23 June 2012

Review: Tao Te Ching

Tao Te Ching
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I found the basic themes of Tao Te Ching familiar from various other writers and characters in stories. Some "chapters" resonated strongly with me, particularly in light of my ongoing war with depression. Some, however, felt like little more than selfishness masquerading as the profound, justifying inaction. Lao-tzu's solution to not wanting to feel pain is to not invest oneself emotionally. Sure, that's effective, but it's a coward's way of ducking the human experience because it might at times be unpleasant. I write this as a guy whose wife left him last Fall because he couldn't manage his depression so I don't feel trite at all when I say that I firmly believe the risk of being hurt is a price worth paying to explore its counterpart, love. I suspect Lao-tzu would have made a terrible physician, advising patients to amputate anything that bothered them.

My chief complaint, though, is with Stephen Mitchell, whose free translations often took me out of the book entirely. In one chapter, he writes of how fear drives a society to have "factories" stockpile "warheads." Yeah, I'm pretty sure that originated with the guy writing during the Reagan Eighties and not the philosopher from centuries prior. Mitchell confesses in his foreword and in the notes to taking such liberties throughout the book and I found myself feeling cheated, unsure whether I was reading Lao-tzu or Mitchell. This edition really ought to have been titled One Guy's Personal Interpretation of "Tao Te Ching".

At some point, I will seek out a different translation and see if I find that any more rewarding. It's definitely frustrating that my first exposure to this honored text should be such a bastardized version, because my first impression is now compromised and ruined.

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