1 A 3 O R N

Dao De Ching

by Lao Tzi

Created: 2020-07-14
Wordcount: 2k

After reading "Three Kingdoms," which treats Daoist sages as wise men, I was curious about Daoism. So I decided to read the Dao De Ching.

I read a copy with three parallel translations. I'm not sure this kept me from being more confused than I might otherwise be.

The translations are almost unrecognizable at points. Here's the same passage from chapter 27, with three different translators:

Legge: "Therefore the man of skill is a master (to be looked up to) by him who has not the skill; and he who has not the skill is the helper of (the reputation of) him who has the skill."

Susuki: "Therefore the holy man is always a good saviour of men, for there are no outcast people. He is always a good saviour of things, for there are no outcast things. This is called applied enlightenment.

Goddard: "Therefore the wise man trusting in goodness always saves men, for there is no outcast to him. Trusting in goodness he saves all things for there is nothing valueless to him. This is recognizing concealed values."

Given this variety, it's really hard for me to trust my own impressions of the work. But, if I have to draw some vague, impressionistic lines, they'd be something like this.

First, as is always the case when reading something from an entirely different context, it appears to be an ununified mishmash of different topics. It mixes political advice, metaphysics of the world, positive psychology, ethics, and similar topics into what, really, doesn't make that much sense as a whole, at least at first and second glance. But this is certainly a deficiency in me.

Second, I was surprised by finding some things in it which I had been told (long ago, when Catholic) were unique to Christianity.

You can clearly find something like Christian teachings on humility, for instance -- "One who displays himself is not bright, or one who asserts himself cannot shine. A self-approving man has no merit, nor does one who praises himself grow. The relation of these things to Dao is the same as offal is to food."

You can find the affirmation of the goodness of universal benevolence, not merely the golden rule -- "The good he [the sage] treats with goodness; the not-good he also treats with goodness, for de is goodness. The faithful ones he treats with good faith; the unfaithful he also treats with good faith, for de is good faith."

You can even find an affirmation that it is best to be like a child -- ""By close attention to the will, compelling gentleness, one can become like a little child."

I was surprised by this.

Third, while I had expected a mix of ethics and neoplatonic metaphysics, I was surprised by how much advice specifically aimed at magistrates and rulers is within this. This is addressed to potential rulers far more than the New Testament, which is explicitly aimed at common folk. And indeed, this is often very critical of rulers, who seem, by their indulgence, excessive taxation, and disregard of the common folk, very apt to ruin their own people.

Generally speaking, the advice seems good, although problematic in some places.

Fifth, to repeat myself: I don't trust my impressions of this work. I need to gain a greater understanding of the context in which it was written to have anything more than fragmentary impressions, like a middle-schooler reading Shakespeare for the first time -- "it was hard to understand." So I think I'll probably follow this up by reading the Zhuangzi


Susuki: "Not contemplating what kindles desire keeps the heart unconfused."

Goddard: "The Dao appears to be emptiness but it is never exhausted."

Differing translations:

Legge: "Heaven and earth do not act from (the impulse of) any wish to be benevolent; they deal with all things as the dogs of grass are dealt with. The sages do not act from (any wish to be) benevolent; they deal with the people as the dogs of grass are dealt with." Goddard: "Heaven and earth are not like humans, they are impartial. They regard all things as insignificant, as though they were playthings made of straw. The wise man is also impartial. To him all men are alike and unimportant."

Legge: "Therefore the sage puts his own person last, and yet it is found in the foremost place; he treats his person as if it were foreign to him, and yet that person is preserved. Is it not because he has no personal and private ends, that therefore such ends are realised?"

Goddard: "True goodness is like water, in that it benefits everything and harms nothing. Like water it ever seeks the lowest place, the place that all others avoid. It is closely kin to the Dao."

Goddard: "By close attention to the will, compelling gentleness, one can become like a little child."

Goddard, on Immateriality: "Although the wheel has thirty spokes its utility lies in the emptiness of the hub. The jar is made by kneading clay, but its usefulness consists in its capacity. A room is made by cutting out windows and doors through the walls, but the space the walls contain measures the room's value. In the same way matter is necessary to form, but the value of reality lies in its immateriality." Susuki, on the above: "Therefore, existence renders actual but non-existence renders useful."

Susuki: "Favor humiliates. Its acquisition causes trembling, its loss causes trembling."

Goddard: "When great men rule, subjects know little of their existence. Rulers who are less great win the affection and praise of their subjects. A common ruler is feared by his subjects, and an unworthy ruler is despised."

Goddard, typical mysticism: "He who identifies himself with Dao, Dao rejoices to guide. He who identifies himself with de [teh], de [teh] rejoices to reward."

Goddard, what the Dao thinks of Trump: "One who displays himself is not bright, or one who asserts himself cannot shine. A self-approving man has no merit, nor does one who praises himself grow. The relation of these things (self-display, self-assertion, self-approval) to Dao is the same as offal is to food."

Legge: "Man takes his law from the Earth; the Earth takes its law from Heaven; Heaven takes its law from the Dao. The law of the Dao is its being what it is."

Goddard: "Peace and quietude are esteemed by the wise man, and even when victorious he does not rejoice, because rejoicing over a victory is the same as rejoicing over the killing of men. If he rejoices over killing men, do you think he will ever really master the Empire?"

Goddard: "Tao in its eternal aspect is unnamable."

Susuki: "One who knows others is clever, but one who knows himself is enlightened. One who conquers others is powerful, but one who conquers himself is mighty."

Goddard, on the attractions of the Dao: "Music and dainties attract the passing people, while Dao's reality seen-is insipid. Indeed it has no taste, when looked at there is not enough seen to be prized, when listened for, it can scarcely be heard, but, the use of it is inexhaustible."

Susuki: "That which is about to contract has surely been expanded. That which is about to weaken has surely been strengthened. That which is about to fall has surely been raised. That which is about to be despoiled has surely been endowed. This is an explanation of the secret that the tender and the weak conquer the hard and the strong."

Susuki, on appearances: "Superior virtue is unvirtue. Therefore it has virtue. Inferior virtue never loses sight of virtue. Therefore it has no virtue."

Goddard, on the uselessness of tradition alone: "Therefore when one loses Dao there is still de [teh]; one may lose de [teh] and benevolence remains; one may forsake benevolence and still hold to righteousness; one may lose righteousness and propriety remains. Propriety, alone, reduces loyalty and good faith to a shadow, and it is the beginning of disorder. Tradition is the mere flower of the Dao and had its origin in ignorance."

Goddard enters a neoplatonic riff: "Heaven attained unity and thereby is space. Earth attained unity, thereby it is solid. Spirit attained unity, thereby it became mind. Valleys attained unity, therefore rivers flow down them. All things have unity and thereby have life. Princes and kings as they attain unity become standards of conduct for the nation. And the highest unity is that which produces unity."

Legge, more neoplatonism: "The movement of the Dao By contraries proceeds; And weakness marks the course Of Dao's mighty deeds.

All things under heaven sprang from It as existing (and named); that existence sprang from It as non-existent (and not named)."

Goddard, on the Dao: "An inferior scholar listening to Dao ridicules it. Were it not thus ridiculed it could not be regarded as Dao."

Goddard, more neoplatonism: "Tao produces unity; unity produces duality; duality produces trinity; trinity produces all things."

Goddard, once more on the deceptiveness of appearances: "Extreme perfection seems imperfect, its function is not exhausted. Extreme fullness appears empty, its function is not exercised."

Goddard, wisdom of staying wherever the fuck you are: "Not going out of the door I have knowledge of the world. Not peeping through the window I perceive heaven's Dao. The more one wanders to a distance the less he knows."

Goddard, on how the good man does better than the golden rule, and acts like heaven in treating just and unjust alike: "The good he treats with goodness; the not-good he also treats with goodness, for de is goodness. The faithful ones he treats with good faith; the unfaithful he also treats with good faith, for de is good faith."

Goddard: "Of ten, three are seeking life, three are seeking death, and three are dying."

Goddard, dubious predictions about the sage's invulnerability: "I hear it said that the sage when he travels is never attacked by rhinoceros or tiger, and when coming among soldiers does not fear their weapons. The rhinoceros would find no place to horn him, nor the tiger a place for his claws, nor could soldiers wound him. What is the reason? Because he is invulnerable."

Goddard, relation of Dao and teh to world: "Tao gives life to all creatures; de [teh] feeds them; materiality shapes them; energy completes them. Therefore among all things there is none that does not honor Dao and esteem de [teh]."

Susuki, on metaphysical humility: "Who beholds his smallness is called enlightened."

Goddard, on minimalistic libertarian statecraft: "Among people the more restrictions and prohibitions there are, the poorer they become. The more people have weapons, the more the state is in confusion. The more people are artful and cunning the more abnormal things occur. The more laws and orders are issued the more thieves and robbers abound. Therefore the wise man says: If a ruler practices wu wei the people will reform of themselves. If I love quietude the people will of themselves become righteous. If I avoid profit-making the people will of themselves become prosperous. If I limit my desires the people will of themselves become simple."

Goddard, universalism with Dao: "The reason the Ancients esteemed Dao was because if sought it was obtained, and because by it he that hath sin could be saved. Is it not so? Therefore the world honors Dao."

Goddard, have foresight you morons: "Consider a difficulty before it arises, and administer affairs before they become disorganized. A tree that it takes both arms to encircle grew from a tiny rootlet. A pagoda of nine stories was erected by placing small bricks. A journey of three thousand miles begins with one step."

Goddard, on not grasping: "If one tries to improve a thing, he mars it; if he seizes it, he loses it. The wise man, therefore, not attempting to form things does not mar them, and not grasping after things he does not lose them."

Goddard, follow-through: "One must be as careful to the end as at the beginning if he is to succeed."

Goddard, he who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted: "Therefore the wise man desiring to be above his people must in his demeanor keep below them; wishing to benefit his people, he must ever keep himself out of sight."

Gooddard, wise man abstains from twitter arguments: "Because he will not quarrel with anyone, no one can quarrel with him."

Goddard, on the three virtues: "Tao has three treasures which he guards and cherishes. The first is called compassion; the second is called economy; the third is called humility."

Goddard, on how the wise man is like Socrates: "To recognize one's ignorance of unknowable things is mental health, and to be ignorant of knowable things is sickness."

Legge, on why people are cool with death if you tax them (and earlier, it was established that people will rebel if they do not fear death): "The people suffer from famine because of the multitude of taxes consumed by their superiors. It is through this that they suffer famine. The people are difficult to govern because of the (excessive) agency of their superiors (in governing them). It is through this that they are difficult to govern.The people make light of dying because of the greatness of their labours in seeking for the means of living. It is this which makes them think light of dying."

Goddard, on how flexibility is life: "When a man is living he is tender and fragile. When he dies he is hard and stiff. It is the same with everything, the grass and trees, in life, are tender and delicate, but when they die they become rigid and dry. Therefore those who are hard and stiff belong to death's domain, while the tender and weak belong to the realm of life.Therefore soldiers are most invincible when they will not conquer."

Goddard, Dao and Water: "In the world nothing is more fragile than water, and yet of all the agencies that attack hard substances nothing can surpass it."

Goddard, it's the leaders who fuck things up: "Therefore the wise man declares: he who is guilty of the country's sin may be the priest at the altar. He who is to blame for the country's misfortunes, is often the Empire's Sovereign."

Susuki, on how generally people follow that which destroys them: "True words are not pleasant; pleasant words are not true. The good are not contentious; the contentious are not good. The wise are not learned; the learned are not wise."