Tao-te ching Comments

The Mutual Change

    The things which from of old have got the One (the Tao) are -- Heaven which by it is bright and pure;
    Earth rendered thereby firm and sure;
    Spirits with powers by it supplied;
    Valleys kept full throughout their void
    All creatures which through it do live
    Princes and kings who from it get
    The model which to all they give.

    All these are the results of the One (Tao).

    If heaven were not thus pure, it soon would rend;
    If earth were not thus sure, 'twould break and bend;
    Without these powers, the spirits soon would fail;
    If not so filled, the drought would parch each vale;
    Without that life, creatures would pass away;
    Princes and kings, without that moral sway,
    However grand and high, would all decay.

    Thus it is that dignity finds its (firm) root in its (previous) meanness, and what is lofty finds its stability in the lowness (from which it rises). Hence princes and kings call themselves 'Orphans,' 'Men of small virtue,' and as 'Carriages without a nave.' Is not this an acknowledgment that in their considering themselves mean they see the foundation of their dignity? So it is that in the enumeration of the different parts of a carriage we do not come on what makes it answer the ends of a carriage. They do not wish to show themselves elegant-looking as jade, but (prefer) to be coarse-looking as an (ordinary) stone.
    (Ch. 39, Legge version.)


Everything receives its essence from Tao. We know this idea well as we already explained it in our course on Lao-tzu and Tao-te ching. The Tao of things is the way the things are without effort, naturalness. Even princes emulate the Tao as model of virtue. That is, they practice wu-wei (nondoing) and the rejection of desires.

The last paragraph shows us how things rise from their contrary - an idea hold dear by the Taoists. We must stress that this idea of mutual change is not known by Westerners. Rather they believe in good and bad dichotomy and try hard to choose the good and avoid the bad which is practically impossible.

In the realm of morals the lowness is the basis of lofty - this idea may also be found in the Christianity where is said that the last will be the first...

But what is the meaning of the phrase: "So it is that in the enumeration of the different parts of a carriage we do not come on what makes it answer the ends of a carriage?" (Please note that this phrase is missing in other versions of this chapter.) I think it is about the utility of something which is not given by the enumeration of its qualities. No matter how odd it would seem, true elegance has no brilliance and true dignity does not seem dignified!

Commentary by Jhian



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