Great, But Useless

“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 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.”

Lao-tzu, referring to his teachings, said, “The world calls me great. Great but useless.” And with that, they dismiss Lao-tzu and his teachings. But hold on there. Is it possible that uselessness is a good thing? Lao-tzu seemed to think so. He went on to say, “It’s because I am great I am useless. If I were of use I would have remained small.” I don’t know whether I can really convey the significance of that last statement.

What Lao-tzu values and what the world values are opposed to each other. The world values valor, extravagance, superiority. And Lao-tzu values compassion, austerity (simplicity), and reluctance to excel (humility). Oh, the world pays lip service to notions of compassion, simplicity, and humility, but they don’t dare practice what Lao-tzu treasures. They are, as far as the world is concerned, great but useless. And of what use can the useless be?

The answer, my friends, is more than we may think.

Because I am 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.” To be a tool is to be limited. A tool is useful. But there is a limit to its usefulness. The chief of all tools is without limitations. Lao-tzu’s uselessness, then, is what makes him great. His uselessness means his life knows no limits.

Lao-tzu contrasts compassion with valor. What does he mean by that? He goes on to refer to compassion winning every battle, and outlasting every attack. But it isn’t the compassionate that are awarded medals. They don’t have ticker-tape parades for those who were compassionate. So much for the world’s opinion. Says Lao-tzu, “If I renounced compassion for valor, I would die.”

Lao-tzu contrasts austerity with extravagance. Austerity is a word which is used by governments to describe their cost-cutting measures to balance their budgets. But Lao-tzu isn’t talking about what governments impose on us. He is talking about the practice of individuals, cultivating the Tao in their own body. Austerity is simplicity, it is moderation, it is living within your means. Extravagance lives like the bill will never come due. Like how Congress spends our money. And yet again, Lao-tzu says, “If I renounced austerity for extravagance, I would die.”

Lao-tzu contrasts reluctance to excel (humility) with superiority. And understand that Lao-tzu is talking about attitudes here. I don’t think I am superior to or better than others. I place myself below and behind them. If I did otherwise, if I renounced humility for superiority, says Lao-tzu for the last time, I would die.

What if we would value these treasures like Lao-tzu did? What if we saw the value in uselessness? What if we realized that uselessness makes us great?

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *