"The forceful and violent will not die from natural causes."
Tao Te Ching 42
The Lao Tzu Taoist Classic
Translated and Explained
The Way gave birth to one.
One gave birth to two.
Two gave birth to three.
Three gave birth to all things.
All things carry yin and embrace yang.
They reach harmony by blending with the vital breath.
What people loathe the most
Is to be orphaned, desolate, unworthy.
But this is what princes and kings call themselves.
Sometimes gain comes from losing,
And sometimes loss comes from gaining.
What others have taught, I also teach:
The forceful and violent will not die from natural causes.
This will be my chief doctrine.
Violence Meets a Violent End
This chapter consists of two parts, which have so little to
do with one another that they were surely not originally
intended to be combined. The first part deals with the
creation of the world, and the second with commendable
attitudes in human life.
There have been many theories about what Lao
Tzu might mean with the one, two, three, in the first few
lines. One should normally be Tao, the Way. So, did it give
birth to itself? Well, it sort of did, since it has no other creator.
Tao emerged, which is a kind of birth, and ignited the
creation of the whole world.
The two would normally be yin and yang, the
classical Chinese duo behind all polarities in the world – such
as light and dark, high and low, male and female, and so
on. Lao Tzu has stated earlier that he regards the emergence
of yin and yang as belonging to the creation of the world.
So, this may very well be what he implies here.
What three were born out of the two is much more
difficult to ascertain. Heaven and Earth would have
appeared early in any creation story of ancient China, as well as
in most other cultures, but what might the third be?
Some say man, others say ch'i (also spelled
qi), the vital breath. Man is more likely to be included among all
things, appearing later, so the vital breath would be more
likely here. The lines that follow do indeed support an early
appearance of the vital breath.
Maybe the line should be read: "Two gave birth to
the third." The Chinese wording of the text allows for this
reading. It would need to mean that ch'i emerged out of yin
and yang. This is actually similar to the Chinese tradition on
Still, I'm not convinced that Lao Tzu intended for
these lines to be interpreted that literally. Maybe he was only
suggesting that as soon as Tao broke up the original
unity, which might be called chaos, then things started to
appear, one after the other, in no particular order. Soon, there
were ten thousand things, the Chinese expression for all
things. He found no need to specify the exact order of appearance.
What he says about the behavior of all things is
much more significant and precise. They carry yin and
embrace yang. This is an elemental yin and yang principle. Both
exist in everything, although sometimes in unbalanced
proportions. Earth is the very signature of yin, and the
same goes for Heaven and yang. Everything in between the
two should be mixtures of yin and yang.
All things then reach harmony by blending with the
vital breath, the life energy ch'i. Without it they would not
remain and not have the ability to move or change.
They would not be alive. About the vital breath, see chapter
10. It's also mentioned in chapter 55.
Orphaned, Desolate, and Unworthy
The second part of the chapter repeats what has been
stated in chapter 39, about being orphaned, desolate, and
unworthy. Here, Lao Tzu adds that gain can lead to loss, and
loss to gain. This is an important warning. If rulers belittle
themselves, their reputation gains from it. If they were to do
the opposite, they would surely lose their reputation,
Still today, it's easy to reveal bad leaders, because
they are almost always the ones most eager to be praised.
That simply means they strive for personal gain. Usually,
they don't seek just fame, but also fortune, increased power,
and on and on.
The paradox of gain leading to loss is not only true
for ruling, but for any endeavor. Aiming too high is bound
to cause failure. Greed is costly, pride is shameful. In
business, you can't get profit without investment. Personal
relations don't last without compromise. Life is diluted if you
only struggle to prolong it.
Moderation in all things is the most likely to succeed.
The last lines could very well be intended as separate
from the preceding ones. It's a simple statement. Those who
live violently risk dying the same way. History has shown
us countless examples of it.
Here, too, moderation is to recommend. Lao Tzu
repeats that we should avoid any extremes. Although he
rarely makes moral judgments on people's life choices, he
does confess that he is repelled by brutality, and by the search
for personal gain gone wild.
He will come back to it in other chapters, but
already here he is quite clear about it. Don't rock the boat,
especially not for personal gain. Nature is rich enough to support
us all in abundance, if there are not some who forcefully
claim much more than their share.
Still, that's far from unknown to us.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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