That Was Then

“During the High Ages people knew they were there
then people loved and praised them
then they feared them
finally they despised them
when honesty fails
dishonesty prevails
hesitate and weigh your words
when their work succeeds
let people think they did it”

-Lao-tzu-
(Taoteching, verse 17, translation by Red Pine)

RED PINE begins the commentary by pointing out, “The Chinese of Lao-tzu’s day believed their greatest age of peace and harmony occurred during the reigns of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, or 2,000 years earlier. These legendary rulers exercised power so unobtrusively, the people hardly knew they were there, as we hear in a song handed down from that distant age: ‘Sunup I rise / sundown I rest / I dig a well to drink / I plow fields to eat / the emperor’s might / what is it to me?’ (Kushihyuan: 1).”

THE LICHI says, “During the High Ages people esteemed virtue. Then they worked for rewards” (1).

LU HSI-SHENG says, “The virtuous lords of ancient times initiated no actions and left no traces. Hence, the people knew they were there and that was all. When their virtue diminished, they ruled with kindness and justice, and the people loved and praised them. When their kindness and justice no longer controlled people’s hearts, they governed with laws and punishments, and the people feared them. When their laws and punishments no longer controlled people’s minds, they acted with force and deceit, and the people despised them.”

MENCIUS says, “When the ruler views his ministers as his hands and feet, they regard him as their heart and soul. When he views them as dirt and weeds, they regard him as an enemy and a thief” (Mencius: 4B.3).

SUNG CH’ANG-HSING says, “The mistake of loving and praising, fearing and despising does not rest with the people but with those above. The reason the people turn to love and praise or fear and hate is because those above cannot be trusted. And when trust disappears, chaos appears.”

HUANG YUAN-CHI “What we do to cultivate ourselves is what we do to govern the world. And among the arts we cultivate, the most subtle of all is honesty, which is the beginning and end of cultivation. When we embrace the truth, the world enjoys peace. When we turn our backs on the truth, the world suffers. From the time of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, this has never varied.”

HO-SHANG KUNG says, “When those above treat those below with dishonesty, those below respond with deceit.”

WANG PI says, “Where there are words, there is a response. Thus, the sage hesitates.”

WU CH’ENG says, “The reason sages don’t speak or act is so they can bestow their blessings in secret and so people can live their lives in peace. And when their work succeeds and people’s lives go well, people think that is just the way it is supposed to be. They don’t realize it was made possible by those on high.”

LU HUI-CH’ING says, “As long as the people think they did it themselves, they have no reason to love or praise anyone.”

The people hardly knew they were there! They exercised power so unobtrusively! Now, some 4500 years ago, and still, this is my ideal for how to properly govern, as it was for Lao-tzu in his day.

Alas, those days are long over. Lu Hsi-sheng gives us a bit of a history lesson, taking us line by spiraling line down. “The virtuous lords of ancient times initiated no actions and left no traces. Hence, the people knew they were there and that was all.” Ah, a golden age, but it didn’t last. “When their virtue diminished (this is the virtue of the rulers), they ruled with kindness and justice and the people loved and praised them.” Now, the rulers were noticed. But, at least they were kind and just. Yet, once again, this wouldn’t last. For, note, the rulers weren’t being virtuous by acting with kindness and justice. They were after something. Control. “When their kindness and justice no longer controlled people’s hearts, they governed with laws and punishments, and the people feared them.” For a time that worked. Controlling the people’s minds, if not their hearts. For a time, yes. But only for a time. “When their laws and punishments no longer controlled people’s minds, they acted with force and deceit, and the people despised them.”

As Huang Yuan-chi notes, “From the time of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, this has never varied. When we turn our backs on the truth, the world suffers.” As Sung Ch’ang-hsing says, “The mistake of loving and praising, fearing and despising does not rest with the people but with those above. The reason the people turn to love and praise or fear and hate is because those above cannot be trusted. And when trust disappears, chaos appears.”

A lot of the various sages’ commentary for today’s verse is anticipating the next one. And, this being Friday, we will just have to wait until Monday to see how the next verse relates to this one. What happens when the Great Way disappears? When virtue is replaced with kindness and justice? When reason appears? Yes, there follows chaos. But where to from there?

Red Pine introduces the following with today’s verse:

KUSHIHYUAN. Anthology of pre-T’ang dynasty poetry compiled by Shen Te-ch’ien (1673-1769) and published in 1719.

The LICHI (BOOK OF RITES). Anthology of Confucian writings, including the Chungyung and the Tahsueh. It was first put together around the second century B.C. and was further edited by Tao Te and his cousin during the following century.

MENCIUS (390-305 B.C.). Ranked with Confucius and Hsun-tzu as the foremost teachers of the philosophy known as Confucianism. He studied with Confucius’ grandson Tzu-ssu. The work that bears his name records his conversations with his disciples and various rulers of his day.

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