Chapter 71 – I Know Nothing
To know that you do not know is the best.
To pretend to know when you do not know is a disease.
Only when one recognizes this disease as a disease can one be free from the disease.
The sage is free from the disease.
Because he recognizes this disease to be disease, he is free from it.
Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)
I would like to propose three of the possible ways in which this chapter might be understood.
This can be seen as a continuation of the ideas presented in the previous chapter. There, Lao Tzu said that although his doctrines are easy to understand and practice, there is no one who can do that; and that since he is known and understood by only a few, he is highly valued. He concluded by saying that the precious treasure which is the essence of the sage is obscured by what seems to be a covering of coarse cloth.
In this chapter he is telling us that since we may not be able to understand and practice his doctrines and because we are often unable to see the hidden values of what may seem common or unappealing, we should just accept that. There is no reason to pretend that we know or understand the concepts. As we discussed in looking at the last chapter, they are not even concepts which are amenable to understanding through reason or human “knowledge.” It is a disease – a disease of the Ego – that makes the non-sages among us think (and thinking is a problem) that an understanding of the ineffable in human terms is something that should be sought.
The true sages have developed immunity to that disease.
The concepts here are similar to those discussed back in Chapter 22. I would like to quote what was said there about the Western sage, Socrates:
“One of [Socrates’] best known traits was his assertion that he did not know anything. Comparing himself to an ordinary mortal, he stated, ‘This man, on one hand, believes that he knows something, while not knowing anything. On the other hand, I – equally ignorant – do not believe that I know anything.’ At the heart of that self-effacing statement is the understanding that Socrates must have been the smartest person in the world because he knew that he knew nothing; and thus he knew one more thing than everyone else.
Socrates, it is said, tried to find someone wiser than himself, looking at politicians, poets and craftsmen. He found that politicians claimed wisdom, but they had no knowledge (pretty much like modern times, isn’t it?). Poets could touch people with their words, but did not know their meaning. The knowledge of craftsmen was limited to narrow and specific fields.
Like the Master discussed by Lao Tzu in this chapter, Socrates was widely recognized for his wisdom and truth, while taking no personal credit for his achievements. A famous story tells of one of his contemporaries asking the Oracle of Delphi if there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The answer given was, ‘No human is wiser.’ (Think about that.)”
The words of Lao Tzu in this chapter show that Eastern and Western sages have many similarities. They are only human, after all.
This is an approach that was suggested by a note in Wing-Tsit Chan’s translation and required a bit of digging to try to make sense of it. All of the quotes here are from Chan’s book, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (1963).
The premise that a wise person does not pretend to know things he or she does not is similar to the teachings of Confucius. We find this language in Analects 2:17-18:
“Confucius said, ‘Yu, shall I teach you [the way to acquire] knowledge? To say that you know when you do know and say that you do not know when you do not know – that is [the way to acquire] knowledge. . . . Hear much and put aside what’s doubtful while you speak cautiously of the rest. . . . See much and put aside what seems perilous while you are cautious in carrying the rest into practice. When one’s words give few occasions for blame and his acts give few occasions for repentance – there lies his emolument.”
Keeping those thoughts in mind, we will now consider a much later work called “Instructions for Practical Living” by Wang Yang-Ming, who lived from 1472-1529, and whose ideas “dominated” (according to Chan) Chinese thought until the beginning of the 18th Century. The following is from that work:
“But people today distinguish between knowledge and action and pursue them separately, believing that one must know before he can act. They will discuss and learn the business of knowledge first, they say, and wait till they truly know before they put their knowledge into practice. Consequently, to the last day of life, they will never act and also never know. The doctrine of knowledge first and action later is not a minor disease [note: compare this to the disease Lao Tzu mentions in this chapter] and did not come about only yesterday. My present advocacy of the unity of knowledge and action is precisely the medicine for that disease. The doctrine is not my baseless imagination, for it is the original substance of knowledge and action that they are one. Now that we know this basic purpose, it will do no harm to talk about them separately, for they are only one. If the basic purpose is not understood, however, even if we say they are one, what is the use? It is just idle talk.”
So, the Confucian belief was that there should be a correspondence between one’s actions and his words – or between what a person knows and what he does. Wang Yang-Ming here takes the next step and says that it is more than correspondence. Rather, what one knows and what one does are the same.
Applying this idea to Lao Tzu’s words of some 2,000 years earlier, we could conclude that the intellectual exercise of pretending to have knowledge that one does not have is belied by the actions of that person. A sage acts like a sage. A pretender acts like a pretender. That pretense breeds dis-ease – and likely physical infirmity and disease, though that is probably not what is meant in this chapter.
I do not believe these three approaches are inconsistent or mutually exclusive, so I do not want to choose among them. After all, I certainly don’t know.