For more in this series, please see Translation — “Tao Te Ching.”
Tao Te Ching—
The Classic about Ways And Instances
by Lao Tzu
(Translated, with comments, by William P. Coleman)
Not raising up distinguished individuals, so people contend less;
not prizing hard-to-get goods, so people steal less;
not displaying objects of desire, so hearts are less troubled
— this is the sage’s way of ruling.
He empties their hearts and fills their stomachs.
He weakens their ambitions but strengthens their bones.
He always keeps them from knowledge, from desire,
and he prevents the wise from daring to act.
He acts without acting;
and then nothing is out of place.
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At first sight, this chapter seems harsh, tyrannical. It might advocate a sort of benevolent despotism to deprive people of their individual liberty.
Of course, there are those who would think that’s a good thing — that individual self-expression is a delusion Westerners have and Easterners are blessedly free of. I think this is hogwash, both as a value judgment and as a cultural oversimplification. There are also those who think that’s what Plato taught in The Republic, and who approve. I couldn’t support that point of view.
I don’t know. I wish I understood.
I do know this. There’s a certain basic illusion about life. People are frantic to struggle, to make sure they don’t miss out on getting what they want, to keep people from stopping them. In my own life, though, that hasn’t been the problem. My unhappiness has been caused by going after things I didn’t want and, much more, by failing to go after the things I did, and do, want. It’s taken me most of my life to figure out what I want. It’s as if I’d taken delivery on a new VCR, but it was only years later, almost at the end of its useful life, that I got a look at the owner’s manual and figured out how to use it. Who knew?
Perhaps I could understand this chapter if I could see it as a commentary on how to help people figure out what they want — and avoid futility. Rather than what it seems: like advice about how, in the name of higher ideals, to dishearten people from having what they need.
It’s hard to get a clear picture.
I do know another thing. My piano teacher and my voice teacher — not to mention, of course, my Tai Chi teacher — are constantly after me to stop letting my intellectualizing interfere with my playing — to let the spirit within me actualize itself. A painter friend tells me the same thing my piano teacher does: that you paint with your hands — or, rather, that it’s your hands that do the painting. In other words, “He weakens their ambitions but strengthens their bones?”
For comparison, I’m including the translation by Lin Yutang, which I always love and respect, even when I disagree:
3. Action Without Deeds
Exalt not the wise,
So that the people shall not scheme and contend;
Prize not rare objects,
So that the people shall not steal;
Shut out from site the things of desire,
So that the people’s hearts shall not be disturbed.
Therefore in the government of the Sage:
He keeps empty their hearts
Makes full their bellies,
Discourages their ambitions,
Strengthens their frames;
So that the people may be innocent of knowledge and desires.
And the cunning ones shall not presume to interfere.
By action without deeds
May all live in peace.