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.
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.