Chapter 20 – I Alone
A life without cultivation
has no center.
All the people
are happily busying themselves
with celebration and feasting on life,
taking in the sights like its springtime.
I, alone, stay calm and centered
with no desires like a newborn
who has not yet learned to smile.
Lazy, as if I have nowhere to go.
All the people
possess more than enough,
while I appear
to be left behind.
My mind remains foolish,
indeed very blank.
Most people shine bright.
I, alone, am dark and dim.
People of the world
are sharp and alert.
am withdrawn and quiet,
drifting like the ocean –
like a breeze with no place to go.
Most people have purpose,
While I, alone,
seem playful and unrefined.
I am different from most people
in that I draw my sustenance
from the Great Mother.
This Chapter 20 is a strange one. Various commentators have suggested that it was not part of the original text but was added later by some long forgotten “editor.” I do not read ancient Chinese, so I can’t comment on stylistic differences that may appear in this chapter, but it certainly has a different tone from other chapters in translations I have read.
The translation here is taken from Amy Putkonen’s Tao Te Ching Daily website, and is very much in the mainstream of how this chapter is seen by modern readers. Actually, I was tempted to refer to Dwight Goddard’s 1919 translation, which renders the chapter as follows:
Avoid learning if you would have no anxiety. The “yes” and the “yea” differ very little, but the contrast between good and evil is very great. That which is not feared by the people is not worth fearing. But, oh, the difference, the desolation, the vastness, between ignorance and the limitless expression of the Tao.
(The balance of this sonnet is devoted to showing the difference between the careless state of the common people and his own vision of the Tao. It is one of the most pathetic expressions of human loneliness, from lack of appreciation, ever written. It is omitted here that it might serve for the closing sonnet and valedictory.)
It is easy to see how one might view Chapter 20 as a “pathetic expression of human loneliness,” though I don’t really care to engage in that discussion right now.
It would perhaps be more interesting to consider why Goddard thought he was reading a sonnet – which is a form of poetry written in 14 lines with a specific scheme of rhymes. The sonnet was invented in Italy and has been widely used by English and Urdu poets, as well as by modern poets writing in various languages. It certainly was not a form written in China thousands of years ago.
The reference to a sonnet, though, did make me think of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 79, which begins: “Whilst I alone didst call upon thy aid,/My verse alone had all thy gentle grace.” That sonnet is a part of the “Fair Youth” sequence in which Shakespeare repeatedly expresses his love for a young man. In Sonnet No. 79, it seems the young man is his patron and has been providing monetary support for the poet. However, the patron seems to have found another poet whom he favors over the Bard, causing Shakespeare to lament that his words were inadequate. Sonnet 79 may legitimately be seen as a pathetic expression of human loneliness.
The words in this chapter also reminded me of the 1994 song “I Alone” by the alternative rock band Live. The song seems deliberately undeveloped and ambiguous, but it does convey a feeling of pathetic human loneliness.
So, maybe it is simply the words “I alone” that cause Chapter 20 to invoke the pathetic human loneliness motif. There is more meaning to these words, however. I believe the sage is telling us that we will not find the true Way by following the masses and trying to be popular and well-versed on the latest fad. The true Way is not out there – wherever “there” may be. It lies within; and there is not room for many other people within you or me.
The same sentiment is expressed in the Gospel of St. Matthew, 7:13 and 14:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
Another expression is found in the traditional gospel song, “Lonesome Valley,” which tells us:
You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley.
You’ve got to walk it by yourself.
There ain’t nobody else goin’ to be there for you.
You’ve got to go there by yourself.
Now thinking about how these ideas might fit together has reminded me of a story I would like to share: A man died and was immediately transported to heaven, where he was greeted by God, himself, who took the man on a tour of his new home. He was shown beautiful mountains, majestic waterfalls, lush valleys and magnificent oceans. He saw myriad plants blooming around him and animals of all kinds. He was inspired by the blue skies and golden sun in this eternal paradise. God then said, “You’ve had a rough day. You must be hungry.” The man agreed that he was, so God said, “Let me open a can of soup.” The man was surprised and asked, “What? Do we really have to eat canned soup in heaven?” God replied, “Well, it’s hardly worth cooking for just the two of us.”
Returning to Dwight Goddard before I end this piece, I find it interesting that a second edition of his Tao Te Ching translation was published in 1939, and the second time around he did include the full translation of Chapter 20 without his editorial comments. In the ensuing 20 years, he had converted from Buddhism to Christianity. Perhaps that is relevant because the translation he gave does not seem pathetic or lonely. It goes like this:
Abandon your acquired learning and do not regret the loss. There is very little difference between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, but what a vast difference between a good man and a wicked man. There are some things (like suffering and death) which are universally feared and which it is natural to fear, but woe to those ignorant people who desire and grasp after amusements and defilements (the very things that cause suffering and death). People are busy with enjoyments as if they were celebrating a feast day, or as if they were flocking to the games. I, alone, am as fresh as the morning air, as pure as a babe in its mother’s arms, as free as a homeless wanderer. Other people are admired and envied because of their cleverness; I, alone, am neglected. Am I (because of this) foolish at heart? No! Let them be as smart and aggressive as ever; I am content to remain retiring and obscure. Let them continue to be as sensible and prudent as ever; let me remain as neglected as a deaf-mute. Nevertheless, I am as pure as the water in the ocean and as free as the driftwood upon its bosom. Let others have their means for acquiring wealth, I am content to be counted foolish and inefficient. I seem to stand in contrast to common people, empty and foolish, but I am nourished by food from Mother TAO.