Classical Daoism – Is There Really Such a Thing? Part 5.3

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(Part 5.2 – – – Part 5.1 – – – Part 4.4 – – – Part 4.3 – – – Part 4.2 – – – Part 4.1 – – – Part 3 – – – Part 2 – – – Part 1)

Classical Daoism’s Amoral Ethos: The Laozi

The opening chapter of the 2nd section[1] of the Laozi runs as follows:

上德不德,是以有德。下德不失德,是以無德。

上德無為而無以為。下德為之而有以為。

上仁為之而無以為。

上義為之而有以為。

上禮為之而莫之應,則攘臂而扔之。

故失道而後德。失德而後仁。失仁而後義。失義而後禮。夫禮者忠信之薄而亂之首。

前識者,道之華而愚之始。

是以大丈夫,處其厚,不居其薄。處其實,不居其華。故去彼取此。

The first lines literally say: “Higher de is/does not de and for this reason possesses de. Lower de does not lose de and for this reason lacks de.” A distinction is made between higher and lower de, which, as in English, assigns value: higher means more valued or superior and lower means less valued or inferior.[2] The paradoxical nature of this saying is revealed in claiming that contrary to what one might expect, it is not lower or lesser de that “does not” or “is not” de (bude 不德) but higher, superior de. Instead, the less valued manifestation of de “does not lose” (bushi 不失) de and thus is somehow “lacking in de (wude 無德).” This terse aphorism is typically explicated by adding notions of self-consciousness, pretense, revealing or parading (one’s possession of de) and/or striving (to be or express de) and by regarding the two manifestations of de as attributes of persons, (i.e., shangde 上德 means “one with shangde” or “one who embodies shangde”).[3]

Putting aside for a moment what de means in this chapter, the author claims that deliberately trying to be, have, or act with de is an indication that one is in fact lacking in it. In the process, one may very well have the appearance of being, having or acting with de, but this appearance is misleading; those with discernment will recognize the hypocrisy and will not respond favourably. To the extent that this can be considered de at all, it is regarded as “lesser de” (xiade 下德). Higher de, on the other hand, is unassuming: chapter 41 declares that “Higher de is like a (low-lying) valley … abundant de seems deficient, well-established de seems to be perfunctory” (上德若谷 … 廣德若不足。建德若偷。).[4] Valuing and endorsing de that is subtle, humble, unassertive and seemingly deficient contrasts with the more conventional portrayal of de that is “great” (da 大) or brilliant and shining” (ming 明, zhao 昭 or xian  顯), which, as we will discover, is emblematic of a central theme in the Laozi (and Zhuangzi) which seeks to “re-value” or “ennoble” that which has been conventionally devalued.

We have encountered the next two lines in the essay on Wuwei, which explain further the differences between these two kinds of de: “(One with) higher de does not interfere/meddle (wuwei 無為) and lacks reasons to interfere/meddle (wuyiwei 無以為). (One with) lower de interferes/meddles (wei 為) and possesses reasons to interfere/meddle (youyiwei 有以為).”[5] Thus, on the one hand we have a person with a higher or superior manifestation of de (上德) that can truly be regarded as possessing de (有德), who has no awareness of their own de (or at least makes no show of it) (不德) and who neither interferes with others (無為) nor has any predetermined reasons to do so (無以為). This is contrasted with one with an inferior manifestation of de (下德) who can be considered as having little or no de (無德). Such a person interferes with others (為) and does so deliberately, due to predetermined (moral) reasons or ulterior motives (有以為). Such a person strives deliberately and self-consciously to influence others and act in a “virtuous” way, with preconceptions of what this entails.

This may make perfect sense to us as it stands, but one can ask: what is it about doing something purposely and conspicuously that makes it objectionable, especially if one’s intentions are good? For one, the Dao’s unassuming, salutary power is its de, called “subtle/dark de” (xuande 玄德) in chapter 51, and the authors consistently recommended emulating the Dao or being a conduit for it’s power or virtue. Second, and perhaps more importantly, any self-conscious or deliberate show of inner power or virtue will tend to rub people the wrong way, reducing their trust and generating aversion and resistance. Social harmony is thereby threatened. Furthermore, one’s intentions may not be “good” and a deliberate and pretentious show of or claim to virtue may be denigrated as dishonest, “impure,” or inauthentic. While there may be a practical benefit for leaders to advertise their good character or virtue to foster relationships with those they lead as well as allies and to combat slander from rivals, the temptation to falsify one’s true character renders such calculated behaviour dangerous and unreliable.

The chapter then deals with three traditional virtues — benevolence (ren 仁), moral propriety (yi 義), and ritual propriety/etiquette (li 禮) — that Confucians championed. Benevolence is viewed somewhat favorably (at least its highest expression: shangren 上仁),[6] in that although it involves action/interference, it does not do so for predetermined reasons, that is, genuine benevolence comes naturally. Moral propriety is considered fully inferior to (higher) de, since it is characterized by both interference (為) and predetermined, inculcated reasons (以為), e.g., duties and moral standards. Ritual propriety or etiquette is worse yet, as it is both contrived and coercive: if others don’t respond in a way deemed correct, one may “roll up one’s sleeves and force them” (攘臂而扔之). The text asserts that ritual and ritual propriety are but superficial representations of the honesty, sincerity and trustworthiness (zhongxin 忠信) considered necessary for (a desirable) social harmony, and can easily lead to social chaos (luan 亂). This is in contrast to the (largely Confucian) defenders of li, who claimed instead that zhongxin was the “root of ritual propriety” (li zhi ben 禮之本) and that li “prevents disorder” (jinluan 禁亂).[7] The authors presumably did not take issue with common courtesy or being respectful (gong 恭、jing 敬) but rather the prescribed and embellished ways to show such respect, which often devolved into contrived flattery and pomposity. Such pomposity and feelings of moral superiority will readily generate resentment and divisiveness in society, especially since the li inherently “divided” (bie 別) people. The “prior knowledge” or “predeterminations” (qianshi 前識) necessarily employed with all of these articulated virtues, especially the rites and ritual propriety, are held to be the “(trivial) flowers of the Dao and the beginning of foolishness” (道之華而愚之始). True de is spontaneous and relies on no prior conceptualizations or assessments.

De is clearly something which is deemed superior to the three virtues of ren, yi and li: “Therefore, when (unity with?) the Dao is lost, we have de;[8] when de has been lost, we have ren, when ren is lost, we have yi, when yi is lost, we have li” (故失道而後德。失德而後仁。失仁而後義。失而後禮。). The fact that true de does not involve any action or interference and that it lies above all human-conceived virtues and their expression in conduct suggests that de here is a benignant power or influence, rather than some kind of virtuous conduct, collection of virtues or character traits. (As used in the Laozi, de is always “benignant” or has a positive influence on things.) Consequently, a person who embodied such de would find little need to directly act or interfere in the world: their positive or salutary “power” would effect positive change in their environment, involuntarily.

The chapter concludes by saying that the “great (sagely) elders” (dazhangfu 大丈夫) choose (qu 取) what is thick (hou 厚) and substantial (shi 實) and reject (qu 去) what is thin (bo 薄) and flowery (hua 華). There is clearly an evaluation being made here. The typically esteemed “Confucian” virtues are devalued and de (and Dao) are deemed superior and preferable. Zhong and xin appear to be unproblematic (and valued), although we may surmise that if people are honest and trustworthy because they have deliberated on it and decided it is prudent or virtuous, the same criticism would be laid upon them.[9] We may wonder if ren, yi and li were considered unethical or forbidden for adherents of this tradition. Or were they “merely” considered ineffective or provisional crutches that we need to transcend and leave behind? We have seen in an earlier essay that chapter 6 of the Zhuangzi encourages us to “forget” (wang 忘) them as we progress (yi 益). Since ritual propriety is regarded as “leading to disorder” (luan zhi shou 亂之首) and these preconceived virtues are the “beginning of foolishness” (yu zhi shi 愚之始), surely, if “crutches,” they should be abandoned as soon as possible. Whether this is possible – or even intended – for everybody to achieve, for example, kings, commoners, children, or the myriad living things, is unclear. But what is clear, is that a spontaneous and unassuming positive influence – de 德 – is affirmed and advocated.

Chapters 18 and 19 also demean and devalue the traditional virtues of benevolence (ren 仁) and moral propriety (yi 義). Chapter 18:

大道廢,有仁義;

慧智出,有大偽;

六親不和,有孝慈;

國家昏亂,有臣。[10]

When the Great Dao was abandoned, only then did we have “benevolence” and “moral propriety.”

When cunning and “wisdom” emerged, only then did we have extensive hypocrisy.

When the six family relations became discordant, only then did we have “filial piety” and “parental devotion.”

When states and families became chaotic and disordered, only then did we have “loyal officials.”

Here we see again that benevolence and moral propriety (or “righteousness”) are only abstracted and preached when we no longer embody or abide by the Dao. Their presence is thus considered a sign of decline, whereas the Confucians and Mohists regarded both as essential to embodying the Dao. Likewise with filial piety (孝), parental devotion (慈) and loyalty (忠): the fact that they need to be conceptualized, propounded and identified demonstrates that uncontrived “decent behaviour” (that comes from abiding by the Dao) has been lost. Instead, what we have is behaviour and sentiment that occurs due to predetermined reasons and ulterior motives (youyiwei 有以為) and as such, hypocrisy (wei 偽) abounds.

          Naturally, Confucians and Mohists decried hypocrisy as well and they too wanted the “Great Dao” to be followed, families to be harmonious and states orderly. But their moral preaching created more problems, problems that Daoists felt made the situation worse. Without consciously-articulated virtues being delineated and proclaimed as desirable, hypocrisy cannot exist: no one can pretend to possess a quality they are unaware of. This is the interpretation most of the ancient (and many modern) commentators hold, including the relevant Zhuangzi adaptations.

As good as it may sound, most Confucians and Mohists would reject the view that this “Daoist Utopia” could be realized without moral education of the kind they offered. But the Daoist position is clear, as chapter 19 affirms:

絕聖棄智,民利百倍;

絕仁棄義,民復孝慈;

絕巧棄利,盜賊無有;

此三者,以為文不足。

故令有所屬,

見素抱樸,

少私寡欲。

Abandon “sageliness” and discard “wisdom” and the people will benefit a hundredfold.

Abandon “benevolence” and discard “morality” and the people will return to filial piety and parental devotion.

Abandon skillfulness and discard profit and thievery and violence will cease to exist.

These three sayings that are here written are not quite sufficient.

Therefore, let there be something (more) to complement them:

Uncover and show plainness and embrace simplicity,

Curtail self-interest and reduce desires.

          Judging by the presence of “abandon” (jue 絕) and “discard” (qi 棄), this chapter would seem to be a main source of the (critical) assessments of Daojia mentioned in part 5.1. Even though the author shares conventional values such as benefiting the people, a restoration of loving and healthy families and the elimination of thievery and violence, his proposed way of realizing them is shocking and counter-intuitive, as we have come to expect from Daojia writings. “Sageliness” (sheng 聖) and “wisdom” (zhi 智) should probably be pre-fixed by “so-called” or interpreted as smug ostentation and/or cunning, for neither term is always portrayed negatively in the Laozi, especially sageliness: those human beings most highly evaluated are usually referred to as “sagely people” or “sages” (shengren 聖人). Insofar as these recommendations (and those throughout the book) were considered by the authors as wise, genuine wisdom is not shunned.[11]

This opening line about discarding sageliness and wisdom is quoted to support a view expressed in chapter 10 of the Zhuangzi where these two venerated virtues are easily appropriated by those in power, whom the author labels Great Criminals (dadao 大盜). Here in the Laozi’s third line criminality is linked with “skillfulness” (qiao 巧) and “profit-seeking” (li 利), an orientation where one is solely focused on profit and the cunning skillfulness needed to obtain it. This goes hand-in-hand with the Laozi’s stress on eliminating both the existence of luxuries (lit. “goods that are difficult to obtain” 難得之貨) and the desire for these things (chapter 3) and “the desire to obtain” (yude 欲得), as chapter 46 puts it. If people are less preoccupied with and earnest regarding profit, then “thieves” or “thieves and assailants” (daozei 盜賊) will diminish as we all become more content with what we have.

          One of the most provocative lines in the entire text is the 2nd: “Abandon ren and discard yi and the people will return to xiao and ci” (絕仁棄義,民復孝慈). As examined earlier, ren is about “caring about the well-being of others” (airen 愛人), deriving from the natural affection we have for our parents/family/kin (qin 親). We are enjoined to abandon this benevolence? Yi denotes moral rightness or propriety, moral standards, the responsibility and sense of obligation one has to do what is considered right. We are told to discard this? The author maintains that if we do, people will return to (fu 復) a life where children naturally love, respect and obey their parents and parents are naturally dedicated and loving towards their children, only wanting to benefit them. Explicit is the belief that this ideal family life is something we have, in fact, ourselves already abandoned: we need to return to it. Consciously elevating (elite society’s) virtues of benevolence and moral propriety is what either initiated the process of dysfunctional family life or accelerated its arrival, but the author shares the almost ubiquitous desire for and valuation of xiao and ci, but only as naturally occurring. In the previous chapter we were told that it was in disharmonious (buhe 不和) families that xiao and ci exist; that is, exist as pre-conceived virtues we should feel obligated to fulfill or aspire to.

          If we choose to take this advice, to knock these venerated virtues off their pedestals, so to speak, helpful (and perhaps necessary) is to “Uncover our plainness and embrace our simplicity, curtail our self-interest and reduce our desires.” Doing these things presumably has a ripple-effect throughout one’s family and society at large.[12] The power of one’s de 德, although not mentioned, does a lot to accomplish this; at least, that seems to be the argument. Both “simplicity” or “uncarved wood” (pu 樸) and the reduction of “desire” or “ambition” (yu 欲) are fundamental themes in the Laozi (and other “Daoist texts”). An essay on “desire” will be forthcoming.

          I would be remiss not to mention that the Guodian version of this chapter contains an apparently drastic alteration or variation. Instead of getting rid of benevolence and morality to facilitate the people returning to a more natural caring and appropriate way of living, benevolence (ren 仁) is displaced by 𢡺: an obsolete character that occurs elsewhere in the Guodian Laozi as a variant of “to transform” (hua 化),[13] but may instead represent “hypocrisy, contrivance” (wei 偽) and moral propriety (yi 義) is displaced by lu 慮 or zha 詐, the first meaning “planning, reflection” and the latter “deceitfulness, fraudulence.”[14] If read as “hypocrisy, contrivance” (wei 偽) and “deceitfulness, fraudulence” (zha 詐), it loses its “Laozian” counter-intuitive nature and makes a conventional appeal. This makes it seem likely that it is a deliberate alteration of the passage which originally read ren and yi, which the copyist felt uncomfortable with, especially since not a single recension of the Laozi exists that contains this peculiar variation.[15] If read as hua and lu, following Robert Henricks, we may translate as “abandon deliberate attempts to transform people (morally) and forsake forethought and planning, and the people will return to their natural filial and caring ways.”[16] We don’t know whether the traditional reading criticizing ren and yi was the original or whether the Guodian version was. Much has been written about this question.[17] Ultimately, the Guodian variation is too small a sample size to judge, being only a single text from a single tomb.

          The ethos here presented shows positive value ascribed to benefiting others and loving and healthy families while thievery and violence and artificial “virtues” are given negative value. Positive value is also given to plainness and simplicity while a conscious pursuit of self-interest and profit (fueled by desire) has negative value. It’s difficult not see a moral perspective at play here and come to the conclusion that the text asserts that people should try to benefit others and not be violent to or steal from them and, in addition, have an obligation to create an environment where these sorts of things occur, or don’t occur, frequently.[18] It is perfectly clear that abandoning ren and yi does not mean one should be, or will be cruel or unethical.[19]

While benefiting others and creating a safe environment in both society and the family may be viewed as serving one’s own (enlightened) self-interest, this chapter does not say so explicitly. In fact, the instrumental means given to work toward these goals is to lessen and reduce (shao 少, gua 寡) our private or self-interest (si 私) and ambitions.[20] The goals are thus the same as that of the Confucians and Mohists but these authors discovered or felt that very different means were required, means they felt were more effective.[21] They encouraged returning to (fu 復) simplicity, psychologically and materially, and cautioned that consciously reified and fetishized moral virtues are not only inferior, but decidedly counterproductive.

          Despite chapter 19’s advice to “curtail our self-interest and reduce our desires,” chapter 7 makes clear that “self-interest” or “private affairs” (si 私) cannot or need not be denigrated or rejected completely. Instead, paradoxically, the most efficacious means to realize one’s self-interest is by forsaking it. Just as Heaven and Earth are long-lasting because they do not consciously “enliven” or “live for” themselves (zisheng 自生), sages likewise

後其身而身先,外其身而身存。

非以其無私邪!故能成其私。

Subordinate themselves, yet they come first.

Dispossess themselves, yet they persist.

Is this not because they lack (a preoccupation with their) self-interest?

Therefore, they are able to accomplish what is in their self-interest.

Many translators disguise the fact that the last two lines contain the same word, si 私, perhaps to ensure the text doesn’t seem to be suggesting one simply pretend to be selfless. But it is hard to deny that the author accepts that, like any living thing, we naturally pursue our self-interest and have private affairs and observes that these will best be accomplished or completed (cheng 成) by being less self-absorbed and egocentric. This applies to living a long, healthy life as well: less preoccupation with and anxiety for life will help sustain it. Accordingly, this is not a moral prescription to be selfless but rather an amoral prescription for efficacy, success, or fulfillment.

          Chapter 66 conveys the same message and instead of the analogy of Heaven and Earth lasting long, it is “rivers and seas” (jianghai 江海) being able to be like “kings” (wang 王) over the hundred valleys: they can achieve this by taking the “undignified” position below (xia 下) them. Sages likewise

欲上民,必以言下之。

欲先民,必以身後之。[22]

Desiring to be above the people, must inevitably speak from below them.

Desiring to be in front of the people, must inevitably place themselves behind them.

The passage then goes on to say that these sages, although they reside above and in front, the people do not find them “heavy” (buzhong 不重) and remain unharmed (buhai 不害). The people are in fact happy (le 樂) to support these leaders and, by not contending (buzheng 不爭) with the people, sages find no one wishes to contend with them either. Sage-rulers are more like coaches or advisors than dictators, governing from behind and not lording their authority over others. They do not sit high on a pedestal but instead are very approachable, like the rivers and seas.

          Two chapters that have been much criticized are chapters 5 and 65. Chapter 5 begins:

天地不仁,以萬物為芻狗。

聖人不仁,以百姓為芻狗。

Heaven and Earth are not ren and treat the myriad living things as straw dogs.

Sages (likewise) are not ren and treat all people as straw dogs.

On its face, this chapter appears to be claiming that not only is Nature inhumane or ruthless, but that  sages are as well. Additionally, they both treat living things with utter indifference. This surface understanding is the source of the scorn often heaped upon it, for it was assumed the sages, at least,  cared about others.

Ren 仁, as we have seen, refers to benevolence or humaneness, to caring for people (airen 愛人) or treating people as family (qin 親). To most of us, claiming that Nature – Heaven and Earth – does not exhibit benevolence or treat living things as family will be unremarkable. In ancient China, Heaven (tian 天), by itself, was commonly believed to be either a conscious deity or a sort of collective consciousness of the venerated kings and ancestors and was, in fact, concerned for the well-being of humanity. This was especially true for Mohists, who maintained that Heaven loved/cared for (ai 愛) all people and that people should take it as their standard of morality.

Yet for Heaven and Earth, the case was usually different. In chapter 7 of the late Warring States’ text Heguanzi 鶡冠子, disciple Pangzi 龐子 asks his master Heguan why one should prioritize humanity rather than Heaven, Earth and the seasons. He answers: “Heaven is too lofty to be easily known, its blessings cannot be pleaded for nor its disasters escaped; to take-it-as-a-standard would be cruelty (li 戾). Earth is broad and big, deep and thick, its benefits much but awes little; to take earth as standard would be abasement.”[23] Notwithstanding, many observed that Nature provided the essentials for life. In two separate passages in chapter 6 of the Zhuangzi, the Dao[24] and sages share their abundance or beneficence (ze 澤) with all living things but this is qualified by saying that this cannot be considered the result of caring for the well-being of the people.[25] At the same time, one of the passages adds that all things meet their destruction, but this cannot be considered an act of cruelty (li 戾).[26] The opening passage of the Shenzi 慎子 fragments would seem to illustrate the same idea. It says that although Heaven is bright, it is not troubled (you 憂) if the people suffer in the dark, although the Earth has resources, it is not troubled if the people are impoverished and while sages have de 德, they are not troubled if the people are in danger (wei 危). The text goes on to explain that it is up to the people to adapt to or take advantage of the situation: Heaven, Earth, and sages do not deliberately get involved (wushi 無事).[27]

If applicable to Laozi 5, not being ren to living things does not mean living things are not recipients of Nature’s beneficence. Nor does it mean that Nature is malevolent or cruel, (even though malevolence would have been considered buren 不仁). Nature is neither kind nor unkind and is therefore amoral. This may seem comprehensible to us, but seems at odds with other passages in the Laozi where the Way of Heaven “benefits and does not harm” (利而不害),[28] and where Heaven “saves” (jiu 救) people and “uses compassion to defend them (以慈衛之)” as if it cannot bear their suffering.[29] In all probability, it would just seem to mean this beneficence occurs naturally, involuntarily and with indifference, regardless of whether the recipients are plants, animals or human beings. And because it is involuntary and not done with a conscious motive to care for others, it cannot be labeled ren.[30] Clearly, ren is criticized because it is too self-consciously done and emotionally motivated.

To treat all living things as “straw dogs” (chugou 芻狗), ritual objects that were discarded after the ceremony they were used in, however, suggests somewhat of a change of attitude toward things: treated “well” while useful, or possibly, while alive, but discarded afterwards, having no value at all.[31] This was how straw dogs were described as being treated in passages in the Zhuangzi and Huainanzi.[32] For the example of Nature, we might interpret this as saying that while things are alive, Nature “provides” all that they need to survive, even if it stops short of the importance or reverence given to ritual straw dogs by the people who used them. Then, when living things have served their purpose or finished their natural years (tiannian 天年), Nature is happy to desert or annihilate them.[33]

The provocative and even scandalous next line claims that sages, who model themselves the best they can on the Dao (or Heaven and Earth), are also indifferent to the well-being of the people, or the “hundreds of  surnames” (baixing 百姓),[34] and regard them as straw dogs. This also presents a stark contrast with some descriptions of sages in the Laozi, including chapter 49, which uses the same idiom: sages “regard the people’s minds as their own mind” (以百姓心為心),[35] which surely rules out indifference to their well-being and chapter 27, which declares that sages are consistently good at “saving” (jiu 救) people and living things and not discarding (qi 棄) them. Taking into consideration the criticisms the authors had with the concept of ren (in chapters 38, 18 and 19), to assert that “real” sages are not ren is intelligible and perhaps agreeable. In chapter 2 of the Zhuangzi, we find “the greatest ren is not ren” (大仁不仁), which seems to argue for a kind of benevolence that is so subtle (and unintentional) as to be unnoticeable, (rather than claiming that the greatest ren is cruel and unkind). Proclaiming that sages regard or treat the people as nothing more than straw dogs, however, would seem to go further than advice to avoid self-consciousness. Are we to conclude that the author believes true sages are the same as Heaven and Earth; that they are completely indifferent to the lives of people, or at the very least, cease to care about them when they are of no use or pass away? Such callousness seems unlikely in a text that acknowledges that it is appropriate to feel grief and sadness (beiai 悲哀) and that solemn rites of mourning (sangli 喪禮) should be carried out when many people have been killed in a battle.[36] But it is difficult to deny some level of indifference is being advocated.

Some have argued that “impartiality” is the main idea at play; but if so, why not use a term like wusi 無私, “without self-interest,” which we have already seen; or wuqin 無親, a term which suggests “lacking in familial affection,” involving no partiality towards one’s parents or kin?[37] Why use buren 不仁? Ren could possibly be understood narrowly as treating one’s kin with affection (親), i.e., being partial to them. If so, the passage asserts that Nature treats all living things the same and sages treat all human beings the same. Nature is not fond of or partial to human beings and sages are not fond of or partial to their own family members. Treating all people as “straw dogs,” as mentioned, suggests a change from treating them well to tossing them aside when they have served their purpose or completed their lives. But are sages partial to human beings? Or do plants and animals receive the same consideration? This would seem to be problematic, for as Steve Coutinho says of this impartiality: “When the interests of all creatures are equally valued, the suffering of any one of them becomes insignificant,”[38] especially since every creature must eat and compete for resources. For complete impartiality would result in a sage who might either aid in the building of a dam to protect a village against flooding, or aid in preventing its construction, to preserve an existing ecosystem, for example. There would be no reason to choose one side over the other, in which case we seem to be back to “indifference.”

A parable in the Lüshi Chunqiu 呂氏春秋 demonstrates this sort of impartiality well:

荊人有遺弓者,而不肯索,曰:「荊人遺之,荊人得之,又何索焉?」

孔子聞之曰:「去其『荊』而可矣。」

老聃聞之曰:「去其『人』而可矣。」

故老聃則至公矣。

A man of Chu who had lost his bow and was unwilling to search for it, said: ‘A man of Chu lost it and a man of Chu will find it, so why should I search for it?’

When Confucius learned of this, he said, ‘Omit ‘Chu’ and the comment will be proper.’

When Lao Dan learned of this, he said, ‘Omit ‘a man’ and it will be proper.’

Thus, it was Lao Dan who attained perfect impartiality (gong 公).[39]

While a good lesson on letting things go, it’s hard to imagine this being taken too literally, for if the man’s family depended on him having a bow for hunting or if, instead, it was the man’s son or daughter that had gone missing, we can probably be certain the response would be different. The same holds if the analogy of chugou refers to ritual straw dogs that must be let go when their usefulness has passed: some grief should be reasonable or acceptable with regards to loved ones. In Zhuangzi 18, Zhuangzi felt “levelled” (gairan 概然) when he first learned of the death of his wife. However, Zhuangzi is portrayed here as one who wasn’t “enlightened” yet, so perhaps grief, while understandable, shows a lack of true understanding.[40] This brings to mind a question not likely to be answerable: who is or can become a sage? Are these sages only models for rulers or community leaders? Can or should commoners – male or female, young or old – aspire to emulate Heaven and Earth in this way?

          Chapter 65 begins:

古之善為道者

非以明民,將以愚之。

民之難治,以其智多。

故以智治國,國之賊。

不以智治國,國之福。[41]

In ancient times, those who were adept at embodying the Dao,

did not enlighten the people but rather ensured they remained ignorant.

The people are difficult to govern when their “knowledge” is extensive.

Therefore, governing the state by encouraging “knowledge” is disadvantageous.

Governing the state by discouraging “knowledge” is advantageous.

Alternatively, the last two lines might be “(a ruler) using “knowledge” to govern is disadvantageous for the state; (a ruler) not using “knowledge” to govern is advantageous for the state.” The former seems more appropriate in the context of this chapter but the Laozi also consistently advocates a leader who himself or herself remains simple, guileless and unambitious.[42] Commentators as early as Yan Zun and Heshanggong assure us that zhi 智 (or zhi 知, as some versions write it), “knowledge, wisdom, awareness, understanding” here refers to qizha 巧詐, “craftiness and cunning” rather than practical knowledge or experiential wisdom. Certainly, the authors did not think it advisable (or enviable) to preside over a population of incompetent idiots who constantly make poor decisions. But, regarding to content or meaning of zhi 智 here, we can’t be certain about much more than that.[43]

“Those who were adept at embodying the Dao,” or more literally, “those who were adept at doing Dao” (shan weidaozhe 善為道者), is a “label” used in chapter 15 and slightly abbreviated in 48.[44] In 48, such a person is contrasted with “those who engage in study” (weixuezhe 為學者), demonstrating that sage-rulers or sagely advisors, (whom we assume are good at embodying the Dao), also reduce their “knowledge.” This in turn, facilitates the auto-or “self-simplification” (zipu 自樸) of the people, through the power of their de 德, their “character, charisma, inner power.” Therefore, the reduction of or antipathy towards “knowledge” is a joint attitude or project.

Nevertheless, holding back knowledge or understanding of the Dao from the people and instead using it (yi 以) to keep them in ignorance – or “stupefy them” (yuzhi 愚之) – has commonly been regarded as unethical and offensive. In the first chapter of the Xinshu 新書 (circa early Han), the despised former emperor Qin Shihuangdi 秦始皇帝 was said to have “abandoned the Ways of the former kings and burned the books of the hundreds of philosophers in order to ensure the populace remained ignorant” (… 以愚黔首).[45] Despite the apparent goodwill towards the people in the Laozi, this section is similar in intent to the views found in the Book of Lord Shang (Shangjunshu 商君書), containing the ideas of another Qin politician and philosopher, which argue that the best way to ensure the thriving of a state is to keep the people weak (ruo 弱) and simple (pu 樸), focused on farming, and easily persuaded to fight for their country. Chapters 6 and 7 of this text affirm that when the people are ignorant (yu 愚), they can be overcome by knowledge (zhi 智), but when they are knowledgeable, they can (only) be overcome by force (li 力). The Laozi does not even consider using force or punishments to govern.[46] Chapter 11 of Sunzi’s Art of War (孫子兵法) also maintained that good generals “stupefy the ears and eyes of their soldiers” (愚士卒之耳目), ensuring they remain ignorant (使之無知). Again, we may assume that Sunzi did not envision an army of imperceptive and idiotic soldiers; rather, he felt there were many things the soldiers need not be concerned with.

Many commentators argue that by keeping or making the people ignorant or stupid (yu 愚), the author was actually endorsing a paternalistic approach of keeping the people in their original, natural, simple and ingenuous state (pu 樸), ideally by nothing more than the influence of their de.[47] The people do not need to be overwhelmed and tempted by unnecessary learning or knowledge, like that involved in the rules of etiquette and rituals (li 禮), for example. Moreover, Ralph Sawyer writes, “Probably no one would deny that ‘knowledge,’ while engendering freedom and facilitating progress, equally underlies all successful attempts to deceive, defeat, and exploit the sociopolitical structure and its laws.”[48] “Knowledge” has its negatives. Laozi 81 contains the aphorism: “those who Understand, are (often) not extensively educated; those who are extensively educated do not (often) Understand” (知者不博,博者不知。).[49] Further essays will explore the Daoist outlook on knowledge and simplicity (and desire) but for now, we can acknowledge that “knowledge, wisdom, awareness, understanding” (知 or 智) is sometimes valued and sometimes devalued. Ignorance or stupidity (愚) is treated the same.

          Lastly, we can acknowledge that the explicit goal in this chapter is effectively governing or ordering a state (zhiguo 治國) in the simplest or least difficult (nuo 難) manner.[50] Considering that chapter 19 (discussed above) argues that by discarding “wisdom, knowledge” (qizhi 棄智) the people would benefit (minli 民利) greatly, it can be assumed that effective rulers foster the well-being of the people they rule and do not just care about social order. Naturally, this is not to deny that maintaining the social order usually benefits the people; however, in the wrong hands we can end up with genocide, such as in Cambodia with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who sought to purge the population of the educated and intellectual.

Unlike the two previous chapters, chapter 67 is one many are fond of, for it contains what seems to be a short list of esteemed moral virtues.

我有三寶,持而保之:

一曰慈,

二曰儉,

三曰不敢為天下先。

慈故能勇,儉故能廣,不敢為天下先故能成器長。

今舍慈且勇,舍儉且廣,舍後且先,死矣!

夫慈

以戰則勝,

以守則固。

天將救之以慈衛之。

We have three treasures to which we are attached and preserve:

The first is tender-heartedness,

The second is frugality,

The third is modesty.

Being tender-hearted, one can be courageous, being frugal, one can be magnanimous, being modest, one can achieve leadership over all the officials.

Now, to eschew a tender heart and still be courageous, to eschew frugality and still be magnanimous, to eschew modesty and still seek to be first: the result will be death.

As for tender-heartedness:

Utilized in war, it will result in victory,

Utilized in defense, it will result in security.

When Heaven inclines to save someone, it utilizes tender-heartedness to protect them.

          The second and third “treasures” are fairly straightforward. Jian 儉, frugality, moderation, (or negatively, stinginess), was a common virtue or commendable practice in early China. Its meaning is close to se 嗇, (appearing in Laozi 59) and jie 節, which appears prominently in the Mozi. Antonyms are she 奢 and tai 泰, (which are denounced in Laozi 29), and chi 侈. Guang 廣, meaning “broad” or “wide-spread” should be understood to be quasi-antonymous, as “generous” or “magnanimous”: if one can be frugal and exercise moderation one will be able to spread resources (?) more broadly and generously. Without exercising moderation, being magnanimous will be disastrous (literally, and hyperbolically, “will end in one’s death”). Lacking an explicit justification as to why one should be magnanimous, frugality can be seen as a moral virtue: it is something we should aim for.[51]

          Modesty, or literally, “not presuming to be first in the world” (不敢為天下先) or simply “(choose to come) after/behind” (hou 後), we’ve encountered earlier. In chapter 7, sages “subordinate or ‘after’ themselves, yet they come out first” (後其身而身先) and chapter 66, sages who “desire to be in front of the people, must inevitably place themselves behind them” (欲先民,必以身後之). The next two chapters as well express similar sentiments: “those who excel at utilizing people (do so from) below them” (善用人者為之下) and “we do not presume to act as host, but as the guest” (吾不敢為主而為客).[52] Laozi commentator Heshanggong explains the notion as “putting others first and oneself last” (先人而後己也), but, as chapters 7, 66 and 68 reinforce, this modesty or humility is what allows one to take the lead, to “achieve leadership over all the officials” (cheng qizhang 成器長). Like jian and guang above, coming first and last are contraries. The Laozi repeatedly emphasizes the value of the conventionally less valued, baser or humbler. Humility is regarded as a necessary requirement for effective leadership. The text argues that to assume a leadership role without this humility or modesty will be disastrous. In this case, modesty is not a moral virtue, but a prudential one: if one wants to lead effectively, (to be foremost in the world), one must necessarily show modesty and humility. If one has no desire or necessity to lead, modesty can apparently be dispensed with. The audience of this chapter is clearly one in a position of power, whom, as is common, rarely sustain an attitude of modesty or humility, which is why the text cautions that this is a death-sentence.

          Finally, “tender-heartedness” (ci 慈) – or “compassion,” as many translators put it – is valued insofar as it is conducive to having courage or bravery (yong 勇) and that to be courageous without “tender-heartedness/compassion” will again have disastrous results. Ci was not a philosophically significant term in pre-Qin literature. This chapter of the Laozi seems to be the only one which gives it some attention as an important virtue. In Classical Chinese texts it often appears connected to filial piety (xiao 孝), loving/caring (ai 愛), and kindness (hui 惠), but almost never with courage. In addition to this chapter, only Guanzi 8 discusses them together, noting that the tender-hearted are not usually considered courageous, just as the stupid aren’t regarded as wise or the clumsy as skillful.[53] Even though not as strictly contrary as stinginess and generosity and first and last, tender-heartedness serves as the weaker and humbler of its contrary here, bravery (yong 勇). It is also not the easiest pair to connect together or see a correlation between. We saw earlier that ci primarily referred to parents’ love, devotion and dedication to their children. Our earliest commentary, chapter 20 of the Hanfeizi tries to explain the connection: “Those who love their children are ci to their children; those who value their lives are ci to their bodies; those who prize achievements are ci in their affairs.”[54]  “Parental love” is suitable in the first example, but not for the others. “Compassionate” is inappropriate as well. “Dedication” is what they all share, and dedication is something we may more easily connect with courage. But this explanation does not do justice to the contrast entailed.

The following lines in the text claim that those with ci will overcome (sheng 勝) their opponents in war (zhan 戰) and will succeed in defending one’s territory. Some have argued that this speaks of a general who is caring, dedicated and compassionate towards his troops, who, accordingly, will easily muster up courage (and dedication) and achieve victory on the battlefield. This idea is stated clearly in chapter 10 of the Art of War: “When the general regards his troops as young children, they will advance into the deepest valleys with him. When he regards the troops as his beloved children, they will be willing to die with him.”[55] While a possible interpretation, the instrumental values of the other two virtues are for the possessor of said virtues: frugality allows oneself to be magnanimous, modesty allows oneself to lead. We should therefore expect that ci allows oneself to be courageous (and overcome one’s opponents). Moreover, like the two previous virtues, being courageous without ci is said to have disastrous results: in this case perhaps less hyperbolically resulting in one’s death (si 死).

          What seems more likely, (and more dubious), is that the authors believed courage and military success usually came to one who was tender-hearted and caring. Perhaps, following Mozi’s doctrine of “inclusive caring” (jianai 兼愛), showing that we genuinely care about others, including our opponents, will encourage or cause them to cease their hostilities with us. A similar, admittedly naïve, conviction is expressed in Laozi 69: “When equally-matched armies are raised, victory will come to those who are heavy-hearted” (抗兵相加,哀者勝矣。). Presumably, such people have compassion for both their own side as well as their opponents, but this is far from realistic or coherent. Violence, war and killing are regarded as undesirable, and possibly morally wrong and that, if unavoidable, the appropriate attitude is one of regret, sadness and compassion.[56]

What’s more, the chapter ends with what seems to be a claim that an anthropomorphic “Heaven” (天) either saves (jiu 救) those with tender-heartedness or saves them by instilling it in them itself. Franklin Perkins has noticed that the last dozen chapters seem to hold this view of Heaven and, coupled with the fact that none of them appear in the Guodian proto-Laozi, sees them as a distinctive subgroup.[57] If we wish to make this last line congruent with the majority of the text, we must twist its meaning, which some commentators have done. Even the virtue of tender-heartedness (ci 慈) is barely mentioned in the rest of the work, appearing in chapter 18 as a virtue that is only advocated when humanity has lost its way, or lost the Way.[58] To coincide with the reflections in the rest of the text, including those we explored in chapters 38 and 19, tender-heartedness must manifest spontaneously and unintentionally, or else it is not genuine tender-heartedness.[59] If it is not genuine tender-heartedness, one will not likely enjoy the benefits it brings.

          Laozi 22 runs as follows:

曲則全,枉則正,窪則盈,敝則新,少則得,多則惑。

是以聖人抱一,為天下式。

不自見故明;

不自是故彰;

不自伐故有功;

不自矜故長;

夫唯不爭,故天下莫能與之爭。[60]

What is impaired facilitates wholeness, what is crooked facilitates straightness, what is hollow facilitates fullness, what is worn-out facilitates renewal, what is modest facilitates obtainment, what is immodest facilitates confusion.

For this reason, sages embrace unity and serve as a model for the world.

Not showing off oneself results in ‘shining.’

Not over-confident results in prominence.

Not praising oneself results in accrued merit.

Not bragging about oneself results in endurance.

Now, only by not struggling (with others), no one in the world can struggle with you.

Sages embrace unity, (or “The One,” as some translators render it), and serve as models for the world.[61] They acknowledge the value of being impaired, hollow and lacking, seeing how they are the conditions that allow for their more positive, (and valued) opposites to come about.[62] Chapter 28 famously makes this point when it recommends “know the male but preserve and abide by the female” (知其雄,守其雌) and “know glory but preserve and abide by humiliation” (知其榮,守其辱). While the Laozi doesn’t say being impaired or accepting humiliation can help others, there is an interesting passage in the Mengzi which contrasts: “I have never heard of anyone who can straighten others by bending [= impairing] himself, let alone someone who can straighten the empire by bringing humiliation upon himself.”[63] But the Laozi is consistent. Chapter 39 encourages us to remember that just as “what is below is the foundation of what is above” (高以下為基), the “noble (should) take the ignoble as their basis” (貴以賤為本), which was an insight explicitly attributed to Laozi in the Zhanguoce 戰國策, Huainanzi and Wenzi.[64] Another way of rendering this last sayings is, “regard the less-appreciated and less-valued as the basis for the appreciated and valued.”

          In previous essays, we have encountered a number of zi 自—prefixed words, most prominently ziran 自然, what is “so of itself” and zihua 自化, what “transforms of itself.” The Laozi also contains several zi 自—prefixed words which denote a disvalued condition. In this chapter and chapter 24, they are: zixian 自見, zishi 自是, zifa 自伐 and zijin 自矜. They all denote the opposite of humility: showing off, (always) regarding oneself as right, praising oneself and bragging. Here, as in chapter 24, these attitudes and behaviours are not decried as immoral or blameworthy, but as detrimental to what are assumed to be desirable ends.[65] These ends, partly chosen for their ability to rhyme with each other,  are ming 明 “shining,” zhang 彰 “prominence,” yougong 有功 “accrued merit or achievements,” and chang 長, “endurance” or the ability to withstand the test of time.[66] If these ends were not considered desirable or agreeable, one would have reason to avoid the requisite humility, or at least not especially value it or find it compelling. If one aimed directly for prominence and merit, however, the authors argue that one will be not only be disappointed, but likely discredited and resented. Chapter 24 likens the aforementioned attitudes or behaviours to unwanted leftover food (yushi 餘食) and excessive or inflated action (zhuixing 贅行) which are things often disliked (wu 惡) by living things.

          Confucians (and Mohists) would not object to a message advocating humility or modesty. However, their motivation was moral. A passage in The Record of Rites (Liji 禮記) 33 can show this clearly:

“The master said … The superior man is courteous and economical (jian 儉), seeking to exercise his benevolence (ren 仁), and sincere (xin 信) and humble in order to practise his sense of propriety (li 禮). He does not himself set a high value (bu zishang 不自尚) on his services; he does not himself assert the honour (bu zizun 不自尊) due to his person. He is not ambitious of (high) position, and is very moderate in his desires (yu 欲). He gives place willingly to men of ability and virtue. He abases himself (beiji 卑己) and gives honour to others. He is careful and in fear of doing what is not right (yi 義). His desire in all this is to serve his ruler. If he succeed in doing so (and obtaining his ruler’s approbation), he feels that he has done right (zishi 自是); if he do not so succeed, he still feels that he has done right: – prepared to accept the will of Heaven (Tianming 天命) concerning himself.“ [67]

The final line from Laozi 22 above, however, continues to lay bare the benefit to oneself for this humility and non-confrontational attitude: “only by not struggling (with others), no one in the world can struggle with them.” This “not struggling,” non-confrontation or non-contending – buzheng 不爭 – is an attitude or practice found throughout the text. In fact, it is even identified as a “virtue” (de 德) in chapter 68. The authors valued a way of living – a dao 道 –  that followed a path of the least resistance. However, this virtue is not “prescribed” categorically: the authors are not suggesting that we should never, ever compete or contend with others.[68] Rather, they are offering corrective, compensatory advice. Michael LaFargue explains:

“As an aphorism, ‘He does not show off, so he shines’ [from chapter 22: 不自見故明] should not be taken as a dogmatic but implausible statement to be accepted blindly, to the effect that whenever a person does not show off she will surely shine … [but] it is not too difficult to imagine a kind of ‘not showing off’ that will cause a person to ‘shine.’ That is, it is indeed sometimes true that a person who already has admirable qualities will be more admired if she is also self-effacing about these qualities. This special meaning given to ‘not showing off’ also gives ‘shining’ a different sense. A self-effacing person shines in a different way that one who is boastful and self-assertive.“ [69]

Finally, there are a number of chapters in the Laozi which address the notion of shan 善, which earlier we saw could refer to objective, universal and/or moral “goodness” or could be used as an adjective or adverb meaning “to be good, adept, skilled or excel at (something).” The adverbial use of shan in the Laozi predominates in the text.[70] Laozi 8 uses shan in both ways: it says water is the epitome of the “highest good” (shangshan 上善) because it is “good at benefiting” (shanli 善利) all living things. In chapter 1 of the Huainanzi, similar sentiments are expressed about water, but that author said that the beneficial nature of water constituted the “epitome of de” (zhide 至德). Both shan and de overlap with regard to the notion of benefit/beneficence, but neither of them suggests deliberate beneficence, which is noteworthy. In fact, it is precisely non-deliberate beneficence that is endorsed through the early Daoist literature, (as the water metaphor indicates).

Chapter 27 also uses shan in both ways. It begins by listing a number of skills, such as being “good at walking/marching” (shanxingzhe 善行者) and being “good with words” (shanyanzhe 善言者) and identifying what makes them skillful; for example, “not leaving tracks” (wuzheji 無轍迹) constitutes being good or adept at walking/marching. The middle section of the chapter tells us what sages are good at:

聖人常善救人,故無棄人。常善救物,故無棄物。[71]

Sages are consistently good at saving people and thus do not discard anyone.

(They are also) consistently good at saving resources and thus do not discard any.

Sages are consistently adept at coming to the aid of people (jiuren 救人) in dire straits and good at protecting valuable material things from destruction. Note that sages are “good at” something morally praiseworthy – saving people – much in the same way that water was said to be good at benefiting all living things. Unless, of course, sages “save” people because they too are valuable resources. The Laozi sometimes explores the best way of “using” or “employing people” (yuren 用人) (e.g., chapter 68 and perhaps 28), so, like “saving resources,” “saving people” may not indicate morally praiseworthy, other-regarding action, but rather prudence.[72] Judging from the rest of the Laozi, sages’ skill at saving people is simply descriptive, for to be prescriptive would suggest deliberately setting out to save or benefit people, which we have seen is viewed negatively.

          How they “save” people is unclear, for chapter 5 claims sages are good at(?) treating people as straw dogs and chapter 19 maintains that discarding notions of sageliness, wisdom, benevolence and morality (聖智仁義) will benefit the people a hundredfold (民利百倍) and enable them to return to healthy familial relationships (involving xiao 孝 and ci 慈). Moreover, chapter 3 sages remove the harmful temptations of (excessive) desire, including luxuries and a reputation for moral excellence and seek to keep the minds of the people (relatively) empty. Is this (paternalistic) approach how sages “save people”?

          Perhaps more significant is the notion of “not discarding anyone” (wuqiren 無棄人). Just as earlier we saw how the authors of the Laozi repeatedly emphasized the value of what is typically less-valued and less-noticed, all people are seen as valuable in some way or another. The chapter ends with

善人者不善人之師。

不善人者善人之資。

不貴其師、不愛其

雖智大迷。

“Good people” are the teachers of the “not-good people.”

“Not-good people” are the raw materials of the “good people.”

Not to value teachers and not to take care of the raw materials;

Even if knowledgeable, (one is) greatly deluded.

“Not-good people” (bushanrenzhe 不善人者) clearly should not be disvalued or rejected. But what isn’t clear, is whether shan/bushan are moral appraisals of people or evaluations of their skillfulness at something. After all, the chapter begins by discussing skills and there is no question that those who excel at something, such as carpentry, calligraphy, fishing, or the martial arts are the teachers of those who are lacking in such skills. Students, disciples, apprentices, amateurs, novices, and the incompetent are the “raw materials” (zi 資) that teachers, masters, professionals, experts and the competent work with.[73] Of course, this is also true of those who are exceptionally good, moral people. Either way, the not-good or inept people are likely to make up the majority of any society and thus it would be unwise to reject, abandon or even disvalue them. In his commentary to chapter 62, Wang Zhen wrote: “Now among the people under Heaven, the good are few, the ‘not good’ many, so how can they all be rejected?” (夫天下之人,善者少,不善者多。其可盡棄之耶!).[74] Presumably this needs to be said because the “not good” are too quickly and unwisely looked down upon and disvalued.

          Lastly, chapter 47 addresses how to treat people:

善者吾善之。不善者吾亦善之、德善。

信者吾信之。不信者吾亦信之、德信。

I am good to those who are good (to me) and also good to those who are not good (to me); thus, goodness is attained.

I am honest and reliable to those who are honest and reliable and also to those who are dishonest and unreliable; thus, honesty/reliability is attained.[75]

Goodness is attained through being good to both the good and the not good, (or less-than-good), with “being good to” (shanzhi 善之) almost certainly meaning being kind and beneficial to others, (as opposed to “being adept and skillful with them”). Likewise, Honesty (sincerity, reliability, trustworthiness) (xin 信), is attained by being honest to both honest and dishonest people.[76] Just as in chapter 63, which says, “repay ill-will with goodwill” (baoyuanyide 報怨以德), the authors seem to have some faith in the ability to win people over or reform them simply by treating them as you would (undoubtedly) like to be treated. Some might view this as shaming others into compliance. But if true, this “shaming” must be understood as being done unintentionally (wuwei 無為).[77] Nevertheless, being impartial and consistent is being advocated with regards to embodying the virtues of “goodness” and “honesty,” and the value of these virtues is assumed to be shared by the text’s audience.

          Interestingly, this view is later attributed to Confucius’ favourite disciple, Yan Hui 顏回: “When someone is good to me, I am also good to them; when someone is not good to me, I am still good to them” (人善我,我亦善之;人不善我,我亦善之。).[78] Confucius says this is the way family members (qin 親) treat each other (or should treat each other), as opposed to foreigners/strangers or friends. With strangers, it is appropriate to treat them as they treat you; with friends, it is appropriate to be good to those who are good to you and with those who do not treat you well, you should aim to guide them (yinzhi 引之). While these two texts, the Laozi and the Hanshi Waizhuan 韓詩外傳, seem to have different views, we can’t be sure the Laozi contributors were strict and inflexible in their application of their position. At first glance, the Laozi seems advocate rewarding people for maltreating us, which might only encourage them to exploit us and, as such, is a bad bit of wisdom. But as Michael LaFargue has convincingly argued, aphorisms such as this should not be understood as universal principles; but rather they are corrective advice, intended to prompt us to entertain alternative attitudes and courses of action. Plausibly, there may be times when a less-kind response is necessary to act as a deterrence. In any case, the authors’ counsel is that it would (at least) often be best to treat everyone well, regardless of what they may “deserve” or expect.


[1] That is, the traditional second section; The earliest full texts of the Laozi seem to regard the 2nd section – the De pian 德篇 — as the first section. See note 29a in my essay on Laozi.

[2] As we will see, however, xia 下 does not always indicate something inferior in the Laozi, but that is because in those instances, the (under-appreciated) value of something conventionally regarded as inferior is being affirmed and highlighted.

[3] For examples, Arthur Waley translated these lines as “The man of highest ‘power’ does not reveal himself as a possessor of ‘power’; therefore he keeps his ‘power.’ The man of inferior ‘power’ cannot rid himself of the appearance of ‘power’; therefore he is in truth without ‘power’” (The Way and Its Power, Grove Press, 1994 [originally published in 1934], p. 189); Lin Yutang translated them as “The man of superior character is not (conscious of his) character. Hence he has character. The man of inferior character (is intent on) not losing character. Hence he is devoid of character.” (The Wisdom of Laotse, The Modern Library, 1948, p. 198); more recently Philip Ivanhoe translates them as “Those of highest Virtue do not strive for Virtue and so they have it. Those of lowest Virtue never stray from Virtue and so they lack it” (The Daodejing of Laozi, Hackett, 2003, p. 75).

[4] In a probably fictitious story about Confucius meeting with Laozi, the Shiji records Laozi saying to Confucius: “A junzi has abundant de (and yet) has the appearance of a fool” (君子盛德容貌若愚). (Shiji 63)

[5] This line about “lower de” – 下德為之而有以為 – is not present in the oldest versions of this chapter, namely, the Mawangdui and Beida editions. Additionally, there is no mention of “lower de” in the Hanfeizi Jie Lao commentary, which is likely the earliest commentary we have. A number of scholars have argued that it was a later addition, which, although it balances nicely the previous line about “higher de,” interrupts the following gradation of “higher ren,” “higher yi,” and “higher li.” As D.C. Lau and others have pointed out, it thus describes “lower de” identically to “higher yi,” which, while not inappropriate, confuses the issue (See Lau, Tao Te Ching, Chinese University Press, 1996, p. 179).

[6] It is unclear to me why the adjective shang is needed for 仁, 義, 禮, since there is no mention of their inferior (xia 下) manifestations. Perhaps merely to prefix the virtue terms as was done with de.

[7] Liji 9: Liqi 禮器 and 25 Jingjie 經解, respectively.

[8] This “stanza” introduces the idea of embodying or obtaining unity with the Dao as being even superior to de. Interestingly, “losing de” in this part is considered undesirable.

[9] In the excavated text entitled Yucong yi (語叢一) from Guodian, we find a similar notion: “To deliberately practice filial piety is not (true) filial piety; to deliberately practice brotherly respect is not (true) brotherly respect” (為孝,此非孝也;為弟,此非弟也。), for to “deliberately do something is not correct” (為之,此非也). However, one “cannot not do them (i.e., practice these virtues)” (不可不為也) and to “not do (them) is (also) not correct” (弗為,此非也).

[10] This is the received text. Older editions a) contain a particle “then” (an 安, an 案 or yan 焉) prior to all or almost all of the four 有, b) write zhenchen 貞臣 (or 正臣 in the Guodian text) instead of zhongchen 忠臣, and c) begin with “therefore” (gu 故), indicating the chapter originally was considered part of the previous chapter 17. The Beida edition also adds the next chapter to this chapter (the Mawangdui texts may as well, but lack punctuation to determine this). The Guodian text does not include the 2nd line (慧智出,有大偽), which actually reads “better,” since 仁義, 孝慈 and 忠臣 were all conventionally valued things, whereas 大偽 was not. Adding 大偽, “extensive hypocrisy” – obviously conventionally disvalued – disrupts the pattern established.

[11] This includes the advice of not allowing prior experience or preconceptions to bias our interaction and responses to the world: this advice is technically (considered) “wisdom.”

[12] That is, assuming this advice is not solely for others to follow. A self-interested or paternalistic perspective might allow for manipulation of the people by getting rid of these distracting “virtues” and the desire for profit, public advocacy of plainness, simplicity and the value of minimal private interests and ambition, so that others are easy to control or govern. But this seems unlikely, for as Hanfei acknowledged, controlling people with few desires or needs is difficult, if not futile: one has nothing to motivate them with.

[13] Guodian Laozi A7, (chapter 37). Another Guodian allograph for hua is 蟡.

[14] Also, the virtue of “sageliness” (sheng 聖) is written with a character believed to represent the word bian 辨, meaning “distinctions” or “argumentation.” See Scott Cook, The Bamboo Texts of Guodian, Vol. I, Cornell University East Asia Program, 2012, p. 225 n4.

[15] Much of the other material in the Guodian tomb were Confucian or Confucian-friendly, including the “Liu De” 六德 text which endorses 聖, 智, 仁, and 義, so this might suggest a motivation to dispose of criticism of them.

[16] Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: A Translation of the Startling New Documents Found at Guodian, Columbia University Press, 2000, p. 14. Also in the Guodian text, xiao and ci (孝慈) are written as jizi 季子, which some read as xiaozi 孝子, “filial child.” It seems rather to be a graphic variation of 孝慈 rather than a lexical one. See discussion of ci above and note 143.

[17] See Henricks’ Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching pp. 12-15 and 28; Edward Shaughnessy, Rewriting Early Chinese Texts, SUNY Press, 2006, p. 24-26; and Scott Cook, The Bamboo Texts of Guodian, Vol. I, pp. 210-213 and 225-230. We should note that Shaughnessy seems unaware that 𢡺 stands for hua 化 in Guodian chapter A7 and Mawangdui Laozi A chapter 80 (= 37). As mentioned in note 43 of my Wuwei essay, all examples of hua in excavated texts, including the Laozi, are written with graphs using 為 as the phonetic component. See also note 44 of the same essay. Of course, this may be irrelevant if the line was emended to remove the criticism of the virtue of benevolence and consequently was simply this scribe’s way of writing wei 偽, “hypocrisy, artifice.” More contemporary editions are necessary to determine which was original, or closer to original and which was a deliberate emendation; an emendation which may have been originated orally.

[18] We perhaps do have the option as reading this chapter from a “hypothetical” rather than from a “categorical”  imperative” point of view: If we wish to benefit other people, live in a world without thieves and assailants and foster loving and caring family life, then we should abandon the conceits and abuses of knowledge, the contrived virtuous ideals and become more disinterested in profit. Additionally, we could, or perhaps should uncover our plainness and embrace our simplicity; decrease our ambition and self-interest. The “If … then” makes this advice prudential rather than moral, for if in fact we don’t care about X, Y, and Z, then it is acceptable or permissible to ignore the recommendations. Moreover, if we in fact wanted the opposite of these things, then, ethically or prudentially, we should reject the advice. A moral point of view demands we at least do X ,Y, and Z, whether we want to or not; i.e., it is objectively right and we have an obligation to act on it. Not to do X, Y, and Z is immoral. Although the chapter doesn’t say we should care about the wellbeing of others, it appears to assume we, the “audience,” already do.

[19] As Steve Coutinho suggests, however, there seems no guarantee that denouncing these will not result in cruelty and immorality having (unintended) free rein in the world. (An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies, Columbia University Press, 2014, p. 65)

[20] I translate yu 欲 as “ambition(s)” rather than “desire” because it seems apparent that one retains a desire for a peaceful society and a satisfying family life.

[21] To accomplish the goals of xiao and ci (孝慈), the elimination of thieves and assailants (daozei wuyou 盜賊無有) and a well-governed society (tianxia zhu 天下治), Mozi advocated “inclusive caring” (jianai 兼愛) or “mutual caring” (xiangai 相愛), rather than (or in addition to) ren and yi.

[22] This is the received version. The Guodian version reverses the order and lacks the word “desire” (yu欲), reading: 之在民前也,以身後之;其在民上也,以言下之。, which some scholars see as less manipulative (See Scott Cook, The Bamboo Texts of Guodian, Vol. I, p. 231 n36).

[23] Translated by Angus Graham in “The Way and the One in Ho-kuan-tzu” in Epistemological Issues in Classical Chinese Philosophy, SUNY, 1998, 33-4; Cf. Disputers of the Tao p. 215. Li 戾 was said to be the “opposite of ren” (反仁) in Jia Yi’s Xinshu Daoshu chapter.

[24] Literally “my teacher” (wu shi 吾師), but the context indicates this is no human teacher. Instead of Dao, it could be “Heaven” or “Heaven and Earth.”

[25] The phrases are: “its beneficence reaches to all generations and yet is not regarded as ren (澤及萬世而不為仁) and “(of sages,) their beneficence is dispersed to the myriad living things and yet is not due to caring for people” (利澤施於萬物,不為愛人).

[26] The Dao “smashes to pieces the myriad living things and yet cannot be considered cruel” (𩐋萬物而不為義), but reading 義 as a mistake for 戾, as encountered in a parallel in chapter 13, (following A.C. Graham).

[27] For a full translation, see John Emerson, Shen Dao, Éditions Le Real, 2013 p. 29-30 or The Shenzi Fragments by Eirik Lang Harris, Columbia University Press, 2016, p. 106.

[28] Laozi 81. “The Way of Heaven” (Tian zhi Dao 天之道) does not seem to always refer to the Way of Nature, but simply the “best way,” in which case claiming Tian zhi Dao “benefits and does not harm” may be more easily accepted.

[29] Laozi 67. More will be said about this chapter.

[30] Wang Bi said as much: 天地任自然,無為無造,萬物自相治理,故不仁也。(王弼注)

[31] There is disagreement if chugou 芻狗 refers to “straw dogs,” which were actual ritual objects used in some ancient ceremonies or whether the two characters should be regarded separately, as grass (芻) and dogs (狗), as representative of (non-human) animals and plants. Rudolph Wagner has pointed out that the earliest commentaries of Xiang’er, Heshanggong and Wang Bi all read it as grass and dogs and not straw dogs despite them all probably being aware of the other usage of chugou. (A Chinese Reading of the Daodejing, SUNY Press, 2003, p. 430). Sense can be made of a claim that sages treat people as they treat grass and dogs, but not so with Heaven and Earth: Heaven and Earth treat the myriad living things – which include grass and dogs – as grass and dogs?

[32] The theme of the passages in the Zhuangzi and Huainanzi is that of not trying to “live in the past,” that is, live according to ways of life or practices that were perhaps once useful, but likely are no longer so.

[33] I’m ignoring the fact that Nature often “provides” one creature’s life as food for another, oftentimes the weaker juveniles.

[34] Baixing, “Hundreds of Surnames,” may originally have referred to aristocrats or those of noble descent. By the Warring States period, it commonly referred to simply “the people,” just as min 民, wanmin 萬民,  shuren 庶人, zhongren 眾人 or simply ren 人 did.

[35] The idiom being 以 X 為 Y: consider X to be Y / regard X as Y / treat X as Y / use X to do Y.

[36] Laozi 31.

[37] Other possible terms for impartiality were wupian 無偏, wudang 無黨, wuqing 無傾, jian 兼, gong 公  and jun 均.

[38] Early Daoist Philosophies, p. 68.

[39] Lüshi Chunqiu 1.4: Guigong 貴公, translated by John Knoblock & Jeffrey Riegel in The Annals of Lü Buwei, Stanford University Press, 2000, p. 71. Knoblock and Riegel write Chu (楚) instead of the text’s Jing 荊, because the text has been emended due to an ancient taboo avoidance on the term Chu.

[40] Which, the parable goes on to suggest. On the other hand, perhaps the circumstances of the death determine the appropriate attitude to have, for example, if the death was from old age or was due to murder.

[41] This is the received text. Early versions do not have duo “many; increase” in the phrase 以其智多, although the context would seem to suggest it. Early versions also use the rhyming quasi-synonym de 德 instead of fu 福 in the last line.

[42] Interestingly, the commentary to Laozi 67 by Heshanggong asserts sages “pretend to be ignorant” (yangyu 佯愚) and only “seem to be incompetent” (si buxiao 似不肖).

[43] I have found two examples where the well-known social ill of “the cunning deceive the ignorant” (詐欺愚) written as 知欺愚 and 智欺愚 in Xinshu 3.2 and 10.4 respectively, which shows that zhi can be used to refer to zha. The binome zhiqi 智巧/知巧 also came to be used in the 3rd century B.C.E. for “cleverness” or “cunning.”

[44] This chapter’s 古之善為道者 is written as 為道者 in chapter 48 (the older editions and Zhuangzi 22). Chapter 15 begins: “In ancient times, those who were adept at embodying nobility” (古之善為士者), but some editions, such as the Mawangdui Laozi B and the Fuyi, instead have 古之善/屳為道者. They should be understood as equivalent: as exemplars of their teachings, practices and/or vision. (Note that “those who were adept at embodying nobility” 善為士者 also appears in Laozi 68.)

[45] Xinshu 1.1 過秦上: 廢先王之道,燔百家之言,以愚黔首。

[46] In matters of defense, when war “cannot be helped” (budeyi 不得已), the bare minimum use of force is advised, since it fosters resistance and a return of that force on oneself. Also, as we will see, excessive force – killing (sha 殺) – is a cause for grief and sadness (aibei 哀悲), (chapters 30 and 31).

[47] E.g. Wang Bi and Heshanggong. In Lunyu 17.16, Confucius remarks that in ancient times, at least the ignorant/stupid people were straightforward or ingenuous (zhi 直).

[48] The Tao of War: The Martial Tao Te Ching, Westview Press, 1999, p. 232.

[49] I think it reasonable to interpret this aphorism in this way, rather than as a categorical and exceptionless statement. See Michael LaFargue’s Tao and Method or The Tao of the Tao Te Ching for extensive discussion of how to understand aphoristic wisdom. More literally, 知者不博,博者不知。 might be “one who understands/is wise does not possess broad and abundant knowledge; one who possesses broad and abundant knowledge lacks understanding/wisdom.

[50] Hanfeizi 8, a chapter with noted “Daoist” influence has: “The Way of the sages is to discard ‘wisdom/knowledge’ and skill; if these are not discarded, difficulties will be constant.” (聖人之道,去智與巧,智巧不去,難以為常。).

[51] For one could always ask, “why should I be magnanimous?”

[52] Laozi 68 and 69 respectively.

[53] Guanzi Youguan 幼官. It goes on to explain how one might go about getting the compassionate to be courageous.

[54] Hanfeizi Jielao 解老: 愛子者慈於子,重生者慈於身,貴功者慈於事。

[55] Sunzi Bingfa 孫子兵法 10 Dixing 地形: 視卒如嬰兒,故可與之赴深谿;視卒如愛子,故可與之俱死。, translated by Ralph Sawyer in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, Westview Press, 1993, p.?

[56] What makes a war “unavoidable” is unknown. Understandably, in self-defense it is, but the Laozi, including this chapter, does not always rule out an offensive assault (or coming to the aid of another state). Is surrender not an option?

[57] “Divergences Within the Laozi: A Study of Chapters 67-81,” in T’oung Pao 100, 2014. Perkins believes that chapters 67 to 81 form a subgroup which: 1) doesn’t mention the nameless, cosmogonic Dao, 2) honours an anthropomorphic Heaven, 3) has no issue with overt or deliberate moralism, and 4) doesn’t mention or endorse wuwei or ziran. Further, he believes they pre-date the Guodian proto-Laozi.

[58] David Wong, in his Moral Relativism, (University of California Press, 1984, p. 208) was one of the first to exaggerate the importance of ci in early Daoism. More recently, Ann A. Pang-White’s “Daoist Ci 慈, Feminist Ethics of Care, and the Dilemma of Nature,” (Journal of Chinese Philosophy 43.3-4, 2016) emphasizes it. Jung H Lee has pointed this out (regarding Wong) in The Ethical Foundations of Early Daoism, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, p. 38-40. These are more examples of what I see as an earnest longing to find a palatable morality in the text and the early Daoist tradition in general.

[59] If true, we must certainly take “hold and preserve this treasure” (持而保之) figuratively.

[60] This is the received text, with one emendation: the sixth character (zhi 直) has been replaced with the older synonym, zheng 正, which occurs in the Mawangdui, Beida, Xiang’er and Fuyi editions. The last 17 characters have been left off, as they add little for this discussion. Also noteworthy is the line 不自是故彰, which appears as 不自視故章 in the Mawangdui and Beida editions, where zishi 自視 would seem to mean something different from zishi 自是. How this differs from its counterpart zixian 自見 is not clear.

[61] Instead of serving as a model (shi 式; OC: *l̥ək), the Mawangdui and Beida editions of the text have a similar-sounding word mu 牧 (OC: *mək), meaning “shepherd, pastor.” This might indicate a more active sage rather than the more passive stance of serving as a model. “Shepherding the people” (mumin 牧民) occurs 20 times in the Guanzi 管子.

[62] “Impaired” is more literally “bent” (qu 曲). To better represent an antonym or quasi-antonym to “whole, intact” (quan 全), I have chosen “impaired.” It seems to me that in this case, baoyi 抱一 refers to embracing the unity of opposites, not “The One” (a.k.a. the Dao).

[63] Mengzi 5A7: 吾未聞枉己而正人者也,況辱己以正天下者乎?Modified translation of D.C. Lau, in Mencius: A Bilingual Edition, The Chinese University Press, 2003 (originally pub. in 1979), p. 211. A similar statement is made in Mengzi 3B1. Mengzi would surely not object to the Laozi’s advocacy of humility and modesty.

[64] Zhanguoce 4.4 (CHANT 152), Huainanzi 12 and Wenzi 1. It is also quoted, but unattributed in Huainanzi 1, Shuoyuan 說苑 16 and Wenzi 3.

[65] In chapter 24, they are presented inversely, so that instead of “Not showing off results in shining” we have “One who parades oneself does not shine” (自見者不明), and so on. Laozi 72 contains a similar message: “Sages know themselves but don’t show themselves off; care for themselves but don’t glorify themselves. Thus, they get rid of the one and value the other.” (聖人自知不自見;自愛不自貴。故去彼取此。)

[66] Alternatively, 長 could be zhang: “to lead,” as read in chapter 67 above. But most commentators regard it as being able to endure. Heshanggong says “able to last long without experiencing any danger” (能久不危).

[67] Liji Biaoji 表記: 子曰: … 君子恭儉以求役仁,信讓以求役禮,不自尚其事,不自尊其身,儉於位而寡於欲,讓於賢,卑己而尊人,小心而畏義,求以事君,得之自是,不得自是,以聽天命。 Translation by James Legge in Sacred Books of the East, volume 28, part 4: The Li Ki, Oxford University Press, 1885, p. 338.

[68] Taking claims from the Laozi as categorical imperatives like this offends many who feel that there may, for example,  be social injustices encountered in life that need addressing, sometimes in very confrontational and interfering (wei 為) ways. I suspect that the authors may not disagree. However, they aim to address these situations before they have gotten very bad, and do so indirectly.

[69] Tao and Method, p. 150-1.

[70] The nominal “good” appears in 6 chapters (2, 8, 27, 49, 58, 81), the adjective “good” in 2 chapters (62, 79) and adverb “good at” appears in 11 (8, 15, 27, 30, 41, 50, 54, 65, 66, 68, 73). Chapter 20’s “善之與惡,相去若何” was originally “與惡,其相去何若” as demonstrated by the evidence from the Guodian, Mawangdui, Beida, Fuyi and Xiang’er editions. Even Wang Bi’s commentary contains 美 rather than 善.

[71] This is the received text, the second line does not seem to have been the original. The Mawangdui and Beida editions have “(as for) things, they do not discard any of value” (物無棄財), which both Huainanzi 12 and Wenzi 8 seem to follow when they write:  人無棄人,物無棄物 and 人無棄人,物無棄材 respectively. That is, there is no mention of “saving things” (救物) and no specifying what “things” (wu 物) are intended, which, I follow the early editions in interpreting them as “valuable things” (cai 財), like resources. We may note that caiwu 財物 “valuable things/valuables” was a common binome, appearing as early as the Xunzi, Mozi and Guanzi. Wang Bi never commented on the line about “saving things” and Rudolph Wagner thinks Wang Bi’s edition of the Laozi  never had it (p. 450)

[72] Both the Huainanzi and Wenzi passages quote the Laozi to support the idea that sages are sure not to discard people with specific talents/abilities (neng 能), for there will always be a use for them.

[73]  An anecdote in chapter 24 of the Zhuangzi deals with the same theme, except instead of zi 資 it uses zhi 質 to denote (human) “raw material.” In it, Zhuangzi laments that since his intellectual sparring partner Huizi 惠子 has died, he no longer has the “material” to help keep his mind sharp.

[74] Ralph Sawyer, The Tao of War, Westview Press, 1999, p. 222. The author of Zhuangzi 10 also admits that “The shanren in the world are few, the bushanren are many” (天下之善人少而不善人多).

[75] The Chinese text here is the received text found in Wang Bi, Heshangong, Mawangdui and other editions. My interpretation “德善” and “德信” follows the version found in Yan Zun, Fuyi, Jinglong, and one Dunhuang manuscript that write “得善” and “得信.” De 德 and de 得 were/are homophones and sometimes were interchangeable; for example, intending 德 to mean “to obtain, get or attain.” An alternate reading of “德善” and “德信” could be something like “the goodness/skillfulness of de” (德之善) and “the reliability of de” (德之信).

[76] Many translators, like Robert Henricks and Hans-Georg Moeller, for example, take shanzhi 善之 to mean “regard as good” and xinzhi 信之 to mean “regard as honest” or “trust.” While acknowledging the authors emphasized the need to ennoble or re-value the “not good,” the second line ends up saying “those who are not trustworthy he also trusts” (Henricks p. 19) and “That which is not true he also holds to be true” (Moeller p. 116-17?). It would be foolish to trust untrustworthy people with anything important at stake (e.g., the care of your children) and the same holds for what is true and what is a lie. Thus, I find it unlikely their interpretations are correct.

[77] The Heshanggong commentary explains the process at hand (i.e., shanzhi 善之 and qinzhi 信之) as involving “reforming (others) and causing them to be good” (化之使善) and “reforming (others) and causing them to be honest/trustworthy” (化之為信). This seems odd because the Laozi endorses a passive “spontaneous transformation” (zihua 自化) of all living things as opposed to forced transformation or interference (wei 為).

[78] Hanshi Waizhuan 韓詩外傳 9.7.