Chapter 8 of the Lao-tzu Tao te ching presents water as that from which virtues can be derived by imitation of its characteristics. Water is an example of how nature (or an object of nature) teaches or presents models for human behavior that allow the individual to identify what is fruitful and harmonious for the self. While one may argue that other models of nature exist (“nature red in tooth and claw,” for example), they are out of context with the totality and often a priori. Taoism presents water as a universal object, at all times and in all contexts. The characteristics of water underlie the potentialities and actions of the myriad creatures, among them human beings.
(Here again we’ll use the D. C. Lau translation for its clarity and scholarship.)
Highest good is like water.
Because water excels in benefiting the myriad creatures
without contending with them
and settles where none would like to be,
water comes close to the Tao.
The opening paragraph describes water as not contending or striving with anyone or anything. This characteristic of water is a benefit to all. Water yields when confrontation looms, goes forward when opportunity is available, pulls back and waits patiently when obstacles arise. And water always seeks out the lowest place, that place where there will be no contention because nothing else wants to be so lowly.
Humility is a recurrent theme in the Tao te ching, but one does not necessarily associate water with humility. The characteristic is contextual: a booming ocean wave contrasted to a country ditch or a latrine. But it is water all the same.
The virtues of water are the virtues of sages and hermits. Obscurity is not literal. Water does not hide, flee, or disappear, but it is often hard to find and when found is hard to identify in its origin. So the sage is standing before us, or is one we never see or realize has wisdom. The hermit, too, is walking amongst us, in the city, the town, the countryside — not necessarily hidden away in a monastery or cave or distant hut.
But might as well be, for the hermit is a solitary in mind, heart, and spirit, and naturally seeks out the places where no one goes, indirectly benefiting everyone by lack of contention — by lifting up a heart full of nature and joy, but not as the world celebrates it. The hermit is flexible and a lifting of heart is contextual, as is a quiet or sad heart – booming wave or quiet trickle. The sage and hermit are flexible and easily live in simple or harsh conditions, demanding little, observant of the cycles of nature as they will benefit him or her, just as the sage and hermit will benefit nature and its creatures by not harming, abusing, or exploiting them.
The cycle of seasons instructs the sage and hermit, and water is an integral aspect of each. Not that the hermit is obliged to live in any given place. The taiga of Russia or the deserts of the Middle East were mono-seasonal, though they had subtle changes of season to which the hermit was attentive. Every change of season, even changes in cold or hot places, are brought about by water.
There are modern writers who say that water cures nearly all diseases, based on the premise that blood and tissue and electrical impulses are all based on uses of water and its elements in the body and in the atmosphere. The purity and simplicity of water is a metaphor for health and well-being.
Tao te ching 8 applies the notion of deriving virtues from nature to specific virtues that, like water, benefit all yet retain simplicity and obscurity in their non-contention. Following D. C. Lau, these are two sets of threes, skipping the interpolation of a reference to house-siting, which suggests a later feng-shui interest not appropriate to Lao-tzu:
In quality of mind it is depth that matters
In friendship it is benevolence
In speech it is good faith
In government it is order
In affairs it is ability
In action it is timeliness.
Alternatively, here is Red Pine’s more literal version:
thinking with depth
helping with kindness
speaking with truth
governing with peace
working with skill
moving with time
The first set of three applies to the individual: self, other, others; the second set applies to social interactions: government, business, world. The refrain (in Lau) about what matters in each case establishes, first, the reality confronted by the individual, and then the virtue that should be pursued in order to make the reality non-contentious.
Thus the quality of mind is best when deep, as in meditation, where idle thoughts and images not only do not disturb mind but further do not contribute to depth. The quality of friendship consists in the kindness or mutuality that is shared in non-contention, in the relationship of courtesy and openness that friends share. Communication beyond that is best characterized by “good faith,” or honesty, constructiveness, “truth” in Red Pine’s version — in words that are few but meaningful.
On the social level, government is best when its function is to maintain order. Order means peace internally and externally. Benevolence must first come from individuals in this scheme — if this prerequisite does not exist, government will be incapable of order. Likewise, business (“affairs” or “work”) must be characterized by mutual exchange of abilities, skills, and products of quality, functionality, and endurance. Without this virtue to business transactions, fraud and corruption result. But this fraud will have been the product of previous lack of virtue in this hierarchy from self, friends, society, and “government” or ordered interactions.
Thus, by “government” Lao-tzu refers to the convention of the emperor, but reduces it to order, ultimately a product of individuals. By “affairs” Lao-tzu refers to the convention of business, reducing it to exchanges of productivity and skill, as when a farmer sells his produce or a craftsman makes a tool. Reducing virtues to fundamentals brings us closer to visualizing the simplicity of personal relations, and brings us closer to the context of ancient China when the Tao te ching was composed.
Finally, the reference to action (or “moving”) means that only with these many preconditions does the virtuous person safely “act” or participate. At that point, the acting is to embrace a beneficent situation. The timing of action must be right because beneficence does not always manifest itself in all these factors from mind to friendships to business. If no one in the world is virtuous, the hermit will not act. Thus we extrapolate the Confucian advice to “recluse when the emperor is evil” and we anticipate Chuang-tzu’s philosophy of “non-action” in evil times.
The last sentence in this chapter probably belongs at the end of the paragraph on water:
It is because it does not contend that it is never at fault.
The sage or hermit of today can apply the virtues of water to life itself. These virtues are not mere metaphors or abstractions. The virtues show us how to find in non-contention a source of happiness and well-being.