The wise student hears of the Tao and practices it diligently.
The average student hears of the Tao and gives it thought now and again.
The foolish student hears of the Tao and laughs aloud.
If there were no laughter, the Tao would not be what it is.
Clearly, Lao Tsu had me in mind when he wrote this chapter. I can’t help but think that I am at best an average student, bordering on foolish. When I read a line like this, “The perfect square has no corners,” I want to laugh aloud. Does this make me a foolish student? Isn’t that line ridiculous by any rational standard? What could Lao Tsu mean that isn’t totally ridiculous?
The structure of Forty-One is at least familiar to us by now. The second stanza is a list of aphorisms juxtaposing opposites as we have seen in several other chapters. Are we any less baffled just because we have seen this sort of thing over and over? Some of these at least seem to make some sense to me. My marginalia from Ben Wren’s class bring the line, “Great purity seems sullied” to attention. In my commentary on an earlier chapter, I mentioned the symbolic use of the lotus in relation to this idea. The beautiful lotus is perfectly happy floating on the surface of a stinking cesspool.
Virtue plays a central part in this chapter, as in: “The highest Virtue seems empty.” Certainly, the virtuous person never thinks of virtue. The state of living virtuously never depends on one consciously regulating one’s behavior in regards to some moral principle. The principle has been internalized. In a very real sense, one simply is virtue. These kinds of people are notoriously bad at explaining the state of living virtuously. When they do so, we get statements like those found in this chapter. To learn virtue, live in the presence of the virtuous.