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Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Petronius, The Satyricon
Plutarch, Parallel Lives



Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching is one of the more mysterious documents in the history of religion. Nothing is known of its author, called Lao Tzu or Old Master, except a few legends given by the historian Ssu-ma Ch’ien. Its date is the subject of dispute amongst scholars. Even its nature and purpose are ambiguous. What it most resembles is our own Book of Psalms as used in Christian monastic orders, a collection of poems and short prose passages to be used for meditation or for chanting in choir by a community of contemplatives. As far as we know there were no monks in China until the introduction of Buddhism hundreds of years after the latest possible date for the Tao Te Ching. Nevertheless this is the best way to understand the book — as a collection of subjects for meditation, catalysts for contemplation. It certainly is not a philosophical treatise or a religious one, either, in our sense of the words religion, philosophy, or treatise.

Arthur Waley, whose translation is still by far the best, rendered the title as The Way and Its Power. Others have called Tao “The Way of Nature” — Te means something like virtus in Latin. (“Lao Tzu” is pronounced “Low Ds”; “Tao Te Ching,” “Dow Deh Jing,” “ow” as in “bow-wow.”)

In the Confucian writings Tao usually means either a road or a way of life. It means that in the opening verse of the Tao Te Ching, “The way that can be followed (or the road that can be traced or charted) is not the true way. The word that can be spoken is not the true word.” Very quickly the text drives home the numinous significance of both Tao and Te. Tao is described by paradox and contradiction — the Absolute in a worldview where absolutes are impossible, the ultimate reality which is neither being nor not being, the hidden meaning behind all meaning, the pure act which acts without action and yet the reason and order of the simplest physical occurrence.

It is quite possible — in fact Joseph Needham in his great Science and Civilization in China does so — to interpret the Tao Te Ching as a treatise of elementary primitive scientific empiricism; certainly it is that. Over and over it says, “learn the way of nature”; “do not try to overcome the forces of nature but use them.” On the other hand, Fr. Leo Weiger, S.J., called the Tao Te Ching a restatement of the philosophy of the Upanishads in Chinese terms. Buddhists, especially Zen Buddhists in Japan and America, have understood and translated the book as a pure statement of Zen doctrine. Even more remarkable, contemporary Chinese, and not all of them Marxists, have interpreted it as an attack on private property and feudal oppression, and as propaganda for communist anarchism. Others have interpreted it as a cryptic work of erotic mysticism and yoga exercises. It is all of these things and more, and not just because of the ambiguity of the ideograms in a highly compressed classical Chinese text; it really is many things to many men — like the Tao itself.

Perhaps the best way to get at the foundations of the philosophy of the Tao Te Ching is by means of a historical, anthropological approach which in itself may be mythical. There is little doubt that the organized Taoist religion, which came long after the Tao Te Ching but which still was based on it, swept up into an occultist system much of the folk religion of the Chinese culture area, much as Japanese Shinto (which means the Tao of the Gods) did in Japan. If the later complicated Taoist religion developed from the local cults, ceremonies and superstitions of the precivilized folk religion, how could it also develop from the Tao Te Ching or from the early Taoist philosophers whose works are collected under the names of Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu and who are about as unsuperstitious and antiritualistic as any thinkers in history? The connection is to be found I feel in the shamans and shamanesses of a pan-Asiatic culture which stretches from the Baltic far into America, and to the forest philosophers and hermits who appear at the beginnings of history and literature in both India and China and whose prehistoric existence is testified by the yogi in the lotus position on a Mohenjo-Daro seal. The Tao Te Ching describes the experiential or existential core of the transcendental experience shared by the visionaries of primitive cultures. The informants of Paul Radin’s classic Primitive Man as Philosopher say much the same things. It is this which gives it its air of immemorial wisdom, although many passages are demonstrably later than Confucius, and may be later than the “later” Taoists, Chuang Tzu and Lieh Tzu.

There are two kinds of esotericism in Oriental religion: the proliferation of spells, chants, rituals, mystical diagrams, cosmologies and cosmogonies, trials of the soul, number mysticism, astrology, and alchemy, all of which go to form the corpus of a kind of pan-Gnosticism. Its remarkable similarities are shared by early Christian heretics, Jewish Kabbalists, Tantric worshipers of Shiva, Japanese Shingon Buddhists, and Tibetan lamas. The other occultism (held strangely enough by the most highly developed minds amongst some people) is the exact opposite, a stark religious empiricism shorn of all dogma or cult, an attitude toward life based upon realization of the unqualified religious experience as such. What does the contemplator contemplate? What does the life of illumination illuminate? To these questions there can be no answer — the experience is beyond qualification. So say the Zen documents, a form of late Buddhism originating in China, but so say the Hinayana texts, which are assumed to be as near as we can get to the utterances of the historic Buddha Sakyamuni, but so say also the Upanishads — “not this, not this, not that, not that,” but so also say some of the highly literate and sophisticated technical philosophers (in our sense of the word) of Sung Dynasty Neo-Confucianism. So says the Tao Te Ching.

In terms of Western epistemology, a subject Classical Chinese thought does not even grant existence, the beginning and end of knowledge are the same thing — the intuitive apprehension of reality as a totality, before and behind the data of sense or the constructions of experience and reason. The Tao Te Ching insists over and over that this is both a personal, psychological and a social, moral, even political first principle. At the core of life is a tiny, steady flame of contemplation. If this goes out the person perishes, although the body and its brain may stumble on, and civilization goes rapidly to ruin. The source of life, the source of the order of nature, the source of knowledge, and the source of social order are all identical — the immediate comprehension of the reality beyond being and not being; existence and essence; being and becoming. Contact with this reality is the only kind of power there is. Against that effortless power all self-willed acts and violent attempts to rule self, man, or natural process are delusion and end only in disaster.

The lesson is simple, and once learned, easy to paraphrase. The Tao is like water. Striving is like smoke. The forces of Nature are infinitely more powerful than the strength of men. Toil to the top of the highest peak and you will be swept away in the first storm. Seek the lowest possible point and eventually the whole mountain will descend to you. There are two ways of knowing, under standing and over bearing. The first is called wisdom. The second is called winning arguments. Being, as power, comes from the still void behind being and not being. The enduring and effective power of the individual, whether hermit or king or householder, comes from the still void at the heart of the contemplative. The wise statesman conquers by the quiet use of his opponents’ violence, like the judo and jujitsu experts.

The Tao Te Ching is a most remarkable document, but the most remarkable thing about it is that it has not long since converted all men to its self-evident philosophy. It was called mysterious at the beginning of this essay. It is really simple and obvious; what is mysterious is the complex ignorance and complicated morality of mankind that reject its wisdom.

[Tao Te Ching translations]



Petronius, The Satyricon

He spent his days in sleep, his nights in attending to his official duties or in amusement; by his dissolute life he had become as famous as other men by a life of energy, and he was regarded as no ordinary profligate, but as an accomplished voluptuary. His reckless freedom of speech, being regarded as frankness, procured him popularity. Yet during his provincial governorships, and later when he held the office of Consul, he had shown vigor and capacity for affairs. Afterward returning to his life of vicious indulgence, he became one of the chosen circle of Nero’s intimates and was looked upon as an absolute authority on questions of taste (arbiter elegantiae) in connection with the science of luxurious living.

He excited the jealousy of Nero’s pathic, Tigellinus; an accusation followed, and Petronius committed suicide in a way that was in keeping with his life and character. He selected the slow process of opening his veins and having them bound up again, whilst he conversed on light and trifling topics with his friends. He then dined luxuriously, slept for some time, and so far from adopting the common practice of flattering Nero or Tigellinus in his will, wrote and sent under seal to Nero a document that professed to give, with the names of his partners, a detailed account of the abominations which that emperor had practiced. Just before his death he destroyed a valuable murrhine vase to prevent its falling into the Imperial hands.

Such is the portrait the Roman historian Tacitus gives of Gaius Petronius — one of the most startling candid miniatures in all history. Tradition has always said that this is the Petronius who wrote The Satyricon, the first and still the best picaresque novel. Tradition also has it that we possess only the fifteenth and sixteenth books and a few other fragments of the narrative. In addition, there are a handful of poems that customarily have been attributed to Petronius, although on no better ground than a haunting style unlike anything else in Latin literature. If The Satyricon holds its position as the finest tale of roguery in any language on the merits of only two out of a probable twenty-four books, what must the original have been?

Most likely it would have outranked Don Quixote as the greatest prose fiction of the Western World. There survive for us a few chaotic adventures in brothels and stews of Mediterranean ports which have changed little from that day to this, and a full-dress circus of vulgarity, a banquet given by the get-rich-quick freed slave Trimalchio.

Like The Iliad, The Aeneid, and the later Golden Ass of Apuleius (which may have been modeled on The Satyricon) but especially like The Odyssey, The Satyricon is an epic of a hero dogged and driven by the vengeful wrath of a god. In this case the god was Priapus, whose statue with its monstrous member stood guard over Greek and Roman gardens, marriage beds, and brothels.

Encolpius is a hero whose every advantage and opportunity is reduced to folly and shame by his impotence. At his moment of achievement the outraged god smites him in the part sacred to himself, as Poseidon smote Odysseus with the fury of the sea. Encolpius and his friends are all bohemians — unemployable, overeducated, miseducated members of the lumpen intelligentsia. They are the first of their kind in literature, but from Petronius’ day to this they will be the common characters of all picaresque romance. Kerouac’s On the Road differs vastly from The Satyricon in lack of insight, irony, and literary skill, but its characters are all drawn from the same unchanged class.

What most distinguishes The Satyricon is its extraordinary style, a style that is a conglomeration of every Greek and Roman style reduced to mockery and held together by that special quality which has led to the gathering of many minor poems and short fragments under the general attraction of the two surviving books. This quality is a melancholy like no other in literature. The Romans had a catch phrase — tristia post coitum: the sadness that follows sexual fulfillment.

As a living body is sustained and nourished by its bloodstream, the style of Petronius is suffused by a sense of indefinable sorrow which haunts and corrupts all possible achievement. The nostalgia of the gutter and the melancholy of grandeur flow together and wash away the very idea of accomplishment. Because The Satyricon rises above the classic definition of comedy as an eventful tale of the disasters and disgraces that beset vulgarians and fools, it engages us, the readers, in the same way in which we are personally involved in a tragic narrative. The Satyricon is all uproar, guffaws, rumpus, commotion, but behind its noise there is always present a long recurrent note — the ebb and flow of human irrelevance.

Although he was far from being a parvenu himself, Nero was the first Roman emperor to employ those guides to the culturally perplexed whom David Reisman calls ironically “engineers of taste.” The mentor of his youth was Seneca, the Stoic rhetorical philosopher, one of history’s outstanding hypocrites, whose sterile tragedies have never been equaled for bombast and falsity. Petronius, the adviser of Nero’s manhood, is a kind of anti-Seneca. He too is a master of all the flowers of rhetoric, but he knows they are paper flowers and he delights in showing them up by setting fire to them. Against Seneca’s pompous Stoic heroes, the perfect embodiment of melodramatic absurdity, the Epicurean Petronius deploys his farcical rogues, so like the Marx Brothers in a tragedy of the absurd. From Samuel Beckett to Charlie Chaplin, many people have attempted just such a comic answer to the ever-recurrent questions “Who am I?” “What can I believe?” “What can I do?” “What can I hope?” Petronius surpasses them all in the humor of his comedy and the cogency of his irony. Why? Probably because he was far more a man of the world than any such writer who has come after him.

Irony is a gift of experience, and only the most comprehensive experience can provide a truly solid foundation for irony that claims to be a diagnosis of being itself. The Existentialists can talk of ontological irony. The Satyricon as we have it, a hundred or so pages torn from the rubbish heap of five Mediterranean civilizations, embodies in action just such a judgment of the meaning and destiny of man. Its author realized his comic vision at its fullest in his own life, and seems to have written with the foreknowledge of his own end as it is told by Tacitus. Petronius, the most worldly-wise courtier of Nero, would of course have written with just such foreknowledge.



Plutarch, Parallel Lives

It would be easy to write abusively about Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. They could be called “The Myth of the Ruling Class Dramatized,” “The Social Lie Personified.” More perhaps even than Plato, Plutarch is the founding father of the notion of a heroic elite. His great Greeks and Romans, with few exceptions, do not only seek power, they assume responsibility. As he compares them, from Romulus and Theseus to Mark Antony and Demetrius, he judges them always according to the degree to which they successfully assumed, as leaders, unlimited liability for the commoner men they led.

Although succeeding ages have believed Plutarch, it is doubtful indeed if human affairs are put together or if political morality functions as Plutarch conceived it, or even if nobility can be found at all amongst generals and politicians — Greek, Roman, Russian, American, or Chinese, then or now. Yet, like the Bible and Shakespeare, Parallel Lives is a desert-island book. Classical literature contains a good many greater works of art, and many truer pictures of the ways of men. But Plutarch never palls. He is always engaging, interesting, and above all else, to use a word that will provoke smiles today, elevating. Men as they are described in Homer’s Iliad are like the quarreling chiefs of a predatory war band. They are like the neurotics who destroy one another in Euripides. But they are not like the heroes of Plutarch. Some men may be noble — John Woolman or Martin Buber or Albert Einstein or Martin Luther King. Our common sense tells us that men who came out on top of political systems far more corrupt than those of Kansas City, Newark, Memphis, or Chicago in their heydays and at least as merciless as that of Moscow may have been heroic in a sense, but they were not noble by either Plutarch’s definition or ours. They were not great and good men as judged by Greek, Jewish or Christian standards. They were not by the standards of Plutarch’s Romanized Stoicism.

It has been said that Plutarch was simply a propagandist for the truculent Roman Senatorial caste and for their traditional ancestors, the Athenian partisans of the Spartan despotism. It could be said, too, that out of the legendary materials provided by Plutarch we still construct the legendary idols of our own rulers — Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower.

It doesn’t make Plutarch any the less absorbing. Nobody has ever been so foolish as to believe society would ever be ruled by the wise, the philosopher-statesmen of Plato’s Republic. We hope of the human social structure that somewhere — far away, long ago, or in ages to come — it may rise at its summit into regions of nobility. Society would not be better if its masters were like Plutarch’s heroes. It would certainly be more satisfying. This is the great secret. His characters may be bloodthirsty, lustful, treacherous, hut they are never trivial. They are always purposive. Plutarch’s is a world in which men do not live at random, as we learn in our hearts that, in fact, they do.

The Parallel Lives are lives of adults of the kind we all thought we would meet when we grew up, which we never did meet, and which we have ceased ever to expect to encounter. Or have we? Perhaps we always hope that we will meet nobility and responsibility walking together just around the corner. We can accept sin in our fellows and even learn to forgive it, but it is a bitter and endless chore. We never really learn to accept gratuitous meanness, least of all in our masters.

Plutarch compels us to believe of his characters that they are masterful because they are never mean. Although this is diametrically opposed to the facts, it is not a falsehood. It is the kind of truth that, like “The School of Athens,” the Jupiter Symphony, or the Saint Matthew Passion, provides life with meaning which it does not in the least deserve. It is obvious why Plutarch gave Shakespeare some of his greatest characters. They had similar life attitudes. Even Bottom is not mean. Coriolanus was an arrogant traitor. Mark Antony was a bloody demagogue infatuated with an aging nymphomaniac. There is nothing whatever trivial about them.

Plutarch’s book is a kind of antonym to Petronius’ Satyricon. Petronius knew power. His hands were on the levers of decision until they were cuffed away by the fasces of Nero’s lictors. His view of human motivation was dim and bawdy. Plutarch did not know power but only honors, and so he believed that the wielders of power were men of honor. I think he really believed it, as certainly many of the Stoic mythographers — Seneca, for instance — of Greek and Roman upper-class morality did not. He is nothing if not persuasive. There are few more convincing narrators in all literature.

We need to be persuaded. If we accept the fiction that society is put together this way, we are likely to find ourselves perpetually duped; but it is good for us to believe that even if we aren’t noble we can hope that we ourselves might possibly be so put back together. If we accept the testimony of experience with too much pessimism, we demean ourselves. Alas, that pessimism continually forces itself upon us and we need such reassurance as Plutarch provides. It may lead to role-playing — Roger Casement or his caricature, T.E. Lawrence, or our own tedious adulteries elevated to the barge of Cleopatra — but role-playing is better than nothing. In acting-out there is hope. In the words of Gabriel Marcel, “Without hope, nobility is impossible.”

* * *

No modern translations of Plutarch’s Lives compare with North’s Elizabethan version from which Shakespeare transcribed almost verbatim great sections of his Roman Plays. If North’s English is too strange for your taste, Dryden’s, in the plain but elevated style of the late seventeenth century, seems today much more like our own speech as well as more like Plutarch’s Greek. This is complete in the Modern Library Giant and is to be preferred to any of the many paperbacks of selections. Get the complete Parallel Lives. They are endlessly satisfying. Sooner or later you will read them all — and besides, you never know when you might find yourself on a desert island.


Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Both of these volumes are in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.

[Other “Classics Revisited” essays]





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