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The Expression Of Ineffability In Tao Te Ching

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The Tao Te Ching, Hildegard’s songs and poems, and St. Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures all attempt to express concepts that are ineffable: for Hildegard and Francis, it is the nature of God, and for Lao Tsu it is the elusive concept of the Tao. I will argue that the texts’ complementary treatment of this topic suggests that creating vague art in an attempt to express and share the subject with others is a universal human response to an inability to understand incredible concepts. The texts have remarkable similarities in the topics that they address and the manner (emotionally and stylistically) that the authors employ. I will use the evidence of these similarities to establish the significance of the universal response. These insights have significance and potential to enact change on a global scale. However, in order to work my way to this point, I must first begin with how the texts are similar.

The topics that these texts address are similar in that they are abstract, religious and/or spiritual in nature, and exist on a staggering scale which humans can barely imagine. The Tao Te Ching includes the nature of the unimaginable Tao. Hildegard’s and Francis’ works attempt to describe the incomprehensible nature of God. In the face of these concepts, each of these authors react with emotion, especially awe. Hildegard and Francis both use phrases to praise God and his greatness. Hildegard often employs shorter exclamations such as “Rejoice in him!” or “O hail!” (“O vos felices” 12 and “O viridissima virga” 1.2), while Francis is calmer but continually repeats the phrase “Praised be You” (Canticle). The emotional nature of the repetition and the exclamation expresses their intense awe for God. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu also expresses emotion, although his is less like exultation and more like a solemn respect for and unwavering belief in the Tao. He never directly praises the Tao, unlike Hildegard and Francis, but describes respect for it as being simply the way things are (Tao 51.1-2). He continually describes its great, elusive nature (Tao 25.9) and how the way of the Tao is the best path that one can follow (Tao 21.1).

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Despite the lack of overt praise, his mysterious and respectful way of regarding the Tao is very similar to Hildegard and Francis’ euphoric and reverent way of regarding God. Another key emotional feature that these works share is that they are designed with an audience in mind. Hildegard and Francis’ works are in the form of hymns and poems, which are meant to be sung to others. At the very end of the Canticle, Francis even addresses the supposed audience (Canticle 32-33), and Hildegard similarly addresses the clergy in the beginning of her “O successores” (“O successores” 1-4). The Tao Te Ching’s purpose is to guide the reader in thought; this is exemplified by the eighth chapter, in which Lao Tsu suggests to the reader how they should be in different situations in their life using commands (Tao 8.4-10). The direct addressing of the audience clearly shows that the authors wish to share their art with others and highlights a similarity regarding purpose in their response.In addition to the similarity in purpose, the texts are very similar stylistically as well, further demonstrating the resemblance of the authors’ thinking about unfathomable concepts. First of all, each of the authors employs roundabout ways of addressing their topics.

In Francis’ Canticle, instead of attempting to describe the greatness of God, he decides instead to recount many of God’s Creatures (things He has created) and their characteristics. For example, Francis describes the Sun as beautiful, radiant, and a way that God provides humans with light (Canticle 5-9). He does the same for everything from Water to Death, using an abundance of positive adjectives to describe the Creatures (Canticle). By doing this, he is able to list and praise the amazing things God has created, and through this, praise the greatness of God Himself, but the Canticle is not directly about God Himself. It is overtly about what God is capable of doing and giving to people but obviously centered around the nature of God. Hildegard does much the same thing in her poem “O nobilissima viriditas,” she praises “noblest green viridity.” Viridity in fact is not an official word but an arbitrary name made up by Hildegard for an incredible concept of greenness, life, and divinity. She writes that viridity shines in a divine wheel and is therefore connected to God. By praising this divine concept, she is accordingly able to praise the nature of God without directly addressing it, as God is even more of an elusive topic than viridity (“O nobilissima viriditas” 1-7). Much like “viridity,” “Tao” is also an arbitrary address for a truly nameless concept; similarly to the nature of God in Hildegard and Francis’ songs, Lao Tsu covers it vaguely but cements the Tao’s essence as a key part of the Tao Te Ching’s teachings (Tao 21.6). A third stylistic choice that links the art expressing the two concepts is the authors’ use of metaphors to liken the subjects of God and the Tao to more manageable “earthly” things.

Even though the concepts are supposed to be unimaginable, each of the authors appears to want to share the idea in a somewhat manageable way for people to comprehend. For example, Francis draws a comparison between “Brother Sun” (an entity that the majority of humans have experience with) and God, and says that its splendor and radiance “bears a likeness” to God, but does not actually assign these descriptions to God (Francis 5-9).

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