Run the country by doing what’s expected.
Win the war by doing the unexpected.
Control the world by doing nothing.
How do I know that?
The more restrictions and prohibitions in the world,
the poorer people get.
The more experts the country has
the more of a mess it’s in.
The more ingenious the skillfull are,
the more monstrous their inventions.
The louder the call for law and order,
the more the thieves and con men multiply.
So a wise leader might say:
I practice inaction, and the people look after themselves.
I love to be quiet, and the people themselves find justice.
I don’t do business, and the people prosper on their own.
I don’t have wants, and the people themselves are uncut wood.
Le Guin’s commentary:
A strong political statement of the central idea of wu wei, not doing, inaction.
My “monstrous” is literally “new.” New is strange, and stare is uncanny. New is bad. Lao Tzu is deeply and firmly against changing things, particularly in the name of progress. He would make an Iowa farmer look flighty. I don’t think he is exactly anti-intellectual, but he considers most uses of the intellect to be pernicious, and all plans for improving things to be disastrous. Yet he’s not a pessimist. No pessimist would say that people are able to look after themselves, be just, and prosper on their own. No anarchist can be a pessimist.
Uncut wood–here liked to the human soul–the uncut, uncarved, unshaped, unpolished, native, natural stuff is better than anything that can be made out of it. Anything done to it deforms and lessens it. Its potentiality is infinite. Its uses are trivial.
I find myself both disagreeing and nodding my head in vigorous approval of what Lao Tzu’s saying here. The last stanza is a clear and beautiful and hopeful presentation of anarchism.
The second stanza is where he seems to be against intellectual progress, and it’s hard for me to take that seriously, since I believe quite strongly in technology–even if I see how most of it is used for malicious uses–and intellectual growth.
I think Lao Tzu is a bit less anti-intellectual than this poems makes him out to be, since he encourages one to be like a child: open and ever-curious.
I mean, that is what intellectual growth looks like.
I imagine this has a much more important political context in the time that he lived. Like any humans who has ever humaned, Lao Tzu is reacting to his time and place in history, in the world.
Oddly, I think it may apply today more than ever. Though maybe that’s not true, as there have always been worthless experts, foolish intellectuals, malicious power-seekers.
I think this applies especially to the current state of world politics.
We are seeing the active refusal of experts and facts. We’re ignoring, in a very active way, the world we live in and the context history has left us, or that we have helped forge.
US belligerence to Russia right now can be seen as a lot of experts actively ignoring what made them experts in the chase for influence and site views. We have experts endlessly shuffling the papers, trying to obfuscate the fact that Trump is a homegrown american political force. While Russia very well could have assisted in getting him elected, it’s absurd to believe that Russia’s plan would be to trust such a reckless and exploitable wreck of a robber baron to defeat seasoned political professionals.
That Trump won is not because of Putin masterminding some impossible situation into being. It’s because we created Trump out of excrement, flapping lips, and the left over hide of Joe McCarthy and Winston Churchill.
Someone will balk at the Churchill comparison, but the man was a megalomaniac and a fascist who only opposed Hitler because Hitler was going about totalitarianism in a decidedly unBritish way, and was managing to launch itself past British superiority. Churchill was a petty, bitter old man with an incredible sense of entitlement, and incredible access to power based on the accident of his geography and the family he was born to. He raked his opponents through the mud while reacting to any opposition to his policies as a personal attack. He saw military might as the only thing that really mattered, and let the poor and suffering die while he refused the very real threats upon their lives.
The biggest difference between Churchill and Trump is one of wit and manners.
They are exactly the kind of leaders we should try to avoid. Violent, petty men, so awash in their own egos that they see any differing opinion as a declaration of war. A war they’re willing to play as dirty and as recklessly as possible to get their way.
While we have more information available to us than any generation of humans to ever live, we know so little. Knowing history becomes a radical act. A radical protest.
Our experts in the West have led us into disastrous wars, crippled the livelihoods of millions, and used ideology (capitalism) as a hammer and sickle to smash the citizenry into a pulp to be slurped up by industrialists.
I love technology. Love the potential it offers. Yet what do we do with it?
We spy on our citizens and the citizens of every nation. We create more and more sophisticated weapons. We solidify rather than tear down systems of oppression and violence. We make war palatable to people by cloaking it in automation. We cripple people’s ability to survive in an economy that, on paper, is constantly improving.
If the US economy is doing so well, why do we have so many impoverished workers? Why are people avoiding the hospitals, not because they think doctors are liars, but because they can’t afford even basic medication or medical assistance?
We are the wealthiest we’ve ever been, and yet we hoard this wealth, this intelligence. We hoard it while our brothers and sisters starve in the street, leaving their children to steal from other suffering citizens, just so maybe they can eat or feed their families.
I don’t think this is an incorrect way to read this poem. It may even be close to what Lao Tzu meant when he wrote it 2,500 years ago.
Of course, there’s no way of knowing if that’s even remotely true, since we’re not even sure if Lao Tzu was a person. But the striking way this poem applies to us today makes me believe China may have had similar problems at that time. Especially when you consider he may have been a contemporary of Confucius, another influential Chinese thinker who advocated totalitarian tactics.
A very different way of seeing the world, that. And so I would not be surprised if men like Confucius are the kind of men Lao Tzu’s speaking about in this poem.
Of course, once again, that’s all conjecture.
Even so, you don’t need to accept every word said here to still think there’s use in what’s being said. And I think the first and third stanzas are powerful and valid ways of thinking. But it’s the third that I’m attached to, and the one I hold onto. The rest, as far as I’m concerned, are worth thinking about, but maybe only that.