Great power, not clinging to power,
has true power.
Lesser power, clinging to power,
lacks true power.
Great power, doing nothing,
has nothing to do.
Lesser power, doing nothing,
has an end in view.
The good the truly good do
has no end in view.
The right the very righteous do
has no end in view.
And those who act in true obedience to law
roll up their sleeves
and make the disobedient obey.
So: when we lose the Way we find power;
losing power we find goodness;
losing goodness we find righteousness;
losing righteousness we’re left with obedience.
Obedience to law is the dry husk
of loyalty and good faith.
Opinion is the barren flower of the Way,
the beginning of ignorance.
So great-minded people
abide in the kernel not the husk,
in the fruit not the flower,
letting the one go, keeping the other.
Le Guin’s commentary:
The vast, dense argument in a minimum of words, this poem lays out the Taoist values in steeply descending order: the Way and its power, goodness (humane feeling); righteousness (morality); and–a very distant last–obedience (law and order). The word I render as “opinion” can be read as “knowing too soon”: the mind obeying orders, judging before the evidence is in, closed to fruitful perception and learning.
We come to perhaps the most prescriptive poem in the text, in certain ways. Still, it demands nothing of you, but it does lay out a hierarchy, or order of virtues.
It’s shockingly similar to theories proposed by psychologists and psychoanalysts like Erik Erikson, where obedience is among the lowest orders of moral development. The Tao, of course, doesn’t top those lists, but it’s interesting to think of the differences there.
What we come to, here, is the pettiness of force. Of law and order. To demand that one simply obey because you want them to obey is surely the poorest way to interact with another human. It’s the way we treat pets. Even there, it’s kind of an unpleasant way to have a relationship.
But if all you have is force and the ability to make people obey, you have very little indeed. Very little power and very little leverage, for the moment you stop exerting force, they’ll probably begin again to disobey.
When following the Tao, people will follow you. Not because you force them, but because they’ll be drawn to you. To be like you. In a way, it’s a form of obedience, but it’s a voluntary and spontaneous kind. There’s no risk or reward involved. Only choice.
That, to me, is kind of the essence of the Tao.
If you must use force to get your way, you’ve already lost.
If people follow you spontaneously and voluntarily, then you may be doing something worth doing.