, you might find some interesting things that come out of such an ancient document.
What do I make of it? That we’re kidding ourselves, mostly. The universe has its ways and it doesn’t particularly care what we call it or think of it. More importantly, our attempts at being clever often make things more difficult for ourselves. The human mind is at its most powerful not when studying or contriving or manipulating, but when it is simply observing.
It seems a bit stark to most Westerners, but there is a subtle beauty once you understand how simple it all really is. I’ll leave you with this part from Rosenthal’s version:
9. WITHOUT EXTREMES
The cup is easier to hold
when not filled to overflowing.
The blade is more effective
if not tempered beyond its mettle.
Gold and jade are easier to protect
if possessed in moderation.
He who seeks titles,
invites his own downfall.
The sage works quietly,
seeking neither praise nor fame;
completing what he does with natural ease,
and then retiring.
This is the way and nature of Tao.