"I am at peace, and people become fair by themselves."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 57
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
Use justice to rule a country.
Use surprise to wage war.
Use non-action to govern the world.
How do I know it is so?
As for the world,
The more restrictions and prohibitions there are,
The poorer the people will be.
The more sharp weapons people have in a country,
The bigger the disorder will be.
The more clever and cunning people are,
The stranger the events will be.
The more laws and commands there are,
The more thieves and robbers there will be.
Therefore the sage says:
I do not act,
And people become reformed by themselves.
I am at peace,
And people become fair by themselves.
I do not interfere,
And people become rich by themselves.
I have no desire to desire,
And people become like the uncarved wood by themselves.
People Can Govern Themselves
Some translators of the Tao Te Ching presume that the
first three lines of this chapter say what not to do and what to
do. Justice and surprise are inferior, and only non-action,
wu-wei, is in accordance with Tao. I think that's too harsh
Lao Tzu is not unrealistic, nor is he impractical. For
ruling the country, justice is a reasonable ideal. For
winning wars, surprise is a commendable strategy. That's all
fine, considering the limited perspectives involved. But for
governing the world, only non-action will do.
He is not dismissing the two former methods, since
they are relevant in connection to their objects. He just
reminds us that on a larger scale, and for truly lasting purposes,
we need to return to Tao and its principles.
In the following, he specifies what terms apply to
the grand perspective. In the world as a whole, and in a
government that wishes to last, restrictions and prohibitions
just lead to poverty. That will have its recoils. That's where
justice fails. An armed population and preparations for
war will cause calamity. Weapons have that consequence.
So much for military strategy.
Furthermore, when people are clever and
scheming, there's no way of telling what will happen. The
surprises will be far greater than any warlord might come up
with. And for each new law there will be many more people
committing crimes, both such that had not been illegal
beforehand and such that always were. The smaller the
pasture, the more of the livestock will jump the fence.
So, the sage leans back and avoids doing the least
bit more than what is absolutely called for. That's much
less than most leaders ever imagine. People search for
norms and make their own decent rules, when not cornered
by laws. A multitude of laws mostly triggers disobedience
and the search for loopholes.
The uncarved wood is a frequently used metaphor for
a pure and simple mind. For people to conform to it,
their leaders have to do the same. It starts by the leaders
admitting that they are not different from the ones to be led.
Lao Tzu also points out, playing with words as is
his habit, that a leader must be free of desire. He stresses it
by doubling it. Desire, if just restrained, is still desire. One
must be free of the desire to desire.
Many versions of the Tao Te Ching only have one
occurrence of the word in the last sentence of this chapter, but
the oldest manuscripts, that from Guodian and those
from Mawangdui, use the double. The pun was probably
present in the original version.
Truth also needs a laugh. Remember what Lao Tzu
says in chapter 41. Without the laughter it would not be Tao.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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