Jan 4, 2006

The Book Of The Way And Its Virtues

Left: Lao zi, sketch by unknown artist

(Toledo, OH) While cleaning recently I came across a dusty paperback copy of Tao Te Ching ("The Book of the Way and Its Virtue"), a book that dates back to the seventh century BCE. It has been traditionally attributed to a scribe in the Zhou Dynasty court named Lao zi (also Lao Tzu), but it was most likely a compilation of works from multiple authors over several centuries.

I picked up the book in my youthful years spent dabbling in Eastern mysticism. It is an important Taoist text that also influenced various Buddhist traditions. Tao Te Ching is second only to the Bible in the numbers of translations. Its themes of universal harmony, transcending material reality, and the interconnectedness of the universe can be found in many world religions.

That, however, was not the point of this post. While mysticism remains fascinating to me, I was more struck by the simple concerns and observations of the authors that echo those we face nearly three millennia after this work was composed.

This passage jumped out at me as a commentary that one might make of this era of hyper-capitalism in which we find ourselves:

If you overly esteem talented individuals,
people will become overly competitive.
If you overvalue possessions,
people will begin to steal. [Chapter 3]

The cult of celebrity and hyper-consumerism worshipped here in the West (and being exported on a global basis with greater frequency) seems to be in contrast with the spiritual admonitions implied by the author.

Those who govern were the subject of this next excerpt; libertarians, fiscal conservatives, and anarchists will all nod their heads in agreement:

The best leaders are those the people hardly know exist.
The next best is a leader who is loved and praised.
Next comes the one who is feared.
The worst one is the leader that is despised. [Chapter 17]

Educating the next generation - and helping struggling people move to better lives - seems to be a recurrent theme for the authors of the text:

What is a good person but a bad person's teacher?
What is a bad person but raw materiel for his teacher?
If you fail to honor your teacher or fail to enjoy your student,
you will become deluded no matter how smart you are. [Chapter 27]

The ephemeral nature of empire and the fear of warfare are themes explored in great length in Tao Te Ching. In this selection, the author chides the reader to avoid excessive emphasis on military action, and derides the idea of a perpetual warfare:

In the places where armies march,
thorns and briars bloom and grow.
After armies take to war,
bad years must always follow.
The skillful commander
strikes a decisive blow then stops.
When victory is won over the enemy through war
it is not a thing of great pride.
When the battle is over,
arrogance is the new enemy.
War can result when no other alternative is given,
so the one who overcomes an enemy should not dominate them.
The strong always weakened with time.

Like the Bible Tao Te Ching has numerous variations in translation. My copy at home uses a well-known 1963 translation by DC Lau, but there is an excellent JH Macdonald (1996) online text available for those unable to find or afford the book.

Keep this small book next to "Chicken Soup for the Soul" or any of those other motivational texts that help you get through the day.


Anonymous said...

I have always loved that book and I am a Christian (Methodist). Lots of useful advice in it.

Ptelea said...

I haven't read this book in years. I too dabbled in the eastern mysticism when I was a young adult. It does seem like a very good time to dust it off and read again - especially since our culture seems so out of control. I find I really need the positive affirmations to balance out how awful the current political situation makes me feel! Thank you for this post.

Stephanie said...

I haven't read this since college. Though, to me, it was a very important link to the discovery that no matter how dissimiliar two different religions may seem from the outside, most are very similiar from the inside. It's a great book and definitely one I'd recommend to whomever hasn't yet had the pleasure of it's company and insight.

liberal_dem said...

Thanks for this reflection. It inspired me to write an essay of my own.

historymike said...

Thanks, ptelea, Stephanie, and liberal dem.

It's one of those books you can pick up and put down, but which always seems to have something to say to you at that very moment.

Hooda Thunkit said...


After such strong endorsements, I'll have to read this book too!