Chapter 22 – Socrates
If you want to become whole,
first let yourself become broken.
If you want to become straight,
first let yourself become twisted.
If you want to become full,
first let yourself become empty.
If you want to become new,
first let yourself become old.
Those whose desires are few get them,
those whose desires are great go astray.
For this reason the Master embraces the Tao,
as an example for the world to follow.
Because she isn’t self centered,
people can see the light in her.
Because she does not boast of herself,
she becomes a shining example.
Because she does not glorify herself,
she becomes a person of merit.
Because she wants nothing from the world,
the world can not overcome her.
When the ancient Masters said,
“If you want to become whole,
then first let yourself be broken,”
they weren’t using empty words.
All who do this will be made complete
Translation by J. H. McDonald (1996)
To begin our Tao Te Ching Tuesday consideration of Chapter 22, we should recall that last week I mentioned that while Taoist thought and the philosophy of the I Ching are different, they have many similarities. The first few lines of this chapter are obviously similar to the philosophy of change.
The I Ching teaches that change is eternal and universal. Its status as an oracle stems from the belief that understanding the nature of change allows for predictions of the future (though Yogi Berra has told us that predictions are difficult to make, especially about the future). The first few lines of this chapter recognize the same principle – that change is inevitable: the broken will become whole, the twisted will become straight, the empty will become full, the old will become new. And, of course, vice versa.
Moving on to the next lines, I am reminded of some ideas attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates. This great thinker lived one or two centuries after Lao Tzu and he left no writings whatsoever to pass on his ideas. Almost all that we know of him comes from writings of his students, primarily Plato and Xenophon.
Socrates could not be confused with a Taoist, but some of his thoughts are very similar to those of Lao Tzu. Since both were concerned universal truths, the similarities are not surprising.
Let us look at Lao Tzu’s statement that “those whose desires are few get them, those whose desires are great go astray.” Compare that to Socrates’ observation that, “He who is not contented with what he has would not be contented with what he would like to have.” We have been told many times that happiness comes from within, not from things which are found in the external world. Lao Tzu and Socrates are two of those who have told us.*
The next few lines in this chapter tell us that one who embraces the Tao becomes an example for the world without having to make himself or herself known to the world. Self-promotion and marketing are needs of the ego, not of the true self or the true Tao.
Again there is an analogy to Socrates. One of his 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.)
Of course, Socrates became so well known by doing nothing but claiming ignorance and asking questions that he made very powerful enemies. They were powerful enough that Socrates ultimately was forced to drift off into an eternal sleep with a nightcap of hemlock.
Another Socrates who was made known through literature is Dan Millman’s mentor in the Way of the Peaceful Warrior. In that book, Millman, a college student and world champion gymnast, happens to meet an old man who works the graveyard shift at a gas station in Berkeley. From that self-effacing position, this amazing person, who Millman calls “Socrates” since he doesn’t know his real name, teaches a natural, spiritual way – not unlike Lao Tzu’s Tao, but not quite the same – that brings profound changes to the author’s life and way of thinking. This modern Socrates, was not self-centered or boastful and did not glorify himself, but like the Master Lao Tzu refers to here, his light and wisdom was recognized and became a shining example for Dan Millman – and through his writing, for millions of others.
To close, I would like to offer two bits of advice – unsolicited, I know. First, if you ever get the chance to visit Delphi, do so. It is one of the most beautiful and mystical places I have ever seen. (The picture at the beginning of the essay is of the ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.) Next, if you have not read Way of the Peaceful Warrior, you might find it enjoyable. It is quick and easy read containing many important lessons.
* I am also reminded of the following poem by e. e. cummings:
him, and general
told him:I told
him;we told him
(he didn’t believe it, no
a nipponized bit of
the old sixth
el;in the top of his head:to tell
[While it is confusing, this is a very powerful poem. If anyone would like to discuss it further, please let me know.]