Speaking of the Unspeakable Dao: How the Sage-Author Maintains His Status While Writing the Daodejing

Gilles Deleuze describes the modern author as a frail individual, less healthy than the majority. However, he argues that it is this very lack of vitality that allows authors to perceive the cosmos around them more aptly than their counterparts, to understand the existence of particular structures without fully comprehending them, and to write these perceptions into enlightening works of literature. In approaching an approximation of the cosmos through writing, authors gain the vitality they lack. Their extraordinarily acute perceptions of the universe also give them increased power, an ability to see in the makeup of the cosmos patterns that are unnoticed by most.[1] Unlike in this paradigm, the author[2] of the Daodejing at first superficially appears to be unchanging. He is the sage, who possesses the maximum amount of vitality because he knows how to live his life and properly perceive his world. Because of this, the sage author also possesses ultimate power, able to perceive the truth of the universe as nobody else is. In this static reading of the text, the sage-author of great wisdom hands down rules and advice to the inferior reader concerning how to live the Way of Dao[3].  Otherwise, no shift in position or in power and vitality occurs between the two.[4] I would like to argue that a much more active and fluid process occurs between author and reader. In this paradigm, and contrary to the one Deleuze describes, the author constantly loses power and vitality as he writes his text. One of the central ideas of Daoism is that the true Dao is that which cannot be spoken of or acknowledged, and yet the author defies this by writing an entire book about it. Thus, with every word that he writes, he becomes slightly less sage-like. The attentive reader, meanwhile, has presumably lived in ignorance of the Dao before reading the Daodejing. In his case, even though he is acknowledging the Dao by being conscious of it and therefore cannot be called sage-like, he still gains power and vitality because his new knowledge of the Way widens and clarifies his perception of the cosmos. This view of the text is problematic for the author, who seems to lose credibility either for his argument or for his status as a sage. The second component of my argument therefore proposes that the last segment[5] of the Daodejing presents a basis upon which such a relationship between author and reader can exist without diminishing the position of the author.

According to what in this essay will be termed a static understanding of the author-reader relationship in the text, the reader of the Daodejing remains essentially an immobile figure, never changing from the role of a passive consumer of the information told to him by the sage-author. For example, in segment thirteen, the sage-author explains “He who is cherished for taking his personality as being [identical with] All Under Heaven can as a consequence be put in charge of all under Heaven”.[6] Non-action, a central tenet of Daoism, refers to the idea that a sage should act without taking credit for the beneficial effects of his actions. In addition, he should not make a concentrated, determined effort to behave in a certain manner, but rather all of his actions should simply be a natural part of the flux and movement of the cosmos. If the reader conceptualizes his personality as distinct from the universe around him, then he will have difficulty practicing non-action, seeing all of his movements as external demonstrations of his individual character instead as of components of the larger universe. In order to convey this information, the sage-author uses a pattern repeated throughout most of the text in which he presents an abstract statement as a profound truth and leaves the reader to interpret how it can be applied to practical situations. It is necessary, then, that the reader engage critically with the texts presented to him in order to draw his own conclusions, but superficially there seems to be no evidence that he has gained in stature because of his analysis. As the text progresses, the sage-author continues to speak to the reader as a teacher would to a student. In segment sixty-three, he speaks of how the model sage should behave. “[A Sage Ruler] practices non-interference, engages in non-activity, and relishes the flavorless!”[7] This statement reiterates the importance of non-action. Again, the sage-author presents statements of profound truth available to him because he is a sage, but that the reader must struggle to interpret for himself. The sage-author’s tone toward the reader does not change to that of one who addresses a personage of equal status. Thus, in the passing of time from segment thirteen to segment sixty-three, there seems to be no indication that the status of the reader has shifted.

In segment forty-three, the sage-author states, “…I surmise that non-interference brings benefits. As to the teaching without words and the benefits of non-interference, there is little in All Under Heaven to get that far.”[8]  The latter half of the passage means that very few are able to understand the benefits of non-interference, although the sage, due to the clarity that comes from the vitality he possesses, admits that he has managed to ‘surmise’ the relationship between non-interference and beneficial outcomes. He thus emphasizes his superiority over the reader in being able to understand matters that are very difficult for the majority of the world to grasp. Additionally, he seems to minimize or even ignore the possibility that the reader could ever share in his understanding of non-interference.  In segment seventy, the sage continues, “My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice. But [still even] them of the others no one is able to understand and no one is able to put into practice….It is [hence] a fact that only those without any understanding will therefore not understand me [Consequently] the fewer there are of those who understand me the more I am honored.”[9] The sage reiterates his status as one of the few elect that can understand the Way of Dao, and again emphasizes the inability of most men to understand him. Once more, the possibility that the reader could ever approach a better understanding of Dao is not considered, evidently because he believes that the probability of its occurrence is so low.

In addition to the unchanging role of the reader, a static reading of the Daodejing places the author as the all-knowing sage, already seasoned in the ways of the Dao and passing his superior knowledge along to those who will be unable to achieve his status. Segment seven reads, “…This [pattern of Heaven and Earth] is the reason why the Sage…puts his own person in the background and [achieves in this way]…”[10] In his commentary, Wagner explains, “Laozi 7 is a fine example of the argumentation in many zhang[11] of the Laozi. First, it establishes a pattern among the “great” entities of Heaven and Earth to explain a pattern in the behavior of the Sage…Second, it…[links]…the two features of the Sage, his high standing and his capacity to survive to his imitation of Heaven’s excellence and Earth’s persistence”[12]. Wagner’s analysis indicates that the relation of the sage’s behavior to that of the cosmos marks him a being of “high standing”. Segment seven, in creating this linkage early in the text, establishes the sage-author as a superior authority because he follows the ways of heaven and earth. Because he has a perfect understanding of Dao, the sage has a great amount of vitality because of his ability to acutely perceive the relations of the cosmos. His vitality also gives him a great amount of power, because in being able to see the patterns of the cosmos so clearly, he has the wisdom and the foresight to understand which results stem from which actions. Because of his vitality and his power, he is suitable to advise the common man who reads the Daodejing of how to emulate the Way in daily life. Wang Bi’s[13] commentary of segment ten explains that “Insofar as I [the sage][14] [pursue(s) to the very end] the deep…there are few of those who understand me. The fewer there are of those who understand me, the more I also shall be without equal…”.[15] The sage is actually more impressed and honored as fewer people understand him, because the greater the gap between him and the ordinary man, the greater amount of power and vitality he possesses. However, Wang Bi’s interpretation of this passage in light of the static reading is problematic, because according to the principle of non-action, a true sage should not acknowledge his superior status, or that he is in possession of superior knowledge, power, and vitality.

The static reading of the Daodejing is also problematic because, in addition to the sage-author acknowledging and commending his own abilities, the very act of writing down the philosophy of Dao refutes the idea that it cannot be spoken of nor described. Such conflicts underlying the production of the Daodejing are best illustrated by briefly explaining one of the legends of how it came to be written. According to the legend described at the beginning of another translation of the Daodejing, “All his [Laozi’s][16] life he taught that ‘the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao’; but, according to ancient legend, as he was riding off into the desert to die—sick at heart at the ways of men—he was persuaded by a gatekeeper in northwestern China to write down his teaching for posterity.”[17] This story presents the inherent contradiction that undercuts the static reading of the Daodejing. The Dao of which the text speaks should never be acknowledged; the true sage acts without reflecting that his actions are a part of the Way of Dao. This is why the Laozi of legend is represented as preaching that the real Dao cannot be taught. In teaching the concept, one also defies the concept of non-action by making a concerted effort to convey the philosophy. Rather, according to Daoist philosophy one simply follows the principles of the Way as part of the natural flux and flow of the cosmos. Laozi thus stressed the importance of the fact that, though he taught what he called ‘the way of Dao,’ his words could never be the true Dao because they could never give voice to the real Way. However, according to legend, he was despite this fact persuaded to write down his teachings. In writing of the principle of Dao, the author attempts to describe what cannot be described. Thus, in the act of writing the Daodejing, it seems that the author actually diminishes in status, becoming less sage-like with every word that he writes. He cannot maintain the status of a true sage if he consciously acknowledges and speaks of Dao. Similarly, although this is not explicit in the legend, it makes sense that the reader of the text gains power and vitality by erasing his ignorance of Dao, at least more so than the inconsequential amount allowed him by the static reading. Therefore, the relationship between author and reader is not static and unchanging, but rather constantly flows as the sage loses power and vitality and the reader gains them.

The first major principle of Dao that the sage-author defies in the writing of his text is that he attempts to speak of and describe that which, according to Daoist philosophy, cannot be captured by words or even spoken of. The very first segment begins, “A way that can be spoken of is not the eternal Way. A name that can be named is not the eternal name.”[18] This characteristic of the Dao is immediately pointed out, both indicating how crucial this concept is and undercutting the truth of the entire work. By introducing his work in this manner, it is almost as though the sage-author wants the reader to be aware from the beginning of the text of the paradox inherent in writing a book about Dao and the Eternal Way.

The second manner in which the sage-author breaks away from his teachings is in his defiance of the essential concept of non-action. Segment two explains, “This is why the Sage practices teaching without words, [with the result] that the ten thousand entities[19]  come about without [his] initiating [them]. [He] acts [upon them], but does not presume [so that the particular] achievements come about without [his] installing [himself in them]. It is exactly because he does not install [himself in these particular achievements] that they do not disappear.”[20] According to the text, the true sage should teach not through actively instructing others, but through living a life in the Way of Dao that can be seen and emulated . In addition, he acts upon Dao but ‘does not presume’, meaning he does not consciously acknowledge or brandish this fact to others. According to the text, because he does not consciously acknowledge that he practices Dao, his accomplishments are great and their effect long-lasting. This depiction of the true sage casts the author of the Daodejing into a dubious position, since he claims to know the ways of Dao, and yet is not teaching without words, but rather making a concerted effort to write a text in which he does nothing but use words to describe that which cannot be taught. In addition, as mentioned above, in segment seventy, the sage-author blatantly announces that he is a sage and that few understand him, defying the idea that the sage should act without drawing attention to himself or his role in the production of results. Thus, in addition to writing out that which cannot be spoken of, the author flagrantly acknowledges his superior status as sage, which according to Dao and the principle of non-action actually makes him less sage-like.

Wang Bi’s commentary for segment five illuminates the principle of non-action and further casts the sage-author’s status as sage into question. The segment itself reads, “Heaven and Earth are not kindly. For them, the ten thousand kinds of entities are like grass and dogs.”[21] This statement seems at first to not have much to do with the concept of non-action, and in fact does not make much sense, but Wang Bi explains, “Someone who is is kindly will by necessity have pity and interfere. Would they [Heaven and Earth, however] create and generate, the entities would lose their true [nature because of the outside imposition]. ”[22] To be kindly is to take a particular interest in something and to make conscious efforts to change it. However, regardless of the good-will intent behind such action, being kindly is destructive because, in causing active ‘creating and generating’ of different behaviors, it counteracts the principle of non-action and causes the ‘entities’ of Dao to lose their true nature because of ‘outside imposition.’ Wang Bi continues, “Heaven and Earth do not produce grass for the benefit of cattle, but the cattle [still] eat grass. They do not produce dogs for the benefit of men, but men [still] eat dogs. As they are without interference concerning the ten thousand kinds of entities, each of the ten thousand kinds of entities fits into its use so that there is none that is not provided for.”[23] Therefore, within the cosmos everything is provided for and falls into place precisely because there is no conscious action on the part of Heaven and Earth to provide for their inhabitants. Everything is in order, a natural part of the flux of the cosmos. As explained earlier, the sage should emulate the behavior of Heaven and Earth; behaving in accordance with the cosmos is what gives him a great amount of power and vitality and makes him sage-like. Therefore, according to the rest of the segment, “The sage is not kindly. For him, the Hundred Families are like grass and dogs.”[24] The author has made a direct parallel between the behavior of the ideal sage and the behavior of Heaven and Earth described above, implying that the sage also makes sure to engage in no directed behavior or action with a particular underlying aim in mind. However, the author of the Daodejing presumably writes the text with the conscious goal of creating a work that would teach the principles of the Dao. In doing so, he acts contrary to the ideal sage he describes, and so loses power and vitality. The moment he is conscious of the Dao, his status diminishes.

Finally, the sage-author’s act seems not to be in accordance with the principle which states that an excess of anything, including not only material goods but also knowledge, is negative and leads one away from Dao. In segment twenty, the sage explains that excessive learning is a negative quality because, according to Wang Bi’s explanation, the practical knowledge that people naturally possess, such as the understanding that people who live in the cold wear furs, “…already is sufficient [in itself]. If one adds to it, harm will come.”[25] In order to illustrate his own ignorance, and thus his worth as a sage of the Dao, the sage-author boasts, “Me—[I have] the heart of a dimwit!…I alone am stolid and furthermore stupid.”[26] Here, the author doubly contradicts the principle of Dao, most evidently by boasting of and therefore giving conscious recognition to the traits that make him superior to those around him. In addition, the very ambition of writing a text to instruct others on how to perceive the Dao is a scholarly one, representing the passing along of knowledge. Thus, even as he tries to portray himself as ignorant and stupid, the sage-author simultaneously positions himself as the wise scholar posed to hand down important information to all of posterity. These contradictory positions seem discredit him as a sage.

The author of the Daodejing thus defies the basic principle of the Dao in three aspects. These include the fact that he engages in the active production of a text that acknowledges the Dao that should not be acknowledged, that he often uses this text to boast of the characteristics that make him sage-like, which is not in accord with the principle of non-action, and that the erudite nature of his activity seems to portray him as a learned man, which defies the Daoist principle of moderation in all aspects of life, including knowledge.. Thus, in choosing to write this text, the author constantly saps himself of the store of power and vitality that defines the sage.  Conversely, the reader seems to gain in his power and vitality as these qualities diminish in the author. Because he is at such an ignorant level to begin with, the reader of the text has nothing to lose by consciously acknowledging Dao.  In fact, in becoming aware of the presence of the Dao and gaining the potential to live according to its principles, he gains in power and vitality.

Various segments in the text outline what behaviors are necessary in order for a ruler to be considered a sage, suggesting that the reader may be able to raise his status simply by attending to these instructions. In segment nine, for example, the sage-author says, “By maintaining [it] and then even adding to it, [a ruler] is not as well off as if he had nothing. [Accordingly,] no one who fills [his already sumptuous] palace [furthermore] with gold and jades will be able to preserve [them].”[27] The ‘it’ to which the sage-author refers is the balance and order of the cosmos. In a message similar to the one expressed in segment twenty, the sage-author admonishes against filling one’s palaces with material riches in an attempt to add something to life, on the basis that because of the impeccable Dao, everything is already perfect the way that it is. To try to add to what one naturally has is unwise. The segment suggests that, by emulating its advice and not filling his palace with material goods, a ruler may facilitate his transition from one of the masses to one who understands and practices the way of the Dao.

Segment sixteen makes a stronger argument that the reader can train himself to rise above his current position and gain in power and vitality. Essentially, this portion of the text discusses the beneficial characteristics that a ruler who has knowledge of Dao and the Way possesses, claiming, “[Having] the Way implies long duration.”[28] Wang Bi explains in the following commentary that “Once he [the Ruler] fully penetrates to the ultimate emptiness and negativity and attains the Eternal of entities, then indeed he will get to the ultimate of not being exhaustible.”[29] In other words, no harm will come to the ruler who fully understands and comprehends the Way of the Dao. Implicit in such a statement is the idea that it is possible for a ruler to achieve the status of a sage, meaning it is possible for him to ascend from the status of a man of lower understanding to one of great wisdom and depth. These two segments therefore indicate that the reader does have the ability to gain in vitality and power from using the Daodejing to understand the Way, and in so doing can approach a sage-like status.

However, the most startling evidence for the movement of the reader is depicted in  segment ten, which details the desirable behavior of a proper ruler. Wang Bi explains of the passage, “If [a ruler] would be able to clean and wipe off [all that is] evil and trumped up, and arrive at the perception of the ultimate…ah, then [indeed] would he eventually become ‘identical with That-which-is-Dark.’”[30] The passage expresses the possibility that, with enough motivation and determination, a ruler can eliminate those aspects of himself that keep him from attaining the status of a sage and can actually transform into a being of such high caliber, ‘identical with That-which-is-Dark”, which is often used by Wang Bi to denote the concept of the ten thousand entities or the indescribable Dao. The commentator goes on to explain that the sage does this by rejecting wisdom and intelligence, which have already been denounced as negating the ineffable Dao. In doing so, he creates an ordered state and provides many benefits for his people.[31] The passage therefore explicitly states that, with enough time and determination, any ruler can at least become well-knowing in the way of the Dao, and perhaps can even become a sage. Wagner’s commentary on the passage explains that “For Wang Bi, the Laozi gives philosophical advice to a ruler.”[32] Wang Bi’s reading of the Daodejing is as a manual for rulers detailing what the best methods of leading a kingdom are. Such a manual is obviously written with the intention of helping its readers to better themselves, or else there would have been no purpose whatsoever to its production.  Wang Bi’s interpretation of the purpose of the Daodejing thus implies that it is possible, and in fact expected, that the attentive reader will ascend to a higher status of one who is at the very least learned in the ways of the Dao, even if he is not necessarily a sage.[33]

If it is really true that the sage-author actually diminishes in power and vitality through the act of writing the Daodejing, while the reader’s power and vitality actually increase, then it must be explained how the sage-author manages to redeem himself and reclaim his authority as a sage. For surely, he does, despite the difficulties inherent in writing a text for a philosophy that does not believe in either acknowledgement of itself or in book learning, somehow reclaim his authority as a sage. Otherwise, the text would have no validity or authority; in order for it to be believable, its author can be no other than a sage; in fact,  for many years the author was considered Laozi himself. Even though the generally accepted theory of authorship now is that the text is a composite of writings over several centuries, the image of it as written by a single, quintessential sage is powerful. This latter method of imagining the production of the Daodejing, though not as historically factual, accurately captures the authority and possession of ultimate knowledge that underlies the tone of the text.  The conceptual author of this text, whom one could imagine as a composite of all of the writers who actually contributed to it, must be one who is all-knowing in the way of the Dao, or else it loses all credibility. Segment seventeen could hold the answer, explaining first that “If the Great is at the top, those below know [only] that he exists” and immediately afterwards that “If one second to him [the Great Man] is [at the top], [those below] will be close to him and praise him.”[34] The first description refers to the all-knowing sage of the Dao, whose behavior and characteristics have already been explored in depth in this essay. Of more interest is the second figure in the ranking, who is not mentioned elsewhere. Wang Bi says of him, “He [the second best] is unable to reside in [his] affairs by means of non-interference and to make the unspoken his teaching. He establishes the good and spreads moral education, thus prompting those below to get ‘close to him and praise him’.”[35] Thus, apparently there is a person who can never call himself a sage because he gives voice to and thus acknowledges ‘moral education’, which one could infer to mean principles of the Dao, since the text evidently approves of whatever the subject matter of the instruction is. In any case, because of his role as teacher, this second-best man can never consider himself a true sage of the Way of the Dao, and yet is still highly respected as a teacher and master of its principles. It seems at first that segment seventeen thus neatly explains how the sage-author is able to write a text—he is not actually a sage, but the next-highest in the hierarchy, the teacher who is wise in the Way of the Dao but who cannot claim to be a sage because, in the course of his career as teacher,  he constantly speaks of it and of non-action, when the true sage speaks of neither.

However, this explanation does not seem to hold, simply because of the vast number of incidences, many of which have been quoted above, in which the author of the text refers to himself as a sage. He evidently considers himself not as second-best to the Great Man but as the Great Man himself. For many years, Laozi was thought to be the author of the Daodejing, and Laozi is by no means anything other than a sage to the utmost degree.  Thus, the author of the text has traditionally been viewed as a sage, eliminating the text of segment seventeen as a possible explanation for the seeming paradox of a sage who is able to write of the concepts of Dao and non-action and praise his own status as the Great One. How, then, does the author, who without a doubt loses power and vitality throughout the writing of the Daodejing, still manage to reclaim his status as a sage?

The solution to this puzzle is first hinted at in segment sixty-seven. The sage-author admits here of his ability, “Everyone in All Under Heaven says my [the Sage Ruler’s ] greatness seems to be [so pitiful as to be] not comparable [to anything others would consider great]. In fact, only because of [its being real] greatness it seems [so pitiful as to be] not comparable. Were it comparable [to anything others consider great], it would already have become minute a long time ago!”[36]  The sage-author clarifies that, in adherence with the principle of the Dao, his greatness cannot be evident to the rest of the world, but must be hidden.  Wagner explains in his analysis of segment ten that the sage’s “six abilities are all negative and elusive. They ensure that none of the beneficiaries of his action will be able to have any knowledge of him.”[37] This certainly explains part of what the sage means by the fact that his greatness is viewed as pitiful by everybody else. That is, he does not want his greatness to be obvious, but rather hides it from the world, ensuring that his actions will appear to have been committed without anyone making a concerted effort to commit them. This exemplifies the principle of non-action.. The sage, in following these principles, ensures that no good action will ever be linked directly back to him, and therefore does not receive credit for his greatness. He continues that it is precisely because his greatness is viewed as pitiful by others that he is truly great. If this were not the case—that is, if he flamboyantly displayed his greatness for the world to see—he would not be adhering to the principle of the Dao in his everyday life.  Wang Bi’s commentary on this statement explains that “It is only as a consequence of [the Sage’s] ‘putting his own person in the background’ and ‘disregarding his own person’ and becoming that to which the other entities render themselves, that he is able indeed to ‘establish and complete instruments for the benefit of All Under Heaven’…”[38] The  Daodejing is just such an instrument that will benefit ‘All Under Heaven’, and which has since its emergence literally helped thousands, perhaps millions of people who have read the text to adjust their lives to be more in accordance with the Way of Dao, thus increasing their vitality and, as a consequence, their power to control their lives as well. We thus begin to see the paradox at the heart of the Daodejing  that ultimately makes it possible for the sage to sacrifice some of his power and vitality to the writing of a text for posterity.

It is true that the sage, in writing his text, does speak of the Dao, and he does boast of his own abilities, though these can be seen as necessary examples to aid the reader in conceptualizing Dao and the proper sage. For both of these faults, the author decreases his power and vitality. However, he allows himself to commit these faults for the purpose of continuing the Dao, the knowledge of which would likely be lost without his committing to it paper for posterity. The beneficial effects of writing such a text far outweigh the diminishment in status that the sage-author thrusts upon himself. As segment seventy-eight concludes, “That is why in the statements of the sage ’[Only] he who takes upon himself the misfortune of the state I call the king of All Under Heaven’. Straight words seem paradoxical.”[39] He who does not make himself aloof or alienate himself from the deepest problems of his state, but rather throws his being whole-heartedly into trying to fix these problems, is the true Sage. The sage-author of the Daodejing has completed important act that will help generations of posterity in recording the essential philosophy of the Dao, and so he is actually engaging in the most crucial activity for a sage, that of selfless devotion to the bettering of the cosmos. Of course, this act is also an extremely difficult one, as by its nature it is impossible to do without speaking of Dao and the value of non-action. The phrase ‘straight words seem paradoxical’, may provide a clue as to how the sage is able to write such a text and not lose all credibility. It seems as though, in breaking all of his most dear principles by writing a text that educates about the Dao, he would lose so much power and vitality as to no longer be taken seriously. However, the effects of this text are so profound that he is able to hold claim to his status, despite his loss of power and vitality.

The last segment of the text, number eighty-one, deals with the idea of the sage committing his life to always doing for others. This portion, in a sense, reads almost like a final defense on the part of the sage-author, directly addressing the issue of how he can write a book of the Dao and still call himself a sage. This segment reads:

Credible words are not beautified. Beautified words are not credible. Someone [truly] knowledgeable is not broadly [learned]. Someone broadly [learned] is not [truly] knowledgeable. Someone who does good does not go in for quantity. Someone who goes in for quantity does no good. That is why the Sage is without accumulation. Thus because of acting for others, he has more for himself. Thus by giving to others, there will be more with him. It is the Way of Heaven to be beneficial and not harmful. It is the Way of the Sage to act but not to struggle.[40]

The first part of this segment consists of three sets of paired sentences that use parallelism to illustrate a contrast between two characteristics and imply which one is the Way of the Dao. The first pair explains that words of truth are never ornate. True to the spirit of this idea, the entire text of the Daodejing consists of sparse, pithy sentences, unembellished by meaningless or silly flourishes. Thus, the sage-author establishes that his work is truth without actually having to state it outright. The second pair of phrases reiterates the idea that the truly wise are not learned, while the learned are not truly wise. The last set of sentences expresses the idea that an excess of anything, be it material goods, knowledge, or any other abstract concept, removes one farther from the Way of the Dao and creates unhappiness. These three pairs are thus a summary of Daoist truths illustrated by the text. “That,” the text continues, “is why the Sage is without accumulation,” and it continues to explain that the more the sage acts for others, the more he does for himself. In other words, the most crucial activity of a sage, though he should not receive credit for doing so, is to better the world and the people within it through selfless actions. It is not for the sage to literally do nothing, because if he accumulates knowledge of the Way and does nothing with it, he wastes his power. Rather, it is for him to use the power that comes to him from his superb vitality to commit selfless acts that better his world without drawing attention to or taking credit for them. Such is the principle of non-action. The sage-author, in having written the Daodejing, has committed a selfless act of crucial importance. That is, he has sacrificed his claim to ultimate power and vitality for the purpose of recording the Dao so that generations of posterity would know of its existence and have the opportunity use its principles to strive to increase their own vitality and power over their lives. One might argue that to write such a work was in fact a selfish act, because once the reader is thinking about the Dao that cannot be thought of, he no longer can be a true practitioner of it. On the contrary, once a reader is exposed to the concepts within the text, he can theoretically practice incorporating them into his daily activities until he is at such an advanced stage that the behavior comes naturally to him, and then he no longer has to consciously think of the Way.

The last segment continues, “Thus by giving to others, there will be more with him.” In committing such a great, selfless act, the sage has necessarily sapped some of his power and vitality but has also risen in status as a great sage, one who has committed the ultimate act of selflessness—sacrificing some of his vitality for the purpose of continuing awareness of the Dao. This act more than counteracts his losses, and means that he can reclaim his status as a sage after the writing of the text has been completed.  Because of the principles outlined in the first three pairs of sentences, the sage does not keep his understanding to himself, creating excess, but rather shares it with the entire world. Most do this through selfless action, but one sage—the sage-author of the text—has done it by literally providing the means with which his vitality and the power that comes from it can be shared with all posterity, in the process losing some of his own power and vitality. The concluding phrase of not only the segment, but the entire Daodejing, clarifies that, though the sage should act, he should not struggle. To struggle implies exerting much effort in trying to accomplish a task, whereas to act implies committing actions with ease as part of the natural flow of the cosmos. This sentence is thus a reiteration of the principle of non-action. The writing of the Daodejing is the product of one such action on the part of a sage, who not only is, in fact, a sage, despite his loss of power and vitality throughout the text, but also the ultimate sage, committing a selfless act for the benefit of generations of readers.

To summarize the points that have been covered, a static reading of the Daodejing is one in which the sage-author’s status as a figure of ultimate authority and the reader’s status as the subordinate figure never change. Both figures are fixed and immovable throughout the course of the text. However, this reading of the Daodejing is problematic because of two challenges. One is that, in writing the Daodejing, the sage-author speaks openly of the concept of Dao, seems to defy the concept of non-action, and openly boasts of the characteristics that make him sage-like. Thus, the act of writing the text diminishes his status, causing the vast amount of power and vitality that as a sage he possesses to diminish. Meanwhile, in learning about the principle of Dao, the reader’s stature actually seems to increase, since he was once ignorant, but now is given the opportunity to fine-tune his daily practices to make them more reflective of the Way of Dao. Thus, the relationship of author and reader in the Daodejing is not static and unchanging, but rather a constant flow of power and vitality from the sage to the reader. This reading of the text seems to discredit the author as a sage, and yet he somehow seems able to reclaim his status, since the text itself is and has since its emergence been considered the authority on the principle of Dao. However, in writing down his understanding of the Way of Dao, the sage-author commits a great selfless act, in that he sacrifices some of his power and vitality for the sake of educating generations of posterity about the wisdom of Dao. This act far outweighs the diminishment in his status caused by writing the text, and in fact makes him not just any sage but the quintessential sage of Dao.  The Daodejing should therefore not be considered a mechanism by which the sage-author’s status diminishes. Rather, the focus should be on the blossoming of the status of the reader that his selfless act makes possible. With the aid of this text, ordinary people are given the tools with which they can try to develop healthier perspectives on the cosmos and their relationship to it, thus creating in them a great amount of vital energy. The nurturing of this ability also helps them to develop the wisdom and foresight to have greater control over their lives and those of the people around them. It is because of the Daodejing that, right up until the present, vast numbers of people have continued to try to better themselves and their lives according to the ineffable Dao.


[1] Gilles Deleuze, “Literature and Life,” Critical Inquiry 23, no. 2 (1997):   pp. 225-230

[2] The identity of the historical author of the Daodejing is debated. Although its writing is attributed to Laozi, whether he actually wrote it is questionable because there is no evidence that he ever existed . One theory is that the Daodejing was passed down orally for a long time and then attributed to a man named Laozi (meaning ‘old and venerable master’) to lend it credibility. Others believe the author was a man named Li Dan (Correa, Nina. “Who is Laozi?” Dao is Open, 2009, <http://www.daoisopen.com/WhowasLaozi.html&gt;). The identity of the historical author is not as important for this work, however, which deals primarily with the author in his role as author, rather than with his historical significance. YES

[3] A point of clarification: Dao refers to the great indescribable oneness of the cosmos upon which the philosophy of Dao is based. It can be translated as “way”; thus, the terms “Way” and “Dao” are used interchangeably in this essay.

[4]According to this static reading, some slight elevation in the status of the reader may occur simply because he is reading the Daodejing, and thus educating himself about the Way. However, the sage-author seems to consider this shift in status negligible at best, minimizing the reader’s ability to become a sage in passages explored later in this essay.

[5] the Daodejing is divided into eighty-one separate short segments, each one of which deals with a different theme or set of questions.

[6] Rudolf G. Wagner, A Chinese Reading of the Daodejing (New York, State University of New York Press: 2003) 160

Note: The bracketed text that appears in many of Wagner’s citations are his own unless otherwise noted

[7] Wagner, 335

[8] Wagner, 268-269

[9] Wagner, 359-360

[10] Wagner, 141

[11] A term Wagner uses throughout his commentary to refer to each of the separate segments. It is the Chinese word for “chapter, segment”

[12] Wagner, 141

[13] Wagner’s translation includes Wang Bi’s commentary on the Daodejing. His translation of the text is that off of which most modern translations are based.

[14] Brackets are my own, and are not present in Wagner’s original translation

[15] Wagner, 360

[16] Brackets are added

[17] Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (New York, Alfred A. Knopf: 1972), 1

[18] Wagner, 120

[19] “the ten thousand entities” is a phrase used often in the text that simply refers to the concept of Dao and the oneness of the universe.

[20] Wagner, 126-127

[21] Wagner, 134-135

[22] Wagner, 135

[23] Wagner, 135-136

[24] Wagner, 136

[25] Wagner, 184

[26] Wagner, 185

[27] Wagner, 145

[28] Wagner, 172

[29] Wagner, 172

[30] Wagner, 149

[31] Wagner, 149

[32] Wagner, 153

[33]  Wang Bi’s interpretation of the purpose of the Daodejing is not shared by all scholars. The other principal view is that the work is a text meant for self-cultivation (“Critical Terms: the Daodejing.” Center for Daoist Studies, <http://www.daoistcenter.org/daodejing.html&gt;). Either method of viewing the text, however, sees it as a mechanism by which the reader is transformed into a being who is superior to his former self in wisdom, cultivation, or some other trait. Thus, both views hold implicit the fact that the attentive reader of the Daodejing will ascend to a new status in the course of reading the text.

[34] Wagner, 174

[35] Wagner, 174

[36] Wagner, 351

[37] Wagner, 151

[38] Wagner, 352

[39] Wagner, 379

[40] Wagner, 386

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