The Daodejing (or Tao Te Ching) from around 500 BCE, attributed considerably after its production to Laozi (or Lao Tzu according to an older but still prevalent style of transliteration; it just means “old master”) is the fundamental text of Daoism (Taoism), but what they hell does it mean? Well, it depends on which of its hundreds of translators you ask. We selected the “philosophical translation” by Roger Ames and David Hall (2003). However, it’s good to have other opinions ready to hand: The ones Mark and Dylan read in school were by D.C. Lau and Robert Hendricks respectively. We also brought on a guest PEL listener who studied Chinese philosophy, Theodore Brooks, whose favorite translation is by Philip Ivanhoe.
“Dao” in ancient Chinese means “way,” as in a path to follow to get somewhere. It also has a less common meaning of speech, so the spoken way to be would refer to a doctrine about how to best live your life. Like Confucius’ Analects and Sunzi’s Art of War, this was written explicitly as a guide (at least in part) for political leaders, so we start by considering the book’s political philosophy, which is definitely against coercion and war (as the worst kind of coercion). It’s also against the creation of a lot of explicit ideals and rules that are meant to inspire people, but which actually end up leaving them discouraged and envious when they can’t live up to the ideals and don’t receive the honors tied to them. They may also be straight-jacketed by ill-advised attempts to reform their natural patterns of growth and ways of interacting with each other and the world. Instead, the text recommends “wuwei,” which can be translated as non-coercive action, or alternately as doing nothing.
We wrap up this first half of the conversation by starting to interpret the notorious first chapter of the book. Look at 175+ translations of this. Literally, the first line reads, “The Dao that Daos is not the eternal (or maybe unchanging or true) Dao.” This relies on the two meanings of Dao as both path (or often it’s just untranslated; maybe it’s referring not just of a way of doing things but some kind of undefined mystical thing a la God), and speech. So if you think you can talk about the Dao, then that Dao that you’re discussing is in some sense not the real Dao. Philosophy at its deepest level is inevitably beyond speech.
We just saw this same sentiment expressed in an arguably very mundane sense with Wittgenstein: It could be that you can’t talk about the Dao because the Dao is made up of non-verbal habits. So you can’t really talk about the essence of being a great chef or mechanic, because these crafts involve a know-how that you can only grasp through activity, though you can certainly get verbal lessons as part of your training. However, the massive appeal of this text as spiritual philosophy would be pretty deflated if everyone just read this as a manual for keeping your cool, and even in that first chapter, we get the metaphysical/mystical idea that the Dao is the “mother of all things,” so some readers take this book as a work of mysticism, where we’re using these ambiguous verses as a roundabout way of grasping deep truths about the universe.
Chapters we cover in this part of the discussion include:
- 17, which includes wuwei and also the Chinese term ziran as spontaneity or literally “self-soing,” as in being yourself without someone else coercing you whether physically or through imposing their ideas of morality on you.
- 18, which states that when Confucian values are widespread, then the state actually suffers, and also talks about how opposites always imply each other. This metaphysical/conceptual path undermines any ethical program of rooting out the bad, because the good will always give rise to its opposite.
- 19, which continues this logic: If you get rid of the Confucian efforts, you get people acting naturally (ziran), which is better overall.
- 3, which is more of the same, but adds the point that the leader should fill the people’s bellies over imposing (Confucian) philosophy on them, and introduces more “wu” terms: wuzhi, which is no-knowledge, which maybe means having knowledge without feeling the need to fit it into a system, which again resonates with Wittgenstein), and wuyu, which is no-desire, or desire that does not seek to possess and control its object.
- We actually conclude with the beginning of our discussion of chapter 1, which also includes another wu form: wuming, which means not named. Not only is the Dao not something we can speak about, but there’s something problematic about naming, such that a name that can be named is not the real (constant, eternal) name. This is a general point about how language posits a world of static things that can be named, but like Heraclitus, Laozi embraces a metaphysics that makes events central, not things. So naming something is like (to use Heraclitus’ metaphor) pointing at a part of a river and naming it, but then when you turn back later, that part has actually changed. Names are fine for practical use (remembering the place where the river is typically most easily crossed), but don’t actually follow the way the world is actually carved. Maybe it isn’t really carved at all, and the single, eternal Dao is all there ultimately is (this interpretation would make Laozi more like Parmenides).
It’s illustrative to compare Daoism to Stoicism and Epicureanism, as they both recommend keeping your desires in check and adapting to nature. When Buddhism reached China, it was highly influenced by the local Daoism to become Chan (and then in Japan, Zen) Buddhism, which we’ll cover in the future. Our previous discussion on Daoism was from way back in our episode 12 in 2009.