This chapter is remarkable for several reasons. Lao-tze speaks of the Tao, and describes it by saying what it is not. It is not perceptible to the senses; accordingly it is "colorless," "soundless" and "bodiless." It cannot be seen, it cannot be heard, it cannot be touched; but this supersensible something, the purely relational in all things, the divine Reason, is one and the same throughout. It is the Unnamable, the cosmic law, the world-order which moulds all things.
[paragraph continues] Both its beginning and its end are wrapped in obscurity.
Lao-tze's expression, "the form of the formless," corresponds pretty closely to Kant's term "Pure form"; it means the form which possesses no bodily shape, and as such it is equivalent to the Buddhist term arupo.
It is strange that Lao-tze's description of the Tao finds an almost literal parallel in the Phædrus where Plato speaks of the presence of a being in the over-heaven, i. e., in the super-celestial place, a being not perceptible to the senses and to be apprehended only by the mind, the "pilot of the soul." This presence is described as an essence, truly existent, 8 without color, without shape and impalpable. Plato says:
Τὸν δε ὑπερουράνιον τόπον οὔτε τισ ὕμνησέ πω τῶν τῇδε ποιητὴς οὔτε ποθ᾽ ὑμνήσει κατ᾽ ἀξίαν. ἔχει δε ὧδε. τολμητέον γὰρ οῦ᾽ν τό γε ἀληθὲς εἰπεῖν ἄλλως τε καὶ περὶ ἀληθείας λέγοντα· ἡ γὰρ ἀχρωματός τε καὶ ἀσχημάτιστος καὶ ἀναφὴς οὐσία ὄντως ψυχῆς οῦ᾽σα κυβερνήτῃ μόνῳ θεατὴ νῷ· περὶ ἣν τὸ τῆς ἀληθοῦς ἐπιστήμης γένος τοῦτον ἕχει τὸν τόπον.
In Jowett's translation this reads:
"Of the heaven which is above the heavens, what earthly poet ever did or ever will sing worthily? It is such as I shall describe; for I must dare to speak the truth, when truth is my theme. There abides the very being with which true knowledge is concerned; the colorless, the formless, the intangible essence visible only to mind, who is the pilot of the soul."--Phædrus, pag. 247.
The Latin version of the most important part of the passage reads thus:
"Nam essentia vere existens, sine colore, sine figura, sine tactu."
The similarity with Lao-tze is obvious, only the second term, in Chinese "soundless," or "inaudible," is omitted, while the Greek "shapeless," viz., non-material or having no body, has absolutely the same meaning as the Chinese.
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In addition to this surprising similarity between Lao-tze's very words and the thoughts of a philosopher who lived about 200 years after him in ancient
[paragraph continues] Greece, a distant country which at that time was in no connection with China, we must point out another strange coincidence. The three words, "colorless," "soundless" and "incorporeal," read in Chinese i, ki, wei, and the French scholar Abel Rémusat saw in this combination of Chinese characters the corresponding three Hebrew letters, Jod, Heh, Vav, indicating the name Jehovah, and his theory was accepted by many others who for some reason or other believed that there ought to have been a mysterious prehistoric connection between the Chinese and the Israelites. The theory has found the support of a German translator of Lao-tze's book, Victor von Strauss, a confessed mystic, but it is not countenanced by any other sinologist of standing, and there is no need to refute it. We see in it a curious though quite remarkable coincidence.
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Liquids generally are clear at the top and sediments settle at the bottom, but here Lao-tze, using the simile, reverses the statement by saying that in its upper
portion the Tao is not clear and in its lower strata it is not obscure. If we had not to deal with an author like Lao-tze who loves to mystify we might assume some mistake in the text, but as the statement stands it reminds us of St. Augustine's description of Christianity when he compares religious truth to an immeasurable ocean in whose waters a lamb may wade, while an elephant must swim. The simple mind of a child finds no difficulty in understanding the meaning of the Tao while a scholar may not be able to fathom its depth. We may also say that the deeper problems of philosophy are in their general aspect quite simple, but the superficial applications obscure them by complexity.
147:8 ὄντοως ὄν.