Chapter 32 – Taking Names
Tao is eternal and has no name
Though its simplicity seems insignificant, none in the world can master it.
If kings and barons would hold on to it, all things would submit to them spontaneously.
Heaven and earth unite to drip sweet dew. Without the command of men, its drips evenly over all.
As soon as there were regulations and institutions, there were names.
As soon as there are names, know that it is time to stop.
It is by knowing when to stop that one can be free from danger.
Analogically, Tao in the world may be compared to rivers and streams running into the sea.
Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)
In the previous three chapters, Lao Tzu has told us that a ruler will have, at best, limited success if he or she attempts to exert control by force, by war or rebellion or through the use of weapons. Well, then, the enlightened ruler might ask, how in the world should I govern?
Anyone who has read to this point in the Tao Te Ching would immediately answer: Duhhhh! The answer is appropriate both because it is so obvious and because words are inadequate. Once again, the Old Sage is telling the ruler to follow the Tao and the ways of nature. If a state were governed according to the Tao, all things – not just all persons – would follow of their own accord, with no need for force or violence or coercion.
Again, too, we are told that the Tao makes no distinctions, as its sweet dew drips evenly over all of the 10,000 things. This is similar to Jesus’ admonition during the Sermon on the Mount: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain to the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)
In these words, Jesus seems to make a distinction between you and your enemies, between the righteous and the unrighteous. Actually, though, he is also telling us that such distinctions are human constructs that are meaningless to the Father and to the Tao. In order to be considered righteous or just or evil or an enemy, a person must be judged by some set of rules, regulations or institutions. From those human means of ordering the world, distinctions are made and names given.
Can there be rules and names that are actually in accord with the Nameless? In other words, is it not realistic to recognize that no society can long exist in a state of anarchy? There are probably Taoists (or Tea Party activists) who will say that any attempt by humans to control their society is contrary to the natural law. However, here Lao Tzu seems to say a government should know when to stop regulating, rather than that there should be no regulation. His work is on some levels a pragmatic one, after all.
Now for a bit of a digression: Thinking about names and the Nameless has reminded me of the old Leadbelly standard, “There’s a Man Going ‘Round Taking Names.” The verses are all very similar to the first verse, which goes:
There’s a man going ’round taking names
There’s a man going ’round taking names
He’s been taking my father’s name
An’ he left my heart in vain
There’s a man going ’round taking names.
The song never tells who that “man” is; but you get the idea that it might be the angel of death, who has come calling for the singer’s father, mother, brother, etc*. That idea is reinforced by the fact that the Library of Congress, in its Vance Randolph Collection, has a version of the song that is entitled “Angel of Death.”
Vance Randolph was a folklorist who spent his career collecting songs, stories and folklore from the Ozark Mountains. Beginning in the 1920s, he wrote numerous books and articles, one of which was a national best seller – Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales (1976).** His collecting of this song indicates that it had probably been around for a good long time before it was recorded by Leadbelly. A lot of Leadbelly’s songs were like that.
Thinking about the song in the context of the Tao, it seems interesting that when the death angel comes for a person, he takes that person’s name. As this life ends, the name is no longer needed and the person again becomes a part of the Nameless.
Finally, I have a tale from the Ozarks that fits with this being Christmas week (which is part of my excuse for being late with a Tao Te Ching Tuesday essay). My wife and I were in a gift shop in Branson, Missouri, while vacationing in the Ozarks. At one end of the store was a “Christmas Shoppe” where there were ornaments and an interesting manger scene. It showed the baby Jesus with Mary and Joseph, shepherds, animals, a manger and three men dressed in firefighter uniforms. I remarked that I did not understand what the firefighters were supposed to symbolize, and the clerk, in a heavy Ozark drawl, told me, “It’s not a symbol. It’s just lahke in the Bahble.” [The long “i” came out as an “ah.”]
“I don’t remember that part of the Bible,” I said. “Where would I find it?”
He replied, “It’s the part that says the three wise men had just come from a far.” [Remember, the long “i” as an “ah.”]
* Compare this interpretation to Johnny Cash’s song “The Man Comes Around,” which is based on the Book of Revelation.
** This is basically a collection of off-color jokes told to Randolph by Ozark old-timers, but the public seemed to like it enough to buy it back in the mid-70s. Those were earthy times.