TAO TE CHING 39: Highest Renown is No Renown

TEXT

昔之得一者,天得一以清;
地得一以宁;神得一以灵;
谷得一以盈,万物得一以生;
候王得一以为天一正。

其致之也,
谓天无以清,将恐裂;
地无以宁,将恐废;
神无以灵,将恐歇;
谷无以盈,将恐竭;
万物无以生,将恐灭;
候王无以正,将恐蹶。

故贵以贱为本,高以下为基。
是以候王自称孤、寡、不谷。
此非以贱为本邪?非乎?
故至誉无誉。

是故不欲琭琭如玉,珞珞如石。

TRANSLATION

昔之得一者,天得一以清
In the past things were at one (with the Tao) ; Heaven being at one was pure;
地得一以宁;神得一以灵
The Earth being at one was at peace; The gods being at one had spirit;
谷得一以盈,万物得一以生
Crops being at one were abundant; All living beings being at one grew and multiplied
候王得一以为天一正
The ruler was at one by being under the influence of the upright oneness of Heaven.

其致之也,
Following this theme,
谓天无以清,将恐裂;
if Heaven is not pure, there is fear of a great rupture;
地无以宁,将恐废
When Earth is not at peace, there is fear it will be laid waste
神无以灵,将恐歇
When gods lose their spirit, there is fear of cessation
谷无以盈,将恐竭
When crops are not abundant, there is fear of exhaustion
万物无以生,将恐灭
When living beings are not thriving, there is fear of extermination
候王无以正,将恐蹶
When leaders are not upright, there is dear that they may stumble and fall

故贵以贱为本,高以下为基
Hence, the noble should have the lowly for its root, the high should take the low for its base.
是以候王自称孤、寡、不谷。
Therefore, kings call themselves lonely, bereft and resourceless.
此非以贱为本邪?非乎?
Isn’t this taking the lowly as root?
故至誉无誉。
Therefore, highest renown is no renown.
是故不欲琭琭如玉,珞珞如石
Therefore don’t desire jade to wear ostentatiously, treat it just as another rock.

COMMENTARY

The Taoists believed in a “golden age” in the past when everything worked in accord with the Tao. The Taoist sense, therefore, is that everything is in decline from a former better age. This is a little bit like the English romanticism of life in the country which does hark back to the time in history before the enclosures when huge numbers of people were driven off the countryside into the cities to work in mills and factories, often in awful conditions. It really was true that for a large proportion of the population, life had been better in an earlier age. The time when Taoism arose in China was marked by terrible wars and accompanying famines. It is quite understandable that they should have looked back to an earlier age before such strife took hold. In any case, when the Taoist’s looked around them, what they saw seemed to be the signs of degeneration, mischief and certainly not progress or signs that things were getting better. The fear of all kinds of disaster was common experience. In our modern age we have until recently assumed that things always get better. We have been believers in progress, growth and ever increasing convenience and comfort. Very recently, this has started to change. Human destruction of the environment has reached such a degree as to threaten life as we know it. The inability of governments to deliver endless growth has led to the rise of political movements, not likely to be any more successful, that promise quick results by more ruthless methods. There is now, therefore, some sense that the times are actually getting worse, but we do not yet have a philosophy to cope with this situation.

The first section of the chapter alludes to this earlier time when all was well. Everything was in accord with the Tao, so there was peace and prosperity. Rulers served the people, like the emperor Yu who lived about 2000BCE who worked tirelessly for thirteen years to control the flooding of the Yellow River. Since then, it seemed, things had gradually got worse as people increasingly departed from the Tao. The second section describes this degeneration: cessation, exhaustion, extermination. At the root of the problem is bad leadership. When leaders serve only their own interests everything falls apart. Part three, therefore, sketches out the remedy. Rulers must not separate themselves from those they lead. They should not chase fame and fortune, but serve the ordinary people. An honest and sincere ruler may well feel that he or she lacks the necessary resources, but will always try their best. People in high positions often do experience a loneliness. This is in part because the ordinary people do not treat the ruler as another human being, but isolate him or her in a special status. This is not an easy problem to solve. The ruler needs a certain power and status in order to get anything done. On the other hand, when the rulers become too disconnected from the people all kinds of problems arise.

The chapter ends with a Taoist saying - “Highest renown is no renown” - and a piece of advice - remember that jade is just another rock. Jade was the precious stone used to make regal ornaments. These both point to the Taoist reluctance to enter high office. The true Taoist avoids renown and only takes on important roles out of necessity, leaving again as soon as possible. This is the reversal of the common attitude of wanting to be as famous as possible. As usual Taoism emerges as a reversal of ordinary values.

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