Laozi’s The Daodejing A Chinese Classic Text Translated By Philip J. Ivanhoe
Laozi was an ancient Chinese philosopher, thinker, and writer whose sixth-century B.C.E philosophies are still utilized and studied in today’s modern world. Laozi strongly emphasizes the righteous way of thinking, in that one should look within oneself to reflect, improve, and develop themselves by emphasizing the significance of ontological dualism, the existence of unity through opposites, where complementary forces are the foundation of what results in a strong unification within humankind. This is especially evident through Laozi’s “The Daodejing,” a Chinese classic text translated by Philip J. Ivanhoe, that states of Laozi’s beliefs in “the way” meaning the way of life, in that one should be righteous and virtuous, with the texts discussing Laozi’s beliefs on how to be a “sage,” or a divine-human being filled with a refined mind. Hence, Laozi’s utilization of contrasting diction plays a significant role in demonstrating ontological dualism, where one should not choose a side, but rather accept both oppositions as one as part of the fundamental process of the universe.
Laozi is a believer that the nature of existence calls for dual oppositions of a state of being, and through chapter two of “The Daodejing,” this is evident when Ivanhoe’s translation of Laozi’s “The Daodejing” states that “everyone in the world knows that when the beautiful strives to be beautiful, it is repulsive.” Firstly, the meaning of “beautiful” within this text does not seem to refer to physical beauty, for it is called “the beautiful” where one should decipher it as a noun rather than as a verb, and “beautiful” is a state of inner strength rather than physical appearances because Laozi believes that one should be without desire, attachments, and obsessions to any specific thing. Secondly, one of the most significant aspects of this verse is that it introduces readers to Laozi’s approach to unity, because when one views this concept of “beauty” it suggests that one cannot see something “beautiful” without acknowledging the existence of “ugliness” or “repulsiveness,” and through this unity, Laozi intends the readers to focus not on the “beauty” of the world, for beauty cannot exist without repulsiveness; beauty should come naturally and sincerely, starting from accepting one’s imperfections and ugliness. Moreover, not one person is either beautiful or ugly, for both concepts manifest themselves inside of us, for “beauty” within this text is relative to individuals, as what one deems as beautiful differ between every person, especially since beauty is ephemeral, constantly changing and temporary. Hence, when this “beauty” is actively searched for instead of letting it naturally manifest in our own mind, spirit, and soul, it becomes “repulsive,” or unacceptable through Laozi’s way of thinking. With this idea of opposites in such a relative world, there is no objective truth uncovered, just that one typically should not choose between the two extremes, for there is meaning only in comparison.
Laozi further utilizes the ideology of complements, such that one cannot exist without the other to preach about “the way”: in chapter two of “The Daodejing,” Laozi claims that “to have and to lack generate each other.” This is the idea “to have” anything, may it be an item, a significant other, a belief, or a feeling, just to name a few, cannot be understood if one has never felt the lack of it. For someone to have something, they must understand how it feels to lack something, or else how would anyone know that they truly “have” something if they have never experienced life without it? It is similar to the idea when one lacks something, they have the urge to want or need something, but this feeling of having an item cannot be generated without the initial feeling of someone lacking something–hence, in this chapter, Ivanhoe utilizes the verb “generates,” which ties in with the word “cause,” to emphasize the strong relationship that both the opposite words have on each other, in that one cannot exist without the other. This reiterates Laozi’s ideology that life is cyclical, for the nature of the universe is that all must come into a full circle, which is why both sides of the spectrum of anything are to be acknowledged and embraced. Furthermore, it gives rise to the idea that “something,” or “to have” has to come from “nothing,” or “the lack of,” depending on how one believes their existence or creation to be established, may it be through their religious belief, scientific belief, or any individual belief; however, within Laozi’s belief, the “lack of” is even more significant as he believes that there is “no nothing,” meaning that self-creation or self-cosmos development out of an egg is above all, for there is no God or Creator (lecture 4a). This ties in with Laozi’s beliefs of Taoism’s story of creation where Laozi deems that the world is created through the imposition of itself, from unity to multiplicity (lecture).
Likewise, through “The Daodejing,” readers can understand that Laozi aims to highlight that with opposites, it is better not to choose, but to rather embrace all. This is evident by the following verses in chapter two of “The Daodejing,” where Laozi claims that “difficulty and easy give form to each other, long and short off-set each other, high and low incline to each other.” This is because understanding the “difficulty” only makes us appreciate life when it becomes “easy,” as individuals are able to compare both situations to one another, making both worlds unite; through this, Laozi is accentuating that one should not split the unity of both concepts despite it being polar opposites of each other. Moreover, when one goes through difficult times or does any difficult action, it will gradually become easier as time progresses, and so anything difficult will not always be guaranteed to remain difficult, for similar to the concept of “beauty” discussed in the earlier paragraphs, these notions of difficulty and simplicity are always ever-changing; it is not always rigid in its stance and cannot stand alone, for it requires a counterpart to generate unity.