Chapter 54 – How do You Know?
He who is well established (in Tao) cannot be pulled away.
He who has a firm grasp (of Tao) cannot be separated from it.
Thus from generation to generation his ancestral sacrifice will never be suspended.
When one cultivates virtue in his person, it becomes genuine virtue.
When one cultivates virtue in his family, it becomes overflowing virtue.
When one cultivates virtue in his community, it becomes lasting virtue.
When one cultivates virtue in his country, it becomes abundant virtue.
When one cultivates virtue in the world, it becomes universal.
Therefore the person should be viewed as a person.
The family should be viewed as a family.
The community should be viewed as a community.
The country should be viewed as a country.
And the world should be viewed as the world.
How do I know this to be the case in the world?
Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)
Now you’re probably wondering by now
Just what this song is all about
What’s probably got you baffled more
Is what this thing here is for.
It’s something I learned over in England.
Bob Dylan, “I Shall Be Free No. 10” (1964)
Until the last two lines of this chapter, it could almost be read as a Confucian text. Confucius taught of a social morality within a hierarchy of relationships. The individual has certain responsibilities to his family. Each family owes duties to the community. The communities are responsible to the country or kingdom. And the kingdom should assume its proper role within the greater world.
Confucius did not believe that humans are capable understanding the divine. Therefore, the proper focus of each of us is the world around us. The goal of this life is to take the actions necessary for each of us to achieve our highest purpose as a person (jen). Since we cannot understand sacred time and sacred space, our ordinary worldly time and space essentially become the sacred.
The most sacred of all was seen as the family and the relationship among family members. Those relationships are the template for all social relationships from inter-personal to inter-national. Thus, if each of us acts to his or her highest potential we will live in a world in which virtue is abundant and society is in harmony.
From that perspective, it may not even be necessary to consider the interactions of kings and nations. What the individual can control is his or her own virtue – and that is enough to begin the entire process.
Lao Tzu also adopted this line of thought, at least in its first stages. He has said throughout the Tao Te Ching that each person must reach his own understanding and act according to the Way of Tao – a way that is expressed through individual virtue (Te).
Of course there are differences between Lao Tzu’s approach and that of Confucius.
Confucians believed much more that rites and ritual are necessary to express and cultivate virtue. Lao Tzu did not emphasize those practices. The first three lines seem to try to reconcile these two lines of thought, but they were probably added sometime after the original text.
The most, shall we say, “Taoist” part of this chapter appears to be the last two lines. The text leading to them has postulated that individual virtue and virtuous action can lead to a better world. How do we know this? In Wing-Tsit Chan’s translation, above, he answers, “Through this.”
To some, that answer leaves a little bit of uncertainty. I have reviewed several translations to see how that question was answered by others, including the following:
James Legge (1891): “By this.” That doesn’t add much clarity, does it?
Witter Bynner (1944): “Because it could all begin in me.” Not satisfying. The previous lines have already told us that not only could it; it does begin there.
D. C. Lau (1963): “By means of this.” Like Dylan’s song says, what has us baffled is just what the this that keeps turning up is or is for.
Stephen Mitchell (1988): “By looking inside myself.” To me that sounds like something Lao Tzu would think. However, it seems an interpretation and not a translation. Still, it is helpful and there is much to learn from that thought.
Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng (1989): “By looking.” Awareness is the way in which much of the Tao is brought into each of our lives, and we become aware by looking – and listening and touching and smelling and feeling – and then interpreting.
J. H. McDonald (1996): “I observe these things and see.” The same concept as English and Feng, and it is more satisfying than some of the earlier translations.
Ron Hogan (2004): “I just do.” In Chapter 49, Lao Tzu said that the sage deals with the people as his children. I guess that gives him the right to tell them, “Because I said so; that’s why.”
Setting my flippancy aside, I really do like Mr. Hogan’s answer to this question best. I find it firmly rooted in the Tao because it brings to mind a famous story from Chuang Tzu. It seems that Chuang Tzu and his friend were walking by a river when Chuang Tzu commented how happy the fish were that day. His friend took exception and said, “Since you are not a fish, how do you know what makes them happy?”
Chuang Tzu replied, “Since you are not me, how can you know whether I know what makes a fish happy?”
The friend said, “That is exactly my point. Just as I am not you and cannot know what you know, you are not a fish and cannot know what a fish feels.”
Chuang Tzu said, “Wait a minute. Let’s go back to your original question. You asked, ‘How do you know what makes them happy?’ So we both agree that I do know what makes fish happy. Now I am going to respond directly to your question and tell you how I know. I know the joy the fish feel in the river from my own joy in walking next to it.”