8: Highest form of good is water

Chapter 8

The highest form of goodness is like water.
Water knows how to benefit all things without striving with them.
It stays in places loathed by all men.
Therefore, it comes near the Tao.

Clearly, this chapter continues the reasoning of the previous one, concerning the nature of good deeds. The unselfish one makes good deeds out of reflex, without thinking. That’s automatic, when following the Way.

But we don’t need to concern ourselves with the intricate fabric of ethics, when we try to make good deeds. What is far more important is that we discover what action is really for the better, and what might be for the worse. We need to understand the mechanics between action and consequence, in order to choose the former wisely.

Lao Tzu uses the example of water, one of the basic elements of nature, existing in tremendous abundance. Because it’s such an important part of nature, it cannot do wrong. It shows what is natural. So we should follow its example.

The essence of water is its yielding. It flows downwards, as if constantly aspiring to be the lowest of all, and it does so with a minimum of force, rounding obstacles instead of striking at them, caressing its surroundings instead of tearing at them. Water willingly floats downwards, and there is no place too low for it. Still, it’s essential to all living things.

Although we all drink from it, the water of the world is continuously replenished, from above and from below. Without it, we would perish. Indeed, for something of this magnificent importance, it’s right to be modest and yielding, not to provoke all of those who are dependent on it.

Lao Tzu’s choice of water as an example to us all makes additional sense, when we consider the significance of water in ancient myths and beliefs.

In most cosmologies of old, the sea was regarded as the original and eternal element of the world. The primordial sea occurs in many creation myths, and the act of creation is often one of emergence from that sea. The Earth and all its creatures are born out of the sea. This is true for the biblical creation in the first book of Genesis, as well as in many other myths around the world.

When Lao Tzu describes Tao, the Way, as something akin to water, this might be based on creation myths old already at his time, where the world was believed to have emerged from a primordial sea. If so, it could almost be said that Tao actually is that primordial water, at least in essence. The Way is the principle of water, the origin of all.

78: There is nothing like water

Chapter 78

Nothing in the world is softer and weaker than water;
But, for attacking the hard and strong,
There is nothing like it!
For nothing can take its place.
Nothing can take its place.
That the weak overcomes the strong, and
the soft overcomes the hard,
This is something known by all,
but practiced by none.

Lao Tzu returns to what must be his favorite metaphor for the primary quality of Tao, the Way. Water is yielding, which is exactly what makes it superior. As the Roman poet Ovid pointed out: Dripping water hollows out the stone, not through force but through persistence.

Water embraces instead of confronts, it caresses instead of beats, but it still subdues, eventually.

Of course, water can sometimes be a mighty striking force of hard power, but Lao Tzu refers to its yielding quality and its nature to seek the lowest place. That’s what he admires in it, and that’s what he wants us to learn, in just about everything we do.

Not only water is soft and weak in its behavior towards its surroundings, and still overcomes resistance.

Anyway, nature tells us repeatedly to trust the soft and the weak, but we don’t learn. We lack the persistence the Ovid method.

Persistence is a recurring theme in another Chinese classic, I Ching, the Book of Change. It states several times that persistence in a righteous course brings reward.

There are few obstacles that need to be destroyed. Most of them can simply be circumvented.

Sometimes we could all gain by yielding. Thereby we would overcome our pride, which feeds our temper, which triggers our impatience. This is even sometimes necessary in a ruler.

There are far too many rulers who use their power first and foremost to get personal benefits, and who blame everyone and everything for what might go wrong. That’s just as true now as it was in the time of Lao Tzu.


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