Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu, Stephen Mitchell (Translator)

Rating: ★★★

Concatenated thoughts. Review #1 – #2 ✓   

Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.

36146126The Tao Te Ching is a classical text credited to Chinese philosopher and writer Lao Tzu (6th century) and on which Taoism is based. It consists of 81 short chapters written in poetic form which, using a pithy language brimming with evocative and, at times, repetitive contradictions, provide guidance on how humanity may have a harmonious relationship with nature, with the Tao. In an inspiringly laconic way, the chapters reveal the sage’s fundamental truths that range from theology to politics, inseparable components of the Tao Te Ching.

I read two editions simultaneously: Ellen Chen’s The Tao Te Ching: A New Translation with Commentary and Stephen Mitchell’s Tao Te Ching: A New English Version. After reading chapter 11 by the latter, the merits of each work became particularly noticeable.
Chen’s translation is an accurate marvel. It’s the kind of translation I like; as literal as possible. I don’t want only the translator’s interpretation, I want to know the precise words that went through the author’s mind. I’ve made peace with everything that gets lost in translation, so at least give me surgical precision.
On the opposite side stands Mitchell with another approach: divesting the verses of all metaphor, he focuses on the meaning, the thoughts Lao Tzu intended to convey. In that sense, it’s a remarkable work; a detailed examination of all the elements that constitute this treatise. While keeping a small amount of literality, it expresses a similar interpretation.

If I have to choose, I prefer Chen’s academic translation with its enriching commentary over Mitchell’s version with its still lyrical directness. Even though she generally refers to the sage as a man, whereas Mitchell states that since we are all, potentially, the Master (since the Master is, essentially, us), I felt it would be untrue to present a male archetype, as other versions have, ironically, done. Ironically, because of all the great world religions the teaching of Lao tzu is by far the most female.

As for my experience with this book, I should revisit it in a few years… The dynamics between opposites that say and don’t say, that affirm and deny, that teach without speaking and act without doing; it all starts to get a tad annoying after a while. I wasn’t able to identify with some notions, naturally; my skeptical disposition began to take control rather soon. However, The Tao Te Ching includes several useful concepts to improve our fleeting stay in this world. Moreover, many of those impressions are addressed to politicians. In that regard, this book should be required reading for every single one of them.

I close this ‘review’ with some chapters according to the views of each translator.**

When the great Tao is forgotten,
Goodness and pity appear…

the great Tao: Jayata said to Vasubandu, “If you have nothing to ask for in your mind, that state of mind is called the Tao”.
goodness and pity appear: When the Tao is forgotten, people act according to rules, not from the heart. This goodness is as insecure as Job’s and can be as self-satisfied as Little Jack Horner’s. Whereas a good father has no intention of being good; he just acts naturally.


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 counter force.
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 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 other’s approval.
Because he accepts himself,
the whole world accepts him.

doesn’t try to force issues: He lets the issues resolve themselves.
out of control: Out of control of his own, tiny, personal, conscious self.


All streams flow to the sea
because it is lower than they are.
Humility gives it its power.

If you want to govern the people,
you must place yourself below them.
If you want to lead the people,
you must learn how to follow them.

The Master is above the people,
and no one feels oppressed.
She goes ahead of the people,
and no one feels manipulated.
The whole world is grateful to her.
Because she competes with no one,
no one can compete with her.

The Master is above the people: Not that she feels superior, but that, looking from a higher vantage point, she can see more.
The whole world is grateful to her: Even those who think they are ungrateful.
no one can compete with her: She sees everyone as her equal.


* Photo credit: Book cover via Goodreads.
** I shared the same chapters on each review.



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