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.


Politics and I Ching


I’ve been fascinated by the I Ching for more years than I can remember. Maybe it’s having lived through the 60s and Flower Power and all that stuff, and being intrigued by some of the artistic, literary, and psychological associations like Hermann Hesse, George Harrison, and Jung; but I didn’t start looking at it more seriously until the 1990s. Since then I’ve kept taking it up and putting it down again, frustrated by its opaqueness and, quite simply, its foreignness.

And still I come back to it, and have a modest collection of different translations and books about it. I’m attracted to it not as a book of divination… who really wants to know what will happen, especially at this moment in history? It will be bad enough to find out when it actually happens. No, what appeals to me is the sense that it speaks with a voice of wisdom, a very different kind of wisdom from what we’re familiar with in the West, although often saying many of the same kind of things. It has a lot to say about how to develop moral character and right behaviour: how to study to become a better person; and I like that.

But still, much of what you find about it in books or on the Internet seems either mad, or unnecessarily esoteric, or alternatively just plain trivial. What has changed in the most recent time, has been coming across the idea that I might actually read it. (I know, I’m slow on the uptake… But the Changes don’t reveal their deep secrets to the person in a hurry. I think.)

Thomas Cleary, in The Taoist I Ching, insists that you cannot make any sense of this book, if you have only a limited knowledge of it, and this is especially true of any random approach (such as, only reading the hexagrams that result from some random process, whether counting yarrow stalks or tossing coins).

“Therefore, the first step is to read the book in its entirety, without pausing to judge or question, just going along with the flow of its images and ideas. … Ancient literature suggests reading one hexagram in the morning and one at night. At this rate, this initial phase of consultation can be completed in approximately one month. This may have to be repeated one or more times at intervals to effectively set the basic program into the mind.”

In fact, on this first read through of the 64 hexagrams (Book I in the Wilhelm/Baynes version), I’m going faster than just two chapters a day; I can come back to that more leisurely approach later. But the overview is already yielding wonderful nuggets: not least the quaint old-fashioned ideas that moral character is important; that it’s especially important in people with power and influence in the state; that everyone has a responsibility to cultivate it; that things go badly for everyone when moral character is lacking – especially aomng the people in power.

Take, for example, the Image of hexagram 12, P’i / Standstill (Stagnation):

The hexagram for this is ䷋: made up of the trigrams Ch’ien, the Creative, Heaven over K’un, the Receptive, Earth. These are complementary realities, but in this particular arrangement they are pulling away from each other, rather than working together, hence the idea of Standstill or Stagnation. (Don’t worry if this is all Chinese to you: walk with me for a while.)

The text for the Image reads:

Heaven and earth do not unite:
The image of STANDSTILL.
Thus the superior man falls back upon his inner worth
In order to escape the difficulties.
He does not permit himself to be honored with revenue.

And the commentary begins:

When, owing to the influence of inferior men, mutual mistrust prevails in public life, fruitful activity is rendered impossible, because the fundaments are wrong.

It seems to me you could hardly find a more accurate summary of Brexit Britain, and what’s wrong with the state of our nation and politics at the present time. People have simply lost all trust in our political class because the perception is that they are morally inferior people. It used to be the case that society, schools, the whole process of education and upbringing, taught that you should regard it as a moral duty to use your skills and gifts for the general good, not just for your personal advantage. Especially if you enjoyed any kind of privilege or position: and even receiving a free secondary, let alone tertiary, education, was an enormous privilege, bringing responsibility with it. Certainly that’s one of the things were were taught at my local grammar school, even if the invisible sub-text was that we would possibly be called upon to govern the Raj (or whatever the 1960s equivalent of that was) under the supervision of the gentlemen whose privilege had been to enjoy a public (sic) school education. This is no longer the case. The antics of the entitled classes, as exemplified by the Bullingdon Club and its many wannabes, is enough proof. The popularity with the Tory Party of the unspeakable Boris Johnson, and the absurd and terrifying likelihood that he will soon be Prime Minister, confirms it.

And all the while I’m sure there are many, many people in pubic office, perhaps even in Parliament, who really do have a notion that they are there to do good and to work for the common good. It’s just that their efforts are made invisible by the greed and wealth of those among them who continue to vote for measures that oppress the poorest and most vulnerable, and make their lives a misery. Theresa May appeared to say the right things when she spoke of making Britain a country that worked for everyone, but most of the policies of her Government shouted the opposite, and much louder. Francesca Martinez spoke for many, and earned the applause she received, when she said on Question Time that the Tories have blood on their hands, because their austerity policies have been a direct cause of 130,000 deaths.

There is much more in the I Ching about how rulers in particular, and all people in general who seek to live in wise harmony with the universe, should fashion their lives. Sadly, I doubt if the Boris Johnsons of this world and all those who admire them, so much as give a damn.

A Sign for Our Times

One of the things I’ve been doing with myself in retirement, is trying finally to get to grips with the I Ching, a book that has intrigued, fascinated, baffled me and constantly drawn me back again and again over more than a quarter of a century. I have no interest in it as a book of divination, which I simply don’t believe in. But as a book of wisdom, guidance for many different situations and circumstances of life, and a self-help manual for developing character, it speaks in ever alluring yet mystifying ways.

It fascinated Leibniz with the binary nature of its lines and hexagrams. Jung wrote a kind of nutty fan-foreword to the Richard Wilhelm translation. Hermann Hesse used it as a theme in The Glass Bead Game, another of my favourite books. Philip K. Dick consulted it when he was writing The Man in the High Tower. It’s full of the strangest poetic images and symbols, which seem to invite you to meditation or reflection along the lines of “It surely must mean something. If only I could fathom what?”

It is a very ancient book, supposedly having its origin millennia ago. The Chinese classic par excellence, the origin of all Chinese philosophy and literature. To a Westerner, it is profoundly strange. But perhaps that’s why we need it.

After all, we’re living in a time when Western thought and civilization have borne the fruit of a United Kingdom entangled in Brexit negotiations which will likely take us back to the Dark Ages without even any bombing. And in the USA, a Donald Trump presidency; the thing we were told was so outlandish and unimaginable it could not possibly happen. Nationalism and bigotry, prejudice and neo-Nazism are on the rise throughout the West. Our technology and reckless waste are damaging the Earth’s fragile ecology; may already have harmed it beyond repair. Each passing day brings new illustrations of that story of what Gandhi is reported to have answered, when he was asked what he thought of Western civilization. “Western civilization? It would be a very good idea.”

One of the things that I find helpful about I Ching is its underlying idea that the only permanent thing is change. Each thing, each event that happens, bears within itself the seed of its contrary, so that even as something reaches its fullest realisation, it is already beginning to change again. I’m not sure whether I really believe that the cycle of the year and the changing seasons is the model of the whole of human life and history; but it’s certainly a theory that has a lot of evidence to support it.

And today I came upon one of the hexagrams which really is a sign for our times.

Pi / Standstill or Stagnation


This hexagram is the opposite of the preceding one. Heaven is above, drawing farther and farther away, while the earth below sinks farther into the depths. The creative powers are not in relation. It is a time of standstill and decline. This hexagram is linked with the seventh month (August–September), when the year has passed its zenith and autumnal decay is setting in.


STANDSTILL. Evil people do not further
The perseverance of the superior man.
The great departs; the small approaches.

Heaven and earth are out of communion and all things are benumbed. What is above has no relation to what is below, and on earth confusion and disorder prevail. The dark power is within, the light power is without. Weakness is within, harshness without. Within are the inferior, and without are the superior. The way of inferior people is in ascent; the way of superior people is one the decline. But the superior people do not allow themselves to be turned from their principles. If the possibility of exerting influence is closed to them, they nevertheless remain faithful to their principles and withdraw into seclusion.


Heaven and earth do not unite:
The image of STANDSTILL.
Thus the superior man falls back upon his inner worth
In order to escape the difficulties.
He does not permit himself to be honored with revenue.

When, owing to the influence of inferior men, mutual mistrust prevails in public life, fruitful activity is rendered impossible, because the fundaments are wrong. Therefore the superior man knows what he must do under such circumstances; he does not allow himself to be tempted by dazzling offers to take part in public activities. This would only expose him to danger, since he cannot assent to the meanness of the others. He therefore hides his worth and withdraws into seclusion.

With people like Trump, Farage, Murdoch, Hunt, Rees-Mogg and the like in the ascendant, it’s not hard to recognise the description of what I Ching calls ‘inferior people’ (it uses the words in the sense of moral character and worth, rather in the way the Hebrew Bible uses ‘fool’ to mean a morally stupid or foolish person, rather than one with a low IQ).

What should the ‘superior person’, i.e. the upright, the sage, the wise person, do? I Ching seems to say, withdraw into retreat, keep out of it until the situation changes back to something remotely resembling sanity. But it also, often, talks about taking the right kind of action when the time is right. The trick is to discern when that kairos, that right time, is.

Though I’m very far from understanding more than the tiniest part of this, I think there’s a wisdom in this ancient Eastern book that we desperately need, here in the embattled and threatened West.

Posted in Tao