"What is and what is not
create each other."
Tao Te Ching — Chapter 2
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
When everyone in the world sees beauty,
Then ugly exists.
When everyone sees good,
Then bad exists.
What is and what is not create each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Tall and short shape each other.
High and low rest on each other.
Voice and tone blend with each other.
First and last follow each other.
So, the sage acts by doing nothing,
Teaches without speaking,
Attends all things without making claim on them,
Works for them without making them dependent,
Demands no honor for his deed.
Because he demands no honor,
He will never be dishonored.
Don't Split the Unity
In the second chapter, Lao Tzu continues by presenting
a consequence of what he stated in the first chapter.
Because the opposites of existence are united in a necessary
whole, it's detrimental to separate them – either in deed or in value.
The unity of opposites makes up the world. We
should not call one good and the other bad. There is no point in
telling them apart at all, since they cannot exist divided. Nor
do they make any sense when separated from one another.
Certainly, we appreciate some things more than
others, but we must remember that we are able to do so only
because we can compare them. The ugly is the mirror of
the beautiful. So, who can say that beauty is only within the
latter? That's why we are unable to find complete
consensus about which is which. What one of us regards as
beautiful, another will watch with indifference.
It's even so that each of us changes the way we
see things, from moment to moment and from one
perspective to the other.
Beauty is no object in itself, but merely the
impression of one. It's in the eye of the beholder, and not a fixed
quality of that which is beheld. So, we should treat our
preferences with the appropriate modesty. And we should
learn to appreciate the beauty in the ugly, as well as the ugly
in the beautiful. None exists without the other, but within
Good and Bad
We hasten to call some things good and others bad, but
fail to recognize that such opposites are also deeply
dependent on one another. Judging between them has little
meaning. The prickled stem leads up to the flower of the rose. A
forest is rejuvenated by fire, as is the soil by the merciless
turn of the seasons. Night brings repose from day, and
death gives room for new life. One is in need of the other.
Even when it comes to human deeds, judging them
as good or bad is a risky business for the most
experienced judge, as well as for a jury of twelve. There is rarely just
one person responsible for a series of events, and within
that person there is sure to be a number of contradictions.
So, trying to decide on the character of a person in terms
of good and bad is even less likely to succeed.
We are more complex than any book can cover. No
person is simply good or bad. Both extremes are inside of
us, and in a multitude of nuances. Any personality is a
mystery beyond explanation. We can only observe the actions
by which that personality expresses itself.
What we do is the result of a series of events and
reasons. Few of them are at our control. Most of our actions
are not ones of choice, but of necessity. We stumble into
them, or we are pushed. Certainly, we are still responsible for
our deeds, but there is no point in judging them as good or
bad. That only interferes with our ability to counteract
them when needed, or support them when they are wanted.
Not to mention the problem of what is good for one
but bad for another. That's mostly the case. Therefore,
modern philosophers prefer to discuss ethics in quantities: what
is good for most people, or what is more good for one than
it is bad for another, and so on. There is rarely an
objective truth to be found, or a value that everyone can share.
Mostly, good and bad are in the hands of those
who have power. They decide what is good for all or bad for
all. That's usually what happens to be good or bad for
them. Lao Tzu has more to say about that attitude, later in the
Tao Te Ching.
Deeds of people may force us to react, but we are
not helped much by defining those deeds morally, or even
deciding on moral standards for all.
We make rules to bring a working order to society
and to push society in the direction we want it to develop.
We follow these rules when we can, and break them when
we cannot constrain ourselves. The rules stipulate what
the consequences of breaking them should be. That's all fair
and square. There is no need to add a moral judgment to the
legal one. For that, we simply do not have enough
If we allow morals to influence our judgments, we
are unable to be objective. Then there is a risk that the
punishment of a deed is far worse than the deed itself.
So, the sage refrains from judging. He is very hesitant
to interfere, or to insist that his opinion should be
respected. He is reluctant to lead, and refuses to be followed. He is
an example without pointing it out.
Since he never puts himself above others, they find
no reason to rebuke him.
Lao Tzu frequently mentions sheng-jen
, which is
translated `the sage' in almost every English version of the
Tao Te Ching
. I spent quite some time pondering alternative
translations, but found none better. It implies wisdom of a
profound kind. Also, there's an archaic ring to it that fits
well with the traditional Chinese idea about ancient times
being superior, to which Lao Tzu evidently subscribed.
But the sage is not a person elevated above the rest
of mankind. To Lao Tzu, anyone can be sage by simply
following Tao. Those who do so excel mostly at being humble,
not at all separating themselves from their fellow men. The
sage is someone like you and me, but he or she has achieved
true wisdom. Sheng-jen is a person with a refined spirit, who
is modest about his place in the world and shows
compassion towards others, whatever the level of their wisdom.
The word sheng is written with a sign that contains
three parts: an ear, a mouth, and the sign for a king or
sovereign. Someone who listens and speaks beyond the perspective
of common men. A refined mind. It's closer to what we
call reason than to knowledge. We are reminded of
King Salomon of the Bible, who listened carefully to his
subjects and then spoke wisely to them. He was a sensible ruler,
who knew not to speak before listening. The king
commanded according to what he found out from using his ears.
Lao Tzu has little respect for the ones who call
themselves learned and clever. Instead, he stresses the
superiority of simple reason, what we call common sense. To
Lao Tzu, the sage is someone who excels at common sense.
We will learn more about what Lao Tzu regarded as
true wisdom in the following. He used the expression
sheng-jen more than thirty times in the Tao Te
The word jen simply means a human being, a
person. It's often used like the word `man' is in English. It may
refer to a male person, but just as well to human beings of
any gender. Lao Tzu certainly had no problem with the
possibility of women being truly wise. On the contrary, as will
be seen frequently in the following chapters, he tended to
regard the female qualities as far superior to the male ones.
He might have expected more women than men to
be sage. Actually, what's to say that Lao Tzu wasn't a woman?
The Chinese text rarely specifies gender, either
regarding the sage or other characters referred to in the
Tao Te Ching. In the English language this would get awkward,
so I've had to give it up on several occasions. In such cases
I have chosen the male gender, just because the tradition
of its use in such a context makes it slightly more neutral
than the use of the opposite gender would.
So, please regard any `he' in the text as `he or she.'
That's true for my comments as well as for Lao Tzu's chapters.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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