Chapter 81 – Beautiful Words

True words are not beautiful;
Beautiful words are not true.
A good man does not argue;
He who argues is not a good man.
A wise man has no extensive knowledge;
He who has extensive knowledge is not a wise man.
The sage does not accumulate for himself.
The more he uses for others, the more he possesses of his own.
The Way of Heaven is to benefit others and not to injure.
The Way of the sage is to act but not to compete.

Translation by Wing-Tsit Chan (1963)

This final chapter of the Tao Te Ching contains several brief generalizations that are probably good to keep in mind, can be applied in a variety of circumstances and each could be discussed for pages. They do not, however, seem to add much, if anything, to what we have been told in the earlier chapters.

Tracing of an engraving of Sosibios vase by John Keats (from Wikipedia)

Tracing of an engraving of Sosibios vase by John Keats (from Wikipedia)

For my initial pass at interpretation, I would like to continue the fiction that the Tao Te Ching was composed sequentially, as a book, by a single sage named Lao Tzu. As the last chapter, this would be sort of an epilogue written to bring closure to the work. Seen in that light, Lao Tzu would be saying something like:

Back in Chapter 1 I told you that the Tao that can be expressed in words is not the true Tao. In this book I have written as well as I know how, but words are limited and only approximate the truth. I have not tried to argue with any other schools of philosophy. My own knowledge base is limited, but is focused on the things about which I have written. I wanted to share those with you, my readers. If I had kept them to myself, it would be of benefit to no one.

Perhaps I should leave it at that and spend a few paragraphs as my own epilogue concerning what I have done and learned as a result of writing about Lao Tzu’s beautiful words for well over a year and a half. However, I will leave that for another day and use this space to express a few thoughts on the first two lines of the chapter: “True words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not true.”

Anyone who has ever taken a college or high school class on English poetry, is certainly reminded of the last lines of John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – that is all/Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” At first glance, Keats seems to have directly contradicted Lao Tzu. Is one of these great men right and the other wrong, or can they be reconciled?

It could be pointed out that Keats was only 23 or 24 years old when he wrote his poem. Kids do say things like that while they are still idealistic and not quite schooled in the ways of the world. That would be the easy way out, though. It is more intellectually honest (which probably differs from “truth”) to try for a reconciliation.

Lao Tzu is writing here about true words and beautiful words, while Keats was considering the concepts of truth and beauty. Perhaps, then, it is the words that are once again the culprit in Lao Tzu’s mind. That idea was discussed in Chapter 80, and there is no reason to repeat it here, so let me quote an even more modern poet, Leonard Cohen. In one of the verses of his song, “Hallelujah,” he sings:

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well, really, what’s it to ya?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah.”

Let us assume that Cohen is correct in his observation and that words are exonerated. That would seem to return us to the substance of what Lao Tzu and Keats have said – though the sustance is going to be seen a dependent on the form, for the purposes of this essay.

In Keats’ poem, the phrase “beauty is truth, truth beauty” is presented in quotation marks; and nothing else in the poem is presented as a quotation. That leads us to ask who or what is saying those words.

It is the Grecian urn, itself, speaking to the narrator. The urn is a piece of clay, shaped by man and painted with images by the hand of man. It and its images are a representation of life – they are not true life. The words are beautiful, as spoken by an object created to represent a human concept of beauty, but they are not the Truth. They may reflect what we need to know on earth, but as words they do not express what Lao Tzu calls Tao.

His Tao is the Way of Nature. A piece of human art is a step or two separated from Nature.

As should be expected in a commentary about the Tao Te Ching, the conclusion is that we should accept what the Old Master has related to us. We won’t blame or criticize young Keats for what his poem expresses. We will, however, take any comments that are made by pottery with at least a grain of salt.

5 thoughts on “CHAPTER 81 – BEAUTIFUL WORDS

  1. Thanks, Louis, it’s been good. As a piece of common clay pottery baked from the ephemeral dust I’ll leave here with a few observations and some quotes, all words, pointing to the path and that place upon it where words are superfluous and salt is… salt. Namaste’, Louis.

    No-one is taught. Everyone learns. Yet we desire to be teachers rather than learners. Control is confined to a very small part of the universe; for the rest, it’s irrelevant. It’s not so hard to go against conventional wisdom if you know the difference. In a world where lies are sold wholesale to eager consumers, never settle for less than the truth. Find friendship, and love, and solve the mystery of life; Live. Be an outlaw, living beyond the borders of boss and mob in open spaces and far horizons. Humanity as an organism in the universe may or may not solve the conundrum of its dualistic fatal flaw. The universe is full of systems which rise to high levels of organization and then fall to new beginnings. The machineries of the self-righting cosmos balance all things in abiding harmony.

    “…the aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware – joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” (Henry Miller) … “In a conformist society, the attainment of that joyous, drunken, serene awareness is both an act of resistance and a personal achievement, for it says to hell with Caesar and his tawdry coin, and leaves each of us to invest life with all the intangible and unaccountable forms of wealth that the imperial minions in their counting house can scarcely begin to imagine.” (John Burnside)

    “Be a first rate version of yourself, not a second rate version of someone else.” (Judy Garland)

    “I suddenly realized… that everything actually was all-meaningful, that every symbol and combination of symbols led not hither and yon, not to single examples, experiments, and proofs, but into the center, the mystery and innermost heart of the world, into primal knowledge. Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with truly a meditative mind, nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created.” (Hermann Hesse)

    • This may be the beginning of my epilogue: If I have learned one thing from studying the Tao Te Ching, and I think I have (finally), it is that if I intend to make a comment in a WordPress blog or site I should draft it in a word processing program and then copy it to the blog comment. WordPress does a great job of saving drafts of an original post, but any mistake made in the comments can easily make the whole comment disappear. I was in the middle of a lengthy reply to what you have said here, referring to papers that were presented at the East-West Philosophers’ Conferences held at the University of Hawaii in 1939, 1949, 1959 and 1964 and collected in a book called The Chinese Mind, when I hit some wrong key and everything disappeared. I guess that is Nature’s way of telling me that I was being too wordy.

      Let me replace all that I thought I was going to say with a quotation that came into my head when I was reading what you have written here. It is from Willa Cather’s great episodic novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. The “Archbishop” of the title is named Jean Marie Latour, and his character is based on the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, who was the first apostolic vicar and then bishop and then archbishop in Santa Fe and the vast surrounding area after the US had taken control following the Mexican War. The last chapter is set after Latour has retired. He remained involved in Church matters and especially in the training of new priests coming into the territory. After one long trip to an outlying parish, he returned home through inclement weather and became ill. His assistant told him not to worry because no one ever dies from a cold. And now the quote: “The old man smiled. ‘I shall not die of a cold, my son. I shall die of having lived.’”

  2. Like the chalk painter who spends days drawing a beautiful mandala, only to let time and the elements wear it away to nothing in less time than it took to create it, you have thus completed this beautiful rendition of your version of the Tao Te Ching.

    I feel that a moment of silence is in order to honor this quest, and its completion.

    • Again, Amy, thanks for coming up with the idea for this project. It would have been nice if there were a few more people who had written more or less regularly on the Tao Te Ching, as I do find the perspectives of others to be helpful and interesting. Of course, the research I did for the various essays was helpful and interesting; so I certainly learned some things.

      Actually, I am not quite finished with this project. I do want to write a brief epilogue, but I will wait until after the Holidays.

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