Philosopher as Prankster: Lao-tzu and the Tao Te Ching

by Kenneth Champeon, Oct 23, 2002 | Destinations: China / Beijing

* * * * *

Review of Lao-tzu's Tao Te Ching, Everyman's Library, 1994.

* * * * *

Discerning readers of the Tao Te Ching will be struck by its first assertion, which appears to be pure nonsense. "The man of superior virtue," it says, "is not virtuous and that is why he has virtue." Formally: X is not X, therefore X is X. As Father of Logic Aristotle once said: "Huh?"

Technically speaking, this is valid reasoning (it's called a "counterfactual conditional") but only because 'X is not X' is a contradiction, from which everything ("Your mother is a hamster", "The moon is made of green cheese", etc.) follows. Nonetheless, the scripture of one of the world's oldest religions begins by striking at the very root of Western rationality, the principle of non-contradiction.

Or does it? One of the reasons the text was written was to debunk the Confucianism then dominant. The first line would be better read as, "The man of superior virtue (according to Taoism) is not virtuous (according to Confucianism) and that is why he has virtue (according to Taoism.)" So it is not a contradiction so much as an attempt to change the meaning of virtue -- 'te' in classical Chinese - in a way favorable to Taoism.

So what is the difference between Confucianism and Taoism? The Tao Te Ching describes the difference thus: "When the way [tao] was lost there was virtue; when virtue was lost there was benevolence [ren]; when benevolence was lost there was rectitude [yi]; when rectitude was lost there were the rites [li]." Confucianism is concerned with preserving the virtues and customs that Taoism regards as corruptions and obstructions of the way. The Tao Te Ching thus sets out to dismantle the fundamental assumptions of its predecessor, and in doing so seems to repeat the same kind of logical blunders with which it begins. "Straightforward words seem paradoxical," it says in its defense.

The Tao Te Ching is essentially a mystical document, but it is also an ethical code. Basically it suggests that non-action is preferable to action. Not to say that Lao-tzu would have esteemed idleness. By "action" is meant effort, struggle, thought, will. In other words, it is possible to do the things necessary to sustain one's life without exertion. Lao-tzu invites us to become the animals that we are, the babies that we were, rather than to become the gods that we cannot be. "There is no disaster greater than not being content."

Exhortations to be content are common to Eastern religions and one might say to all religion. They are also one reason why religion is despised. Atheists contend that religions are designed by the ruling class to keep the lower orders from upsetting the class system. Religiosity and poverty often go hand in hand. Whether the one causes the other or vice versa is less clear. And that the poor would prefer to be rich is arguable: surveys have often shown personal happiness to be unrelated to personal wealth.

One of the more dubious claims of the Tao Te Ching is that passivity triumphs over aggressiveness, the yin over the yang. This too has the reek of contradiction. A woman is more powerful than a man because she is passive, and he must come to her. Water is more powerful than rock because water surrounds it and breaks it down. "The most submissive thing in the world can ride roughshod over the most unyielding in the world - that which is without substance entering that which has no gaps." The text also contains variations on the "he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword" theme - that the violent will die violently, the peaceful peacefully. Would that it were so.

Many first readers of the Tao Te Ching will have come to it by way of the splendid little book, The Tao of Pooh, in which A. A. Milne's carefree, honey-slurping bear is held up as an example of the ideal Taoist sage, "foolish and uncouth." Books like this raise the question: Can the Tao be taught? Lao-tzu thinks so, but with typically loopy logic, believes that no one can learn: "My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice, yet amongst men there is no one able to understand and there is no one able to put them into practice." The author is hopeful that this will change, but teaching mysticism is rather like offering seminars on the futility of seminars. "One who knows does not say it; one who says does not know it."

Like the Analects of Confucius, the Tao Te Ching also treats of political issues. To Lao-tzu, the best leader is elusive and should create happiness for his people without their being aware that the leader was responsible. There are shades of totalitarianism in his perfect state: "In his rule, the sage empties their minds but fills their bellies, weakens their purpose but strengthens their bones." This is not the grim totalitarianism of 1984 and North Korea, but the happy totalitarianism of Brave New World and, as some have suggested, the United States, with its happy but obese and apolitical consumers of Prozac, cheeseburgers, and professional wrestling.

The Tao Te Ching is a mere five thousand Chinese characters long, but it has been translated more than any other Chinese text. Arguably this is because of the text's baffling ambiguity, and the misguided desire for authoritative religious texts. In a sense, Lao-tzu has written a millennia-old practical joke. "The way can be spoken of / But it will not be the constant way." The text can be translated, but it will not be the constant text. The laughter rings down from antiquity at those who would understand the world - with a word.

* * * * *