"One must know when it is enough."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 32
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
The Way is ever nameless.
Though simple and subtle,
The world cannot lead it.
If princes and kings could follow it,
All things would by themselves abide,
Heaven and Earth would unite
And sweet dew would fall.
People would by themselves find harmony,
Without being commanded.
As soon as rules were made, names were given.
There are already many names.
One must know when it is enough.
Those who know when it is enough will not perish.
What the Way is to the world,
The stream is to the river and the sea.
All Follow Those Who Follow Tao
This chapter starts with a reminder of what was stated
in the very first chapter of the Tao Te
Ching: no name does justice to Tao, the Way. Lao Tzu has chosen the term Tao for
the great mystery he discusses, but he hurries to add that
a name is just a name, and not the thing named – not even
an adequate description of it.
This might seem to be a warning of little
significance, but we have a tendency to name things and thereby start
to pretend that we understand and control them.
A lot of our natural science is done like that. We
observe a phenomenon, like the apple falling from the tree, and
we name it gravity, pretending that thereby, it has become
part of our knowledge of the world. Well, we have found
mathematical circumstances under which gravity operates,
but we still don't know what it is. The name doesn't explain
it anymore than its manifestations do. We are still to find
out what it really is.
That's true for many more of our scientific
explorations than we would be comfortable to admit. Names are
just names, descriptions are just descriptions. A true
understanding of what's going on demands fundamental
knowledge of how our universe operates, and why. That's still
This is what Lao Tzu reminds us, with words that
seem to contain a sigh. There are indeed already many names.
It was true in his time and even more so in ours. We have
so many names, but do we really understand much
more about the world we live in?
We would spontaneously say yes, but then again
we confuse true knowledge with putting names to
phenomena we have observed and catalogued. Even though we
have found plenty of mathematical relations between
natural phenomena, it still doesn't prove we understand them.
We observe a lot, but we understand less.
That's why scientific theory is no more certain than
to last until a better theory comes along. Along the way,
we just have to do with what we've got, and hope that it
will suffice for our applications of it.
We do quite well. We send rockets to the moon and
beyond it. We build big steel vessels that fly a hundred
times faster than the birds. We cure deadly diseases, but we
also invent new ways of killing more effectively than they
ever did. Our science allows us feats that our predecessors
would call magic. But it doesn't mean we understand the
universe and our place in it any more profoundly.
Lao Tzu calls for a humble search of what is the real
essence, not just superficial manifestations of it. That call
is just as relevant today as it was more than two
thousand years ago.
Albert Einstein dreamed about a united field theory
in which all of the forces at play in the universe would be
combined into one fundamental energy, explaining just
about everything. We all have the same dream of finding the
ultimate why, what Aristotle called the Prime Mover, a
first cause in the world, something that started everything
and therefore still holds the key to it all.
That's what Lao Tzu calls Tao, readily admitting that
it's beyond his understanding, although he has a lot to
say about how it operates.
Tao is Aristotle's Prime Mover, Einstein's united
field theory, and the incentive of the creator god in the
religions. We could also call it the condition igniting the Big Bang.
So many names.
Lao Tzu is practical. Instead of struggling to
understand what might lie far beyond our capacity, let's be
perceptive to the patterns and follow the directions pointed out by
how nature behaves. Even though the essence of Tao remains
a mystery, we can follow its path. If we do, the world
will treat us gently and all its creatures will prosper.
© Stefan Stenudd.
Tao Te Ching Explained
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