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)

Delphi-Temple of ApolloTo 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 Millman, Way of the Peaceful WarriorWay 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:

 plato told 

him:he couldn’t
believe it(jesus

 told him;he
wouldn’t believe

certainly told
him, and general

and even
(believe it

told him:I told
him;we told him
(he didn’t believe it, no 

sir)it took
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.]

10 thoughts on “CHAPTER 22 – SOCRATES

  1. Hey there, Louis! Loved this. We just watched Peaceful Warrior (the film) this weekend with my Dad and I got a little teary, hugged my husband (for choosing the movie to play with my dad) and said that I just loved this movie. It’s a goodie.

    I love how you tied in Socrates to the Dan Millman version. Perfect.

    • Amy, It has been a few years since i watched the movie. I remember enjoying it, but thinking the book was better. An interesting (to me, anyway) sidelight is Dan Millman’s later book The Journeys of Socrates, which tells a version of his mentor’s life story. The edition which I think is the most recent has an excerpt from my email to Dan on the second or third page. If you would like, you can read that quote here. It isn’t much, but it may be my best claim to fame.

  2. Pingback: CHAPTER 47 - INNER LIGHT |

  3. Pingback: CHAPTER 66 - ONLY THE LOWLY |

  4. Pingback: CHAPTER 71 - I KNOW NOTHING |

  5. I know it has been 4 years since this blog entry was posted and I have no idea if you read these replies anymore. First I wanted to say thank you for your blog and thoughts on the Tao. I just found this site and love what you write. We find our teachers everywhere if we look for them. Secondly I would like to weigh in on your thoughts about the first section, “if you want to become”. You state that the first few lines recognize that change is inevitable. I’m sorry but I don’t read in these lines. I don’t see how you make that conclusion; which word/s indicate that this is about changing from one condition to the other. I recognize that change is inevitable and that the empty will become full and so on. The words “If you want to become … ” whole, straight, etc, tells me that this section is about wanting to better oneself, so as to follow the Tao closely. The way to accomplish this is to first experience the complementary quality. Only knowing what it feels like to be empty will you know what it is to be whole.

    Thanks again, Lance.

    • Lance, thank you for your thoughts, and your kind words.

      Throughout my comments on the Tao Te Ching I have emphasized that the translation of the text is very difficult, and I have a great deal of respect for those who have undertaken that task. This chapter is a good example of how difficult interpretation can be; and in hindsight I think I should have chosen a translation other than McDonald’s as the starting point for my comments.

      As I understand, a literal translation of the beginning of this chapter would be something like: bent in contrast to whole, in the wrong in contrast to straight, sunken area in contrast to filled …. That language does not necessarily include the concept of “if you want to become” as McDonald has phrased it, and other translations I have looked at do not include it. For example, James Legge’s version begins: “The partial becomes complete; the crooked, straight; the empty, full; the worn out, new,” emphasizing the changing itself rather than a desire to change.

      Until you raised this point, I had not thought that it really mattered because toward the end of the chapter, we are told that the sayings at the beginning are ancient aphorisms, and it seems that the middle section of this chapter contains Lao Tzu’s thoughts about them, and about the Sage who does not want anything from the world.

      Does that make sense? I could go on and on. One thing about the Tao Te Ching is that it has so many nuances that it can be overwhelming in its simplicity.

      You might also look at Chapter 66 for some other thoughts on the humility that is attributed to the Sage here.

  6. Thanks so much for replying and for the excellent explanation. Although words are limiting, a conversation can be very useful in coming to an understanding. This is the first time I was able to discuss thoughts I have concerning Taoism with someone with great knowledge (even though a Taoist would say he/she has no knowledge and to discard it). and experience.

    I have only read 2 translations of the Tao Te Ching carefully, Mitchell’s and Derek Lin’s, so my background is weak. Thanks for being a teacher. Lance

    • When I was writing these commentaries, I looked at one chapter a week (more or less) for a little over a year and a half. Each week, I would read several different translations or interpretations to help me organize my thoughts. As you probably know, there are literally hundreds available.

      Fortunately, most of the “classic” translations, like those of Legge and Waley and those folks are available on the internet; and some websites have set some of them out side by side for comparison. Mitchell and Lin are much more modern and they seem to have a somewhat different approach or way of thinking than some of the “classic” translations from the 19th Century. I have been impressed with Lin’s translation. Stephen Mitchell is a little different because, as I understand, he does not read Chinese so his so-called “translation” is actually a paraphrase of translations by various scholars. Wayne Dyer did pretty much the same thing in his Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life, as did my friend Amy Putkonen on her Tao Te Ching Daily website.

      I think that my favorite translation is that done by Princeton professor Wing-tsit Chan in the 1960s. It is available in a book, with commentary, called The Way of Lao Tzu, or with less commentary in a text book, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. I actually prefer the Source Book because if you want you can see how this work fits into several thousand years of Chinese thought. And Wing-tsit Chan’s translation without the commentary can be found on the internet, of course.

      A very interesting, but probably not completely accurate, translation is that done by Witter Bynner. Bynner studied in China for a couple of years in the 1920s, so he learned the language; and he was a good poet, so he makes the words flow well. I wrote a little more about Bynner in my comments on Chapter 43.

      Good luck with your studies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *