“In ancient times
the perfect officer wasn’t armed
the perfect warrior wasn’t angry
the perfect victor wasn’t hostile
the perfect commander acted humble
this is the virtue of non-aggression
this is using the strength of others
this is uniting with Heaven
which was the ancient end”
(Taoteching, verse 68, translation by Red Pine
CHIAO HUNG says, “In ancient times, officers went into battle in chariots. They were dressed in mail, and there were three to a vehicle: one on the left armed with a bow, one on the right armed with a spear, and one in the middle in charge of the reins., the flag, and the drum. Below and arrayed around every chariot were seventy-two foot soldiers.”
SUN-TZU says, “A ruler must not mobilize his armies in anger. A general must not engage the enemy in wrath. Anger can turn to joy, and wrath can turn to gladness. But once a state is destroyed, it cannot be restored. And once a person is dead, he cannot be reborn” (Suntzu Pingfa: 12.18-21). Sun-tzu also says, “To win every battle is not supreme excellence. Supreme excellence is to conquer without fighting” (3.2).
HO-SHANG KUNG says, “Those who honor the Way and Virtue are not fond of weapons. They keep hatred from their hearts. They eliminate disaster before it arises. They are angered by nothing. They use kindness among neighbors and virtue among strangers. They conquer their enemies without fighting and command through humility.”
LIEH-TZU says, “Those who govern others with worthiness never win them over. Those who serve others with worthiness never fail to gain their support” (Liehtzu: 6.3).
WANG CHEN says, “You must first win others’ hears before you can command them.”
KUMARAJIVA says, “Empty your body and mind. No one can fight against nothing.”
WU CH’ENG says, “Even though our wisdom and power might surpass that of others, we should act as if we possessed neither. By making ourselves lower than others, we can use their wisdom and power as our own. Thus, we can win without taking up arms, without getting angry, and without making enemies. By using the virtue of nonaggression and the power of others, we are like Heaven, which overcomes without fighting and which reaches its goal without moving.”
TZU-SSU says, “Wide and deep, they are able to support others. High and bright, they are able to protect others. Those who are wide and deep unite with earth. Those who are high and bright unite with Heaven” (Chungyung: 26.4-5).
TE-CH’ING says, “Heaven is yang and Earth is yin. But if Heaven and Earth remain stationary, everything stops, and nothing comes into existence. Only when yang descends and yin arises does everything flourish. Thus, heaven’s position is to be above, but its function is to descend. When sages are above the people, and their hearts are below, we call this uniting with Heaven. This was the polestar of ancient rulers.”
I have been thinking a lot about “the perfect” for about a week now. First, I had read Sheldon Richman’s TGIF (The Goal Is Freedom) column on Panarchy (from now a few weeks back), where he used the Catalonian secession referendum as a jumping off point to talk about “the perfect” libertarian way of seceding. Secession is in the news like it hasn’t been since Lincoln put down the rebellion of the southern states in the U.S., seven score and twelve years ago. And, Sheldon was explaining that secession by referendum isn’t necessarily libertarian. Yes, a large majority of those who went to the polls voted in favor of Catalonian secession; but, what of those who voted against it, and those who didn’t vote at all because they were boycotting the referendum in the first place, a sign they were likely opposed to the idea? Libertarianism would certainly take seriously minority rights, would it not? Well, that wasn’t something Justin Raimondo could abide. He wrote a column, a few days later, taking Sheldon Richman to task for not backing the secessionist hopes of the majority. That got me thinking. Did Sheldon let “the perfect” become the enemy of the good?
It was then that I came to today’s verse, in the Taoteching; where Lao-tzu speaks of ancient times rather reverently, as he points out the perfect officer, the perfect warrior, the perfect victor, and the perfect commander. And I thought, how easy it is to just dismiss all of this out of hand. It seems almost “hip” to denounce anything or anyone promoting anything ideal, i.e. perfect, as being the enemy of the good. Why can’t we just be satisfied with the good enough? Why, to suggest that something falls short of “the perfect” is just the same as wanting to maintain the status quo. That was Raimondo’s critique of Sheldon Richman.
Like I said, I have been thinking quite a bit on this for the last few days, even getting a bit behind on my blogging. Where I once was two weeks ahead, I now find myself only a week ahead.
I was spending so much time thinking about the perfect, while at the same time, thinking “But, that is the virtue of non-aggression: The perfect is never the enemy of the good.”
Let us remember why it is that Lao-tzu so reveres ancient times. It isn’t just pining away for the good old days. He has something much more useful in mind. His point is to set forth the ideal, perfection, as our example. It is the goal post. Something to aspire to. (That, by the way, is the point of Sheldon Richman’s TGIF columns, too: The Goal Is Freedom.)
Lao-tzu doesn’t set forth “the perfect” so we can dismiss it as hopelessly unrealistic. Or, lofty but impractical. Though people do end up dismissing it for just this reason. He sets up “the perfect” because when we realize the virtue of non-aggression, the perfect is never the enemy of the good. The perfect enables us to use the strength of others and unite with Heaven in accomplishing every good thing we set about to do.