Those who are wise do not speak about wisdom,
And those who speak about wisdom are not wise.
Shut your mouth,
Close your eyes,
Blunt your edges,
Untie your knots,
Unwind your intellect,
And identify yourself with the dust.
This is how you achieve unity with the world.
Once unity with the world is achieved,
You will no longer be able to be attached, nor aloof,
Nor benefited, nor harmed,
Nor ennobled, nor disgraced.
This is the highest state of human development.
Language is what makes us uniquely human, what sets us apart from animals, and what makes complex societies possible. It can also be a huge pain in the butt.
Most linguists and psychologists contend not only that language is necessary for thought, but that the two are self-reinforcing phenomena: Without one there cannot be the other. Many go so far as to suggest that language and thought are the same thing—a chain of symbols that give rise to an abstract reality separate from the actual, measurable, physical world of immediate perception.
This may help explain why the Tao Te Ching is so skeptical about the power and value of language—because words tend to give rise to hallucinations about reality rather than act as accurate reflections. For the same reason, Taoism is also skeptical about an intemperate pursuit of knowledge. Repeatedly throughout the Tao Te Ching we are invited to consider the value of “unlearning” by selectively casting out things we’ve learned before. In fact, at times it seems as if the entire Taoist project is designed to call into question the very purpose and value of human culture, insofar as it separates us from a more natural way of being. Given that Taoism arose as a response to civilization, this should come as no surprise. After all, civilization can be defined as an organized quest to abstract and extract ourselves from the limitations of the natural world.
As a criticism of the status quo, it seems that the Tao Te Ching must necessarily err on the side of exaggeration from time to time just to make a point, just as it did in the previous chapter by suggesting that infants were invulnerable. It seems unlikely that Lao Tzu advocated a wholesale rejection of language and intellect, nor a romanticized return to a troglodyte lifestyle. Rather, as with all his criticisms against civilization, this chapter’s notions should be tempered by moderation and practicality.
Most societies tend to celebrate people who are talkative and outgoing and cast suspicion against the quiet and shy. Therefore, we are all under pressure to fill up silences by speaking even when we have nothing to say. Some might consider this harmless, but given that words have a life of their own, it’s impossible to estimate what kind of damage idle chatter really ends up doing in the long run. If the global “village square” of Facebook is anything to go by, it seems in fact as if most of our communication is composed of misinformation, aggression, contention, and outrage. Even the most well-meaning of us are guilty of passing around a fallacious meme without questioning its veracity, or ganging up on a person or celebrity we assumed was wrong just because someone else said they were. Yet this is the way that humans have always acted—Facebook and other social media only now makes it all the more obvious.
What’s more, not only does idle chatter poison the wellsprings of society, it also poisons our own minds. The more we say things, the more we are prone to believe our own untruths. Is it any wonder that loudmouths tend to be more opinionated and far less skeptical than those who keep their thoughts to themselves? In this chapter, Lao Tzu suggests that the best way to achieve unity with the world (that is, to experience it accurately and meaningfully) is to stop chasing after concepts and abstractions and let the world present itself to you nakedly, unmasked by your own language and intellect. Or, at least, to try to do so from time to time.