Study Guide

Tao Te Ching Knowledge and Wisdom

By Lao Tzu

Knowledge and Wisdom

Intelligence comes forth
There is great deception (18.3-4)

So this one points to intelligence as being a big root of a lot of problems. When humans became sentient, meaning that we realized that we were alive, our big brains made it harder for us to be one with the flow of the Tao. Seems like there are real parallels here with the Judeo-Christian story of "Adam, Eve, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil." Click here to see what differences and similarities you can find.

End sagacity; abandon knowledge
The people benefit a hundred times (19.1-2)

Hold on, now. All throughout, the TTC is telling us how awesome the sages are, but here it's telling us to end sagacity, which means being all sage-y and stuff. What gives? Our take is that the TTC is saying it's a bad idea to put sages on a pedestal. The simple wisdom of the Tao is out there for everybody to find. You don't have to go get a degree in sage-iness to find oneness.

Those who understand others are intelligent
Those who understand themselves are enlightened (13.1-2)

An overly simple reading of this one might lead somebody to think that we should only look inward to find enlightenment. But in other sections, the TTC encourages us to learn from others and to not be super full of ourselves. What's your take? How can we find a balance between the two?

Without going out the door, know the world
Without peering out the window, see the Heavenly Tao
The further one goes
The less one knows (47.1-4)

Wait... don't scrap those plans for studying abroad just yet. Yeah, it looks like the TTC is saying that traveling makes us dumber, but we probably don't have to read it quite that literally. We prefer to interpret these lines as a warning that we shouldn't expect to be suddenly enlightened just because we traveled thousands of miles to hang out with some sage on a mountaintop. Traveling is awesome. Go for it. But know that the simple wisdom of the Tao is everywhere; you don't have to hop on a plane to find it.

Pursue knowledge, daily gain
Pursue Tao, daily loss
Loss and more loss
Until one reaches unattached action (48.1-4)

Um, so why would we want to pursue the Tao if it's going to make us lose stuff? If the Taoists put a recruitment commercial on TV (which they'd never do), they'd probably have a hard time selling their philosophy with a promise of personal loss for all. What these lines seem to be getting at, though, is that only by emptying our minds can we truly find oneness with the Tao.

The sages have no constant mind
They take the mind of the people as their mind (49.1-2)

Some people might say this makes the sages totally wishy-washy, to which a sage would probably smile, kindly listen to the critic's opinion, learn from it, and then move on without arguing. The TTC thinks we can learn a lot more by going into every situation without preconceptions of what we'll learn from it. How hard is that, though? Being totally open-minded 24/7 sounds like a real challenge if you ask us.

If I have a little knowledge
Walking on the great Tao
I fear only to deviate from it
The great Tao is broad and plain
But people like the side paths (53.1-5)

What could these side paths be? Seems like they're sort of deviations from the way of the Tao. Could it be the lure of getting wrapped up in intellectual concepts that complicate our minds and put a wall between us and the Tao? How can a Taoist know which paths are worth pursuing and which are going to lead them into dangerous territory?

Those who know do not talk
Those who talk do not know (56.1-2)

In general, the TTC is a big fan of silence and is super-suspicious of blabbermouths. There are lots of other places where the book talks about the wisdom of silence. To the TTC, even if a person gives a long and well-informed lecture on any topic, that person still might be missing the most important thing of all: the simple wisdom of the Tao that's flowing all around them. How can a person listen and learn from what's around them if they're always busy talking about what they think they know?

To know that you do not know is highest
To not know but think you know is flawed (71.1-2)

The TTC is also not a fan of know-it-alls. You know the type. They go around acting like they know everything about everything, but really they're all talk. What's much more impressive to the TTC is a person who can admit what they don't know and start from there. It can be kinda hard to figure out what we don't know though, can't it? How can we know what we don't know if we don't know it?

Those who know are not broad of knowledge
Those who are broad of knowledge do not know (82.5-6)

What do you figure this one means? Could it be another reminder that intellectualism is just going get in the way of enlightenment? Also, it could be saying it's better to know a lot about one thing than it is to know a little about a lot. What's your opinion? Which idea fits best with the overall message of the Tao Te Ching?

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