Tao Te Ching
THE TAOISM OF LAO TZU
Tao Te Ching
Ancient Chinese thought is often done in polarities, like yin and yang. They are not alone in that. In many traditions around the world, existence is seen as the dynamics between two opposites. They may be light and dark, high and low, hot and cold, life and death, good and bad, and so on. Lao Tzu is also fond of it, although he sees a single unity, Tao, at the very root of it all.
In this chapter he mentions examples of opposite directions or actions, instead of opposite fixed states. Stretching is one direction, shrinking is its opposite. What he claims about their relation implies mutual dependence, comparable to what happens in our breathing. We must inhale before we can exhale, and exhale before we can inhale. There is no ideal middle point, between exhalation and inhalation. If we remain there we suffocate.
The opposites are interacting continuously. It's never just one or the other, not even a resting place between them. Things shrink or expand, they are weakened or strengthened, but never completely still. People are cherished or abolished, enriched or deprived, but never stay for long in one solid state of affairs. The whole universe is all about movement and change.
Not even in death is stillness achieved. What dies will start to decay and decompose, later to reappear as material in a new creature. We may die, but we don't stop moving. That's the kind of immortality we know for certain. Nothing ever halts.
Considering this, we can look at the processes Lao Tzu mentions, and other similar examples, with different eyes. If we are to accept how Tao makes the world progress, we should not seek for balance between opposites. We should adapt to the revolving changes, since they are unavoidable. Whatever stops changing ceases to exist, if that's at all possible.
When we are cherished we should be aware that the opposite is near at hand. The more you are praised above others, the higher the risk that they get tired of it and turn their backs to you.
People even allow themselves to do that for puny reasons, because they have praised the person previously, as if that is an excuse. The less you are elevated, the less your fall will be.
There will be moments when we are elevated, be it minutely, and moments when we fall from that height. We should avoid getting carried away by the former or getting desperate when the latter occurs. We can't expect to escape it completely in life.
The same goes for being enriched and deprived. The more we get, the more we risk losing. Certainly, nobody goes through life without ever getting or losing something, so again we just have to treat these occurrences with the appropriate calm.
If we don't strive for the highest seats or the greatest riches, but relax and remind ourselves that few things last, then the turns of fate have less effect on us. We soften, so we don't break, and we weaken, so we don't fight too hard against events that unfold.
It might seem like surrendering, and somehow it is, but most things we can give up without actually losing much. One should choose one's battles carefully.
It seems out of place in this chapter, and it might very well be. As mentioned before, the 81 chapters of the Tao Te Ching are a later division. The original text had no such thing. There were period marks here and there, through the text, but no chapters. When this division was made, inevitably some lines were grouped in ways that Lao Tzu didn't intend.
This may be one such example. The two bottom lines, about fish and weaponry, make a perfectly reasonable whole.
Any experienced soldier would agree that it's good strategy not to flaunt one's weapons and all one's military power. What is unknown raises more fear than even the largest army does. Unseen weapons are more threatening to the enemy than the sharpest and shiniest swords.
Also, who is sure of having military superiority? The enemy, too, might hide some of his forces, maybe even most of them.
When you can count your enemies, you dare to confront them. You are much more reluctant to do so when their numbers are unknown.
In European history it was common to regard the number of the population as a state secret, especially in countries where they assumed that neighboring countries were more populated – or when they had learned that their own numbers were overestimated by the neighbors.
All through history, the militaries have been quite secretive, for this or other reasons. The less the enemy knows, the better.
There is a personal side to this strategy. The cherished and enriched should avoid displaying this, or they might invite a forced change to the opposite. If they are hard and strong, they should for the same reason try to present themselves as soft and weak. Nobody is mighty enough to afford provoking those who surround him.