Dao Du Jour, Day 81: Limits of the Logos

Chapter 81:

“True words aren’t eloquent.

Eloquent words aren’t true.

Wise men don’t need to prove their point;

men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

On trial before the Athenians, his life hanging in the balance, Socrates begins his apology (defense) by speaking about speech. He urges the judge and jury, his fellow citizens, to judge what he says on the substance, not the style of what he says; the what, not the how. “I’m not going to lawyer you,” he is basically telling them. He distinguishes himself from the Sophists, a group of men the Athenian elite paid handsomely to school their sons in the art of rhetoric to groom them for leadership in politics. Forget the pathos, Socrates urges them; focus on the ethos–my character–and, most importantly, the logos–the content–of my speech.

Socrates was on trial for corrupting the youth and impiety–not believing in the gods of the city. In the speech, he effectively turn the charges on his accusers, unmasking their hypocrisy and showing that they are more guilty of the charges than he is because they claim to know what they don’t know.

The real apology for Socrates is not defending himself against the charges, but acknowledging the limits of the logos–of human knowledge about the gods and the good.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine laments how he abused his God-given powers of speech to climb the social ladder in a confused pursuit of love and belonging. The schools, he complained, trained him in the art of speaking well; the religious sect he joined, a gnostic group called the Manichees, prided themselves on their eloquence and “loquaciousness”; and his position in the elite echelons of the empire was ensured due to his eloquence in public speaking, especially empty encomiums for the emperor. For Augustine, though, the proper use of speech was to praise God; hence his autobiography is studded with Biblical quotations–almost ad nauseam. The implication is that his own attempt to give an account of his life, the word of Man, will always fall short of the true account, the Word of God.

The real confession for Augustine is not owning up to his sins, but acknowledging his nature–as a sinner, yes, but as limited in speech. No matter how clever we become, we are always as babes babbling about ultimate reality.

We are to God, or the Dao, as children are to adults. The more we apologize and confess–the less we pretend–the more playful and fruitful our speech will be.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the first series of the Dao Du Jour. In the next installment, I’ll be using Ursula Le Guin’s translation of the Daodejing.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

What Do You Think?