Tuesday, August 29, 2006


The best leader is one whose existence is barely known.
Next best is one who is loved and praised.
After that comes one who is feared.
Worst is a leader who is held in contempt and disobeyed.

If you cannot trust others, they will not be trustworthy.

The sage is quiet, and chooses his words carefully.
He completes his work, puts things in order, and lets the people say,
"we did this ourselves."

This verse appears to be made up of three sections, possibly of different authorship. The first and third sections explain the virtues of a Laoist leader: he is invisible, does not boast or claim credit for his achievements, and guides the people gently where they already want to go. It may seem strange that the authors consider a leader who is loved and praised to be worth less than one who is subtle, but this idea appears elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching, for example in a passage saying that the Way (implying natural action) is more valuable than love, compassion, or filial piety. The authors are primarily concerned with the leader not dominating the people, and instead leading them where it is natural for them to go. They would probably feel that a leader who is overly popular runs the risk of forcing some people to do unnatural things, as well as being tempted by his own power.

As for the line in the middle, we might ask how it relates to the rest of the verse. Unfortunately, as with other seeming non sequiters, I can only say that it is probably meant as a comment by a different author. It certainly expresses a truth about human nature: people appreciate being trusted, and placing your trust in someone is a great compliment that often inspires them to act in good faith. However, if you are always suspicious and accusatory of people, they might not feel any reason to be trustworthy. After all, if it doesn't make a difference in how you treat them, why should they care? I'm reminded of Gene Wolfe's opinion that if you do someone a great favor, it is actually you who are indebted to them, because you have had the honor of helping someone and they have suffered the embarrassment of needing your help.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


Attain complete emptiness.
Hold firm to a steady calm.
As all things rise and flourish,
we can already see their impending return.
All things flourish and grow, and each one returns from whence it came.
By returning, it finds peace. This is destiny: the law of nature.

This destiny is the one constant in the world; understanding it gives you perspective; not understanding it brings recklessness and misfortune.
When you have perspective, you can be impartial.
Impartiality makes you noble.
This nobility means you are in accord with Heaven.
Heaven is in accord with the Way.
Being in accord with the Way, you will be free from danger all your life.

This verse seems to be all about one topic, although the second half may have been added later to reinforce the first half. The verse emphasizes a recurring motif in the TTC: the cyclical nature of all things. If you think about things falling apart and creatures dying, it's depressing, but only if you think about it in a linear way. Seeing it as part of a cycle, you see that as some things are dying, others are being born. As some things are being born, others are flourishing and yet others are approaching their end. According to the authors of the Tao Te Ching, this should instill in you a sense of calm and equanimity.

At the end of the verse we can also see a kind of phrasing very common in the TTC: "X leads to Y, Y leads to Z, Z leads to the Way, the Way will do something." Personally, I'm not sure how much attention to pay to the literal logical meaning of these passages; I get the feeling they are meant to be largely poetic, with their primary purpose being to express the desireability of the items on the list, without making serious claims about one necessarily leading to the other. Nevertheless, I've tried to render them in such a way that it's at least logical how attaining one item could lead to attaining the next, and so on. When dealing with something so far removed from our cultural experience, we should be careful about premature decisions about meaning.