Chapter 77 – The Mean
Heaven’s Way is indeed like the bending of a bow.
When (the string) is high, bring it down.
When it is low, raise it up. When it is excessive, reduce it.
When it is insufficient, supplement it.
The Way of Heaven reduces whatever is excessive and supplements whatever in insufficient.
The way of man is different. It reduces the insufficient to offer to the excessive.
Who is able to have excess to offer to the world? Only the man of Tao.
Therefore the sage acts, but does not rely on his own ability.
He accomplishes his task, but does not claim credit for it.
He has no desire to display his excellence.
Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)
If these words sound familiar, it is possibly because we have heard them before. Look at the last lines in the translation above and compare them with the following language in Chan’s translation of Chapter 2:
“He acts, but does not rely on his own ability.
He accomplishes his task, but does not claim credit for it.”
In Chapter 10 of Chan’s translation, we find: “To act, but not rely on one’s own ability.” His translation of Chapter 51 includes: “[Tao] acts, but does not rely on its own ability.”
The beginning lines in this chapter also come with some familiarity. In the comments on Chapter 9, I mentioned the similarity between aspects of Tao and the Middle Way of Buddhism and Aristotle’s Golden Mean. The first four lines seem to follow that line of thought.
The fifth and sixth lines tell us that the way of man generally does not follow that “middle way.” Rather, those that have take from those who do not have – the rich get rich and the poor stay poor. This, too, has been said previously; as recently as Chapter 75.
However, I think that rather than a simple repetition of ideas, this chapter is included to make a particular point. For reasons that will become clear in the following discussion, it also seems that it was probably added sometime after Lao Tzu’s original writing.
The language here can be read as responsive to the Confucian “Doctrine of the Mean.” I say “Confucian,” but Confucius did not speak much on the subject. In the Analects, the only mention seems to be in Chapter 6:29: “The Master said, the virtue embodied in the doctrine of the Mean is of the highest order. But it has long been rare among people.” (Translation by Burton Watson (2006)).
Perhaps one reason that the Analects do not discuss the doctrine further is mentioned in Chapter 5:12: “Tzu-Kung said, ‘We can hear our Master’s [views] on culture and its manifestation, but we cannot hear his views on human nature and the Way of Heaven [because these subjects are beyond the comprehension of most people].’” (Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)).
Simply because Confucius might have believed that the subject was too esoteric for the majority of us, some dared to consider it and within a century or two after Confucius, the first versions of the classic called The Doctrine of the Mean were formulated. This was traditionally attributed to Confucius’ grandson, but is probably the work of various thinkers.
Discussing The Doctrine of the Mean is beyond the scope of this essay, but two paragraphs from Wing-Tsit Chan’s A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (1963) are helpful in understanding how it fits into the thoughts expressed in this chapter:
“Even before this Classic attracted the Neo-Confucianists, its subtle doctrines had strong appeal to both Taoists and Buddhists. From the fourth to the eleventh century, Taoist and Buddhist scholars wrote commentaries on it, and one Buddhist monk in the eleventh century called himself by the name of the book. It formed a bridge between Taoism and Buddhism and the Confucian school and in this way prepared for the influence of Buddhism and Taoism on Confucianism, thus ushering in the Neo-Confucian movement.
“What attracted the Taoists, Buddhists, and the Neo-Confucianists were the two main subjects of the book, the very subjects on which Confucius’ pupils ‘could not hear his views,’ namely human nature and the Way of Heaven. Human nature, endowed by Heaven, is revealed through the states of equilibrium and harmony, which are themselves the ‘condition of the world’ and the ‘universal path.’ The Way of Heaven transcends time, space, substance and motion, and is at the same time unceasing, eternal and evident.” (at Page 95)
This Chapter 77 contrasts the Way of Heaven with the way of man. The Way of Heaven is seen as seeking balance and moderation, while man is perceived as disrupting the natural balance for the benefit of the rich and powerful – and to the detriment of the poor and weak. Here, though, a third way is proposed, the way of a sage.
“Who is able to have excess to offer the world? Only the man of Tao.” A “man of Tao” is a person who acts with the virtue of Te. So, does this imply that the hermit Taoist sages living in mountain caves horded huge sums of gold and money that can be given to the poor?
No. Sages in general may have developed their spirituality to the extent that it can be offered to the betterment of mankind, but most are in no position to resolve the world’s material problems and inequalities. In ancient China, only the ruler – the prince or emperor – could make that kind of difference in the lives of the people.
Perhaps, then, this chapter, like Chapter 75, is advice given to the ruler by the sage. That advice is to rule like a sage (like Plato’s philosopher-king), and follow the Way of Heaven so that the people may do likewise.
Keep in mind, though, that, as mentioned in Chapter 73, the Way of Heaven and the way of man both differ from the eternal Tao, which precedes and forms all other “ways.” In Chapter 34 we learned that Tao flows unobstructed in every direction. It is present in the Way of Heaven and the way of man, in excess and in deficiency, in the high and the low. It is present in a way that is, indeed, beyond, the comprehension of most of us mortals; although most of us can see the wisdom of the suggestion given to the ruler here.
Let me close by quoting an e. e. cummings poem:
“when any mortal(even the most odd)
can justify the ways of man to God
i’ll think it strange that normal mortals can
not justify the ways of God to man”