Chapter 36: The Small Dark Light
“What seeks to shrink
must first have grown;
what seeks weakness
surely was strong.
What seeks ruin
must first have risen;
What seeks to take
has surely given.
This is called the small dark light:
The soft, the weak prevail
over the hard, the strong.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
Sometimes it is better to sit with a chapter of the Daodejing as though it were a Zen koan: a paradox designed to disrupt the rational mind. More learned scholars may have already explored or established this connection but, given that Zen is almost certainly Buddhism filtered through Chinese Daoism, I wonder whether the method of the koan was inspired by the gnomic verses of Lao Tzu.
LeGuin offers us a lifeline in her commentary: “small dark light” is her gloss on wei ming, which other translators have variously rendered “subtle light” (Henricks), “wonderfully minute and obscure, yet brilliant” (Gibbs-Cheng), “dimming one’s light” (Waley). The latter, she notes, “explains that wei means obscure because very small, and also obscure because dark.”
Ah! Of course! Diogenes.
Diogenes the Cynic was sort of Socrates without the social graces; Plato allegedly described him as “Socrates gone mad.” Like Socrates, he challenged his fellow citizens to scrutinize the way they lived their lives; unlike Socrates, he was neither subtle nor solicitous. Where Socrates used a scalpel, Diogenes used a hatchet. Socrates made arguments in public; Diogenes took shits.
When venturing out from the rain barrel that was his dwelling, he would carry a lantern around the agora in the daytime, claiming that he was looking, in vain, for an honest man; intending, likely, to suggest to his compatriots that they were lost in bright darkness. When Alexander the Great came to visit Athens and requested to see Diogenes, he came upon the man sunning himself. Diogenes, squinting up at the most powerful man in the world, regarded by some as a living god and a latter day Achilles, kindly asked him to move to the side and stop blocking the sunlight. Every star, no matter how bright, is wrapped in darkness. A lantern and the sun shed the same stuff. An Alexander and a Diogenes both shit.
In his Confessions, Augustine tells a story about when he was a social climber in Milan. On account of his social connections and gifted tongue, he had been given the honor of delivering a panegyric, a public speech heaping false praise on the Emperor. Think speakers at the GOP’s National Convention—or just 99% of the public excretions of the mouths of Republican pols—minus the eloquence. But on the morning of the speech, on his way there, he noticed a beggar by the side of the road. Drunk, laughing, singing, and panhandling, the beggar seemed joyful. Augustine was pulled up short.
About to reap the rewards of his disciplined social climbing, he was a hot mess inside. Wracked by anxiety and insecurity over his public performance, the beggar thrust Diogenes’ lantern in his face, stopped him in his tracks, made it impossible for him to push down the pangs of conscience. Though the beggar enjoyed only a temporary, worldly happiness, he was more content than Augustine. The beggar, the kind of man Augustine looked down upon, may not have been living in the truth, but at least he wasn’t peddling lies. Suspended between the apex and the asshole of society, Augustine, in Nietzsche’s phrase, “began to go under.” He had seen the small dark light, and unsee it he could not.
It is always there. “Out of the dimness,” Whitman wrote, “opposite equals advance.”
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