When the government’s dull and confused,
the people are placid.
When the government’s sharp and keen,
the people are discontented.
Alas! misery lies under happiness,
and happiness sits on misery, alas!
Who knows where it will end?
Nothing is certain.
The normal changes into the monstrous,
the fortunate into the unfortunate,
and our bewilderment
goes on and on.
And so the wise
shape without cutting,
square without sawing,
true without forcing.
They are the light that does not shine.
Le Guin’s commentary:
In the first verse, the words “dull and confused” and “sharp and keen” are, as Waley points out, the words used in chapter 20 to describe the Taoist and non-Taoist.
In the last verse most translators say the Taoist is square but doesn’t cut, shines but doesn’t dazzle. Waley says that this misses the point. The point is that Taoists gain theirs ends without the use of means. That is indeed a light that does not shine–an idea that must be pondered and brooded over. A small dark light.
As Le Guin, and Waley, say, this poem pulls previous images into it to say something new about leadership and power.
This is an interesting poem to consider as an american in 2017. Since I would say our government is confused, but exciting. As in: there is literally something new to deal with every day. Sometimes several new things every day. So I don’t know what Tao Tzu would think of a sharp and confused government. The only way to interpret such a government, I think, is as one working against its citizenry.
So Lao Tzu would probably see such a government as bizarre. Why would it exist? Why would people allow it to exist?
For all the use of the Tao Te Ching, I don’t think it’s equipped to answer why people would agree to cede their rights and agency to a few people.
But I doubt any text is.
I do think the Tao Te Ching is equipped to deal with the fallout of such a decision, which is why I’ve been spending my days with it.
This is an opportunity to imagine the kind of government we do want. The kind of country we want to be. Since we’re mired in what we don’t want, what we fear, what we resent.
Let’s plan something new. Bring in new faces.
Of course, the DNC is picking the same faces, planning on doing the same things, which is a recipe for 8 years of GOP mandate.
But that’s their problem to deal with.
Let’s create something new.