Daodejing Chapter 41: challenging conventional expectations

Richard Brown
3 min readJul 5, 2023

When the highest
Hear of the Dao,
They practice it diligently.
When the average
Hear of the Dao,
They get it one moment,
And miss it the next.
When the lowest
Hear of the Dao,
They laugh at it out loud.
Without that laughter,
It would not be the Dao.
An old saying goes:
The light of the Dao
Seems dim.
Advancing in the Dao
Seems like retreating.
The smooth path
Of the Dao
Seems rutted.
The highest power
Seems like a valley.
The purest white
Seems tarnished.
Abundant power
Seems insufficient.
Robust power
Seems fragile.
Pristine power
Seems soiled.
The great square
Has no corners.
The great vessel
Is unfinished.
Great music
Is faint.
The great image
Has no form.
The Dao is hidden
And nameless.
The Dao alone
Gives and completes.

「上士聞道,勤而行之;中士聞道,若存若亡;下士聞道,大笑之,不笑不足以為道。故建言有之,明道若昧,進道若退,夷道若纇,上德若谷,大白若辱,廣德若不足,建德若偷,質真若窬,大方無隅,大器晚(免)成,大音希聲,大象無形道隱無名,夫唯道善貸且成。」

No matter how compelling your “big idea” might be, it is impossible to persuade everyone to accept it. How do you go about promoting it so that it reaches the right people who will endorse it and accelerate its adoption amongst the benighted?

In Laozi’s case, he targets the “key influencers” of his day: the most intelligent and capable members of the educated or learned elite (士), comprising scholars, government officials, military officers, and gentry. To give them the justification they need to embrace it, he rolls out a long list of “ancient sayings” that attest to the amazing properties of the way and provide authenticity for his arguments. In a final clever spin, he makes his idea “exclusive” by challenging conventional expectations with provocative contentions that only those “in the know” are intelligent and discerning enough to understand.

Thus, he points out that the way seems dim, that it seems to retreat rather than move forward, and that it is uneven rather than smooth — cleverly positioning it as being so profound that it goes far beyond the bounds of other ideas or beliefs. If you can’t figure that out, how could you possibly consider themselves as a member of the top tier of the elite?

Laozi gives virtue (德) similar rhetorical treatment. It is not the gleaming golden tower on the horizon that most people would expect to see, but so full of boundless potential (empty as a valley), so plain and unremarkable (the purest white seems tarnished), and so inadequate and fragile that only the smartest people can begin to see and understand it.

Laozi continues to further hammer away on this theme until he reaches his inevitable conclusion that “the (hidden and nameless) way alone is adept at initiating all things and bringing them to completion.”

“The deepest integrity seems capricious” only because it transcends other ethical principles. “The most perfect square has no corners” because it has no edges and is therefore infinite. “The greatest vessel is unfinished” because it is too powerful and flexible to be harnessed to its full potential. “The greatest music is faint” is because it is so exquisite that our ears and brains our incapable of processing it. And “the greatest image has no shape” because our eyes and minds are unable to see it.

Once Laozi has flattered and cajoled the key influencers into this exclusive club by implying that only they have the unique ability to understand the mysteries of the way, popularizing it is easy. Ideas went viral long before the Internet appeared.

Note
I took this image at Longhu (Dragon Tiger) Mountain, a famous Daoist site about ten miles south of Yingtan in Jiangxi Province. A great place to visit!

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.