Dao De Jing

First I will explain my understanding of the passage, then I will present my objections. Next I will cite A&H’s understanding of the passage, last I will present my objections to their understanding.


2. This passage asserts that the fact of the matter is things are balanced, that each thing requires its opposite. Then it says that the sages perform service, develop things, act on behalf of things, see things through to fruition but remain detached from their connection to those things, and because of this things don’t leave the sage’s control.

Some proposed “opposites” are incorrect. For example, beauty does not need ugliness but only the absence of beauty, which is its true opposite. Beauty and Ugliness are both positives. The blind man who cannot see physical beauty is not in a constant state of seeing ugliness. Many others aren’t actually a co-dependent dualism but a scale of one thing with relative distinctions within the scale, for example: high and low, difficult and ease, long and short. None of these have definite extremes, and properly speaking they should be put as “Y is higher than X, which is lower than Y.” The true opposite of high-low is having no distance from the ground. The true opposite of difficult-easy is the absence of attempt. The true opposite of long-short is having no length.

A&H’s suggest the moral lesson is to not prefer one opposite to another but to encourage the flourishing as a whole, which leads to promoting the full participation of something and its absence, which, of course, is self-contradictory. In my reading of the passage though it does seem to encourage a certain level of personal detachment from one’s works, however, to what end this is supposed to lead us is not stated. And how can one possibly act while favoring both?!

3. This passage asserts that expunging societal values of particular things puts the common people at peace. So the ruling sages will rid the people of desires and give them what they need, teaching them to be objectless in their desires. Doing things noncoercively is the only proper governing.

The 2nd passage seemed to suggest supporting balance, and the 3rd passage seems to suggest the complete absence of support and aspiration. Freeing everyone from desiring objects leads to autonomous lifeless beings who have no reason to act and fail to be a community. Governing noncoercively is naïve.

A&H suggest the intention is for rulers to be broadly inclusive of different things and to allow the community to sustain its own nature equilibrium, acknowledging only that coercion of any form is impoverishing, because favoring one thing over another creates conflict. The rulers only provide for the basic needs and do not foist an agenda on the community.

Their interpretation is a maxim to the rulers to be all inclusive of various perspectives and ways of life, which will also be encouraged in the common people. I don’t find a single line to support this. Perhaps they are interpreting this in light of other passages.

4. Way making is used, yet it is indefinite, vast, and seemingly eternal, and not to be viewed as other things are. It blends things together.

A&H read much more in this than I do. Again, I wonder if it is not interpreted in the light of other passages.

5. Nature and the sages treat all things with temporary reverence and then without reverence when it is time for the latter to give way. Old things give way to new things in a continuous stream. Safeguard what is in you, rather than learn about the insignificant.

A&H assert that this passage is to be read in conjunction with Chapters 18 & 19 as a reaction to Confucianism. They give three ways “straw dogs” can be read, and then say that rather than focus on learning, we should focus on our immediate spontaneous inner feeling, as we have a microcosm of energy in us of the indeterminate macrocosmic creativity.

6. The productivity of the source of the world is wispy, delicate, endless appearance.

A&H write that the underdetermined nature of experience makes it inexhaustibly productive, and a vagina is used as an analogy for this fertility.

7. The world is eternal because it does not live for itself, and this is the model for the sages, who can satisfy their own needs because they are unselfish and put themselves out of mind.

8. The highest efficacy is like water in that it benefits everything yet vies to dwell in places that the crowd despises. For every aspect of life there is a question of what is the appropriate extent, but way making is free of blame only because it is free of contentiousness.

9. Do not seek more than what is required, excesses will be lost.

10. The profoundest efficacy is to help and cultivate without lording over the recipient.

11. Something might find the use for something but it is nothing inside it that might make it useful, e.g. a pot, house, bag.

Whereas we normally might focus on things, this reverses everything and is therefore wrong on the opposite side. This presupposes the thing. Both the thing and the space both make it useful, and many things don't need space to be useful. It was accurate to point out both are necessary in some cases, but wrong to assume each does something different. The space offers nothing more than the thing, and the thing (the person) alone gives the value. ti and yong

12. Exess destroys the functioning of a thing. That's why the sage satisfies the base needs of the people

29. By ruling the world one ruins it. The sages eschew the excessive and extravagant because it is the case that some move ahead while others fall behind, some are strong while others are disadvantaged, some accumulate while others collapse.

Nature’s harmony is self-sustaining and auto-generative, but persists as long as it is free from calculated manipulation. Nature gives us the model, where the human world would also flourish if left to its own internal impulses.

34. There are many possible ways of the dao. It does not make claim on its products or affects. All things offer it allegiance but it does not act as master. The way to be capable of being great is to not try to do great things.

42. Everything is a harmonious blending of opposites, and way making leads to this harmonious blending of one out of many. Sometimes less is more, and more is less.

43. The softest things overcome the hardest, the least substantial pass through the seamless; this is the evidence that the non-coercive is beneficial. Few understand this and few understand the benefits of teachings that go beyond what can be said.

They include this other stuff about optimizing creative possibilities and the most productive relationships being those whose members fully contribute themselves to the shared nexus without any contentiousness.

44. Those who known contentment and know where to stop will avoid disgrace and danger, as miserliness leads to heavy loss.

They say this is about being content with what you have rather than engaging in an endless cycle of wanting and getting, and they say being satisfied with what one has is more about an ongoing attunement of the relationships with ones natural, social, and cultural environments.

The rigid is ineffectual. The supple and soft are effectual.

There are myriad examples where this is the case, and myriad cases where it isn't.

77. The way of tian accomplishes its ends by doing the opposite of the direct and avoids extremes to find the appropriate balance, but normal people don't do this. Those who are way making are able to draw on excess to give to the world. Sages do things that do not take credit or claim for them or display their worth.

81. I understood this one to assert that simpleness in speech, study, culture lead to good attributes; i.e. credibility, wisdom, adeptness; and that the nonsimple do not have these attributes. Also that the sages get their wealth from doing things for others rather than accumulation of stuff.

The way of tian excludes its opposite, and the way of the sages is to be active without struggling against others or other things.

One cannot argue against someone's prefering simplicity, but one can argue against assertions of mutual exclusivity of credibility and eloquence, wisdom and erudition, adeptness and all-aroundness.

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