TAO TE CHING 19: Give up holiness


Give up holiness, abandon wisdom
and people benefit a hundredfold.
Give up humanism (ren), abandon appropriateness (yi)
and people become filial and compassionate.
Give up taking advantage, abandon profit
and there’ll be no thieves.
These three saying show the inadequacy of sophistication.
So, to be a leader
present yourself plainly and keep to simplicity,
be seldom selfish, have few desires,
vanquish learning and have no worries.

This chapter drives home the teaching of the previous one. The second couplet particularly repeats and spells out the Taoist view that when the Confucian virtues are forgotten, children will naturally respect their parents and parents will naturally care for their children.

Lao Tzu would have approved of Dr Spock whose book on childcare asserted that parents know best how to look after their children, that routines are all very well, but babies don’t need them, that the main thing babies need is love and there is nothing to worry about. This stood in stark contrast to many other baby care manuals that made parents anxious by specifying strict regimens to be followed without fail.

The Taoist way is, however, radically different to the way we commonly think. We think that by having high ideals, becoming more conscious of what we are doing and regulating our relationships according to sound principles, all will go better. We pick up books with titles like “Ten things that successful people do,” and devour them for tips. Lao Tzu is basically saying that all this is nonsense and does more harm than good. That what is needed is for people to trust their instinct more and rules less.

In the second half of the chapter he is saying that people naturally follow somebody who is straightforward, honest, not self-serving, and content with little for him or herself. Such a person naturally attracts followers.How many modern politicians fit this description, one wonders.

This philosophy is contrary to our popular meritocracy in which there is a licence or certificate for every skill and role. Instead of trusting our judgement, we trust pieces of paper that supposedly validate the person, in the same way as we now read the label to see whether food is out of date rather than using our nose.

Lao Tzu assumes that there will be a natural hierarchy in society, but this will not be based on power struggles, nor on career achievement, but rather on spontaneous respect and a natural sense of responsibility. Carried to an extreme, one might think this unrealistic, but then every social ideal is unrealistic when carried to an extreme since human beings are diverse. Nor is it a Taoist idea to carry anything to an extreme, even its own values. The Tao Te Ching is in some measure a polemic countering the rise of Legalist and Confucian ideas.

To transpose this into a modern situation we might read socialist for Legalist and conservative for Confucian. Lao Tzu was opposed to both. He did not think that society should be dominated by a privileged class, but he did not believe in social engineering either. He did not advocate a more rational society, but a more natural one. He thought that the aim was contentment and sincerity rather than wealth or control, however well-meaning the latter might be. He even thought that the pursuit of holiness in religion would only lead to hypocrisy. The greatest saints have no sense of their own virtue.

In similar vein, Taoism is not about enhancing positive self-regard, or, indeed, any kind of self-regard at all. The contemporary emphasis upon cultivating self-esteem he would have seen as a misguided approach bound only to lead to self-deception and unnecessary complication.

The Taoist is not trying to be a good person, not even a better person. Self-improvement is not his way. He is not trying to work out what behaviour is more appropriate and then putting on a show of adhering to custom. He simply trusts that when people are natural, they are not unduly grasping nor rejecting, and he strives to create the conditions within which such naturalness can manifest and flourish.

You need to be a member of David Brazier at La Ville au Roi (Eleusis) to add comments!

Join David Brazier at La Ville au Roi (Eleusis)

Email me when people reply –