Wang Bi

I’ve been distracted from reading. It’s amazing that I have to fight so hard to carve out the time, as much against myself as circumstance.

I picked up Wang Bi’s third century commentary on the Laozi again. He has such a subtle mind. To write a commentary without imprisoning the original text is, perhaps, an impossible task. But he comes as close as one can hope. As someone who spent most of my life doing nothing but reading commentaries, I am impressed with how reluctant he is to confine Laozi’s words even to his own interpretation. This is due in no small part to the nature not only of Laozi’s writing, which is more like poetry than prose, but to his world view, the foundation of which is beyond names.

My own mind is not subtle enough to do much with his text, at least not in the way I used to pretend to in graduate school. I feel more like the layman who reads scripture and says this speaks to me. And so this speaks to me: “Being good at making quick progress lies in not hurrying, and being good reaching goals lies in not forcing one’s way.” Perhaps this is all the more powerful to me now as I consider how many years have passed and how little time is left.

The end of Wang Bi’s introduction to the Laozi really struck me. I wonder if part of me has preferred Zhuangzi because he is more artistic and complex (anachronistially, in a way more like Nietzsche). This is not to say I don’t adore the Laozi, just that I may have been underappreciating it because of its deceptive simplicity. I am willing to bet that if one could understand the Laozi he could write the latter himself–given the right amount of skill, of course.

Here is the text:

Therefore a man of antiquity sighed and said: “Truly! What a difficult thing this is to understand! I knew that not being sagacious was not being sagacious, but I never knew that to be sagacious was not sagacious. I knew that not being benevolent was not being benevolent, but I never knew that being benevolent was not benvolent.” However, thus it is that only after repudiating sagehood can the efficacy of sagehood be fully realized; only after discarding benevolence can the virtue of benevolence become really deep. To hate strength does not mean that one desires not the be strong but refers to how the conscious use of strength results in the negation of strength. To repudiate benevolence does not mean that one desires not to be benevolent but refers to how the conscious use of benevolence turns it into something false. Once one tries to govern deliberately, chaos ensues; once one deliberately tries to maintain his security, danger results. Place oneself in the rear, and one will find himself in front. Finding oneself in front is not possible by trying to place oneself in front. Put aside one’s person, and one’s person will be preserved. Preservation of one’s person cannot be done by trying to preserve one’s person. Efficacy cannot be had for the seizing, as praise cannot be had for the applying. Thus it is that one must do nothing except hold fast to the mother that provides efficacy. As a section [of the Laozi] says, “once one knows the child,” he must “hold on to the mother.” If one followed this principle, what venture would ever fail to achieve complete success!

How ridiculously little I know.

Also, as great as he is, you are constantly reminded that he is a commentator: he is often trying to explain things away.

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