A Philosophy For All: An Analysis Of The Tao Essay, Research Paper
A Philosophy For All: An Analysis of the Tao
There is no single definition of Taoism in the Tao de Ching. The reader
realizes that she will not find one in the text after seeing the first sentence.
By saying that whatever can be described of the Tao is not the true Tao, its
author, Lao-tzu, establishes his first premise: the Tao is a force beyond human
explanation. However this assumption does not mean that he can’t attempt to
describe it. Using the literary tools of contradiction, parallel structure, and
metaphor, Lao-tzu discusses the Tao in language regular people can understand.
In the beginning the Tao gave birth to both good and evil (Ch 5) and along with
that came all of the other pairs. In Chapter 36 Lao-tzu discusses action and
“If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.
If you want to get rid of something,
you must first allow it to flourish.
If you want to take something,
you must first allow it to be given.”
This excerpt ties into the statement in Chapter 30 that “for every
force there is a counter force” which is applicable to political situations.
For example, if a ruler noticed an uprising of disgruntled subjects, it would be
wise of her to let them organize, or expand, and state their grievances as a
whole before she individually addressed their complaints.
Lao-tzu also uses contradiction in Ch 22,
“If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become strait,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die…”
In other words, if a person wants to succeed she must first understand the
opposition. This strategy is used often in war. In order to predict what the
enemy will do next, one can think like the enemy, be the enemy. Another way to
understand this contradiction is by applying it to modern day life. In many
cases those who are most against drinking are former alcoholics. They have, in
a sense, gone straight from being crooked, been reborn from having died.
In Ch 45 Lao-tzu uses contradiction to discuss human nature,
“True perfection seems imperfect,
yet it is perfectly itself.
True fullness seems empty,
yet it is fully present.”
People are always in seek of more. Everything must be bigger, better, newer.
We need to look closer at life because even when shown fantastic splendor,
humans have a tendency to ask “is that all?”. When Lao-tzu says that “true
fullness seems empty” he is referring to the fact that people hardly ever notice
what they have until it is gone. When something is gone, that is when people
realize how “full” their lives were before.
In Ch 41 Lao-tzu uses parallel structure to describe the Tao.
“When a superior man hears of the Tao,
he immediately begins to embody it.
When an average man hears of the Tao,
he half believes it, half doubts it.
When a foolish man hears of the Tao,
he laughs out loud.
If he didn’t laugh,
it wouldn’t be the Tao.”
Parallel structure is a method of repetition after which a conclusion is stated.
In this case Lao-tzu describes how a superior, average, and foolish man take to
the Tao, and then, how the Tao is defined. In the same way that the superior
man must embody the Tao, the foolish man must laugh at it. This is one example
of the duality of the Tao- it needs both good and bad aspects to exist.
Another instance in which Lao-tzu uses parallel structure is to explain
non-being in Chapter 11,
“We join spokes together in a wheel
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.”
Although in our daily lives we focus on what is, what is not is of more
importance. This is another comment on human nature. People tend to overlook
what they have, and focus on what they don’t have. Like the hole that makes the
wheel move, this struggle for what is lacking, i.e. non-being, is what causes
people to strive for improvement.
Adjectives and Metaphors
One of the most effective ways Lao-tzu explains the Tao is through
metaphor. As contrasted to bare adjectives, metaphors explain abstract concepts
by relating them to every day objects. For example, “It is serene. Empty.
Solitary. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present” in Ch 25 doesn’t really
help explain the Tao. However in Ch 4 he says, “The Tao is like a well: used
but never used up.” And in Ch 5, “The Tao is like a bellows: it is empty yet
infinitely capable.” These metaphors say essentially the same thing as the
description in Ch 25 but they are much easier to comprehend. If the Tao is like
a well it is restorative and replenishing. One must work at the Tao to get its
rewards just as a person must lift the bucket to the top of the well in order to
drink the water. If the Tao is like a bellows, then when it is not used it is
vacant, dead. But when in action, the bellows produces powerful currents of air
as the Tao produces powerful guidance.
Lao-tzu has taken these abstract concepts such as nothingness and
infinity and analyzed them in terms of things people understand (i.e. well,
bellows…). In Ch 32 he goes on to explain, “The Tao can’t be perceived.
Smaller than an electron, it contains uncountable galaxies….All things end in
the Tao as rivers flow into the sea.” Lao-tzu makes the Tao seem so much
greater than the reader by explaining that it contains galaxies, but then goes
on to connect the reader with it saying that everyone is drawn to the Tao like
rivers to the sea.
The common man
It is important to Lao-tzu to make the people understand the Tao because
the Tao is for all. This is why he attempts to state its principles in a fairly
straightforward manner. He appreciated the common man and after spending so
much time on explaining the Tao, he uses it to tell the people how to live.
Often times, to do this, Lao-tzu offers examples of how the ancient
Masters conducted themselves. In Ch 15,
“They were careful
as someone crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.”
With these similes he explains that as a Taoist the reader should be cautious
and kind, flexible and open, observant and straightforward.
He does not accept honor or glory as values. Unlike many other
philosophies/religions where the ideal person should be an example to others,
Taoism focuses on the individual herself. Also unlike many other philosophies
which view the commoner as a dullard, Taoism looks upon a moderate person
“The mark of a moderate man
is freedom from his own ideas.
Tolerant like the sky,
all-pervading like sunlight,
firm like a mountain,
supple like a tree in the wind…” (Ch. 59)
In Ch 39, “He doesn’t glitter like a jewel but lets himself be shaped by the Tao,
as rugged and common as a stone.”
This concept of the ideal moderate is mentioned a number of times. In
Ch 9 Lao-tzu admonishes extremism, “Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife, and it will blunt.” A Taoist is not someone who is
driven by hopes for the respect and admiration of her people, but rather wants
to be humble and normal.