Continuing from part one with guest Theodore Brooks on the central Daoist text attributed to Laozi. We start with more discussion of practical vs. metaphysical interpretations of the first chapter. In either case, Laozi recommends not being too self-conscious; you want to be fully present in your activities, open to the subtle cues of your environment, without too much self-reflection, nit-picking, agendas, or other types of over-thinking distracting you. Words and analysis are useful in their place, of course, but life is best lived partially examined. See, one can interpret this text to support many agendas!
One more Chinese term that comes up here and in many places in the text is “wanwu,” which is not a wu-form indicating not-something, but just means everything, or it’s often translated as “the ten thousand things,” or our philosopher translator Ames calls it “everything that is happening” just to hammer home the point that he thinks that the text has a metaphysical picture of a world made of events, not things.
Other chapters covered include:
- 2, which ambiguously tells us about the relation of things to their opposites: Is it that fixing something (such as virtue) in language (much less codifying it via a Confucian social ethic) falsifies it? Or does the presence of a quality imply that its opposite exists, which could be a psychological claim about something making us inevitably think of its opposite, or perhaps it’s a metaphysical claim that by using language to pick out something, we thereby also create its opposite as its necessary partner?
- 4, which makes various mystical sounding claims about the Dao including its being ever-replenishing, vast, older than (or otherwise prior to) even the ancestral gods. It’s maybe like the chaos that preceded creation according to some religious traditions.
- 11, which is about “wu,” which is literally just “not” but which as a philosophical term means emptiness, absence, space. Laozi compares this to an empty pot, the space between the spokes of a wheel, the emptiness of doors and rooms: In all these cases, what is literally nothing is what enables us to accomplish something. So maybe wu is actually better translated as “potency” or “potentiality,” in that it is the space in which novel things can appear if we don’t preclude their appearance by, for instance, fixed (Confucian) ideas about the “proper” way to think, see, and act.
- 6, which talks about “the female” (as in the womb) and “the valley,” which are, again, forms of emptiness that enable growth and nurturing. These metaphors come up repeatedly in the text. Laozi also refers to the Dao as an “abyss,” which might not mean nothingness so much as no-thing-ness, i.e. language hasn’t come along to carve individual things out of it yet. Seth compares the Dao to Eros for the Greeks, which is a primal force (a felt lack that an organism tries to fill) that is the necessary spark for making everything work together productively.
- 12, which talks about how “the five colors blind our eyes” and “the five notes deafen our ears.” This adds to the “don’t desire too much” ethic to emphasize inner depth over gaudy distractions. This may just be restating the point about being in the flow of existence, resisting the urge to stop and make judgments, especially ones that involve desire and hence control.
- 38, which introduces the notion of “de,” i.e. virtue (contrasting with “ren” for the Confucian, which is a particular kind of social virtue). It’s the ones who don’t strive for virtue that are actually the most virtuous, according to Louzi.
- 5, which added the term “straw dogs” to our lexicon, and is very hard to interpret, because it’s saying that both the universe (“heaven and earth”) and Daoist sages treat people like these straw dogs, which sounds pretty bad. Is it saying that life isn’t fair, or that it isn’t “fair,” meaning it doesn’t follow what the Confucians erroneously call ethical behavior (i.e. ren, which is the character used here)? Is “straw dog” (traditionally understood to be a construct sacrificed on a fire during or after a ritual) equivalent to “trash,” or is the point to emphasize that everything has its time and purpose? This chapter also cautions against speaking (or learning?) too much.
In episode 312, we treat more of these chapters.