"I have the mind of a fool, understanding nothing."
Tao Te Ching — Chapter 20
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
What's the difference between yes and no?
What's the difference between beautiful and ugly?
Must one dread what others dread?
Oh barbarity! Will it never end?
Other people are joyous, like on the feast of the ox,
Like on the way up to the terrace in the spring.
I alone am inert, giving no sign,
Like a newborn baby who has not learned to smile.
I am wearied, as if I lacked a home to go to.
Other people have more than they need,
I alone seem wanting.
I have the mind of a fool,
The common people see clearly,
I alone am held in the dark.
The common people are sharp,
Only I am clumsy,
Like drifting on the waves of the sea,
Other people are occupied,
I alone am unwilling, like the outcast.
I alone am different from the others,
Because I am nourished by the great mother.
I Am Alone
In this the 20th chapter, Lao Tzu's tone suddenly changes.
It gets personal, which is very rare in the Tao Te
Ching. There is even something close to anguish showing. He
watches people enjoy themselves in their ignorance, while he is
unattached. Therefore, his soul finds no immediate
The personal tone has made researchers question
the authenticity of this and similar parts of the book.
In the oldest known manuscript (from Guodian, c.
300 BC), all the lines of this personal nature are missing –
from "Oh barbarity!" and down.
In the two next to oldest versions (from
Mawangdui, around 200 BC), though, the lines are present. This
suggests that they have been added in this period. If so, it was
probably done by a commentator reflecting on the text
while copying it.
But one single manuscript of old is not conclusive.
It's just as likely that the copier of the Guodian
manuscript skipped these lines for some reason. That manuscript is
far from complete.
In any case, the text as a whole is definitely written
with both mind and heart, so personal reflections are not out
of context. Human folly is a recurring theme, and this
chapter is more about that than about the author's frustration –
although the latter can come as no surprise.
So, whether it's written by Lao Tzu or somebody
sympathizing with him, doesn't make that much of a
difference. I have no problem believing that Lao Tzu, in the process
of writing his text of 5000 words, had occasional outbursts
of grief, frustration – even desperation. The world he
studied was his own habitat, so how could he not react to his
findings about it?
There are other uncertainties about this chapter. In
many versions of the Tao Te Ching
, it starts with what is here
the last line of chapter 19: "Abandon knowledge and your
worries are over." Most researchers into the text would
agree with my choice, for several obvious reasons.
It must be remembered that the text was originally
written without any division into chapters. That was
introduced several centuries later. Lao Tzu's text should really be
read as a flowing continuum from a mind eager to get it all
out. This is shown by how the themes evolve and get
treated, one after the other. It's also hinted by the rhythm of
repetitions, and the manner in which some themes return later
on in the text.
Tao Te Ching gives a strong impression of being
written by one person, who allowed ideas that appeared during
the writing of one line to lead to the next. The same seems to
be the case with the themes treated. The structure of the
whole text is more like a river floating through a changing
landscape, than a building raised according to plan. There
is spontaneity, and order is found more in each part than
in the whole.
With this in mind, the last line of chapter 19 makes
more sense there, than as a start of chapter 20.
Actually, the book should probably be divided into
significantly more than 81 chapters, judging from its
content. The number of chapters was decided for symbolic
reasons, creating the symmetry of 9 X 9.
This leads to several oddities in the chapters. Some
of them start off with one subject, then suddenly switch to
another, changing form and rhyme patterns accordingly.
That's evident in this chapter, where the first four
lines differ from the following ones. True, they form what can
be seen as an introduction to what follows, but they could
very well also be seen as a chapter in its own right. This is
even more obvious in several other cases.
Finally, regarding this chapter, the second line does
in most versions of the text read: "What's the difference
between good and bad?" But the oldest known
manuscripts, the two discovered in Mawangdui in the 1970's and the
one found in Guodian in the 1990's, all say "beautiful and
The difference is not that great. Good and bad
should not be understood in a strictly moral way, but similarly
to pleasing and displeasing, whereas beautiful and ugly
must be understood as something other than mere facial value.
I have chosen the latter, because the oldest
manuscripts support it, and because it connects to the thoughts
about opposites presented in the second chapter.
The chapter starts with the questioning of polarities that
can be recognized from earlier chapters. Are opposites
really that different? Then Lao Tzu asks if we must dread
what others dread. He seems to imply that judgments on what
is preferable or not in society are based on fear. If so, this is
in accordance with a lot of modern thinking.
Upon examination, mankind is revealed to make
many of its decisions – as individuals as well as groups – based
on fear. In particular, many of our very worst decisions
have that ingredient.
Personal fear is treated in chapter 13, but the dread
Lao Tzu mentions here is more of a social one. People
foster prejudice about what is acceptable and what is not.
Fear lurks inside this prejudice.
Surely, the ancient time when Lao Tzu walked the
earth was no different from ours in how people hurried to live
as they believed was expected of them, and cursed
anything else without a moment of consideration.
Man is a social beast, and that urge in us often leads
to beastly behavior. This is especially true as soon as fear
is somehow involved – fear of the unknown, fear of
anything different, fear of not conforming. We foster a lot of fears.
One of the things that people in just about any society
fear the most is being different, which is exactly what Lao
Tzu concludes that he is. Others live their lives, seemingly
without a care in the world, but Lao Tzu is unable to
participate. He is an outsider, and the reason for this is his insight
into the true nature of existence.
What he has discovered sets him so much apart from
all the others that he is unable to play along with them. He
is utterly alone, but not without pride. In the last line he
concludes that what sets him apart is the fact that he lives
by Tao, the Way.
He may lack a human family to embrace, but his
mother is the very law and creator of the universe.
So, this outcast has cast himself out. Lao Tzu's
isolation is a result of the path he has chosen. He could not do
differently, without denying what he had come to realize
about life. Although his isolation is a high price to pay, denying
his findings would be even more costly to him.
That is, as they say, a hard act to follow. But it's
not unique. People who stand by their ideals and
convictions experience it, and through history there are countless
souls who have paid for it with their lives.
Not all of them nourished beliefs with which we
would agree. Some of them even fought for things that we have
for good reasons come to condemn. But the mechanism of
exclusion from society is much the same, whether
people leave their fellow men to pursue the path of truth or that
of deception. In any case, they are themselves the last to know.
This is the fate of fanatics, but to some extent it's true
for each and every one of us. In the core of our hearts, we
are all alone.
Our fear of standing out stems mostly from the
suspicion that we actually are different from everybody
else, which is something we struggle frantically to hide.
It's a strange thing. If we could stop and observe
the desperate loneliness in the depth of everybody else's
eyes, maybe we could finally grow out of this the most
superfluous of fears. That single discovery would bless
mankind more than any other I can think of.
Probably, we would at that moment discover that we
are all doing the same as Lao Tzu – nourishing from the
great mother, and following her course.
© Stefan Stenudd.
Tao Te Ching Explained
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