Recently, I came across the above quote in a philosophy book that a friend and I have been reading through and it got me thinking about truth (again). Truth is something that I have been pondering more and more over the years. What is true? How do we know what is true? Is there an objective truth? The questions surrounding this topic are numerous; the answers are few and far between. The state that this contemplation leaves one in is somewhat crippling —a state of not knowing. Nonetheless, I keep returning to the philosopher’s chopping block.
Before I attempt to offer even the smallest semblance of an explanation of this quote, here is a bit (literally) on what is generally known about the 6th century B.C. scholar — Laozi.
- Laozi, also known as Lao Tsu, was the Chinese author of the Dao De Jing or Tao Te Ching
Philosophical Daoism traces its origins to Laozi, an extraordinary thinker who flourished during the sixth century B.C.E., according to Chinese sources. According to some modern scholars, however, Laozi is entirely legendary; there was never a historical Laozi. In religious Daoism, Laozi is revered as a supreme deity.
What is the Dao? According to the Tao Te Ching, it refers to:
- The way or path
- The root of all things
- The source of existence
My current thoughts:
The dao can be viewed as the ultimate truth. Provided that this truth exists, this means that it is objective and known to be true by all. Now, Laozi states “the dao that can be told is not the eternal dao”. As humans, we use language to describe objects, experiences, and everything in between but the object is not the word. A flower is not the word flower. We use the word to describe the entity that exists. But how does this relate to the ultimate truth? If we try to think about this ultimate objective truth i.e. truth not based solely on personal beliefs, ideology or religious claims, things get more challenging and that’s because we don’t know what that is. We don’t even know if it can be known. We can’t express it in words. Or at least I can’t right now.
This is why I think Laozi says that the dao which can be told is not the eternal dao — because if it can be put into words, then it becomes a concept or a subjective interpretation of ‘the dao’. It is no longer objective truth, it is now the words used to describe it along with the countless interpretations of these words. Somewhere along the way, the essence of the dao can be lost and therefore is no longer eternal. Maybe this is why we can know it but it’s not possible to express it using words.
Overall, I suppose the word does not matter; we know that it is just a means of describing. Then, what must matter is the essence of the thing itself — the full experience of it in the present moment.