“Where the government stands aloof
the people open up
where the government steps in
the people slip away
happiness rests in misery
misery hides in happiness
who knows where these end
for nothing is direct
directness becomes deception
and good becomes evil
the people have been lost
for a long long time
thus the sage is an edge that doesn’t cut
a point that doesn’t pierce
a line that doesn’t extend
a light that doesn’t blind”
(Taoteching, verse 58, translation by Red Pine)
HSUAN-TSUNG says, “To stand aloof is to be relaxed and unconcerned. To open up is to be simple and honest. The ruler who governs without effort lets things take care of themselves.”
WANG PI says, “Those who are good at governing use neither laws nor measures. Thus, the people find nothing to attack.”
LI HSI-CHAI says, “When the government makes no demands, the people respond with openness instead of cleverness. When the government makes demands, the people use every means to escape. The government that stands aloof leaves power with the people. The government that steps in takes their power away. As one gains, the other loses. As one meets with happiness, the other encounters misery.”
WANG P’ANG says, “All creatures share the same breath. But the movement of this breath comes and goes. It ends only to begin again. Hence, happiness and misery alternate like the seasons. But only sages realize this. Hence, in everything they do, they aim for the middle and avoid the extremes, unlike the government that insists on directness and goodness and forbids deception and evil, unlike the government that wants the world to be happy and yet remains unaware that happiness alternates with misery.”
LU NUNG-SHIH says, “Only those who are free of directness can transcend the appearance of good and evil and eliminate happiness and misery. For they alone know where they end. Meanwhile, those who cannot reach the state where they aren’t direct, who remain in the realm of good and evil, suffer happiness and misery as if they were on a wheel that carries them farther astray.”
TE-CH’ING says, “The world withers, and the Tao fades. People are not the way they once were. They don’t know directness from deception or good from evil. Even sages cannot instruct them. Hence, to transform them, sages enter their world of confusion. They join the dust of others and soften their own light. And they leave no trace.”
WU CH’ENG says, “A sage’s non-action is non-action that is not non-action. Edges always cut. But the edge that is not an edge does not cut. Points always pierce. But the point that is not a point does not pierce. Lines always extend. But the line that is not a line does not extend. Lights always blind. But the light that is not a light does not blind. All of these are examples of non-action.”
RED PINE notes that Wu Ch’eng combines this verse with the previous verse. He also notes that line fourteen also appears in the Lichi: “The gentleman compares his virtue to that of jade: pointed but not piercing.” And, line fifteen recalls verse 45: “perfectly straight it seems crooked.”
Wu Ch’eng combines today’s verse with our previous one, which I posted this past Friday. In that verse, Lao-tzu first talked about directness and deception, “Use directness to govern a country / and use deception to fight a war.” I said, then, it seems like our rulers have this backwards. They use directness to fight a war, and deception to rule us.
In today’s verse Lao-tzu explains why this is, “for nothing is direct / directness becomes deception.” This is why Lao-tzu says to use non-action to rule the world. But, what exactly is non-action? Lao-tzu explains this in today’s verse
It is standing aloof, rather than stepping in. As Hsuan-tsung says, “The ruler who governs without effort lets things take care of themselves.”
We simply must free ourselves of directness in order to transcend the appearance of good and evil and eliminate happiness and misery, as Lu Nung-shih says. Otherwise, happiness and misery alternate like the seasons, as Wang P’ang says. Thus, sages know to avoid extremes, unlike the government that insists on directness, which becomes deception.
Lao-tzu doesn’t just say that directness becomes deception, he goes on to say “good becomes evil / the people have been lost / for a long long time.” What can be done about this?
Well, we already know directness doesn’t work. That was sort of the point of our previous verse. Yet, we keep doing the same things, expecting different results.
Instead, we should be like the sage Lao-tzu talks about in the last four lines of today’s verse: Be an “edge that doesn’t cut / a point that doesn’t pierce / a line that doesn’t extend / a light that doesn’t blind.” Wu-ch’eng says, “All of these are examples of non-action.” And, “A sage’s non-action is non-action that is not non-action.”
Say what? Don’t be alarmed. Lao-tzu uses language like this throughout the Taoteching. The point Wu-ch’eng, and Lao-tzu, is making is to avoid extremes, aim for the middle. Edges always cut. Points always pierce. Lines always extend. Lights always blind. Thus, you want to be the edge that is not an edge, the point that is not a point, the line which is not a line, the light which is not a light.
Trying not to act, or to act without effort, requires effort. You defeat your own purpose. That is why Lao-tzu says, just stand aloof. Let things take care of themselves. They don’t need your intervention. And when you step in, people will just slip away, anyway. Since the people have been lost for a long long time, already, you surely don’t want them slipping even farther astray.
Directness won’t work. Because nothing is direct. Directness becomes deception. And deception doesn’t work, either. Good becomes evil, and evil becomes good. Happiness and misery alternate like the seasons. Don’t resist it. Just let it be.