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Introduction to "The Teaching of Dao"


«Human life is the essence of life in general, i.e. a journey to the hidden depths, or mystery of death.  For man, death is never a mere surface, or datum to be accepted passively, but rather the interiority of every surface--of every illusion.  Behind every datum hides the gorge of death, an abyss of sense.  Death then does not signify the negation of man, but the spring of life and substance of every illusion.  For man is never resolved in illusions, in dreams, in hopes, in expectations, in vacuities--however much he may or must take advantage of them--but always beyond them he probes with reason, with doubt, with the strength that he draws properly from the chiaroscuro depths of his being--of his erring.» 


On the Essence of The Political: Dao and Theologia Poetica

On the dominant modern reading of the 道德經Daodejing, the book’s 道Dao is unequivocally impersonal.  Under the sway of XIX-XX century English translations, contemporary readers are likely to conceive Dao in strictly naturalistic terms, as a universal “power,” or “force” leaving no place in the Daodejing for any divine personality.  Yet, if we bracket all late-modern expectations in favor of an unusually careful hermeneutics, the possibility is disclosed for an alternative, compelling reading.


                  The modern term “Daoism” renders the pre-modern term 道教Daojiao, which properly stands for “The Teaching of the Way,” which in turn is an abbreviated rendering of the teaching of “the Way of Former Kings” (先王之道xianwang zhi Dao), or of “the Sage-King” (e.g. 聖人shengren being the true king/王wang; cf. Daodejing §66 of the 王弼Wang Bi edition referred to hereafter).  Dao is a way of governing (治zhi) pointing away from “this world” to its essential interiority—a way that restores the world of exteriorities in the mind.  In this sense, wise government (聖人之治shengren zhi zhi) proceeds by not proceeding (為無為wei wuwei), i.e. by “returning” things to their original form.  “By proceeding by not proceeding, nothing is left ungoverned” (為無為,則無不治—ibid., §3).  This is understandable if, as is aptly stressed in The Great Learning (大學daxue), the ordering of things (格物gewu) presupposes a fundamental order of things (物格wuge), in function of which alone it proceeds.  It is not that wise government does not accomplish any work (功成gongcheng), but that in accomplishing its work it does not abide in it (功成而不居—Daodejing, §2): its primary task is indefinite or un-circumscribable, insofar as it pertains to the service of a permanently unfettered mind.  Wise government is then the government of the mind over its contents, so that the essence of the political is noetic or “metaphysical.” What mind is intended here?  Evidently a mind that is not subject to any (physical) restraint, but that underlies all strife.  The mind entailed by expressions such as 無為wuwei is the form of a Way that is causa sui, or that models itself upon itself (道法自然Dao fa ziran—§25).

                 The “teaching of Dao” (道教Daojiao) does not suggest that “the Way” can be imparted, but that it can be referred to: we can be reminded of it.  Yet, the reminder is formulated in such a manner as to invite us to cultivate the 德de or virtue or essential vitality/strength of the Way.  The Way itself is twofold: as something spoken of, it is imagined and named in terms of impersonal or “objective” descriptive features; yet, the Way is in itself the source of the imagining and the naming. (Indeed, the Classical Chinese term 道Dao refers at once to “way” and “way of speech,” or simply “speech.” As a verb, Dao may indicate someone’s speaking, introducing that which someone is recorded to have said.) The Way speaks its own name at the heart of any naming; it is not merely that which is pointed to—as if it were a set of attributes—but that which points, in the first place.  The Way is an agent—indeed, a perfect agent, or unmoved mover—and, in this respect, something personal or “subjective” (in the sense of an active principle underlying change).  Yet, as a person or free agent, the Way hides unnamed—as an essentially anonymous person, or an invisible mask.  No sooner do we apprehend the person, than it recedes behind impersonal attributes.  Yet, these attributes point back to their hidden source, or the Way of their unification.  Thus, just as the “solar” personality of the Way hides, so does the “lunar” impersonality of the Way manifest itself in personality (as attributes manifest themselves in their center of gravitation).  Somehow, personality and impersonality inhere in each other.

                 If spoken of or named as a person or source of deliberation, the Way remains outside of itself: the personal revelation of the Way presupposes a grounding state of being (just as the creative “God the Father” does in St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 13, art. 7).  This distinction is highlighted in the very first verses of the Daodejing:


The Way [of speaking] that may be spoken of is not a permanent Way [of speaking].  The Name that may be named is not a permanent Name.  Negatively, [the permanent way] names the womb of the universe [Heaven-and-Earth]; positively, it names everything’s mother.  This being the case, with respect to its permanent negation, we want to contemplate its subtleties; with respect to its permanent positing, we want to contemplate its exteriorities.  These two are the same in their emergence, but different in name.  Their sameness we call profound.  The irreducible profundity of the profound is, to the multitude of subtleties, the Door.








               In the first verse of the Daodejing, the term 可ke qualifies speech in its conventional or “legal” dimension.  That which is 可ke is “legitimate” or “permissible.” It would be an error to translate 可ke as suggesting sheer capacity or power, or 能nengDao ke dao (道可道) is “speech that is of a conventional or legal order.” To speak in a conventional manner is not to address permanence (常chang), or the “metaphysical” foundations of the conventional order of things.  The conventional way of speaking presupposes an underlying or permanent way of speaking—a way of speaking for which names are not merely by convention.  In spite of what “standard” translations would have us believe, chang ming (常名) does not indicate a unique, dogmatic “Eternal Name,” but any “permanent name,” or rather the fundamental sense of every name.  Every name must presuppose a pre-conventional dimension, which underlies its various conventional uses, or the name insofar as it is used in conventional discourse (名可名ming ke ming).  Beyond all conventional manners of speech, the Daodejing points to the root of the multiplicity of things, or the spring of becoming (compare §42 and 52: Dao stands as “metaphysical” key to all order).  The book’s primary concern rests with the irreducible or transcendent source of every phenomenal mutation.  On their original ground things are no longer transient, but permanent (常chang): they are one with their name insofar as they are purely within the form or mind of all naming.  A “permanent name” will be a name that names something in the mind, or something qua idea.  Whether posited or negated, every idea or “silent name” remains in the mind—independently of any conventional naming.  The Daodejing takes up the task of re-rooting conventional speech in a mind for which negation and affirmation are contradictories pointing back to things themselves, or things permanent in the mind (prior to the distinction between negative and positive, inner and outer).

                   In conventional terms, the cause or beginning of something, being that something's womb, is not evident.  In this respect, it is absent from ordinary speech.  In conventional terms, the absolute beginning of anything is nothing (無wu).  What is evident is not a cause underlying phenomena, but the positivity or self-revelation of a cause as creative persona, or as authority.  The distinction between a cause in itself and the cause’s self-manifestation is the one between 始shi and 母mu (§1 and 52)—between womb or “maternal spring,” and mother.  Again in conventional terms the ground or reason of things is a plain negativity (since it is absent from speakers’ overt concerns, or underlying the literal surface of speech), whereas the authority of things is plainly posited as (though it may not be) something independent of any reason.  The Daodejing responds to conventional speech in a critical manner, calling for a “contemplative” re-conjoining of the inner subtleties of things (妙miao) and their outer appearance (徼jiao).  Neither is adequately understood aside from the other.  Likewise, the hidden cause of things and the authority presiding over them are to be understood through their profound, even irreducible juxtaposition, which in turn stands as “Door” to the multitude of subtle signs that we are invited to contemplate (i.e. to see in the mind, as eagles looking down from the heavens) in search for the reason of phenomenal mutations.

                    The subtle signs with which the Daodejing concerns itself are of no concern to those who, abiding is mere exteriorities, do not investigate their fundamental cause.  Yet, the Daodejing does not abandon exteriorities to themselves.  Instead, it testifies to the inherence of appearances, and thus too of authority, in the mind.  All exteriorities are originally or properly subtle insofar as they “hide” in the mind.  Where ideas or subtle signs cross the “door” (門men) of the mind, they enter the realm of convention.  Yet, even where ideas become or extend into nominal shadows, they remain dependent upon the mind’s agency (not withstanding any impulse to conceive authority as a rootless factum brutum).  Upon entering into the realm of conventional speech, or of 道可道dao ke dao, ideas or “permanent names” remain bound to the “virtue” or proper strength of speech (道德Daode), which transports all conventional manners of speech back into the mind, or in terms of a fundamental community of ideas.  The “virtue” of speech is the way through which conventional names are gathered back into the mind, whereby speech is restored to its original permanence, as thought.  Thus it is that a “metaphysical” 道德Daode (“the virtue of the Way”) coincides with a “moral” or “political” 德道deDao (“the Way of virtue”).


               Inasmuch as it pertains to a “Sage-King,” in its original mode Dao possesses an unequivocally political character.  Political life and order necessarily depend upon it, as upon a civilizing Logos.  The first “way” is the way by which the Sage-King civilizes a people, namely the way of his speech (as we learn e.g. in “The Book of Poetry” or 詩經shijing)—of a speech that in its primitive instantiation appears as a physical sign, most notably a revelatory bolt of lightning.  The first King is a legislative poet, and in this respect, the “Sage-King” of classics such as the Daodejing corresponds to the Orpheus or Amphion or Linus of Graeco-Roman mythology.  The Sage-King is a poeta theologus, master of the political-theological labor par excellence: divination.


                For a literary tradition unfolding out of the “Chinese” Way of Former Kings, the foremost textual reference is the divinatory-political 周易Zhoyi (aka 易經Yijing/I Ching) or “Book of Mutations” or “The Mutations of the Zhou [dynasty]” (where the term 易yi indicates at once uncompelled or free mutation/metamorphosis and its permanent substratum).  The work reflects the original way by which statesmen govern polities.  The Sage-King governs by examining and responding to “signs” (卦象gua xiang or 假象jiaxiang) that are at once natural and political: being political, they mutate teleologically, pointing to a final good (where “good” is desire’s proper end); being natural/physical, they are constantly recurrent, or circular.  The signs in question are essentially human: they pertain primarily to properly human nature, or to the modifications of one human mind.  Accordingly, the “signs” of the Zhouyi signal “virtues” (德de) of things in a metaphysical-political context, where the political/ethical is a modification of the metaphysical/noetic.  Every “sign” stands as mask or persona of virtues, so that a “story” may be told mirroring the interaction of virtues, or of the “ways” of the mind. 

                          The “first” sign, which is that of “heavenly creation” (乾 gan), is characterized by “four virtues” (四德side), namely that of “origination” (元 yuan), that of “unimpeded motion” (亨heng), that of “harmony” (利li as 和he), and that of “uprightness” (貞zhen as 正zheng).  The first sign pertains to the incipit of metaphysical-political ordering, or of the twofold ordering of bodies and minds.  The beginning of things requires an initiating virtue or strength; the identical strength is required to sustain unimpeded or infinite motion, to secure harmony, and to rectify deviations from virtue.  In the sign, 乾 gan the “four virtues” of the incipit of order appear as one, so that the unity of the beginning, or the beginning as a whole, may be brought to bear upon its consequents (first among them, 坤kun, the receptive “labor of earth”—地勢dishi) in speech. 

                         The speech in question is divinatory in the sense that it surmises, not merely a future in time, but the unity of all of speech’s modifications—a noetic unity presupposed by all political modifications.  Here, divination is the labor of tying the “dependent” modifications of the mind back to the “creative” original unity of the mind.  Divination stands as the “reading” of what is “outside” of the mind as pointer to the contents of the mind—“the physical heavens” (後天hou tian) as signaling “the metaphysical heavens” (先天xian tian), so that the former are disclosed at once as natural and political: divination is the disclosure of the political essence of the physical. 

                      In the light of their metaphysical roots, “physical” signs appear as eminently political, or as personae, “poetic” loci or “legal masks” of faculties of the mind.  Thus, e.g., 坤kun signals a lord’s cultivation of virtue as way to sustain political things, or the res publica (君子以厚德戴物junzi yi houde daiwu), where “government by virtue” entails a capacity to order the “physical” in the “geometrical” light of the “metaphysical.”  The geometrical signs of the Zhouyi serve as refractive mirrors through which the lord or nobleman (君子junzi) is to render the physical commensurate to political ends.  What is “physical” is not conceived in terms of mechanical forces subject to radical manipulation (as with F. Bacon), but as receptacle of 天意tianyi, or heavenly intent, i.e. divine providence, even when this is understood pre-philosophically, or, to speak Latin, as Fas (whence the English “fate”).  Nature as “fateful directive” serves as basis for all popular appeals to a divine will, which—unlike mortal wills—contains its end immediately, rather than leaving it outside of itself.  The divine will is by definition complete, or one with intellect.  In this respect, medieval Scholasticism could identify God as “purest mind” (mens purissima) or “perfect reason” (perfecta ratio).  A divine will is a will that includes its end, or a will that—precisely as the Dao of Daodejing—is effortless in accomplishing everything (為無為wei wuwei).  The human will has its perfection in this Dao that achieves its ends without laboring after them.  But the ends here are proper to the mind, so that the way to achieve them coincides with the mind’s proper faculty, namely volition.  Accordingly, Dao may stand for an imperial person, or a metaphysical Emperor (帝之先dizhixian, after the expression, 先天xiantian), in its unfathomable abyss, resembling the ancestral root of all things (淵兮似萬物之宗—Daodejing §4).  As divine will, Dao is circular, so that, “the Dao’s motion is a returning [upon itself]” (反者道之動—§40), and “bending is to complete” (曲則全—§22), where all that remains incomplete returns to what is complete (compare ibid., where 誠全而歸之, and §25).  Unlike any other motion, that of Dao is self-contained.  That is why it is said to be modeled upon itself alone (道法自然), whereas man models himself upon the earth, the earth upon heaven, and heaven upon the permanent Dao.  Here, man is the child of the earth (as the Latin etymology of homo confirms), earth is the child of heaven, but Dao is no-one’s child (compare §4: 吾不知其誰之子).

The foregoing notes do not suggest that Dao is equivalent to the Biblical God, but that in texts such as the Daodejing, Dao, just as the Greek Logos, is primarily an agent, rather than a mechanical or blind force.  Dao acts or accomplishes work; it speaks in the very sense that Logos speaks.  (Not entirely without reason is Dao rendered as "Reason" in the Suzuki/Carus 1880 translation).  Thus, for instance, 

“[Man’s] music and food entertain passersby, but Dao’s utterance is so insipid that it has no taste.  To see it, it is not enough to look at it; to hear it, it is not enough to listen to it; to possess it, it is not enough to use it.” (樂與餌,過客止。道之出口,淡乎其無味,視之不足見,聽之不足聞,用之不可既。); Daodejing §35.

                      “Seeing” stands to “looking at” as “possessing” stands to “using.” Here, “possessing” (the final 既, mirroring the 執 introducing §35) renders “exhausting the use of,” and thus “making full use of.” Dao is made full use of, not by its being used, but by its using itself.  Likewise, Dao itself is not merely the revelation or “great sign” (大象) of Dao, which has an overtly political function (as converging point of reference for political life and order, bringing universal safety and peace without harm; 執大象,天下往。 往而不害,安平太—ibid.).  Dao is not merely that which is revealed, but the original act of revelation, or that which is latent in all revelations, i.e. in every revelation of universal political-theological significance (a revelation that, accordingly, pertains to a “sign” that is shapeless in the respect that it is uninformed by any other sign; cf. §41, where 大象無形).  Being overtly concerned with the act of revelation, to a great extent the Daodejing merely intimates or alludes to the political valence of Dao as “revealed sign.”  Yet, the act of revelation itself points to its political “sign,” which in turn points back to its creative act.  Just as the “feminine” 陰Yin underlying spring points to its "masculine” or “solar” 陽Yang sign—as to its “positive” consummation—so does the latter point back to the former, as its "negative” source.  No adequate understanding of either pole is possible aside from both in interaction.

                        When brought to bear upon each other, the negative and positive aspects of Dao lead us to conclude that Dao speaks, albeit not to the ear, but to the mind.  Its sound is “great” precisely by being imperceptible: “the great sound is an imperceptible voice” (大音希聲—§41).  As a true ruler, Dao hides un-named (compare the concluding sentences of §36 and of §41): Dao governs without exposing itself to men, or in conventional terms; only thus could Dao lend support to rulers in fulfilling their work, or in accomplishing the good of their polity (compare the two references to 成 in ibid. and §35, where the "great accomplishment" or 大成 indicates the rectification of the polity/empire, or 為天下正).

(published on the 21st of August, 2013)

Suggested Readings

Andreacchio Marco, "CHAN BUDDHISM: THE UNCONVENTIONAL EDUCATION OF THE METAPHYSICIAN," in 2012.  Proceedings Metaphysics 2006.  Rome:Fondazione Idente di Studi e di Ricerca.  At

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