Study Guide

Tao Te Ching Setting

By Lao Tzu

Setting

The Tao

Oh, the places we'll go with the Tao Te Ching. Where are we headed, you ask? Oh, everywhere that ever was, is, or will be. Seriously, this book is all about the Tao, which is the great flow of everything. Just check out these famous first lines:

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things
(1.1-4)

There you go. The Tao is the origin of everything. So name a place and time, and it's guaranteed to be part of the Tao. A street corner in New York at the turn of the century? Part of the Tao. The bottom of your gold fish tank right now? Part of the Tao. The Mars Hilton in the far distant future? Still in the Tao, Shmoopers.

All right, so the Tao is everywhere and every-when; cool, we got that. But are you ready for the TTC to really blow your mind? The Tao isn't just everywhere that is; it's everywhere that isn't. No joke. Check out this quote:

The myriad things of the world are born of being
Being is born of non-being
(40.3-4)

And you thought we were just making stuff up. If the Tao is the source of all that is, and if being is born of non-being, then the Tao has to be nothing just as much as it's something. Ow. Now our heads hurt.

This whole being and non-being head-scratcher gets back to the idea from our first quote: "The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao" (1.1). The true Tao is so hard for us puny humans to understand that we can't even create a word for it. So maybe instead of saying that this poem is set in the Tao, we should say it's set in the ____?

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