"Things exalted then decay."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 55
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
The one who is filled by virtue is like a newborn baby.
Wasps, scorpions, and serpents will not sting him.
Birds of prey and wild beasts will not strike him.
His bones are soft, his muscles weak,
But his grasp is firm.
He has not experienced the union of man and woman,
Still his penis rises.
His manhood is at its very height.
He can shout all day without getting hoarse.
His harmony is at its very height.
Harmony is called the eternal.
Knowing the eternal is called clarity.
Filling life exceedingly is called ominous.
Letting the mind control the vital breath is called force.
Things exalted then decay.
This is going against the Way.
What goes against the Way meets an early end.
The Virtue of the Infant
The first part of this chapter compares the sage to a
newborn baby. Infants are soft and weak, yet their tiny hands
grab with surprising firmness. Although they are many
years away from puberty and sexual encounters, they get
erections. They can scream forever, without getting hoarse,
and with a shocking loudness at that.
Lao Tzu is obviously himself amused by the
comparison, and by the paradoxes evident in babies. Indeed,
they are inspirations to the sage.
It's not so that the virtuous should regress to the
stage of the newborn. For example, there is no need to stay
away from sexual experience. The infant erections are signs
of manhood being present from the beginning, which is to
say that a human being carries all of his or her potential
already from the moment of birth.
Lao Tzu might also imply that the virtue of the
innocent promotes potency. At least, most of us would agree that
the sexual experience is enhanced if partaken in joyful
and equal consent. That's the virtue of it.
The firm grasp of the virtuous is not to grab things
for oneself, but for holding on to Tao and the noble
principles by which it governs. Nor is the sage supposed to be
shouting all day. Quite the contrary. But his voice of reason
should not be easily silenced and good words should not
escape him when called for.
As for the baby being invulnerable to vicious
animals, it's possible that Lao Tzu is doing some wishful
thinking. Actually, predators seem to prefer going after infants,
since they are the easiest to catch and make the least
resistance. Here, he might refer to the adult with a childishly
pure mind, as mentioned in chapter 50. Those who know how
to live, escape violent death because death has no place
This can be said about newborn babies as well.
Freshly born, they are full of life, and death is farther away
from them than it will ever be.
The clarity that Lao Tzu speaks of in this chapter is
the realization that harmony is eternal, because it meets with
The safest way to last is not to provoke resistance,
from oneself as well as from others. Inner harmony means
living at peace with oneself. Those who do are spared of
frustrations, dissatisfaction, and depression. By living in
harmony with your surroundings you avoid conflict and
animosity. That's how harmony persists longer than the opposite.
The Chinese word for harmony, ho, also means
peace and to be united. It's written with the sign for a grain
or sprout, and that for the mouth. That's indeed an image
of things in a delightful setting. The food meets the
mouth. The resource meets the need.
Filling life exceedingly and allowing the mind to control
the vital breath are two examples of one and the same
mistake – that of pushing things in life. There's no gain in
overdoing things. It only invites bitter failure.
The vital breath, ch'i (or
qi), is also mentioned in chapters 10 and 42. I explain it in some detail in the former
of those chapters. This life energy flows readily through us
and everything around us. It's a very natural thing, so if
the mind tries to control it, the flow is disturbed and the
vital breath might cease to function properly.
That doesn't mean it should not be used. It is used,
automatically, when we intend to do something, when we
concentrate on something, and so on. Our bodies have access
to it. When we act, it will be there according to our needs, if
we just allow the natural process to have its course. But if
our minds try to produce and control the vital breath, there is
a risk that we block that flow.
It's also an indication that we might try to misuse
it. When the vital breath is forced, it tends to be
destructive and malign instead of healing.
The last three lines of the chapter are exactly the same as
in chapter 30, where they don't fit as well. Maybe some
copyist along the way accidentally doubled it. In the oldest
existing Tao Te Ching
manuscript, found in Guodian, the
lines are missing in chapter 30.
In this chapter, the three lines fit very well. They
come right after Lao Tzu warns against filling life exceedingly
and forcing the vital breath. Those are two examples of
exalting things by overdoing them. Decay must follow.
What has reached its highest point must then
descend. That's as true in life as it is in drama and the movies. If
we hurry to that moment, we only manage to shorten our lives.
Still, every one of us would like to have life reach a
wondrous height before we leave it. No one would be pleased
by having that peak experience early and then spend the
rest of a long life reminiscing, nor would we be comfortable
to take our last breath without ever having reached it.
Ideal life is similar to drama in so many ways. So,
we need to have the climax very near the end. Otherwise,
what is there to long for in the inevitable future?
© Stefan Stenudd.
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