Thursday, October 19, 2006

 

The Tao of Governing

Stephen Mitchell has translated the Tao Te Ching of Lao-tzu with a degree of poetic reinterpretation. Here are verses 60 and 61, which give Taoist advice to those who govern:

Verse 60:

Governing a large country
is like frying a small fish.
You spoil it with too much poking.

Center your country in the Tao
and evil will have no power.
Not that it isn't there,
but you'll be able to step out of its way.

Give evil nothing to oppose
and it will disappear by itself.

Verse 61:

When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn't meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.


It’s a lovely translation, although very different in places from more literal ones. For example, James Legge’s translation of Verse 61, available online:

The Attribute of Humility.

1. What makes a great state is its being (like) a low-lying, down-flowing (stream);-- it becomes the centre to which tend (all the small states) under heaven.

2. (To illustrate from) the case of all females:-- the female always overcomes the male by her stillness. Stillness may be considered (a sort of) abasement.

3. Thus it is that a great state, by condescending to small states, gains them for itself; and that small states, by abasing themselves to a great state, win it over to them. In the one case the abasement leads to gaining adherents, in the other case to procuring favour.

4. The great state only wishes to unite men together and nourish them; a small state only wishes to be received by, and to serve, the other. Each gets what it desires, but the great state must learn to abase itself.

I would have thought that Mitchell’s reinterpretation of Verse 61 was a specific rebuke to the current administration, were it not that it was published in 1988.


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