The Analects of Confucius

The Art of War

Reflections on The Tao Te Ching

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Imagine: a collection of poems whose date of authorship has not been determined. Imagine: a Chinese thinker about whom little is known and whose authorship of the poems has been challenged. Then read statements like these: "Accept being unimportant" and "Give up learning, and put an end to your troubles." You have entered the mysterious world of The Tao Te Ching.

Despite their cloudy and distant origins, the poems make many statements that may sound curiously familiar to contemporary Americans. The Tao describes the allure and artificiality of wealth as it reaffirms the value of a modest, balanced life: "Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it. / Retire when the work is done. / This is the way of heaven" -- a refreshing antidote to the "keeping-up-with-Joneses" syndrome. The Tao relocates humans in an ecological context where the company of humans is but part of a natural world order: "Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things." How appropriate this injunction is today, when many people worry that they must care for the physical environment that must, in turn, care for them. At the same time, the Tao questions the value of abstract thinking in favor of selfless action: "Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom. / It is more important / To realize one's true nature." And, the Tao recognizes the limitations of coercive power and encourages "leading, not dominating," certainly a desirable profile for leaders of the future, where consensus-building might take place of patriarchal authority.

For all its difficulties (of translation, of transliteration), the Tao offers a restorative vision of a balanced human life lived in the context of a natural world community. Do the poems describe a Chinese society contemporaneous with the writing of the poems? No more than they refer to societies years later and miles away. Do we need to know about Lao Tzu in order to more fairly interpret the poems? Not if we read with care and caution, recognizing necessary limits to our conclusions. [Next]

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