Tao of the Day (with digression)

“Words of truth are not high-sounding;
high-sounding words are not the truth.”

These two lines are from Chapter 81 of the Tao teh Ching, as translated by C. Ganson. There are a number of other translations and this is one chapter that reads very differently depending on the translation. So let’s digress on translations of Chapter 81 this morning (RSS readers will need to click for more to see the whole post).

I’m a big fan of Chapter 81 and wanted to post this couplet today. All of my Tao texts are loaned out or misplaced at the moment, so I resorted to an internet search. Goodreads was my first hit, with this translation:

“The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth.”

I’m a big believer that truth is beautiful by virtue of being the truth; I think of beauty, or feel of beauty I should say, as a visceral experience at least as much as an intellectual pursuit. Beauty is what I perceive when I look at, or hear, something true. For instance, the Adagio from Tomaso Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto #5. Every single note of the piece sounds true to me and certainly it is beautiful. The link is to my preferred recording, but this youtube video has a good-enough recording (try to ignore the pictures). Have a listen:


Unsatisfied as I was by the Goodreads translation, I remembered this remarkable website that will show you each chapter of the Tao with all the publicly available translations on the same page. Here are some other translations of these two lines from Chapter 81:

“As honest words may not sound fine,
Fine words may not be honest ones;”

“Honest people use no rhetoric;
Rhetoric is not honesty.”

“Sincere words are not elegant;
elegant words are not sincere.”

“True words are not fancy.
Fancy words are not true.”

Most of the other translations set up the truth/beauty dichotomy that I don’t like. These four (five, including the one atop this post) translations each land somewhere a little different in my mind, though they all possess the same basic meaning: the reality of life is not feel-good words or clever arguments, and feel-good words and clever-arguments rarely have to do with reality.

My antipathy towards woo-woo, feel-good nonsense is nothing new and most translations of Chapter 81 easily apply to the pretty words of New Age bullshit. What I like about some of these translations, particularly “rhetoric is not honesty” is that it manages to also get at the other dominant strain of bullshit in American culture: arguing.

It seems that a great many of my interactions with people – and certainly any segments of cable infotainment (aka news) – are defined by their desire to be right. I know I used to walk around thinking I was right and looking to prove it. [yeah dude, and we do not miss those days]

Perception creates reality and a great many Americans seem to perceive that they are in a court room all the time, arguing, as if some judge were about to lay down the law on one side or the other. What a god-awful reality to inhabit; no wonder everyone is unhappy. Of course this is all Plato’s fault for promoting the idea of ideals and ultimate truths. But I’m not going there because this is a digression, not a polemic. [oh come on!]

As the saying goes, you can either be right or you can be happy. You cannot be both. These words are not high-sounding and they are very true. It helps to say them in the first person on a daily basis:

I can be either be right or I can be happy.

Chapter 81 of the Tao is important for anyone trying to navigate a path in between woo woo feel-good repression and litigious rhetorical aggression in our culture. As a writer and philosopher, it is essential for keeping me humble and aware that my work is ultimately hypocritical. After all,

The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao.

But I digress.

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About Diogenes

Cynic, digital cosmopolitan
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