Taoist Lessons for Politicians


Verse 29Those who look down upon this world, will surely take hold and try to change things. So begins verse 29 of the 4th century BCE Chinese classic (Jonathan Star translation*), the Tao Te Ching.

That verse suggests that those who feel themselves superior to the world and to others, who feel their actions, thoughts, views and beliefs are above those of others, will attempt to impress their own rule on others. And, as the verse continues, they can only fail in their attempts to control things. Control slips from their fingers.**

There’s a lesson here in verse 29, that winds throughout the book. It’s not simply for mystics and those who seek philosophical answers: it’s for politicians, including local candidates, too.

Moderation, humility, compromise, Lao Tzu suggests, is what works best; blunt attempts to control the world through confrontation, anger and challenge fail.

Some of his words of advice would fit the medieval “mirror for princes” books, which Machiavelli challenged in The Prince, but which Balthasar Gracian remade in his Art of Worldly Wisdom.

A couple of millennia have proven Lao Tzu right. Many others have shared his views over the ages – not necessarily because they read him, but because they came to similar conclusions about people and power. You can’t simply be negative and look down on things as if you could rule the world. A sense of superiority just isn’t enough to make a difference: you need virtue. Michel de Montaigne wrote:

Every other knowledge is harmful to him who does not have knowledge of goodness.
Book I, ch. 25

Lao Tzu’s small book is peppered with similar advice. It’s short enough to be read in an hour, but rich enough to be returned to through a lifetime.

The Derek Lin translation gives this rendition for verse 29:

Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see that they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose

Because all things:
Either lead or follow
Either blow hot or cold
Either have strength or weakness
Either have ownership or take by force

Therefore the sage:
Eliminates extremes
Eliminates excess
Eliminates arrogance

Other translations concur, albeit offer alternate renderings. Regardless of specific wording, or which translation you prefer, all have a similar message that resonates in today’s politics. ***

The lesson here for all politicians and would-be politicians at every level, local to national is: you cannot control the world like you think you can. Things move out of your control too fast; events and issues change and evolve and pass us by. Force fails to accomplish anything lasting.

You need to look forward, to prepare for the future, not the current that has passed you by. Trying to roll back the clock to a time that suits you only fails.

Verse  68 adds a description that fits a politician and warrior equally:

The best warrior
leads without haste
fights without anger
overcomes without confrontation
He puts himself below
and brings out the highest in his men.
That is the virtue of not confronting
of working with the abilities you have…

Like Lucretius said, you never step into the same river twice. Politicians (and moreso, candidates for office) tend to be reactive: they respond to the river that has already gone past them. Yes, sometimes you can undo things or force change – usually at a cost well beyond the value of the effort – but once the horse has left the barn, closing the door doesn’t usually accomplish anything positive. And eventually things return to their original state, despite your efforts.

Forcing things is not the best approach,as Lao Tzu wrote, in verse 30:

Those who rule in accordance with Tao
do not use force against the world.
For that which is forced is likely to return…
Things that gain a place by force
will flourish for a time
but then fade away…

There’s a second lesson in this verse about karma: your actions will come back on you. So do good, show virtue and be generous, and you will be repaid in kind. Use force, anger and confrontation against them, and you will suffer from others what you make them suffer. That’s the “Golden Rule” – another ancient observation that has been universally accepted by religions and philosophers since recorded history began. It has been reiterated in a thousand different ways since:

  • Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing. ( Thales (ca. 624 BCE – ca. 546 BCE), a Greek philosopher and one of the Seven Sages of Greece)
  • What you do not want others to do to you, do not do unto others. (Confucius, Analects, XV:24, c. 500 BCE)
  • This is the sum of all true righteousness: deal with others as thou wouldst thyself be dealt by. Do nothing to thy neighbor which thou wouldst not have him do to thee hereafter. (Mahabharata, 5:1517, c. 2nd century CE)
  • The evil that you do not wish done to you, you ought to refrain from doing to another, so far as may be done without injury to some third person. (Henry More, Enchiridion Ethicum, Chap. 4 (Noema XV), 1667)

Lao Tzu also says in verse 31 that bitter, angry and jealous people don’t accomplish good things:

One who is bound to action, proud of victory
and delights in the misfortunes of others
will never gain a thing…

It’s not that Lao Tzu doesn’t think the world cannot be improved. It’s how not to do it he lamented about. There are ways – the “natural law” – to do it. In verse 60 he counsels, “Govern a nation as you would fry a small fish.” With care and vigilance. He gives this advice in verse 9:

Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

He adds in verse 56 more about moderation:

Keep your mouth closed.
Guard your senses.
Temper your sharpness.
Simplify your problems.
Mask your brightness.
Be at one with the dust of the earth….

Lao Tzu preaches moderation, humility and righteousness throughout the verses. Those who are focused on change for its own sake, or on personal gain or power, often lose sight of the way the river runs and Canute-like, try to stem the flow. Like Montaigne said:

“A little of all things, but nothing of everything…”

These verses all carry the same the message: attempting to control the world, attempting to force things, trying to remake the world in your own image, just doesn’t work. Excess is a dead end – find the middle way, the path of moderation. And be humble and generous in the process.

Don’t whine or complain, either. As Balthasar Gracian wrote in the Art of Worldly Wisdom (maxim 129), it just backfires:

Complaints will always discredit you. Rather than compassion and consolation, they provoke passion and insolence, and encourage those who hear our complaints to behave like those we complain about. Once divulged to others, the offenses done to us seem to make others pardonable. Some complain of past offenses and give rise to future ones.

And as verse 46 of the Tao Te Ching notes, be content with what you have and don’t covet the achievements of others:

There is no greater sin than desire,
No greater curse than discontent,
No greater misfortune than wanting something for oneself.
Therefore he who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.

It’s always a difficult choice which translation to adopt as a guide since there are so many to choose from. But no matter what translation you adopt, all have a similar message. And if you’re a candidate or politician, you should heed it: do good and be humble; practice moderation and restraint; work for the greater good not your own.

Ancient wisdom never ages so poorly it cannot be applied today.

* Tao Te Ching, the Definitive Edition, translated by Jonathan Star, Tarcher-Penguin Books, New York, 2001.

** Translating Chinese into English is notoriously tricky, and ancient Chinese doubly so. And when something as slippery as a Taoist text, with its subtleties and nuances in the work, it becomes a matter of personal understanding and insight to light the text. I can only admire the efforts of the translators who took on the task, since it is clearly outside my own ability.

Look at the first three characters of verse 29: chiang, yu, chu. Star points out there may be variously translated as:

  • Chiang: take in hand/receive/ will/if/when going to
  • Yu: want/desire/tendencies/habits/general outlook
  • Chu: take/take over/ take hold of/govern//conquer/trying to govern

The possible combinations and choices of the wording in these three characters alone point out the complexity involved.

*** Yellow bridge offers three public domain translations; a 19th century one by James Legge (translation 1891), D.T. Suzuki’s reworking of Paul Carus’ translation (1913; Suzuki was responsible for introducing Zen to the West) and Dwight Goddard and Henri Borel, from 1919, None of these would stand up to today’s standards for translating, but they have their merits. Here they are with the first part of verse 29 translated:

Legge: If any one should wish to get the kingdom for himself, and to effect this by what he does, I see that he will not succeed. The kingdom is a spirit-like thing, and cannot be got by active doing. He who would so win it destroys it; he who would hold it in his grasp loses it.
Suzuki: When one desires to take in hand the empire and make it, I see him not succeed. The empire is a divine vessel which cannot be made. One who makes it, mars it. One who takes it, loses it.
Goddard: One who desires to take and remake the Empire will fail. The Empire is a divine thing that cannot be remade. He who attempts it will only mar it.

Another translation from R. Gray a Carelton University student (?) has this for verse 29:

Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I do not believe it can be done.

The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it, you will lose it.

So sometimes things are ahead and sometimes they are behind;
Sometimes breathing is hard, sometimes it comes easily;
Sometimes there is strength and sometimes weakness;
Sometimes one is up and sometimes down.

Therefore the sage avoids extremes, excesses, and complacency.

And a similarly voiced translation by S. Mitchell with its Ecclesiastes-like rendition:

Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.

The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.

There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.

And another version:

Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.

The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.

There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.

The above-linked site notes in its commentary that, “Proactive people focus their efforts on their Circle of Influence. Reactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Concern.” Interesting perspective but it strikes me as accurate.

The Witter Bynner rendition is:

Those who would take over the earth
And shape it to their will
Never, I notice, succeed.
The earth is like a vessel so sacred
That at the mere approach of the profane
It is marred
And when they reach out their fingers it is gone.
For a time in the world some force themselves ahead
And some are left behind,
For a time in the world some make a great noise
And some are held silent,
For a time in the world some are puffed fat
And some are kept hungry,
For a time in the world some push aboard
And some are tipped out:
At no time in the world will a man who is sane
Over-reach himself,
Over-spend himself,
Over-rate himself.

I have always liked Bynner’s version. Then there is this version:

Those who would rule it ruin it;
Those who would control it lose it.
In the way of things:
Some move ahead while others follow behind;
Some breathe to warm themselves while others breathe to cool themselves down;
Some are strong while others are disadvantaged;
Some accumulate while others collapse.
It is for this reason that the sages eschew the excessive, the superlative, and the extravagant.

And finally the prosaic translation by Ursula Le Guin:

Want to take over the world?
Think again.
The world’s a holy place.
You can’t just fuck around with it.
Those who try to change it destroy it.
Those who try to possess it lose it.
With Tao, you push forward,
or maybe you stay behind.
Sometimes you push yourself,
other times you rest.
Sometimes you’re strong,
sometimes you’re weak.
Sometimes you’re up,
and sometimes you’re down.
A Master lives simply,
avoiding extravagance and excess.

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