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Extremes

December 26, 2010

Tao Te Ching 9

Better to stop short than fill to the brim.

Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.

Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.

Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.

Retire when the work is done.

This is the way of heaven.

                The ninth verse of the Tao Te Ching expounds more on the principle of simplicity by cautioning us against the perils of taking things to extremes. Never has there been a better time to examine this passage, for much of modern society is conditioned to believe that “more is better.” The need to have more if not the most, to have better if not the best, and to accumulate wealth and gain power have become the status quo of ‘success’ in most modern cultures (and have been for quite some time in many places). What many people fail to recognize is that such things come with their own drawbacks and vulnerabilities, making the want or need to exceed what is necessary as dangerous as it might be rewarding. To clarify, I’ll examine this verse line-by-line.

  • Better to stop short than fill to the brim.

Literally-speaking, filling a cup all the way to the brim makes the cup virtually unmanageable. A person would need to move very slowly and carefully to avoid spilling whatever filled the cup, thus delaying their movements or causing them to stop altogether to avoid spilling the contents. Filling the cup only to a point where it can adequately handled without significant risk of spillage makes more sense and is more practical. It’s the same with our everyday lives. When we overwhelm our days with activities and responsibilities, something is bound to get slighted, mismanaged, or outright destroyed because we placed ‘too much on our plate.’ It is clearly better to keep our lives controllably simple by not overburdening ourselves.

  • Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.

Literally-speaking, sharpening a blade is accomplished by finely shaving metal from the flat surface to bring about a keen edge. Sharpening the blade too often will take away too much metal, making the edge very thin and resulting in the blade dulling more quickly because there is less metal to retain the edge. Similarly, we are prone to taking things so far in our lives that we often risk instability or weakness in order to attain some greater advantage or reward. In driving faster to get somewhere more quickly, we remove some of the safety of travel by giving ourselves – and others as well – less time to react to perilous instances on the road.

  • Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.

Greed begets greed. When one person has a great deal of something, eventually someone else will want what the first person has. When a person accumulates too much of something, they make themselves targets from greater numbers of people that want to take it from them. Wearing fine clothes and driving an expensive car while visiting extravagant restaurants and boutiques makes a person a prime target for robbery. When we seek to live in excess, we become the objective of those that have less and want more. Everyone who gains and amasses wealth has done so by taking it from another.

  • Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.

Fittingly, this follows the line about ‘amassing stores of gold and jade’ because it follows much of the same premise. When one person seeks to have more than others and to wield power over others, resentment and jealousy will inevitably surface. Rebellion or greed will grow and the person who has the most or maintains authority over others will soon find themselves in a very unpopular and possibly hazardous position. It is better to have enough for yourself and to allow others to live in peace than take freedom and wealth from others.

  • Retire when the work is done.

              This is the way of heaven.

The last two lines of this verse summarize the first four statements by urging us to elect the simplest paths as heaven would do. By not seeking the best or the most, pushing things too far, trying to extract every possible advantage from what we do, or taking from others to appease our own avarice, we can simply do what it is that needs to be done and often be left unmolested by others that seek to gain for themselves. This also makes it much easier to avoid having others take advantage of us, because we are not so blinded by our own greed that we fail to identify when we are being victimized by another’s.

                Again, Lao Tzu presents us with another lesson in simplicity by defining some of the pitfalls of greed and overindulgence. In looking at our everyday lives, we can often find many instances in which we might willingly slight another for our own gains, but to refrain from doing so also makes us much less vulnerable to those that would prey upon us in the same fashion.

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