The Freestanding Sage in the Daodejing

The free-standing sage (i.e., outside the “Therefore the sage” formula) appears six or seven* times in the Daodejing. Two of the Wang Pi text’s chapters which include the free-standing sage (chapters 5 and 19)  are found in the Guodian text without the sage. Chapter 19 is hostile to the sage in any case  and thus not a trustworthy source (exterminate the sage, discard the wise, and the people will benefit a hundredfold), and I will  leave it out of this discussion for that reason.

As for chapter 5, its absence from the Guodian Daodejing justifies discussing it here independently of the rest of the chapter. Chapter 5 is only one of many chapters which begin or conclude with framing passages whose relevance to the rest of the the chapter is hard to determine (chapter 20 is another, and it, too, appears in the Guodian text in truncated form), and it is generally thought that the chapter divisions are a late editorial after thought based on the numerology of 9 x 9. This justifies my treatment of the sage’s appearance in Chapter 28 independently of the chapter it appears in. (I include chapter 71 here tentatively. To me it looks like a  defective “Therefore the sage….” ending formula, and there are a few texts justifying this reading, but it’s interesting enough to consider here.

So far I have dealt with the sage mostly as part of the formula “Therefore the sage….”, without being able to see a pattern in its independent appearances. However, a line from Guanzi’s “Nei Ye” chapter gave me the clue I needed:

When flowing amid the heavens and the earth we call it ghostly and numinous (gui shen);
when stored within the chest of human beings, we call them sages.

As Roth noted, early Daoism probably appeared among the fangshi – shaman-like healers, teachers, and sorcerers.  Shamans are respected for their powers, which often include communication with the dead and power over the spirits, but in general they are more feared than loved, since they can use their powers either for you or against you, either for good or for evil. (In Saso’s book Taoist Master Chuang ilaymen certainly regard Chuang that way, and the book also mentions heterodox Taoist priests who are accused of being  practitioners of black magic and nothing more.)  The first mention of the sage in Chapter 5 fits this description well:

Heaven and Earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs;
The sage is ruthless and treats the hundred names as straw dogs.

The sage in chapter 60, like the Nei Ye sage, is associated with ghosts and spirits, and his benevolence in a well-ruled empire is compared to the hermlessness of ghosts and spirits in good times, but not without acknowledging the fact that sages (like shamans) can do harm too:

When the empire is ruled in accordance with the way,
the spirits (gui) lose their potencies (shen);
Or rather, it is not that they lose their potencies,
But that, though they have their potencies, they do not harm the people;
It is not only they who, having their potencies, do not harm the people,
The sage, also, does not harm the people.

Shamans were healers, but in many cases they became healers after they had suffered a serious disease, often but not only what seems to have been epilepsy. They were men or women who had encountered disease and defeated it. Thus, chapter 71:

The sage is free of sickness.
It is because he is sees sickness as sickness that he is free of sickness. (my tr.)

In the last line of the last chapter of the Daodejing, chapter 81, the benevolence and unselfishness of Tao and the sage are the message, but the possibility of harm is raised again. This is part of one of the central themes of the Daodejing: the sage is someone of great power who, because of that power, is able to relate to others in a consistently generous way, without demanding compensation, going to war, inflicting punishment, or exacting revenge, even though he would be capable of doing those things if forced :

The way of heaven is to benefit and not harm;
the way of the sage is to act without contention. (my tr.)

The passage at the end of chapter 28 rather ambivalently ventures the possibility of the sage’s public service. In the context of Taoism, a sage’s entry into the public arena would be a step down, away from the perfect of primal simplicity (pu),  and is presumably justified by altruism (just as is the Boddhissatva’s willingness to be reborn, or the Platonic philosopher’s (grudging) willingness to advise rulers.)

When the uncarved block shatters it becomes vessels.
When the sage is employed he becomes the chief of the officials. (Mawangdui text)

The sage’s appearance in chapter 49 has given translators a lot of difficulty, but along with chapter 60 I think that it is the key to understanding the Taoist sage. It can be grouped with chapters 27, 62, and 68,   all of which advocate the benevolent manipulation of admittedly imperfect subjects and underlings.  (All of these chapters speak of the “good man”, shan ren, but “good” in this context has a double meaning. It can mean “good” in a general sense, but sometimes it only means “skillful” or “capable”.)

The sage is constantly without a mind of his own. He takes as his own the mind of the people.

Treat as good those are good. Treat also as good those are not good. This is to gain goodness. Have faith in those who are of good faith. Have faith also in those who are not in good faith. This is to gain in good faith.

When he resides in the empire, the sage is all pulled in, and for the empire he muddles his mind. The hundred families all watch and listen,  and the sage treats them all like children. (my tr.)

In  the Daodejing the sage marks the move toward Daoist engagement with government. The SYSJ formula is an editorial introduction to added material, and the significance of the sage in these stereotyped passages is somewhat limited. In the chapters where the sage stands alone, however, it’s possible to  learn something about who the Daoist sage really was.

CH. SAGE DAO DE WW GD(* = partial)
5. x A* no sage
19. x A no sage
28. x Ending of 28 considered as independent chapter
49. x
60. x x x
71. x May be a damaged SYSR formula
81. x x Tian Dao
ALL. 7 2 1 0  0
% of “sage” chapters. 29%. 14%. 0%.  0%
% of DDJ chapters. 44%. 17%. 12%.  0%

The freestanding is not seen in the Guodian Laozi, is not seen in the same chapter as wuwei,   and is seen in the same chapter as Dao a little less frequently than it is in the book as a whole. Even outside the stereotyped SYSJ formula, Dao is seen less often in chapters in which the Sage appears. It may be that the small sample makes it unjustifiable to draw any conclusions from this, however.

Published in: on November 27, 2009 at 12:34 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. [...] The Sage thus seems to represent the absence of harm where harm might be expected, and I believe that the Confucian and Daoist sages historically trace back to powerful exorcists and shamans who could control the spirits and who were capable of either benefiting or harming men. More here. [...]


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