Chapter 42 – Déja Vu

The Tao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand things.
The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.
They achieve harmony by combining these forces.

Men hate to be “orphaned,” “widowed,” or “worthless,”
But this is how kings and lords describe themselves.
 For one gains by losing
And loses by gaining.

 What others teach, I also teach; that is:
“A violent man will die a violent death!”
This will be the essence of my teaching.

Translation by Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng (1989)



This chapter addresses three separate concepts or principles that are only loosely related to each other.  It seems probable that at some time after the original compilation of the Tao Te Ching someone collected a few Taoist sayings and added this chapter to the manuscript.  These are all ideas that Lao Tzu discussed, but in fact they repeat what has already been presented in earlier chapters.

The first concept is that the Tao begot the one, which begot the two, which begot the three, which begot the 10,000 things.  We have already considered the cosmology that is expressed here back in Chapter 4; and rather than repeat it, I would refer you to that discussion

I would like to consider an additional concept.  In my reflection on Chapter 40 I mentioned that the philosophy of change as embodied in the I Ching is a clear outline of a dynamic and constantly changing universe.  Since the change is constant, the begetting of the one and the two and the three and the 10,000 is not a one-time occurrence.  Rather it is repeated over and over again in the physical universe in such a manner that the simple evolves to the complex.  Thus, this is sort of the Taoist expression of entropy.  More importantly, we see that the process and philosophy of change applies only to the physical.  The Tao begot the one which begot the two, etc.  However, the Tao is seen as a force or field that simply exists. There is nothing that begot the Tao.  The Tao (and that no-thing) are meta-physical (beyond the physical) and not subject to the dynamics of change.

The second concept repeats the importance of humility – especially, it seems, on the part of rulers or political leaders.  The words used here are very similar to those found in Chapter 39, so please see that discussion.

The third concept certainly seems to be of great importance, for the text says it is “the essence of [the] teaching” that “’a violent man will die a violent death.’”  That is certainly important and it is repeated and elaborated on many occasions in the Tao Te Ching.  The oft-repeated idea that one who lives by the sword shall die by the sword is certainly not unique to Taoism, as this chapter recognizes.  Here the sage tells us that “what others teach, I also teach.”

There is however a Taoist twist that is worth mentioning.  The Tao is the Natural way, and there is a Natural progression from birth into the stages of life and through death.  One who acts with violence is not following the way of Nature, so his own violent death is outside of the way Nature intends that we leave this life.  Still, it can be seen as a cause-effect relationship that follows its own nature (with a small “n” as opposed to a capital “N”).

Additional thoughts can be found in the discussion of Chapters 30 and 31.

So, as Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like déja vu all over again.”  Still, it is worth taking a good look at this chapter, for Yogi also recognized that “you can observe a lot just by watching.”

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