If a country is governed wisely,
its inhabitants will be content.
They enjoy the labor of their hands
and don’t waste time inventing
Since they dearly love their homes,
they aren’t interested in travel.
There may be a few wagons and boats,
but these don’t go anywhere.
There may be an arsenal of weapons,
but nobody ever uses them.
People enjoy their food,
take pleasure in being with their families,
spend weekends working in their gardens,
delight in the doings of the neighborhood.
And even though the next country is so close
that people can hear its roosters crowing
and its dogs barking,
they are content to die of old age
without ever having gone to see it.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 80, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
I Blame Our Government
Is this what true contentment looks like? Lao Tzu paints an idyllic picture which reminds me a lot of Tolkien’s Shire. I know I would be content to be a hobbit, to live like a hobbit. But, I hardly think it is everyone’s picture of contentment.
After all, as much as I would like to live like a hobbit, I don’t much care for the idea of turning in all my labor-saving devices. And, I hardly think it a waste of time inventing new ones.
And, what exactly is wrong with being interested in traveling? Daring to go on an unexpected journey, an adventure, can change you. And, likely for the good.
So, I get it, if you have misgivings. But, I hardly think that was Lao Tzu’s point.
Realize, Lao Tzu lived in a time when living like this was the norm. It was all they knew. Yet, he sensed, correctly, the people weren’t content. And, his analysis of the situation was spot on. If a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants will be content.
Lao Tzu isn’t singing the praises of a primitive life. He is speaking to people very much accustomed to living a primitive life, but they weren’t content. And, Lao Tzu has made it pretty clear, it s because they weren’t being governed wisely. What if Lao Tzu had lived in such a time as ours, with all our modern conveniences? Would he have told us we needed to go back to living primitively? I don’t think so.
What he is doing is describing the times as they were in his lifetime. And, saying, the people COULD be content with the life they had. They could be content with the way things were at the time of his writing. But, they weren’t.
And, that is where our two very different ages are very much the same. For we aren’t content, either. Do we enjoy our labor? No! We gripe and complain to anyone who will listen. And, if no one will listen, we just grumble and moan to ourselves. Do we dearly love our homes, or do we seek out every opportunity to get away, not content with a, yes, simple and ordinary life? We don’t enjoy our food. We take no pleasure in being with our families. And, who has time for spending weekends in their gardens? We don’t delight in the doings of our neighborhood. Mostly, we just complain about the neighbors. And, as far as the next country over from us is concerned, well, we have grown to fear them.
That is a picture of discontent. Lao Tzu would interject here, we aren’t being governed very wisely. And, I hate that this commentary has become so gloomy; but, I don’t see any changes on the horizon, when it comes to the wisdom with which we can expect to be governed, any time soon.
But, there is good news. Our contentment doesn’t have to depend on how we are governed. Tomorrow, in our last chapter of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu will tell us, one last time, how to be content regardless of our outward circumstances.