"Those who defeat themselves are mighty."
Tao Te Ching — Chapter 33
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
Those who understand others are clever,
Those who understand themselves are wise.
Those who defeat others are strong,
Those who defeat themselves are mighty.
Those who know when they have enough are rich.
Those who are unswerving have resolve.
Those who stay where they are will endure.
Those who die without being forgotten get longevity.
The last line of this chapter has usually been understood
as a hint to actual longevity, the possibility to escape death.
It was interpreted as saying: "Those who die without
perishing get longevity." This was also the Chinese
understanding of the line.
But in the 1970's, two Tao Te Ching manuscripts
were found in Mawangdui, dating back to around the year
200 BC. They were hundreds of years older than the
previously known versions of the text. Both of these manuscripts
have the wording I use above, making much more sense.
Lao Tzu has no faith in escaping death, but being
remembered by one's fellow men is defeating it in a
The misunderstanding of this line influenced
Chinese Taoists of old substantially. There were many of them
believing that a Taoist life could lead to extreme longevity,
even immortality, and they experimented with potions to
accomplish it. Some of these potions contained poisonous
heavy metals, so they reached eternal life quicker than expected.
Death is the monster that we have to fight in our
minds, from childhood to old age. Coming to terms with it is
probably the greatest of quests. Most religions have this
dilemma at their core, presenting all kinds of solace.
Many myths of antiquity describe death and the
afterlife with horror. This is true for the oldest book we
know, Gilgamesh, and for the beliefs of the ancient
Egyptians. Death was seen as a passage into a dreadful world that
anyone would want to avoid at all cost.
So, the search for longevity was pursued in many
cultures and in so many ways. We still search, with no
less frenzy. We would be wiser to spend our energy on
making the time we have meaningful.
If we learn to understand ourselves and improve by
overcoming our personal limitations, then we have come a
long way towards Lao Tzu's version of longevity. We will
also benefit from halting our greed, holding on to our
resolve, and doing the best of where we are, instead of
Lao Tzu keeps repeating that happiness is not to
be found anywhere but here and now. Chasing it elsewhere
is just fleeing the possibility of finding it.
That doesn't necessarily mean we should be
content with whatever situation we are in. Change is
sometimes needed, but we should begin by asking ourselves if
that's really so, and to what the change we might plan will
Lao Tzu would probably be the first to point out that
we know what we have, but not what we might get. That's
reason to be cautious.
Returning to the last line of the chapter, its message
has been stated also by others, in other times and other
places. Havamal, the Old Norse collection of proverbs, states it
more bluntly: "Animals die, friends die, so will you. I know
one thing that never dies – the judgment on a dead man."
© Stefan Stenudd.
Tao Te Ching Explained
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