Author's Web Site:

Monday, April 21, 2008


Question : Derek, you have "Those who are good do not debate / Those who debate are not good" in your translation of chapter 81. Are you sure "debate" is the right word? I do not see debate as a bad thing. Historically, rigorous debates have always been the basis of our scientific advances as well as our democracy. Other translations use "argue" instead of "debate." Wouldn't that be more correct?

Answer: The Chinese character in the original text is bian, which has a meaning that is much closer to "debate" than anything else. To those who study the Tao Te Ching from the Chinese cultural perspective, Lao Tzu's position against debates comes as no surprise, because it is consistent with his overall objection against too much reliance on intellectuality. It is also perfectly consistent with traditional Asian cultures that emphasize the importance of harmony.

By comparison, Western cultures have more affinity to conflict. Perhaps this is why the usage of "debate" doesn't seem right to you. Perhaps it is also why some translators use "argue" instead - their thinking may be similar to yours, so they choose to soften Lao Tzu's position against debates, thereby distorting the original meaning.

In theory, debates seem like they can be a very constructive thing. However, when Tao sages observe personal debates in practical, everyday reality, they notice much more harmful effects. Instead of achieving consensus, both sides become ever more entrenched in their beliefs. The participants expend a tremendous amount of effort, but accomplish no particularly useful results.

This is usually how things work because we are human as opposed to perfectly rational beings. In a debate, we tend to become defensive, mocking, and combative. Ego rears its head and clouds our judgement. In order to win, we'll do anything - cut the opponents off in mid-sentence, twist their words, manipulate the facts... anything at all. Thus, far from helping us improve ourselves, debates only seem to bring out the worst in us.

Generally speaking, when people get together in a meeting, their interactions range from discussion to argument. Debate is between the two in this scale, and represents the starting point of the downward spiral. This means things start to go wrong as soon as people transition from discussion to debate. If they fail to do something to reverse course, the debate is likely to degenerate into an all-out argument. At that point, they can forget about making any meaningful progress.

This is a pattern that is persistent and pervasive in any culture. Recognizing this clearly, Tao cultivators always prefer discussions to debates. After all, how good can they be in the skill of living the effortless and joyous life, if they let themselves be dragged into a shouting match?

Let's keep chapter 81 in mind when we talk to others. Be careful of discussions that begin to feel like a debate. The moment we detect this happening, let's stop immediately and review the situation. Will an adversarial exchange really result in anything good for anyone? Is winning the argument worth the sacrifice of harmony? Lao Tzu tells us the answer is a resounding no... and he is absolutely right!


xelados said...

I have always felt this way about debating, but couldn't seem to come up with good reasoning. Many debates have happened where I ended up angry and frustrated. Perhaps the aggressive nature of debate is what triggers the aggression in humans. Or maybe debate invites one to foolishly try to prove himself to be correct.

Of the things that the Tao teaches, I think that perspective is one of the most important. We perceive many things as truth, but there is more than one "truth" in a situation. By turning our thinking in a debate into one of partisanship ("You either agree or disagree with me!"), it breeds dissent.

That's just my perspective, though. Very insightful post.

Derek said...

Thanks! I can sense through your comment that you have a definite affinity to the Tao.

Rene said...

I love this. Both "argue" and "debate" carry a connotation that someone wins and someone loses. "Discuss", on the other hand, doesn't carry the same suggestion.

Evangelizing is one of the things that I always took exception to in the church that I grew up in. I don't want other people trying to convince me that theirs is the only way, and I don't want to do it to others.

Twelve-step programs such as AA have a policy of gaining membership "by attraction rather than promotion".

This is one of the things I like about the Tao. If I'm living as I should, then people will want to know how I got where I am. At that point, it may be appropriate to open a discussion (never a debate or an argument) about what living in accordance with the Tao has to offer.

Derek said...

Hi Rene,

I've been following your messages at the Tea House. You definitely have many interesting things to say! I look forward to reading more as you continue to share your wisdom.

- Derek