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The Tao of Emerson

The Tao of Emerson

by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lao Tsu, Richard Grossman (Editor)
The Tao of Emerson strikingly brings together two of the most influential voices in the history of letters: Lao Tse, the sixth-century B.C. Chinese mystic, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American transcendentalist known to many as “the sage of Concord.”

By adroitly juxtaposing on facing pages the texts of Lao Tse’s masterpiece, the Tao Te


The Tao of Emerson strikingly brings together two of the most influential voices in the history of letters: Lao Tse, the sixth-century B.C. Chinese mystic, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American transcendentalist known to many as “the sage of Concord.”

By adroitly juxtaposing on facing pages the texts of Lao Tse’s masterpiece, the Tao Te Ching, with Emerson’s writings, Richard Grossman illuminates how these two remarkable men, from opposite sides of the world and separated by 2,500 years, are united in an inspired wisdom and common spirit: to live simply and tranquilly; trust one’s own intuition; seek out and appreciate the spiritual grace in the natural world; act without self-assertion; abjure violence; harmonize with the ebb and flow of nature and circumstances; and, above all, assure that there is a place in the world for humility, yielding, gentleness, and serenity.

There is no direct path linking Lao Tse to Emerson, since the Tao Te Ching was not translated into English until 1891, nine years after Emerson’s death. But America’s Founding Thinker was nonetheless in many ways the heir to the great Chinese mystic’s insight and philosophy. As Grossman observes, “Emerson’s brand of fresh home-grown English adds a radiant color to the ancient thoughts of the Chinese Master.”

Although Lao Tse was a citizen of the world’s oldest empire and Emerson of its youngest republic, The Tao of Emerson makes the brilliantly presented case that a common literary thread binds these two men. Grossman’s Introduction, in which he compares the men’s lives, and the passages he has selected from their work give both writers a special resonance for today’s reader and help to reveal Emerson in a while new light.

This volume includes original brush calligraphy by the celebrated Taoist master Chungliang Al Huang.

Praise for The Tao of Emerson

“This inspired book from one of Emerson’s strongest readers is a great gift. Through the reflected light of the Tao Te Ching, Richard Grossman has made the core of Emerson’s wisdom transparent, allowing us to see into the heart of what makes the sage of Concord our very own Lao Tse.” —Richard G. Geldard, editor of The Essential Transcendentalists

“One measure of a spiritually serious book is whether it repeatedly stops us dead in our tracks as we read it and allows us to foresee the ultimate triumph of truth and principle in our lives and in the life of the world. This is such a book.” —Jacob Needleman, author of Why Can’t We Be Good?

“Deeply immersing himself in both the wisdom of Lao Tse and the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Richard Grossman has produced a remarkable Guide to life, a handbook filled with venerable worlds combined to yield a new poetry of the mind. Reading it, ‘we stand,’ with Emerson, ‘before the secrets of the world.’” —Megan Marshall, author of The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism

“This marvelous volume will bring joy and light to those who know or even suspect that Emersonianism is not a system, a product, or a position but a way or a path. For those who haven’t yet gotten it but want to try, this book is the perfect place to start.” —Robert D. Richardson, Jr., author of Emerson: The Mind on Fire

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.88(w) x 7.52(h) x 0.76(d)

Read an Excerpt

1.The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.

Conceived as having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; Having a name, it is the Mother of all things.

Always without desire we must be found, If its deep mystery we would sound; But if desire within us be, Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.

Under these two aspects it is really the same; But as development takes place, it receives the different names.

Together we call them the Mystery. Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful.

1.That great nature in which we rest, that Unity, that Over-Soul, Is an Immensity not possessed, and that cannot be possessed.

The animal eye sees, with wonderful accuracy, sharp outlines and colored surfaces. To a more earnest vision, outlines and surfaces become transparent; Causes and spirits are seen through them.

The wise silence, the universal beauty, To which every part and particle is equally related, Is the tide of being which floats us into the secret of nature; And we stand before the secret of the world.

2.All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful, And in doing this they have the idea of what ugliness is; They all know the skill of the skillful, And in doing this they have the idea of what the want of skill is.

So it is that existence and non-existence give birth one to the other; Difficulty and ease produce each other; Length and shortness fashion out the figure of the other; Height and lowness arise from the contrast of the one with the other; Musical notes and tones become harmonious through the relation of one to the other; Being before and behind give the idea of one following another.

Therefore the sage manages affairs without doing anything, and conveys his instructions without the use of speech. The work is done, but how no one can see; ’Tis this that makes the power not cease to be.

2.Each thing is a half, and suggests another thing to make it whole. As: spirit, matter; man, woman; odd, even; in, out; upper, under; motion, rest; yea, nay. All are needed by each one. Nothing is fair or good alone; To empty here, you must condense there.

A great man is always willing to be little; The wise man throws himself on the side of his assailants; Postpones always the present hour to the whole life, Postpones talent to genius, and special results to character, Is very willing to lose particular powers and talents So that he gain in the elevation of his life. Action and inaction are alike to the true.

3.Not to employ men of superior ability is the way to keep the people from rivalry among themselves; Not to prize articles which are difficult to procure is the way to keep them from becoming thieves; Not to show them what is likely to excite their desires is the way to keep their minds from disorder.

Therefore the sage, in the exercise of his government, empties their minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills and strengthens their bones.

He constantly tries to keep them without knowledge and without desire, And where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them from presuming to act on it. When there is this abstinence from action good order is universal.

3.Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit. The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire Is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, To lose our sempiternal memory And do something without knowing how or why.

No truth is so sublime but it may be trivial tomorrow. People wish to be settled; Only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.

The poor and the low have their way of expressing the last facts of philosophy: “Blessed be nothing. The worse things are the better they are.”

4.The Tao is like the emptiness of a vessel; And in our employment of it we must guard against all fullness. How deep and unfathomable it is, as if it were the Honored Ancestor of all things!

We should blunt our sharp points, And unravel the complication of things; We should temper our brightness, And bring ourselves into agreement with the obscurity of others. How pure and still the Tao is, as if it would ever so continue.

4.There is never a beginning, There is never an end to the inexplicable continuity of this web. System on system, shooting like rays, upward, downward, without center, without circumference.

In the mass and in the particle, Nature hastens to render account of herself. Under every cause, another cause; Truth soars too high and dives too deep for the most resolute inquirer.

5.Heaven and earth do not act from any wish to be benevolent. They deal with all things as the dogs of grass are dealt with.

May not the space between heaven and earth be compared to a bellows? ’Tis emptied, yet it loses not its power; ’Tis moved again, and sends forth air the more. Much speech to swift exhaustion lead we see; Your inner being guard, and keep it free.

5.We find nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, And judges like a god all men who come to her.

There is no end in nature, But every end is a beginning; There is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, And under every deep a lower deep opens.

Good as is discourse, Silence is better, and shames it. 6.The valley spirit dies not, aye the same; The female mystery thus do we name, Its gate, from which at first they issued forth, Is called the root from which grew heaven and earth. Long and unbroken does its power remain, Used gently, and without the touch of pain. 6.In showers, in sweeping showers, the Spring visits the valley, The miracle of generative force, Far-reaching concords of astronomy.

Nature is transcendental, ever works and advances. It is undefinable, unmeasurable, But we know that it pervades and contains us.

7.Heaven is long enduring and earth continues long. The reason why heaven and earth are able to endure and continue thus long Is because they do not live of, or for, themselves. This is how they are able to continue and endure.

Therefore the sage puts his own person last, And yet it is found in the foremost place; He treats his person as if it were foreign to him, And yet that person is preserved. Is it not because he has no personal and private ends, that therefore such ends are realized?

7.The universe is represented in an atom in a moment of time. It calls the light its own, and feels that the grass grows and the stone falls, Yet takes no thought for the morrow.

Genius and virtue predict in man the same absence of private ends, and of condescension to circumstance, United with every trait and talent of beauty and power. The path which the hero travels alone is the highway of health and benefit to mankind. What is the privilege and nobility of our nature but its persistency, Through its power to attach itself to what is permanent?

8.The highest excellence is like that of water. The excellence of water appears in its benefiting all things, and in its occupying, without striving, the low place which all men dislike. Hence its way is near to that of the Tao.

The excellence of a residence is in the suitability of the place; that of the mind is in abysmal stillness; that of associations is in their being with the virtuous; that of government is in its securing good order; that of the conduct of affairs is in its ability; and that of any movement is in its timeliness.

And when one with the highest excellence Does not wrangle about his low position, no one finds fault with him.

8.Justice is the rhyme of things; Trade and counting use The self-same tuneful muse.

Water was the beginning of all things. It is in that same liquid state that substances unite to and identify themselves with organized bodies.

The aim of the wise man will always be to set his time on such a key as he can hold, to bring his life level with the laws of the mind, not the body.

9.It is better to leave a vessel unfilled than to attempt to carry it when it is full. If you keep feeling a point that has been sharpened, the point cannot long preserve its sharpness.

When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honors lead to arrogance, this brings its evil on itself. When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven.

9.All the toys that infatuate men— houses, land, money, luxury, power, fame— are the self-same thing.

The man whose eyes are nailed, not on the nature of his act, But on the wages, whether it be money or office or fame, is equally low.

Nature arms each man with some faculty which enables him to do easily some feat impossible to any other, And this makes him necessary to society.

The peril of every fine faculty is the delight of playing with it for pride.

10.When the intelligent and animal souls are held together in one embrace, They can be kept from separating. When one gives undivided attention to the vital breath, and brings it to the utmost degree of pliancy, He can become as a tender babe. When he has cleansed away the most mysterious sights of his imagination, He can become without a flaw.

In loving the people and ruling the state, cannot he proceed without any purposeful action? In the opening and shutting of his gates of heaven, cannot he do so as a female bird? While his intelligence reaches in every direction, Cannot he appear to be without knowledge?

The Tao produces all things and nourishes them; It produces them and does not claim them as its own. It does all, and yet does not boast of it; It presides over all, and yet does not control them. This is what is called the Mysterious Quality of the Tao.

10.By yielding to the spirit which is innate in every man, Canst thou silent lie? Canst thou, thy pride forgot, like nature pass into the winter night’s extinguished mood? Canst thou shine now, then darkle? And being latent feel thyself no less? Wilt thou not open thy heart to know What rainbows teach and sunsets show? But you must have the believing and prophetic eye.

Respect the child. Be not too much his parent. Trespass not on his solitude. Have the self-command you wish to inspire.

11.The thirty spokes unite in the one nave; but it is on the empty space that the use of the wheel depends. Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness that their use depends. Doors and windows are cut out to form an apartment; but it is on the empty space within that its use depends. Therefore, what has a positive existence serves for profitable adaptation, And what has not that for actual usefulness.

11.An inevitable dualism bisects nature; If the south attracts, the north repels.

What we gain in power is lost in time. If the good is there, so is the evil. If the affinity, so the repulsion. If the force, so the limitation. All things are double, one against another.

Whilst the world is thus dual, so is every one of its parts. The entire system of things gets represented in every particle.

12.Color’s five hues from th’ eyes their sight will take; Music’s five notes the ears as deaf can make; The flavors five deprive the mouth of taste; The chariot course, and the wild hunting waste Make mad the mind; and objects rare and strange, Sought for, men’s conduct will to evil change.

Therefore the sage seeks to satisfy the craving of the belly, And not the insatiable longing of the eyes. He puts from him the latter, and prefers to seek the former.

12.As soon as leisure plays with resemblances for amusement, We call its action Fancy. Fancy relates to surfaces, is willful, superficial, A play as with dolls and puppets. Fancy surprises and amuses the idle, but is silent in the presence of great passion.

We must learn the homely laws of fire and water. We must feed, wash, plant, build. These are the ends of necessity, and first in the order of nature, the house of health and life.

13.Favor and disgrace would seem equally to be feared; Honor and great calamity, to be regarded as personal conditions of the same kind. What is meant by speaking thus of favor and disgrace? Disgrace is being in a low position after the enjoyment of favor. Getting that favor leads to the apprehension of losing it, and losing it leads to the fear of still greater calamity— This is what is meant by saying that favor and disgrace would seem equally to be feared.

And what is meant by saying that honor and great calamity are to be regarded as personal conditions? What makes me liable to great calamity is my having the body, which I call myself; If I had not the body, what great calamity could come to me?

Therefore, he who would administer the kingdom, Honoring it as he honors his own person, may be employed to govern it. And he who would administer it with the love which he bears to his own person may be entrusted with it.

13.Blame is safer than praise. Every sweet hath its sour, every evil its good.

Do men desire the more substantial and permanent grandeur of genius? Neither has this an immunity. He who by force of will or of thought is great has the charges of that eminence. With every influx of light comes new danger. Has he light? He must bear witness to that light And always outrun that sympathy which gives him such keen satisfaction.

Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping man. For him, all doors are flung wide: Him all tongues greet, all honors crown, all eyes follow with desire.

14.We look at it, and we do not see it, and we name it the Equable. We listen to it, and we do not hear it, and we name it the Inaudible. We try to grasp it, and we do not get hold of it, and we name it the Subtle. With these three qualities, it cannot be made the subject of description; And hence, we blend them together and obtain The One.

Its upper part is not bright, and its lower part is not obscure. Ceaseless in its action, it yet cannot be named, and then it again returns and becomes nothing. This is called the Form of the Formless, and the Semblance of the Invisible; This is called the Fleeting and Indeterminable.

Meet the Author

Lao Tse (c. 604 B.C.-c. 521 B.C.), the author of the Tao Te Ching, founded the Taoist religion in China. His name translates to “Old Master,” and “Tao” means “the Way.” He was a Keeper of Royal Documents in the dynasty capital of Loyang.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), a leading light of the American Transcendentalist movement, was born in Boston and graduated from Harvard University and the Harvard Divinity School. He wrote more than forty volumes of essays, poems, lectures, addresses, and personal journals.

About the Editor
Richard Grossman, a psychotherapist and educator, has been reading and studying Emerson for more than forty years. His previous book, A Year with Emerson, was awarded the Umhoefer Prize for achievement in the humanities by the Arts and Humanities Foundation. He is also the author of Choosing and Changing and The Other Medicines, and editor of Bold Voices. He is married to the novelist Ann Arensberg and lives in Salisbury, Connecticut.

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