A few comments on Lao-tze's favorite expressions will help the reader to understand the drift of his thought.
The character tao 1 being composed of the characters "moving on" and "head," depicts a "going ahead." The original meaning of the word is "way" in the same sense as in English, denoting both "path" and "method."
The same association of ideas prevails in almost all languages. The Greek word methodos 2 is a derivative of hodos 3 "path" (combined with the preposition meta, "according to," "after") and so "method" too originally means "way" or rather "according to a way." In the sense of method the word Tao acquires the significance of "principle, rationality,
or reason," then "the right way," or "truth," the Urvernunft of German mystics. Finally Tao comes to possess the meaning of "rational speech" or "word," and in this sense it closely resembles the Greek Logos, for in addition to its philosophical significance the term Tao touches a religious chord in the souls of the Chinese just as did the word Logos among the Platonists and the Greek Christians. The term Tao denotes "word" and also "way" in the same religious sense in which they are used in the New Testament: the former in the first verse of the Fourth Gospel, "In the beginning was the word"; and the latter in the saying of Christ, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John xiv. 6). In both passages the word Tao is the right term by which to translate "word," "way," and "truth."
The Tao of man, jan tao, 4 is the process of ratiocination, and as such it is fallible; but there is an Eternal Reason, chang tao, 5 also called tien tao, 6 "Heaven's
[paragraph continues] Reason," i. e., the world-order which shapes all things, and the burden of Lao-tze's message is to let this Heaven's Reason or Eternal Reason prevail. The man who is guided by the Eternal Reason is the master, chiün; 7 the superior thinker, chiün tze; 8 he is the holy man, shan jan; 9 the man of Reason, yin tao che 10 or tung yü tao che; 11 and the man of truth, chen jan. 12
We translate Tao by "Reason," and we capitalize the word in order to remind the reader that it is not the reason of the rationalist, nor the rationality of argument, but the universal world-order, or in other words, the eternal Reason of the divine dispensation, the Logos, to which man looks up with reverence.
The second word of the title, Teh, 13, "virtue," which, strange enough, Legge translates "attribute," is made up of characters meaning "man," "heart" and
[paragraph continues] "straight." It denotes man's straightness of heart.
The favorite phrase of Lao-tze's ethics, which furnishes a key to his mode of thought, reads wei wu wei, ( ) "act non-act," and we have commonly translated the words by "act with non-assertion."
The Chinese wei means not only "to do something," but also "to act" as on the stage, or "'to make a show, to show off, to pose, to parade oneself." The phrase wei wu wei might be translated "to do without ado" or "to act without acting" (viz., without posing), were it not for the fact that the moral element is uppermost in Lao-tze's mind. He denounces the vanity of self-display and egotism, and so we believe that wei wu wei is best rendered by "acting with non-assertion." The meaning is clear through the context, and there is no need of interpreting Lao-tze's words either in a mystical or a quietist sense.
There are three negatives in Chinese: pu, "not," the simple negation; wu, "lacking in, non-existent, without"; and fei,
[paragraph continues] "by no means." Though we can not lay down a general rule about their distinctions, there are different shades of meaning according to the context which we have tried to bring out in our English version. Sometimes the meaning of the negated word, or the ironic sense in which it is used, influences the negative. In Chapter 49 pu shan, "ungoodness", means "evil," but in Chapter 38, pu teh, "unvirtue," means that higher virtue which makes no show and does not even assume the name. In Chapter 57 wu shi, "non-diplomacy," is that higher mode of statesmanship with which a good ruler will unostentatiously govern the empire. On the other hand Lao-tze speaks of both fei tao, i. e., "lack of reason" or "anti-reason" (Chapter 53) and pu tao (Chapters 30 and 55) "unreason," which soon ceases, while "the reason that can be reasoned" (tao ko tao) is declared to be "by no means the eternal Reason (fei chang tao)."
The term wu, "non-existence" (Chapter 40), is not annihilation but denotes absence of concrete particularity or of
materiality. It is intended to describe what we would call the purely formal, including purely formal thought, viz., the prototypes of things as well as ideals. Materiality makes things real but non-materiality, 14 as set forth in Chapter 11, while giving shape to things by cutting away certain portions, renders them useful.
Lao-tze's appreciation of oneness is to be expected of a philosopher of the Tao, of Divine Reason. He speaks of oneness 15 as giving character to things that are units (Chapter 39) and unity cannot be disintegrated (Chapter 10).
Lao-tze's reference to trinity as begetting all things (Chapter 42) is, to say the least. curious, perhaps profound, and
[paragraph continues] Christians will also be interested in the idea that the Son of Heaven as the High Priest of the people must bear the sins of mankind (Chapter 78).
Lao-tze's style is characterized by paradox as in "do without ado" (commonly translated "act with non-assertion" as in Chapters 2, 3, 10, etc.); "know the unknowable," "be sick of sickness" (Chapter 71); "practice non-practice," "taste the tasteless" (Chapter 63); "marching without marching" (Chapter 69). Similarly the phrases "the form of the formless" 16 and "the image of the imageless" 17 (Chapter 14) etc. are used to describe what Kant calls "pure form," i. e., non-material or ideal forms such as geometrical figures, and which corresponds to the Buddhist term arupo, "the formless," in the sense of "the bodiless."
Undoubtedly the best sayings of Lao-tze are: "Requite hatred with goodness" 18 (Chapter 63); and "The good I meet with goodness; the bad I also meet with
goodness 19 . . . . The faithful I meet with faith, the faithless I also meet with faith" (Chapter 49).
Other remarkable ideas of Lao-tze are his preference for simplicity (Chapters 17, 28, 37, 57), for purity (Chapter 45), for emptiness (Chapters 3, 4, 5), for rest and peace 20 (Chapter 31), for silence (Chapters 2, 23, 43, 56), for tenderness (Chapters 52, 76, 78), especially the tenderness of water (Chapter 78), for weakness (Chapters 36, 40) for compassion (Chapter 67), for lowliness or humility (Chapter 61), for thrift (Chapter 59), for returning home to the Tao (Chapters 25, 40), for spontaneity or lack of effort (Chapter 6), etc.
He is against restrictions and prohibitions as producing disorder (Chapter
[paragraph continues] 57), against ostentation (Chapter 58), against learnedness as unwisdom (Chapter 81). He believes that the Tao when sought is found (Chapter 62), and he praises the state of a little child (Chapters 10, 28, 55). He compares himself to a babe (Chapter 20) and calls himself the child or son of the Tao and the Tao his mother (Chapter 52); on the other hand the sage looks upon the people as children (Chapter 49).
Heaven's impartiality 21(Chapter 79) which shows no preference to favorites is expected of the sage by Lao-tze who praises the emptiness of heaven (Chapter 5), the lowliness of the valley (Chapters 32, 39, 41, 66), and the stretching of the bow which brings down the high and raises the low (Chapter 77), etc.
Though the Tao, being an abstract philosophical principle, seems to leave no room for a belief in God, Lao-tze refers repeatedly to God, first identifying God with Reason as "the arch-father of the ten thousand things," (Chapter 4), and then he speaks of Reason as preceding
even "the Lord" (Chapter 4). In Chapter 70 he calls the Tao "the ancestor of words" and "the master of deeds" which also personifies Reason. The passage where he speaks of "the father of the doctrine" (Chapter 42) may be doubtful, for the commentators explain it to mean "the foundation of the doctrine"; but the idea of calling the Tao the father of truth is not contrary to Lao-tze's thought; for he speaks of the Tao twice as the "mother" (Chapters 20 and 52) and once as "the world's mother" (Chapter 52). In Chapter 74, when referring to divine justice cutting short the lives of men, the Tao is compared to "the great carpenter who hews." All these passages are figures of speech, but are not the Christian ideas of God as a Lord, as a father, as an architect (as the Freemasons have it), also allegories?
15:10 Literally, "having Reason the one."
15:11 Literally, "identified with Reason the one."
18:14 For the meaning of "nought" in Oriental thought see the author's Foundations of Mathematics, pp. 134 ff. Compare also on the significance of non-realities the article "Mysticism" in The Monist, Vol. XVIII, p. 86; further, Buddhism and Its Christian Critics, pp. 110, 119 ff. and 218, where Goethe is quoted on nothingness.
18:15 For the connection of Oneness with Quality see the author's Personality, pp. 36-38, and "The Significance of Quality," Monist, XV, 375. Cf. The Philosophy of Form, pp. 12-13.
19:18 (Literally, "with virtue.")
20:20 Lao-tze uses no less than eight synonyms for "rest" or "quietude": (1) tien tan, "quietude and peace," Chap. 31; (2) tsing, "quietude," Chaps. 16, 26, 37, 45, 61; (3) ngan, "still," Chap. 15, and "rest", Chap. 35; (4) ping, "contentment," Chap. 35; (5) tai, "comfort," Chap. 35; (6) tsan, "calm," Chap. 4; (7) tsih, "calm," Chap. 25; (8) yen, "calmly," Chap. 26.
21:21 Compare with this Matt. v. 45.