"Ruling a great country is like cooking a small fish."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 60
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
Ruling a great country is like cooking a small fish.
When the world is ruled according to the Way,
The ghosts lose their power.
The ghosts do not really lose their power,
But it is not used to harm people.
Not only will their power not harm people,
Nor will the sage harm people.
Since neither of them causes harm,
Unified virtue is restored.
The Ghosts Approve
The ghosts, kuei, were the restless spirits of deceased
ancestors, according to beliefs at the time of Lao Tzu. That's
quite the same as what we mean by ghosts. And just like
this chapter says, we foster the idea that the ghosts are
only harmful if they are displeased. If the country is ruled
wisely, in accordance with the Way, the ghosts will not be upset.
Lao Tzu is probably not indicating that a country
ruled according to Tao becomes invulnerable to the power of
the ghosts, and they definitely don't lose it. They just cease
to bring harm to people. If the country should go back to
deviating from the Way, the ghosts will surely bring
The sage, too, will bring no harm to people if the
country is ruled according to Tao. That seems self-evident.
When the country is on the right path, there is no need for
interference of any kind, whether it would be harmful or
beneficial. The sage knows this well.
What Lao Tzu implies with these words is that the
sage might very well bring harm to people, if the country is
heading the wrong way. Even if the sage again were to do
nothing, the situation would be harmful.
People suffer in a country with a bad ruler. They
will suffer more, during the process of correcting things.
Such suffering is unavoidable.
Sadly, it's also necessary. That's the harm the sage
might bring: the need for costly reform and painful action, like
the pruning of twigs and branches in order to keep a
This is avoided if the country is ruled wisely, in
accordance with Tao. Then the ghosts will not be upset, so
they will do no harm, and the sage doesn't need to promote
dire measures. The virtue of the ghosts and that of the sage
are united, working for a common good.
The idea of the ghosts being pleased or upset
doesn't need to be taken literally, for us to find it relevant. We
don't have to believe in ghosts. But just as we consider what
future is in store for our children and theirs, we should
contemplate what our ancestors expected from us, and
what they would have thought about how we handle the
greatest of gifts – the world they handed over to us.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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