Wisdom For The Ages In 'Tao Te Ching'

'Tao Te Ching'
Tao Te Ching
By Lao Tzu
Paperback, 208 pages
Barnes & Noble Classics
List price: $5.95
Henry Alford

Henry Alford is the author of the upcoming book about the wisdom of old people, How To Live. He has contributed to the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and The New York Times for over a decade. Nina Bramhall hide caption

itoggle caption Nina Bramhall

When I tell people that I like to read the Tao Te Ching, they start staring at the floor, as if looking for a dog to pet. It's like I've suddenly produced, and then struck, a 4,000-pound gong.

But the thing is, the Tao Te Ching is one of the least ooey-wooey books about religion or philosophy I've ever read. And what this collection of aphorisms probably written in the 6th century B.C. has to offer is a series of useful and penetrating thoughts on a wide range of topics.

Of government, the Tao Te Ching says: "To rule a country, one must act with care, as when frying a small fish."

Of humility, it says: "He who is noncompetitive invites no competition."

Of leadership, it says: "The existence of the leader who is wise is barely known to those he leads."

Fairly straightforward, right? I mean, it's not like its predecessor the I Ching, which at one point counsels, "Deliver yourself from your great toe." There are no great toes in the Tao Te Ching, only great thoughts.

Which is why, despite the fact that I'm agnostic, suspicious of New Age claptrap and, yes, vaguely embarrassed by my pronunciation of this book's title, I find myself returning to the Tao Te Ching time after time.

Part of what fuels me here is what I'll call the book's problem — namely, some readers think the Tao Te Ching promotes passivity. When the book states, "The greatest carver does the least carving," maybe it's just advocating something along the lines of "Less is more."

But then when it states, "Do you want to improve the world? I don't think it can be done," the message would seem to be a little more pointed. By the end of the book, though, it's clear — to me at least — that it's not advocating inaction, it's advocating preparedness. It's saying that whenever a state of affairs reaches its peak, the opposite of that state of affairs is ready to take its place.

At least, that's what I think today. Tomorrow, I may reread the book and have a different interpretation. Tomorrow, I may sit down and decide that the Tao Te Ching is advocating something much more aggressive and take-charge. But right this second, I'm preparing for change and flux, so I'm not going to make any promises about the book's meaning. Except to say that when I've arrived at my final interpretation, I will definitely strike a 4,000-pound gong.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

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