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Lao Tzu for Everyone


Students, Scholars,

& Seekers

Peter Gilboy, Ph. D.

Line 1

A Note

regarding the characters

chosen for this translation.

Lesson 9

Knowing when

to stop





(a forked stick used to plow.)

stop, finished, already


      Knowing when to stop is a key to living well. Plato (427-328 BC) understood this too.

The excessive increase of anything often

causes a reaction in the opposite direction;

and this is the case not only in the seasons

and in vegetable and animal life,

but above all in forms of government.*

     Much more recently, Susan Sontag’s noted,

Ours is a culture based on excess,

on overproduction; the result is

a steady loss of sharpness in our

sensory experience. All the conditions

of modern life—its material plenitude,

its sheer crowdedness—conjoin

to dull our sensory faculties.**

     The point is a simple one: The wise person, the sage, lives strategically. Part of living strategically is knowing when to 已yǐ stop, and then, actually stopping.


     The problem for many people is that they may know when to stop, but don’t. Reason will often reveal the right time to us, and at times something more primal, an inexplicable core sense of “knowing” that we should stop.


     But knowing is not enough. If “knowing” were the same as following through, we’d all be wise; we’d all be sages.



*Republic, Part VIII translated by Benjamin Jowett.

**Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and other Essays,” (New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1961) p. 9


. . . . . .



Line 1

Going too far

is not as good as

stopping in time.


持chí*  而ér  盈yíng**  之zhī  不bù 若ruò  亓qí  已yǐ

hold/control  and  full/overflow (as for)   not     same as  (pron.)    stop

​​As for holding something and

then overflowing it,

is not the same as stopping it.

​     Knowing when to stop is not the same as moderation. General Patton wasn’t moderate in fighting fascism. But he knew when to halt his men. A doctor may not be moderate in his or her treatment of a person’s cancer. But we count on the doctor to know when to stop. Each of them is an artist in their own field.

     The sage is an artist at life. He or she understands timing. We all know when our coffee is “just right,” and when our steak and eggs are “just right.” We know when a kiss is “just right” and when a piece of music is  played “just right.” A good parent knows when the discipline is “just right” and when it isn’t.

     Knowing what is “just right” enables us to live strategically. The sage lives each moment within that space of what is “just right.”


*Regarding 持chí, hold, control: Wang Bi’s (226-249 A.D.) commentary notes that this “means not to lose the 德dé power (or, operation) of the way within oneself.” 持chí 謂wèi  不bù  失shī德dé 也yě

**Regarding 盈yíng, abundance. Heshang Gong’s (190-220 A.D.) commentary states that 盈yíng here refers to 滿mǎn, to fill full, to satisfy.

Grammar note: The character 而ér is generally translated as “and.” But, it has a number of other meanings, among them, “and yet,” “and then,” “but,” and “however.” See how it is used in lines 1, 2 and 4.

. . . . . .



Line 2


​​​​Line 2

Sharpen a blade

too much and it

will not last long.


鍛duàn  而ér  銳ruì  之zhī    

forge metal    and     sharp    (pron.)    

不bù 可kě  長cháng 葆bǎo*  也yě

not     can     long     preserve     (part.)

As for forging metal and sharpening it,

cannot long preserve it.


     Lao Tzu’s analogy is so simple that it may be taken for simple-minded.



*Regarding 葆bǎo: All editions other the MWT have the homonym 保bǎo, safeguard, defend. The idea is the same.


Line 3

​​Line 3

Fill a room with gold and jade

and you will never be

able to guard it.*



​​ 金jīn 玉yù    盈yíng   室shì 莫mò**  之zhī 守shǒu 也yě

gold    jade   full/abundance   room  none    (pron.)     hold       (part.)

​As for gold and jade filing a room,

none can protect it.


*Perhaps Nietzsche's words are helpful here: “The mother of excess is not joy, but joylessness.”  Friedrich Nietzsche, in Human, All Too Human (1878).

**莫mo4 is often an emphatic negative, as in “in no instance” or “not even one of them.”

*  *  *  *  *  *

Line 4

Line 4

Great wealth accompanied

by arrogance will bring

misfortune upon onself.




貴quì 富fù 而ér 驕jiāo 自zì  遺yí  咎jiù  也yě

wealth     full     and     proud      self      loss      fault     part.

As for great wealth and pride,

you’ll lose yourself with faults.



Note: Lao Tzu does not identify the problem as, first of all, wealth.




Line 5

Line 5

After carrying out your tasks,

just step back.

That is heaven's way.


     功gōng    遂suì   身shēn   退tuì 

       achieve       carry out        self         back   


  天tiān  之zhī  道tào  也yě


heaven     (poss.)       way      part.

After achievements carried out,

step yourself back;

[that] is heaven’s way.



Shakespeare sums up “stopping in time” this way:

“. . . to be possess'd with double pomp*,

To guard a title that was rich before,

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,

To throw a perfume on the violet,

To smooth the ice,

or add another hue Unto the rainbow,

or with taper-light,

To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,

Is wasteful and ridiculous excess."

King John. Act IV, Scene II.


*Excessive ceremonial elegance.

Final Note
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