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Note About Tao

By Lionel Giles

It seems to me, however, that the conception of Tao must have been reached, originally, through this channel. Lao Tzu, interpreting the plain facts of Nature before his eyes, concludes that behind her manifold workings there exists an ultimate Reality which in its essence is unfathomable and unknowable, yet manifests itself in laws of unfailing regularity.

To this Essential Principle, this Power underlying the sensible phenomena of Nature, he gives, tentatively and with hesitation, the name of Tao, "the Way", though fully realizing the inadequacy of any name to express the idea of that which is beyond all power of comprehension.

A foreigner, imbued with Christian ideas, naturally feels inclined to substitute for Tao the term by which he is accustomed to denote the Supreme Being - God. But this is only admissible if he is prepared to use the term "God" in a much broader sense than we find in either the Old or the New Testament.

That which chiefly impresses the Taoist in the operations of Nature is their absolute impersonality. The inexorable law of cause and effect seems to him equally removed from active goodness or benevolence on the one hand, and from active or malevolence on the other. This is a fact which will hardly be disputed by any intelligent observer. It is when he begins to draw inferences from it that the Taoist parts company from the average Christian.

Believing, as he does, that the visible Universe is but a manifestation of the invisible Power behind It, he feels justified in arguing from the known to the unknown, and concluding that, whatever Tao may be in itself (which is unknowable), it is certainly not what we understand by a personal God - not a God endowed with the specific attributes of humanity, not even (and here we find a remarkable anticipation of Hegel) a conscious God. In other words, Tao transcends the illusory and unreal distinctions on which all. human systems of morality depend, for in it all virtues and vices coalesce into One.

The Christian takes a different view altogether. He prefers to ignore the facts which Nature shows him, or else he reads them in an arbitrary and one-sided manner. His God, if no longer anthropomorphic, is undeniably anthropopathic. He is a personal Deity, now loving and merciful, now irascible and jealous, a Deity who is open to prayer and entreaty. With qualities such as these, it is difficult to see how he can be regarded as anything but a glorified Man. Which of these two views - the Taoist or the Christian - it is best for mankind to hold, may be a matter of dispute. There can be no doubt which is the more logical.

*From "
Taoist Teachings", translated from the "Book of Lieh-Tzu", with introduction and notes by Lionel Giles, 1912. Selection by WPE.


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