Politics and the Tao Te Ching

And then there is the other great Taoist classic, undoubtedly the Taoist classic, the Tao Te Ching: the Book of the Way and its Power. It also has a lot to say about the conduct of the state, how rulers should rule. Probably the best known aphorism is

“Ruling the country is like cooking a small fish.” (Chapter 60) We take this to mean that those who govern in accordance with Tao should not meddle too much. If you poke a small fish that you’re frying, it will disintegrate. But I think it also means you mustn’t neglect what you’re doing but need to keep an eye on it the whole time, so that you see the exact moment you need to do something. ‘Like cooking a small fish’ doesn’t just mean you leave it alone, as the extreme small-government people might have us believe.

But there’s much more good stuff. (Both the following extracts are from the J. H. McDonald translation) I love chapter 17:

The best leaders are those the people hardly know exist.

The next best is a leader who is loved and praised.

Next comes the one who is feared.

The worst one is the leader that is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,

they will become untrustworthy.

The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly.

When she has accomplished her task,

the people say, “Amazing:

we did it, all by ourselves!”

And chapter 18 sounds disturbingly appropriate in our increasingly nationalistic times:

When the great Tao is abandoned,

charity and righteousness appear.

When intellectualism arises,

hypocrisy is close behind.

When there is strife in the family unit,

people talk about ‘brotherly love’.

When the country falls into chaos,

politicians talk about ‘patriotism’.

The version I’m reading at the moment is the more recently published translation by John Minford (Viking, 2018) It’s a bigger book than most versions. The Chinese original contains only 5,000 words. It practises what the Tao preaches about using few words. Minford, however, has chosen to accompany his translation with helpful commentary from some of the great commentators on the Tao Te Ching, especially the River Master and Magister Liu, together with some short Chinese poems that illustrate the theme.

He advocates a slow, meditative reading of the text which he calls Lectio Sinica, a Chinese version of the familiar Christian and monastic practice of Lectio Divina. This commends itself as a useful way of approaching such a strange yet deeply attractive text.