No matter how compelling your “big idea” might be, it is impossible to persuade everyone to accept it. How do you go about promoting it so that it reaches the right people who will endorse it and accelerate its adoption amongst the benighted?
In Laozi’s case, he targets the “key influencers” of his day: the most intelligent and capable members of the educated or learned elite (士), comprising scholars, government officials, military officers, and gentry. To give them the justification they need to embrace it, he rolls out a long list of “ancient sayings” that attest to the amazing properties of the Dao and provide “authenticity” for his arguments. In a final clever spin, he makes his idea “exclusive” by challenging conventional expectations with provocative contentions that only those “in the know” are intelligent and discerning enough to understand.
Thus he points out that the way seems dim, that it seems to retreat rather than move forward, and that it is uneven rather than smooth – cleverly positioning it as being so profound that it goes far beyond the bounds of other ideas or beliefs. If you can’t figure that out, how could you possibly consider themselves as a member of the top tier of the elite?
Laozi gives virtue (德) similar rhetorical treatment. It is not the gleaming golden tower on the horizon that most people would expect to see, but so full of boundless potential (empty as a valley), so plain and unremarkable (the purest white seems tarnished), and so inadequate and fragile that only the most smartest people can begin to see and understand it.
Laozi continues to further hammer away on this theme until he reaches his inevitable conclusion that “the (hidden and nameless) way alone is adept at initiating all things, and bringing them to completion.”
“The deepest integrity seems capricious” only because it transcends other ethical principles. “The most perfect square has no corners” because it has no edges and is therefore infinite. “The greatest vessel is unfinished” because it is too powerful and flexible to be harnessed to its full potential. “The greatest music is faint” is because it is so exquisite that our ears and brains our incapable of processing it. And “the greatest image has no shape” because our eyes and minds are unable to see it.
Once Laozi has flattered and cajoled the key influencers into this exclusive club by implying that only they have the unique ability to understand the mysteries of the way, popularizing it is easy. Ideas went viral long before the Internet appeared.
When wise people hear of the Way, they practice it diligently.
When ordinary people hear of the Way, they half-believe in it.
When ignorant people hear of the Way, they laugh at it out loud.
If they did not laugh at it, it would not be the Way.
Therefore, it is said:
The Way that is bright seems to be dim;
The Way that advances seems to retreat;
The Way that is smooth appears to be uneven.
The highest virtue seems as empty as a valley.
The purest white seems tarnished.
The grandest virtue seems insufficient.
The sturdiest virtue seems fragile.
The deepest integrity seems capricious.
The most perfect square has no corners.
The greatest vessel is unfinished.
The greatest music is faint.
The greatest image has no shape.
The Way is hidden and nameless.
But the Way alone is adept at initiating all things,
And bringing them to completion.