Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), a new translation

“Man is the outcome of the greatest revolt in the history of matter.”
Henri Wald

Daodejing (Laozi): A Complete Translation and Commentary by Hans-Georg Moeller. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2007. Table of contents.

The book consists of a new translation accompanied by chapter-by-chapter commentary, with a postscript on the significance of the recent archaeological discovery of earlier versions of the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching in the old transliteration) than those previously known to be extant. Moeller draws on previous translations, but the new one is his own. He mentions terminological and grammatical issues and explains his decisions. His major terminological choice is to translate “te” neither as “virtue” nor “power” but as “efficacy”.

I read quickly up to chapter 25. I can’t comment in any depth on the translation except that it reads clearly in English. He does not introduce difficult-to-read-innovations as one finds with the recent Hall and Ames translation of Dao (Tao in the old transliteration) as”way-making”. Moeller does not translate “Dao” at all (which is now commonly used as is in English) though he does give a preliminary explanation.

I am actually quite pleased with his commentary so far, above all for the absence of ideological manipulation and overinterpretation of the text all too characteristic of the agenda of western intellectuals infatuated with what they read into eastern wisdom, which is pretty disgusting when you examine them critically. Moeller emphasizes the recurrence of key symbols and points out what he considers to be pivotal chapters. He emphasizes the characteristics of agrarian society and their reflection in symbols of cycles, wheels, hubs, etc. His explanation of the notorious references to “straw dogs” in the famous chapter 5 is simple, concise, clarifying, and convincing.

His commentaries generally stick to rather fundamental points, issues, clarifications, without ideological overlays or propaganda, and very simply and clearly help give sense to what the text is aiming at. This is actually much more helpful than most of the ideological dross that accompanies western infatuation with this work.

Moeller’s comments on the Dao, focusing for example on the metaphor of the Dao as the hub of a wheel around which all motion revolves, helps to give an idea of the Dao as wholly immanent in the world, not prior to creation in the temporal sense, but indissolubly linked with the “ten thousand things” (the material universe) as an organic though obscure generative principle, having no determinate qualities itself yet inseparable from all the determinate entities and attributes of the world.

One can see why such a stripped-down metaphysics is so appealing: it is both a highly suggestive general metaphor and metaphysical principle abstracted from any specific claims about material reality. At first glance it appears as a relatively pure, naturalistic, atheological world view that presupposes practically nothing. But then one should ask—as western commentators never do—how in actuality such a minimalist metaphysics meaningfully connects to empirical reality. We westerners get away with this partially because we are accustomed to reading this text in abstraction from the traditions, institutions, material culture, science and pseudoscience, magical and religious practices in which it became embedded. It is a beautiful abstraction, up to a point, but then . . . . ?

This simplicity and clarity helps certain basic strategies of this Daoist foundational text to sink in. Interestingly, the contrast of Daoism with Confucianism is minimal, but coupled with an interpretation of the intent of various chapters, one gets a good feeling for what acting in accord with the Dao means as opposed to Confucian artifice. The curbing of egoistic passion, of interest in luxury, ostentation, wealth, and power, in favor of tending to basic needs and the self-regulation of body and spirit as the key to the proper ordering of society becomes clearer than ever before. Indeed, “wu wei”—to act spontaneously, without willfulness—becomes clearer as the key to regulation of self and hence social roles and relationships.

However, a discerning reader—i.e. none of the western apologists for Daoism—should also be able to discern more clearly what is wrong with this picture. It presupposes a static universe—just what one expects of agrarian society—and an unchanging, preexisting cosmic harmony which we need to observe and then fit ourselves into. And yet what is the specific human Dao within this cosmic scheme? While social criticism may be considered endemic to this world view—but then it would have to be part of all world views (even the most conservative) that aim to criticize the sources of social conflict—it is metaphysically almost as conservative as Confucianism though not nearly as insipid and reactionary—which helps to explain how the two could co-exist as well as compete for centuries to come.

Cultivation, ceremony, morality, and virtue all lauded by Confucianism are derided by Daoism as symptoms of the disease of social disorder—which makes Daoism look socially critical and even revolutionary—yet Daoism’s validation of nature as opposed to artifice yields no alternative view of social organization. There is no alternative to monarchy or the traditional patriarchal family structure; rather, if everyone seeks to live in harmony with the Dao, all these familial and social relationships will fall into place naturally, and no one need attempt to coerce or exploit anyone else.

Now, why feudal agrarian society could not get conceptually beyond this point is not a shocker, but why would modern westerners fall for this stuff uncritically, given our modern scientific knowledge and forms of social organization? At this point, I am moved to invoke the wisdom of Bernie Mac: “this is some bull!”

I have never found any insightful criticism of these deficiencies in any western commentary on this text—not of amateur enthusiasts, and not of qualified scholars, who regrettably double as propagandists (and contemporary Asians collude with the westerners in this ideological endeavor.) We generated more intelligent discussion of these issues in the last meetings of our Washington Philosophy Circle, devoted to this text, that took place in late spring of 2005, than all of the crap I’ve read on the subject heaped together, and we are all amateurs. I should dig up my notes and emails on the subject and publish them on my web site to accompany my scorching review of J. J. Clarke’s The Tao of the West, because you will grow old trying to find such analysis anywhere else.

If you never come into contact with Daoism as a religion—which is still practiced—and stick to this one text, you might be beguiled as so many westerners attempting an escape from their own repressive traditions into deeming this superior to the Abrahamic religions spewed out of the Middle East. However, the static cosmology of Asian world views in some respects is as bad or even worse than the oppressive weight of our own religious traditions. Curiously, all the nonsense spun about Asian mystical, philosophical, and religious traditions in the 20th century, when you come down to it, responds very well to our mechanistic existence which tends to blunt our own awareness of our distinctively human deliberative capacity to define what is uniquely ours and distinguishes us from the rest of mindless nature and life around us–to be distinctively ourselves, conscious beings with rational and ethical capacity and purpose to will into existence that which did not and could not exist on our planet without us, we who are the product of millions and millions of years of evolution, by chance provided with the barely used capacity to act with greater care and reflection than the rest of the monkeys.

Written 22 September 2007.
Originally posted on R. Dumain’s blog Studies in a Dying Culture on October 18th, 2008.
Chinese Philosophy.

Review of J. J. Clarke’s The Tao of the West
by R. Dumain

Discussion topic: Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching)
[The Book of the Way and Its Nature/Power/Virtue], foundational text of Taoism (Daoism)

(June 9, 2005)

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