"Knowing that you do not know is the best."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 71
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
Knowing that you do not know is the best.
Not knowing that you do not know is an illness.
Truly, only those who see illness as illness
Can avoid illness.
The sage is not ill,
Because he sees illness as illness.
Therefore he is not ill.
Disease awareness and the lack thereof are frequently
discussed in relation to mental disease, where the lack
of awareness is said to be common. No wonder, since it's
the mind that is affected, and it's by the mind one is
made aware. One can't see into oneself. Nor is it easy to
regard one's actions from an objective perspective, because
the mind is subjective by nature.
When Lao Tzu uses the metaphor of illness, he is
referring to a mental capacity, but hardly any kind of real
insanity. He speaks about the ability to be aware of what
you know and what you don't know. They are not easy to
tell apart, again a paradox of the mind.
If you know something, that's fine. You know that
you know it. But you must also know something to know
that you don't know it. Otherwise you can only guess about it.
So, if you know, you can't be completely sure that
you really do. If you don't know, it's most likely that you are
not aware of it, or you would know at least to some
extent. Maybe the truth lies in the great gray zone between the
two extremes, as is so often the case with things in this world.
If you know a little, you may know that it's only a
little of it you know. Then you also know that there's more
to know, and until you do so, there is a lot you don't know.
Still, we are only concerned with quantities. The
quality of knowledge is the extent to which it's true. Every
person experiences often through life, how things that one held
to be true, later prove to be false. This also goes for society
as a whole. What's the truth one day is nothing but
nonsense the next day.
Our knowledge keeps increasing, but our knowledge
of the truth often changes dramatically. What we take
for granted may very well prove to be completely wrong.
The only proper attitude to have towards this is one
of modesty and humility. We must keep in mind that
knowledge is uncertain and truth is elusive. Then we know
that we don't know, and thereby escape the illness.
The uncertainty of knowledge has been discussed
by philosophers since ancient times, in the West as well as
the East. When Descartes stated that "I think, therefore I
am," he pointed out that the only thing I can be sure of is
that there is someone wondering – that someone being me.
Making sure of anything else is not an easy task. Claiming to
be sure of anything else can be quite detrimental.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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