"When people are unsettled, loyal ministers arise."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 18
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
When the great Way is abandoned,
Benevolence and righteousness arise.
When wisdom and knowledge appear,
Great pretense arises.
When family ties are disturbed,
Devoted children arise.
When people are unsettled,
Loyal ministers arise.
Tao is the Way of the universe. If we just follow it, there
is no risk of going wrong. But when we deviate from it, we
are sure to make mistakes, no matter how noble our
intentions are. Following Tao is doing what is natural. Anything
else is a mistake, leading to complications, shortcomings,
Benevolence and righteousness are fine qualities,
but they are no guarantee of doing the right thing. If our loss
of the Way is substituted by ever so good intentions, they
are still just substitutes. Using them as compasses for our
actions is bound to lead us even more astray. Our good
deeds turn out to have bad consequences, because they lack
the understanding of how things work at length in this world.
Lao Tzu was no friend of knowledge and wisdom.
He saw them as meager substitutes for a true understanding
of Tao and sincere acceptance of its terms. At the
Chinese emperor's court, he had seen wise men use their wisdom
for their own advancement. They played their roles with
cunning and cleverness, but rarely used their mental
resources for the benefit of all.
Even when used with the best intentions, knowledge
is a poor guide, compared to awareness of Tao. It creates
a false understanding of the world. Therefore it leads to
false conclusions. Anyone wise enough to recognize this has
the choice of either throwing it all away in search of Tao, or
insisting on knowledge being a perfectly reliable
substitute. The latter takes some folly to trust.
There is pretense in claiming that wisdom finds the
Way, and there is pretense in claiming that knowledge
penetrates Tao. They are insufficient substitutes, no matter how
pompously they present themselves.
The family ties are sacred in China, as well as in
most societies around the world. The Confucian tradition
describes those ties as duties. Lao Tzu implies that they
are natural, as is shown among animals. There is no debate
involved in it, nor should rules be at all necessary. But
when Tao is lost, so are the natural family ties.
If the children still remain devoted to their parents,
there seems to be no need for complaint. But this devotion is
odd and flawed. There are conditions, from the children
towards the parents as well as the other way around, even when
the bonds seem unreserved. Parents have expectations on
their children, and children have demands on their parents.
Devotion is a contract that usually contains a lot of fine print.
In that way, devotion can be compared to pretense.
Another kind of pretense is that of loyal ministers.
Their loyalty is always conditional, mainly in the sense that
it's given to the one in power at the moment. A ruler who
loses power will instantly lose the loyalty of the ministers,
who move on to praise whoever sits on the throne next.
When people are unsettled, changes in government
are more likely to take place. That makes the ministers
more eager to demonstrate their loyalty, in order to keep
their own positions in the turmoil, but their loyalty is
actually less trustworthy in such a situation. The ministers who
proclaim their loyalty the loudest, are the most likely to shift
at the moment it's to their benefit.
If the people is unsettled, it means that the country is
in some kind of turmoil. The former order of things is
no longer the case, at least not to the extent that people can
rely on it. This is indeed a country far from Tao, the natural
order of things.
When Tao rules, there's no struggle over
leadership. That starts at the moment the country loses its calm.
Then, ministers and other officials will suddenly appear all
over the palace, assuring the ruler how loyal they are. This
is nothing but a sign of unrest, and the ruler who doesn't
regard such loyalty with the utmost suspicion and
wariness will not stay in power for long.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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