Study Guide

Tao Te Ching Humility

By Lao Tzu


Heaven and Earth are impartial
They regard myriad things as straw dogs
The sages are impartial
They regard people as straw dogs (5.1-4)

So straw dogs were actual little dogs made out of straw that the Chinese used in rituals. After the rituals were over, the figurines were tossed. So here, the TTC is telling us that the Tao looks at people and all living things the same way. Some might say, "Whoa, that's kinda harsh. Don't I matter?" But a Taoist would see this as a lesson in humility. Our lives come and go, and the less value we place on ourselves, the closer we become to the Tao.

What does "the greatest misfortune is the self" mean?
The reason I have great misfortune
Is that I have the self
If I have no self
What misfortune do I have? (13.8-12)

Could this mean that if a person is totally humble and selfless, then nothing bad can happen to them? So, like, if a piano falls out of a window they're passing under, the piano will somehow mystically avoid them? Well, Taoists probably wouldn't go that far. But if something bad does happen to someone who's totally selfless, they don't get all upset about it. There's no "Why me?!" action going on. They don't think they're entitled to anything in particular and don't expect anything of the world.

The people all have goals
And I alone am stubborn and lowly (20.23-24)

Ah, but what if your goal is to be lowly and humble? Doesn't that give you a goal just like the other people? A Tao master might say, "Yeah, but true humility is the only goal worth achieving," but they'd say it in a way that seems way smarter.

Therefore the sages hold to the one as an example for the world
Without flaunting themselves—and so are seen clearly
Without presuming themselvesand so are distinguished
Without praising themselvesand so have merit
Without boasting about themselvesand so are lasting (22.7-11)

Since the Tao is everything and manages not to brag about it, the sages try to follow its example and not brag about anything either. This goes for their own humility as well. If a dude went around bragging about how humble he was, that would kind of defeat the purpose of humility, now wouldn't it?

Those who praise themselves have no merit
Those who boast about themselves do not last
Those with the Tao call such things leftover food or tumors
They despise them
Thus, those who possesses the Tao do not engage in them (24-5.9)

All right, so boastfulness has to be part of the Tao (since everything is part of the Tao), but it's a part of the Tao that the sages hate. Just to play Devil's advocate, could this be seen as a form of pride? If we're truly humble, who are we to judge which part of the Tao is good and which part is bad?

Return to the state of plain wood
Plain wood splits, then becomes tools
The sages utilize them
And then become leaders
Thus the greater whole is undivided (28.15-19)

Here, the TTC advises rulers that they need to rule with humility. But how exactly does a truly humble person ever end up ruling? If a person were truly humble, wouldn't they give up the throne? Maybe the TTC is recognizing that somebody has to rule, but that when they do so, they'll get way better results if they do it with humility.

Therefore, sages never attempt great deeds all through life
Thus they can achieve greatness (63.12-13)

Does this seem a little contradictory? If we don't try to do anything great, how would we manage to, you know, do anything great? Well, a sage might tell you that to be truly humble and selfless is the greatest thing, but also that people who don't torture themselves about the end-goal of greatness often end up doing greater things than people who obsess over being rich and famous.

Those of ancient times who were adept at the Tao
Used it not to make people brighter
But to keep them simple (65.1-3)

How would you feel if the government suddenly turned Taoist? What if its main goal was suddenly to guide us toward being humble and simple? How do you think people would react?

Not daring to be ahead in the world
Thus able to assume leadership
Now if one has courage but discards compassion
Reaches widely but discards conservation
Goes ahead but discards being behind
Then death! (67.14-19)

Oh, man. Does this mean that the Tao gives the death penalty to those who aren't humble? We probably aren't meant to take this as literally as it sounds. After all, plenty of humble people die before their brag-y friends do. Could it just be warning that pride can totally ruin your life?