Top positive review
Profound, inspired version of the Tao Te Ching
April 12, 2016
I am now reading, concurrently, chapter by chapter, three versions of the Tao Te Ching: Feng/English's, Stephen Mitchell's, and Ursula Le Guin's, which is my hands down favorite. I've owned the Gia-fu Feng/Jane English version for many years and I still love its clear and concise language, it's simple and direct style. Stephen Mitchell's version, in my side by side comparison, is seen to be a more interpretative rendition based on his own understanding of Lao Tzu's meaning. Rather than stay with Lao Tzu's imagery and metaphor, he packages it all up into a kind of exposition of the meaning he derives from those images. This approach may appeal to those wishing for a more conceptual understanding of this great work, but for me, it diminishes so much of the subtlety and a deeper intuitive conveyance of meaning that is only possibly through poetry. This is where Le Guin's version outshines and makes a quantum leap beyond the other two. She retains all the imagery, nuance and flavor of the poetry while capturing a feeling of playfulness and spontaneity. But beyond even that, I find that her ability to hold the paradox and enigma of Lao Tzu's mystical realization allows for a deeper, more inspired reading than the other two.
To illustrate what I mean, please bear with me as I compare one stanza. This is Stanza 30 in the three versions:
Whoever relies on the Tao in governing men
doesn't try to force issues
or defeat enemies by force of arms.
For every force there is a counterforce.
Violence even well intentioned,
always rebounds upon oneself.
The Master does his job
and then stops.
He understands that the universe
is forever out of control,
and that trying to dominate events
goes against the current of the Tao.
Because he believes in himself,
he doesn't try to convince others.
Because he is content with himself
He doesn't need others' approval.
Because he accepts himself,
the whole world accepts him.
Whenever you advise a ruler in the way of Tao,
Counsel him not to use force to conquer the universe.
For this would only cause resistance.
Thorn bushes spring up wherever the army has passed.
Lean years follow in the wake of a great war.
Just do what needs to be done.
Never take advantage of power.
Achieve results, but never glory in them.
Achieve results, but never boast.
Achieve results, but never be proud.
Achieve results, because this is the natural way.
Achieve results, but not through violence.
Force is followed by loss of strength.
This is not the way of Tao.
That which goes against the Tao comes to an early end.
A Taoist wouldn't advise a ruler
to use force of arms for conquest;
that tactic backfires.
Where the army marched
grow thorns and thistles.
After the war
come the bad harvests.
Good leaders prosper, that's all,
not presuming on victory.
They prosper without boasting,
or domineering, or arrogance,
prosper because they can't help it,
prosper without violence.
Things flourish then perish.
Not the Way.
What's not the Way
Le Guin adds a note at the end of this stanza. She says, "The last verse is enigmatic: 'Things flourish then perish.'—How can this supremely natural sequence not be the Way?" She then directs the reader to another note under a later stanza where she picks up on Lao Tzu's use of a "baby" metaphor to describe how one following the Way acts in the world. She writes: "What is eternal is forever young, never grows old. But we are not eternal. It is in this sense that I understand how the natural, inevitable cycle of youth, growth, mature vigor, age, and decay can be "not the Way." The Way is more than the cycle of any individual life. We rise, flourish, fail. The Way never fails. We are waves. It is the sea."
So, rather than change the actual words to make the meaning more intelligible to our conceptual understanding, as in Feng/English, or simply avoid the whole issue by presenting a loose rendition that doesn't follow the original so closely, as in Mitchell, Le Guin presents the enigma as it is and then ponders and digs deeper to try to grasp what Lao Tzu was truly saying. She goes beyond a facile, generic understanding and comes up with something exquisitely profound. The Way isn't about how we're supposed to act in the world. It isn't about us as individuals at all. The Way is beyond all the flourishings and perishings of the temporal world of form. To live in the Way is to live rooted in the timeless, unchanging essence of our Being which simply is, always. Feng/English's and Mitchell's versions don't come close to penetrating into this realization. This is an example of why I consider Le Guin's version to be superior to the others.
One minor quibble: Le Guin tells us that the Chinese word "Te" is usually translated as Virtue. She translates it as Power throughout the book because she feels that the word Virtue in contemporary usage has lost its previous sense of "inherent quality and strength of a thing or person." I myself still prefer Virtue, maybe because I'm old fashioned and still think of Virtue in the old way, like the way Plato used it. Another word choice that I believe would convey the same meaning would be the "All-Good." That has both a feeling of Power and Virtue in it. As I said, it's a minor quibble.