"I do not know its name. I call it the Way."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 25
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
There was something that finished chaos,
Born before Heaven and Earth.
So silent and still!
So pure and deep!
It stands alone and immutable,
Ever-present and inexhaustible.
It can be called the mother of the whole world.
I do not know its name. I call it the Way.
For the lack of better words I call it great.
Great means constant flow.
Constant flow means far-reaching.
Far-reaching means returning.
That is how the Way is great.
Heaven is great,
Earth is great,
And the king is also great.
In the world there are four greats,
And the king is one of them.
Man is ruled by Earth.
Earth is ruled by Heaven.
Heaven is ruled by the Way.
The Way is ruled by itself.
Not once, but twice, Lao Tzu states that the king is one
of the greats – as if he struggles to convince himself of it.
He was obviously not unaware of possible doubts to this
There have been some kings through the ages
who would have been better described with completely
different words. Surely, China in the distant past of Lao Tzu had
already experienced a few. He would need to say it twice
to make sure that his readers didn't brush it aside as
But Lao Tzu doesn't speak of individual kings, men
who have upheld the position with honor or disgrace. He
speaks about ruling as such, a power as necessary as the other
three to ward off chaos. Later in this book he gives many clues
as to how he means the king should behave, thereby
implying that it's far from always the case, but he is equally
clear about the need for a king, a ruler, for civilization not to
perish. Even a bad ruler is better than no ruler at all,
although sometimes it's far from obvious.
By repeating his statement about the king, Lao Tzu
hints the daring thought of actually contemplating the
question: Would we be better off without one? His answer is no,
but with little enthusiasm, since he is well aware of royal
shortcomings. Man is an erring creature, and with a crown on
his head it can lead to disaster. Still, if no one wears it,
mayhem is certain. That's a consequence of how the universe is
ordered according to Tao, the Way.
In the days of the mighty autocratic kings of
Europe, they were said to have their power from God. Lao
Tzu seems to imply something similar with his
descending chain, from Tao through Heaven and Earth to the king, as
if the king had his authority from the higher greats. But
neither Tao nor Heaven or Earth are gods. They are
entities making up the universe by staying in their places and
upholding their functions. That's what the king should do,
Otherwise, there would be a return to the chaos that
existed before the world was formed out of the principle
The Chinese word used for chaos, hun
mixed, mingled, and confused. It describes a state where nothing
is separated from the rest, a primordial mud of
everything. This is also what the Greek concept chaos originally
The Chinese pictogram combines the signs for water,
the sun, and the word same: water and the sun are the
same. When not even the sun and the water are separable, there
is chaos indeed. Such a primordial chaos is common in
creation myths around the world. Usually, it's seen as a
dark primordial sea. This is the case also in the first book of
Genesis in the Bible.
Today, we tend to use the word chaos differently,
describing a bundle of things or events in no order. But
the original idea of chaos is a homogenous mass, a single
entity out of which nothing has yet been formed.
To Lao Tzu, this primordial singularity was only
preceded by Tao, the principle by which the chaos was later
divided into all things. The calmness of that principle,
before setting things into motion, is what Lao Tzu praises in the
beginning of this chapter, as if he is almost longing back to it.
Out of this primordial chaos and by the principle of
Tao, Heaven, Earth, and all other things appeared. Creation
and procreation. That's how Tao is constantly flowing,
far-reaching, and returning. Creation is constantly taking place, as
all things appear, wither, and disappear, later to reappear
in other shapes.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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