“In governing people and caring for Heaven
nothing surpasses economy
economy means planning ahead
planning ahead means accumulating virtue
accumulating virtue means overcoming all
overcoming all means knowing no limit
knowing no limit means guarding the realm
and guarding the realm’s mother means living long
which means deep roots and a solid trunk
the Way of a long and lasting life”
(Taoteching, verse 59, translation by Red Pine)
LI HSI-CHAI says, “Outside, we govern others. Inside, we care for Heaven. In both, nothing surpasses economy. Those who are economical are economical in everything. They are watchful within and on guard without. Only if we are still, does virtue have a place to collect.”
MENCIUS says, “The way we care for Heaven is by guarding our mind and nourishing our nature” (Mencius: 7A.1).
WANG TAO says, “‘Caring for Heaven’ means preserving what one receives from Heaven. It means cultivating oneself.”
Linking this with the previous verse, SU CH’E says, “Economy is the reason the edges of sages don’t cut, their points don’t pierce, their lines don’t extend, and their lights don’t blind. Economy means possessing without using.”
WANG PI says, “Economy means farming. Farmers cultivate their fields by weeding out different species and concentrating on one. They don’t worry about pulling out the withered and diseased. They pull out the causes of withering and disease. Above, they accept the will of Heaven. Below, they nourish others.”
HAN FEI says, “Most people use their mind recklessly. Recklessness means waste, and waste means exhaustion. Sages use their mind calmly. Calmness means carefulness, and carefulness means economy. Economy is an art born of an understanding of the Tao. Those who know how to govern others calm their thoughts. Those who know how to care for Heaven clear their opening. When their thoughts are calm, old virtue remains within. When their openings are clear, new breath enters from without.”
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Someone whose virtue knows no limits can guard the gods of the realm and bring happiness to the people.”
THE LICHI says, “Those who guard the realm are ever careful” (27).
LI JUNG says, “When rulers maintain the Tao, their countries are at peace. When they fail to maintain the Tao, their countries are in chaos. Their countries are the offspring. The Tao is their mother.”
WU CH’ENG says, “The realm here is a metaphor for the body. Breath is the body’s mother. Breath that has no limit can preserve the body. Those who fill themselves with breath can conquer the world and remain unharmed. Breath rises from below as if from the roots of a tree. By nourishing the roots, the roots grow deep. Breath flourishes above just as the trunk of a tree does. By nourishing the trunk, the trunk becomes firm. Thus, the tree doesn’t wither.”
LU NUNG-SHIH says, “The roots are in the dark, and the trunk is in the light. The roots refer to life, and the trunk refers to nature. What nothing can fathom is deep. Only life can match this. What nothing can topple is firm. Only nature can match this.”
What Red Pine translates as “economy” both Stephen Mitchell and Robert Brookes (who both have translations I have used in the past) translate as “moderation.” But economy is at least as good a word to use, as long as we understand what Lao-tzu means by the word. And for that, I think we have to read through basically the whole verse to get a grasp on the word. Then, I appreciated the various commentators for shedding further light on it.
Economy can’t be surpassed as the Way of a long and lasting life. First, Lao-tzu says it means planning ahead. But then he goes on to explain what he means by planning ahead. It is accumulating virtue. And by accumulating virtue he means overcoming all. And by overcoming all he means knowing no limit. And by knowing no limit he means guarding the realm (which Wu Ch’eng explains is a metaphor for the body). Here, Lao-tzu talks about guarding the realm’s mother (which is the Tao) as meaning living long. And that means deep roots and a solid trunk. Deep roots and a solid trunk refers to both the seen and the unseen, as Lu Nung-shih says, “The roots are in the dark, and the trunk is in the light. The roots refer to life, and the trunk refers to nature.”
It took going through the entire verse to really understand what he means by economy. It means the cultivation of virtue. Which happens through living modestly. Think economy verse luxury cars. Live simply. Don’t seek happiness in outward things. Cultivate it deep within you.
And, when you are governing others, be a pattern (pattern just happens to be another way the word economy could be translated) for the others you are governing. Content yourself with being a pattern for them. Don’t try to force happiness upon them. As we talked about in the previous verse, you will only cultivate misery.
Accept that the way things are is the way things are. Or, as Wang Pi puts it, “Accept the will of Heaven.” Nourish others by being a pattern of how to follow the Way.
Han Fei puts it so well. “Most people use their mind recklessly. Recklessness means waste, and waste means exhaustion. Sages use their mind calmly. Calmness means carefulness, and carefulness means economy. Economy is an art born of an understanding of the Tao. Those who know how to govern others calm their thoughts.”
That, my friends, is the virtue of economy in a nutshell. It is the Way of a long and lasting life. And, it promises to be a good one.