Read The Tao of Emerson Online

Authors: Richard Grossman

The Tao of Emerson


Bold Voices
The Other Medicines
The Natural Family Doctor
(with Andrew Stanway)
A Year with Emerson

For Red Schiller and for Shanti Norris

All philosophy, of East and West, has the same centripetence.

Representative Men


This is one book, but within it are two manuscripts. The first, printed in italics on the left-hand (verso) pages, is based on the classical 1891 rendition of the eighty-one verses of the sacred Chinese text known as the Tao Te Ching, credited to a sage called Lao Tse and translated by the British Sinologist James Legge. On the right-hand (recto) pages is the “second” manuscript (in roman type), the same eighty-one verses of the Tao Te Ching, interpreted in words culled and organized by me from the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great nineteenth-century American philosopher and poet.

The inspiration for creating these parallel texts comes from the epigraph to this book—“all philosophy, of East and West, has the same centripetence”—an observation recorded by Emerson in his essay on Plato when he was thirty-three years old, and already on the road to becoming “America’s Founding Thinker.” Centripetence, of course, refers to the tendency of energy to move or progress toward the center, to the essence of things. As Emerson later wrote, “the hero is he who is immovably centered,” and as Lao Tse put it, “your inner being guard, and keep it free”—both men standing for what Emerson would later call the “infinitude of the human soul.” This veneration of both the depths and heights of the human soul blossoms in their writings into a credo for the conduct of life that elevates quietude, self-awareness, humility, and reverence for the natural world to such a level that it has captivated and inspired generations of men and women. The values contained within the words these sages wrote, no matter how cryptic or mystical they may seem in some instances, have given rise to a kind of “spiritual anthropology,” focused first on a site in ancient China housing a relic document over 2,500 years old, and second on a body of work created by a poet/philosopher in the quite early days of a new and animated country in the Western world. Each set of writings has captivated and inspired seekers to revisit them and probe their wisdom in search of a guiding personal truth.

This book is an effort to bring together these two kindred works. Using fragments of Emerson’s writings ranging in length from a phrase to an entire passage, I have tried to construct new poetic interpretations of Lao Tse’s words. It is not the intent of this rendition of the Tao Te Ching through the prose and poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson to create an amusing word game by plundering the works of Emerson with a pair of scissors. Any great writer’s words can, by such manipulation, be made to reproduce the work of any other writer.

In this instance, the process by which Emerson’s writings are shown as parallel to the verses of the Tao Te Ching is one in which the shared sense and spirit and philosophy of the two men is displayed. To do this I spent a great deal of time immersed alternately in the work of the two authors, and recollecting the comparable thoughts I discovered in each. For instance, in Chapter 2 of the Tao Te Ching, which is intended to lay out the Taoist notions of complementarity (the yin/yang principle), a close student of Emerson thinks immediately of Emerson’s essay “Compensation,” devoted at least in part to the same idea: the universe is characterized by the sway between nonantagonistic, but opposite forces, “as: spirit, matter; man, woman; odd, even; motion, rest….” Thus, Chapter 2 in my “translation” employs five sentences taken from the “Compensation” essay. But there is a deeper connection to be seen when the dedicated reader of Emerson recalls that he also explored this theme in other places: in his poem “Each and All,” for instance, and in his address “The Method of Nature” as well as in his essay “Spiritual Laws.” Thus, one or more sentences from those sources become the Emersonian “version” of the sacred Taoist text. Conversely, in my daily rereading of Emerson, I highlighted any phrase that for me had the ring of the Taoist master. In this latter process, for example, as I read the phrase, “I am a weed by the wall” in Emerson’s essay “Circles,” I heard immediately the reverberation of the self-deprecating tone of Lao Tse in Chapter 20, “I alone seem listless and still …”

The focus of this endeavor, then, is not so much on Lao Tse’s and Emerson’s similarities of verbal expression as it is on the wonderful ways in which philosophical ideas appear and reappear throughout history and across cultures, and are enriched in each new incarnation.


A Note to the Reader

List of Illustrations


The Tao of Emerson

Emerson Sources




Over 120 translations of the Tao Te Ching
have been published in English since 1891. It has lured a variety of Sinologists, poets, philosophers, scientists, and scholars to try again and again to plumb its cryptic, provocative text for deeper meanings and for nuances that might make the wisdom of Lao Tse either more accessible, more modern, or more personally relevant to the Western reader. Some have wished to make the poetry more pronounced; others have wanted to make the translation more precisely like the original Mandarin language; still others have tried to make the Tao Te Ching a more religious document, a kind of Taoist Bible.

Almost all the translators of the Tao Te Ching, including James Legge,
whose translation is used in this book, called their work “interpretations,” acknowledging the enduring fact that it is impossible for the language of one tradition to provide exact verbal equivalents for all the creative ideas of another tradition. In
The Tao of Emerson
I have not had to be concerned with “verbal equivalency” because I have concentrated not so much on the words of the Tao Te Ching, but rather on the ideas embedded in them. I have taken this approach because, after many years of reading and studying both the ideas of Lao Tse, the rural mystic, and the works of the Sage of Concord, I have become convinced that in a mysterious but remarkable way, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a self-defrocked American minister of the nineteenth century, evolved a personal worldview and philosophical stance so parallel to the Tao Te Ching that his own oeuvre of over forty volumes of poetry, lectures, addresses, personal journals, and notebooks contains the essence of the sacred ancient text.

These two men, separated in history by almost 2,500 years, one a citizen of the world’s oldest empire and the other of one of its youngest republics, were sages whose messages were remarkably alike: live the simple, tranquil life; trust your intuition; find and revere the spiritual grace in the natural world; act without self-assertion; commit no violence against living things or persons; try to harmonize with the ebb and flow of nature and circumstances—and above all, assure that there is a place in the world for humility, yielding, gentleness, and serenity.

One reason for their kinship may be found in the study of the prophetic tradition. The scholar Richard Groff, who describes prophets as “articulate mystics,” had this to say:

Through the ages resound the voices of the prophets, the authentic men. We may not know the tongue of the wise man, but we always recognize his voice…. Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tse, Socrates, Fox, Emerson—worked at the tasks they felt were laid upon them by a higher authority, tasks which they were not at liberty to set aside. For countless generations those seeking to find their way in darkness have found lamps in the lives of men like these…. Prophet, saint, sage, savior—the differences among them are lost amid their similarities. Forget the labels. Wisdom is where you find it.

It seems to me that Emerson virtually reincarnated Lao Tse’s wisdom in his own work, and that his brand of fresh, vigorous, homegrown English adds a radiant color to the words of Lao Tse. Emerson himself, in his essay “History,” noted that “Nature is full of sublime family likenesses throughout her works … and there are compositions of the same strain to be found in the books of all ages.” His own observation suggests that an Emersonian rendition of the Tao Te Ching might have a special resonance for the modern reader.

The Tao Te Ching—pronounced
as in
dowel, der
, as in the slightly slurred last syllable of
, and
, as in
—is a short and simple book filled with aphorisms, epigrams, folk wisdom, and what one writer has called “polemic proverbs,” all concerned with the mystery and beauty of the universe, accompanied by profound advice on how human beings might negotiate that universe in a fruitful, peaceful, and ultimately transcendent way.

With the Holy Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching is one of the three most translated books in all of human history, despite the fact that its authorship, its date, and the circumstances of its original publication are still debated among scholars worldwide. There is, however, no argument that it
published in ancient China, around 571 B.C., a fact confirmed as recently as 1993, when fourteen inscribed strips of bamboo containing about 40 percent of the known text (to which two translators, Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall, have given the title
The Great One Gives Birth to the Waters)
were discovered in a royal tutor’s tomb at Guodian, near the city of Ying, once the capital of the southern kingdom of Chu.

What is also as certain as the physical history of the Tao Te Ching—a title that is generally taken to mean “The Classic Book of the Way and Its Power,” or “The Classic Book of the Ultimate Reality and Its Ideal Manifestation”—is the universal magnetism it has exerted on readers for centuries. Whatever historical arguments surround its roots, the little more than five thousand words of its text have been consistently recognized as among the most provocative and inspiring mystic teachings ever written. Whether rendered as rhyming verses
or short chapters of prose, the cryptic, paradoxical, and yet simple and powerful text sets forth the central themes of Taoist thought as the British philosopher Bertrand Russell saw and admired them: “Production without possession, action without self-assertion, and development without domination.” In our current age of spiritual questing, religious revisionism, and political and military conflicts, the Tao Te Ching continues to offer seekers a fascinating framework in which to pursue the paths to peaceful prosperity, the possibility of reincarnation, the confirmation (or disconfirmation) of the existence of the soul, the right way to govern with “a light hand,” the “moral equivalent to war,” and other eternal questions of life’s meaning.

This great work continues to be a beacon for the modern reader even though the Tao Te Ching was written in an ancient Mandarin dialect that is no longer spoken, and the text arose in a cultural background even more different from our modern Western environment than contemporary China is. The thoughts of Lao Tse remain influential around the world, as witnessed, for example, by the continuing spread of interest in and practice of Zen Buddhism, which owes much of its groundwork to Taoist principles as offered in the Tao Te Ching. Likewise, millions of unaffiliated men and women who pursue a spiritual search for a deeper meaning to the human condition turn to the eighty-one verses or chapters that make up this classic.

The original text was divided into two parts, the first thirty-seven chapters being considered the “Upper” part, devoted to
, which is the supreme, cosmic, indestructible energy or universal force (or what, in theistic systems, is suggested by the word
. The second, or “Lower,” part of forty-four verses deals with
, the manifestation, the behavior, the shape and the power of the
. In purely

Western, modem terms we might say that
is what we call Nature, and
is the way Nature works in her many forms and actualities.
is the term designating a classic, or sacred text.)

The name Lao Tse (really “The Old Boy”) was an honorific given a man who was probably born in a town some fifty miles south of the modern city of Shangchui; professionally he was an archivist, or Keeper of Royal Documents, in the dynasty capital of Loyang. His real name may have been Li Erh; posthumously he was given two additional honorific names: Tan (meaning “long-eared,” and hence, wise) and the provocative appellation “Prince Positive.” In spite of his modest, though respected, station in life, he was widely known as a sage, but despairing of the decadence of the dynasty, he chose to leave his homeland and head west. Legend has it that when he reached Hanku, the most formidable pass in all of China, his arrival had been foretold, and the Warden of the Pass, Yin-hsi, implored the great man for some instruction, whereupon Lao Tse gave him the Tao Te Ching, and continued on to unknown regions of the far west. This event is affectionately described by the playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht in his little-known work
Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao-Te-Ching on Lao-Tse’s Road into Exile
, the last stanza of which is:

But the honor should not be restricted
To the sage whose name is clearly writ.
For a wise man’s wisdom needs to be extracted.
So the custom man deserves his bit,
It was he who called for it.

But Emerson knew nothing of the charming legend of Lao Tse or the Taoist philosophy it spawned. The Tao Te Ching was not to be available in English until 1891, nine years after his death. Thus, if he ever even encountered the word
it was in his reading of Confucius, a man twenty years junior to Lao Tse, whose
is the literary and philosophical counterpoint to the Tao Te Ching, and whose followers dominated the social and political structure of China in the late sixth and early fifth century B.C. By that time, as Arthur Kirby has said, “Chinese wisdom expressed itself in the outward symbolical relation of each individual to the Emperor and the Tao, not in thoughts about the Tao; for the early spirit of Lao Tse had died in the letter….”
The Confucianism Emerson read about and admired (“I am reading a better Pascal”) was impressive to him because it appeared to emphasize civic duty, moral education, and “the efficacy of the good example of the superior man.” And surely Emerson and Confucius were linked by their common belief in what Emerson once called “the infinitude of the Asiatic soul.”

But in practice, Confucianism was not a philosophy to which Emerson could have wholly subscribed, since it was almost exclusively concerned with societal structure, worldly transactions, codified rules of behavior, and what might be called patriarchal politics. While many of these themes interested Emerson, they all fall into the realm of “Society,” which for him was only a part of human reality, needing always to be counterpoised with “Solitude,” wherein the richness of the spiritual life becomes possible. So it is with the contrast between Confucius and Lao Tse—the former standing for stern authority, official discipline, the pursuit of “fame and reputation,” where the latter sees all these characteristics as “so many handcuffs and fetters,” preferring to stress the connection between a transcendent Nature and the material diversity of the universe, or the well-known “ten thousand things.”

The Chinese-American philosopher and scientist Lin Yutang saw this when he wrote in his authoritative
The Wisdom of China and India
, “Generally, the reader will find reading Chinese philosophers like reading the best intuitive passages in Emerson.”
And Yutang was doubtless thinking primarily of Lao Tse, the author of the Tao Te Ching. For in all his work, Emerson the paradoxical (“the highest prudence is the lowest prudence”), Emerson the mystical (“the world is but the incarnation of a thought”), Emerson the existential (“You are you, and I am I”), Emerson the present-centered (“Life only avails, not the having lived”), Emerson the epigrammatist (“a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”) is not comparable to the ordered, compulsive positivist Confucius, but rather to the flowing, spontaneous lover of analogies and allusions, the naturalistic and mystic Lao Tse.

The Viennese cultural historian Egon Friedell caught these atavistic “Oriental” qualities of Emerson’s personality and style in his book A
Cultural History of the Modern Age:

His spiritual rhythm reminds one … of the gentle flowing of a meadow stream that hollows its bed slowly and peacefully…. He holds his candle directly up to things and looks them straight in the face like a healthy man who is not cowed by learned traditions…. He is an absolute Impressionist in his style, his composition, and his thought. He never propounds his ideas in a definite, logical or artistic form, but always in the natural and often accidental order which they have in his head….

He knows only provisional opinions, momentary truths…. He begins to develop this or that view, and we think he is going on to weave it systematically, elucidate it from all sides, entrench it against all possible attack. But then, suddenly some alien picture or simile, epigram or
strikes him full in the middle of his chain of thought, and the theme thenceforward revolves on quite a new axis….

This might be an exegesis of the Tao Te Ching itself, emphasizing as it does the loose presentation of sage ideas, the intuitive confidence, the informality and directness, the earthy frame of reference, and ultimately, the simplicity of the wise man. And again we are reminded of both Lao Tse and Emerson when Friedell says of the latter, “He stops still, listens to his heart, and writes as he listens….”

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