“The world calls me great
great but useless
it’s because I am great I am useless
if I were of use
I would have remained small
but I possess three treasures
I treasure and uphold
first is compassion
second is austerity
third is reluctance to excel
because I’m compassionate
I can be valiant
because I’m austere
I can be extravagant
because I’m reluctant to excel
I can be chief of all tools
if I renounced compassion for valor
austerity for extravagance
humility for superiority
I would die
but compassion wins every battle
and outlasts every attack
what Heaven creates
let compassion protect”
-Lao-tzu- (Taoteching, verse 67, translation by Red Pine)
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Lao-tzu says the world calls his virtue ‘great.’ But if his virtue were great in name alone, it would bring harm. Hence, he acts foolish and useless. He doesn’t distinguish or differentiate. Nor does he demean others or glorify himself.”
WANG PI says, “To be useful is to lose the means to be great.”
SU CH’E says, “The world honors daring, exalts ostentation, and emphasizes progress. What the sage treasures is patience, frugality, and humility, all of which the world considers useless.”
TE-CH’ING says, “‘Compassion’ means to embrace all creatures without reservation. ‘Austerity’ means not to exhaust what one already has. ‘Reluctance to excel” means to drift through the world without opposing others.”
WANG AN-SHIH says, “Through compassion, we learn to be soft. When we are soft, we can overcome the hardest thing in the world. Thus, we can be valiant. Through austerity, we learn when to stop. When we know when to stop, we are always content. Thus, we can be extravagant. Through reluctance to excel, we are surpassed by no one. Thus, we can be chief of all tools. Valor, extravagance, and excellence are what everyone worries about. And because they worry, they are always on the verge of death.”
LIU SHIH-P’EI says, “To be chief of all tools means to be the chief official.” (For “chief of all tools,” see verse 28.)
CONFUCIUS says, “The gentleman is not a tool” (Lunyu: 2.12).
WU CH’ENG says, “Compassion is the chief of the the three treasures. The last section only mentions compassion because it includes the other two. All people love a compassionate person as they do their own parents. How could anyone oppose their parents? Hence, those who attack or defend with compassion meet no opposition.”
MENCIUS says, “Those who are kind have no enemy under Heaven” (Mencius: 7B.3).
And RED PINE adds, “To be a tool means to be limited. To have no limits means to be chief of all tools. Among compassion, austerity, and reluctance to excel, only compassion has no limits. Hence, Lao-tzu ranks it first.”
In the Wangpi edition of today’s verse, line one reads: “The world calls my Tao great.” And that must have been Robert Brookes’ inspiration for his own interpretation of today’s verse. Let’s take a look at Robert Brookes’ interpretation of the entire verse, for it helped me to better understand what Lao-tzu was saying in today’s verse.
“The world calls my teaching great, and like nothing else. Because it is great it seems useless. If it seemed useful, how long ago would it have disappeared!
I have three treasures, guard and preserve them: The first is compassion. The second is moderation. The third is humility.
The compassionate have the power to be brave, the frugal can afford to be generous. One who does not dare to be first can therefore succeed and endure.
If you renounce compassion but try to be brave; if you forsake frugality but try to be generous; if you discard humility but try to lead – things are sure to end in failure.
Mercy in battle brings victory. Compassion in defense brings invulnerability. As this is in accord with nature, nature is the protector.”
These three treasures, compassion, moderation, and humility are great; but they seem useless to the world. What the world considers useful is daring, extravagance, and progress.
This verse just continues the theme of the previous one. The world values getting ahead, on being on top. Lao-tzu’s teaching, which emphasizes the virtue of being behind and below, is thought of as lofty but impractical, nonsense (props to Stephen Mitchell for that interpretation).
The world probably scoffs the most at Lao-tzu’s teaching that compassion empowers you to be brave. The world, after all, awards the greatest accolades to their heroes (defined by the greatness of their blood-lust). Lao-tzu has little use for blood-lust, though. Compassion, says Lao-tzu, makes you invulnerable when in battle. It is mercy, not wanton slaughter, which brings victory.
Getting back to Red Pine’s translation I wanted to point something out about Lao-tzu calling himself “the chief of all tools.” Given that Confucius specifically said, “The gentleman is not a tool” it seems to me that Lao-tzu is taking a bit of a swipe at Confucius, and also offering up his own humility, in calling himself the chief of all tools.
But, what is Lao-tzu really teaching in today’s verse? I think it comes back to how we measure success and failure, and how we perceive things as either useful or useless. Lao-tzu insists, these three treasures, if we only saw how useful they really are, would lead to success in life. But when we see them as useless, things are sure to end in failure.
Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:
LIU SHIH-P’EI (1884-1919). Adds to the work of Wang Nien-sun and others in locating ancient usages of the Taoteching. Lao-tzu-chiao-pu.