Kalev’s Anti-blog: Some Comments on verse 1 of the Dao de jing by Lao Zi

[This entry is written for and dedicated to Ray Valle]

The Dao de jing (Tao te ching in Wade-Giles) has a remarkable opening verse that formulates a metaphysical problem with striking economy. Lao Zi (Lao tzu) writes: “The Dao [way, ways, path, paths, that, absolute] that can be walked is not the Dao. A name that can be named is not the Name. Dao is both named and nameless. As nameless it is the origin of all things. As named it is the mother of all things.”

In an unusual translation by Bradford Hatcher which can be obtained for free at his website ( http://www.hermetica.info ), the beginning is rendered: “A path fit for travel is not an unwavering path. A name fit for calling is not a generic name.”Nothing” names the origin of heaven and earth. “Being” names the mother of the myriad of beings.”

When we speak of the Dao we are falsifying it immediately because we are limiting something that cannot be limited, just as I am doing here. The Dao is the whole of all things, but it is not identical with any one thing. Moreover, because it is the whole of things, it is also not only unlimited, but contains within itself all that is, will be, was, as well as what is not and what can never come to be. Yet, because it is a non-numerical infinite, it is a total indeterminate beyond all beings.

Yet, it is one, a unity, a path, a way. It is in that unity that it becomes determined for us. We say the whole is one, while the whole is at the same time a cosmic zero, so to speak. The whole has a dyadic structure. The many things that arise from the Dao do so because the Dao can be one, while the very dyadic structure of the whole provides us with the first true number, two. With one and two, which mirrors the distinction between zero and one, three and all numbers can be formulated. That also provides a basis for seeing things that are identical or the same, as well as what other and not. That Lao Zi formulates the Dao as a path or way also means that the Dao is both in motion and at rest at the same time. Hatcher’s use of “Being” is perhaps a little too Western and evokes too much traditional ontology; however, it is not entirely wrong to use it. For Being is one, and as such is the principle of the manifestation of all things in so far as they can be manifested. Some that cannot be manifested has no being. In effect, Lao Zi says that the unmanifested Dao manifests the Dao that manifests all that has any kind of being.

The Dao also manifests us, we human beings. But how do we know that? Using the translation by Jonathan Starr (Tao Te Ching The Definitive Edition), Lao Zi continues: “A mind free of thought, merged within itself, beholds the essence of Dao. A mind filled with thought, identified with its own perceptions, beholds the mere forms of this world. Tao and the world seem different but in truth they are one and the same. The only difference is in what we call them. How deep and mysterious is this unity, how profound, how great! It is the truth beyond the truth, the hidden within the hidden. It is the path of all wonder, the gate to the essence of everything.”

Hatcher has it this way: And so always be dispassionate in order to see the objectives. These two mean the same (when) emerging while diverging in significance. The sameness tells us of their mystery. Mystery leading to greater mystery (is) the gateway to every mystery.”

The problem word here is “mystery,” which is always inexpressible. Mystery comes from the Greek word musterion which is derived from muein, which signifies “to be silent” or “to hold one’s peace.” Also, connected to this verbal root, mu (from which we derive the Latin mutus, dumb), is the word muthos, myth. A true myth is not some kind of fantastic story. The myth expresses something that cannot be expressed directly, and therefore has to be expressed either in some kind of symbolic form, verbal or figurative. Thus, by saying the Dao is the mystery of all mysteries, what is in effect said is that not only can we not speak of the mystery but we are also obliged, obligated, not to speak of which we cannot speak. We must hold our peace about it. Moderation is built into the Dao, nay, demanded. There are natural limitations to what we are able to do and say.

I am not happy with the use of the Latin essence in Starr’s translation. Again, it gets too mixed with the Western ontology. What Lao Zi is saying is that of which we cannot speak is at the very core of all beings, both determined and indeterminate. If we look into ourselves and we do look without the flux of our individual perceptions, we find the Dao is there all the time. We know of the Dao, because we are the Dao, as we are a manifestation of the Dao and we have no real way to formulate that in words. If words could speak it in its entirety, words would be the Dao. Implied, of course, is the notion that we can only directly find the Dao through the Dao and not through anything else. The empty mind is the Dao. There is no-thing and it is what is real. Everything else is appearance that is in unending flux, coming to be and passing away, especially in our minds and senses.

Now, there are some who would immediately say, “This Dao is absolute nihilism.” The reason that the Dao is not nihilistic as nihilism is in some philosophy from Europe and elsewhere is that the Dao does not negate absolutely everything. Modern nihilism has at its roots the notion that everything is permitted, as Nietzsche said. Of course, if everything is permitted in the end nothing is permitted, because that, too, is permitted. Modern nihilism basically says that there is absolutely no foundation for ethics, and that all life is meaningless.

The Dao doesn’t do that. In fact, the Dao is the foundation of an entire ethical system and political philosophy that Daoists have written about for centuries. In the end, modern nihilism provides nothing as an absolute opposite of everything, while the Dao provides itself as an attainment. To attain the Dao is the true end of life. The Dao is the source of life, not its negation. The Dao provides tranquility, while modern nihilism is nothing more than anxiety. For the modern nihilism, nothing makes man atomic and apart from each other and all other things, as nature has no meaning or provides man nothing of worth. The nothing of modern nihilism denies that there is a whole at all. There is no interdependence, no one. The Dao is the great refutation of modern nihilism, which also refutes itself in a prison of self-contradiction.

Where do we find the Dao? The easiest place is to find inside of yourself, where it is not.


About Kalev Pehme

I am an icastic artist and a Straussian. I am not a conservative or neocon Straussian. Sadly, there are too many of them. My interests are diverse, however, and sometimes quite arcane. I have a deep interest in Daoism, Indo-Aryan religion, Buddhism, Plato, Aristotle, and whole lot more. I love good poetry. I also enjoy all things ancient. And I would like to meet any woman who is born on May 29, 1985.
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