"Abandon knowledge and your worries are over."
Tao Te Ching — Chapter 19
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
Abandon wisdom, discard knowledge,
And people will benefit a hundredfold.
Abandon benevolence, discard duty,
And people will return to the family ties.
Abandon cleverness, discard profit,
And thieves and robbers will disappear.
These three, though, are superficial, and not enough.
Let this be what to rely on:
Behave simply and hold on to purity.
Lessen selfishness and restrain desires.
Abandon knowledge and your worries are over.
Gain by Abandoning
This chapter clearly continues the thoughts of the
previous one. Lao Tzu made no division of his text into chapters.
That came much later. It may very well be so that Lao Tzu
intended these two chapters to be read as one. Either that
or the previous chapter simply inspired the next.
The topic of this 19th chapter is how to avoid the
misfortune pointed out in chapter 18. When Tao, the Way, is
abandoned, all kinds of miseries arrive. It's better to
abandon everything but Tao. Then the only thing remaining will
be clear to everybody.
Letting go of things that society generally appreciates
is the way of the monk, the elevated and spiritual human
being. That's the message in just about any philosophy
and religion. It's at the core of Zen, which comes very close
to what the Tao Te Ching preaches.
Lao Tzu gives solid reasons for why we should
abandon all these things.
Too Much to Know
Wisdom and knowledge confuse people. The more they
are exposed to it, the less they are able to understand about
life, and the likelier they are to lose their direction. The
wisdom that is extracted from knowledge quickly becomes
cryptic, and knowledge in any quantity leaves most people
uncertain, fearful of what they may need to grasp.
Today, we certainly live in a society that praises
knowledge, maybe more than ever before in history. That's
because we have so much more of it, nowadays. The sum
of human knowledge is said to double every five years.
That surely depends on how it's calculated, but there is no
doubt that we have gathered far more knowledge than anyone
can learn in a lifetime.
It means that no matter how hard we try, there will
always be much more we don't know than what we know.
An endless race, where we are left farther and farther behind.
Also the wisest of our time are entangled in this
growing web of knowledge, making them doubt their own
conclusions and therefore reluctant to reach them at all.
We can't see the forest for all the trees. The more we know,
the less we are sure to understand.
Knowledge has its own procreation. The more we
learn, the more there is yet to learn. There is no wisdom that
can penetrate this, so knowledge exceeding our brain
capacity lessens our ability to treat it wisely.
There are countless examples in our society of
when knowledge makes us jump to conclusions of little sense.
We hang on to them because we believe that facts make
reason obsolete. But knowledge needs to be filtered and tried
by reason, not to be misunderstood.
We gather such quantities of facts that we have no
time to consider what to make of them. Instead, we hurry to
conclusions, which are soon replaced by new conclusions,
and so on. The more we know, the less we can trust that
this knowledge will not be contradicted by future knowledge.
Nothing is certain for long in this flood of facts. We
had better hold on to common sense.
The Malice of Benevolence
Lao Tzu also argues that we should abandon
benevolence. This seems odd from a writer who is obviously
compassionate. But what he sees is that benevolence and duty
replace the natural care shown within families and other
relations between people.
There's no need for a written or unwritten law
about care, since that comes to us instinctually. Parents
protect their children and children are forever fond of their
parents. We don't need morals or rules for this. If duty is
imposed, what would have come naturally becomes a burden
that people try to avoid. The same, although to a lesser
extent, can be said about benevolence if it's expected of
people, because then it becomes a duty.
There is also another unwanted side of benevolence.
It breeds dependence, and in some cases it carries an
ingredient of contempt. The benevolent make themselves
superior, as if acting from above. Therefore, it's better to stick to
what can be called good will among men.
The benevolent interfere, sometimes more than what
is called for. With mutual respect we find how to do the
most good by doing less.
There is nothing said about love in the Tao Te
. This sentiment, as we in the Western tradition know it, is kind
of strange to the old Eastern mind. We fall in love and
form loving ties to one another, but to Lao Tzu and many
other Chinese thinkers, this bond is better described by
When Lao Tzu tells us to trust our family ties instead
of benevolence or duty, he hints on the quality that we
prefer to call love. He would probably find more sense in
calling it compassion. Love tends to exclude more than it
includes. And there is always a danger that it leads to hatred
towards the ones not embraced by it. We should not reserve
our good deeds only for those we love.
As pointed out at the end of this chapter, we
should avoid selfishness and control our desires. Love tends to
do the opposite. So, although Lao Tzu is most definitely
compassionate, he is no advocate of love as a ruler of our action.
The last line of the chapter, "Abandon knowledge
and your worries are over," is in many versions of the
Tao Te Ching placed as the first line of chapter 20. Although this
is supported somewhat by several old manuscripts, there
are still far more arguments for putting the line here, where
its content and form make so much more sense than it
would in the next chapter, which deals with other things entirely.
It made little difference to Lao Tzu, since he had no
division into chapters at all. The proper way of reading the
Tao Te Ching is from beginning to end, without pause.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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