When Honesty Fails, Dishonesty Prevails

“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”

(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.”

I don’t think I am asking too much. And I don’t think it is unreasonable to want it. All I want is to be governed like those good old days, those High Ages, that Lao-tzu talks about in the first line of today’s verse. “The people hardly knew they were there.” It was because those legendary rulers, as Red Pine says in his commentary, exercised power so unobtrusively.

Am I pining away for the good old days? Maybe I am. But at least these good old days are something I feel justified in pining over.

Still, I have this thing nagging at me. This need to be content with the way things are. What I want and what I have maybe two very different things. And, maybe, just maybe, I should just play the hand that has been dealt to me.

I don’t know. Seriously, I don’t know. Lao-tzu does a fine job of presenting the history. How things devolved over time. And our various commentators explain it all very well.

Over time the virtue of rulers diminished. They stopped being so unobtrusive in exercising their power. It began subtly. Much like the proverbial frog in a pot of water which is slowly being brought to a boil.

They ruled with kindness and justice. This earned them love and praise. But their kindness and justice weren’t virtues. Understand, their virtue had already diminished. They had an ulterior motive for ruling with kindness and justice, and that would only be their modus operandi for as long as they realized their purpose. And we know what that purpose was – to control the people’s hearts.

And when kindness and justice failed to serve its purpose, the rulers’ virtue diminished further. That is when the rulers instituted laws and punishments. It was as if the rulers thought, “If the people can’t be controlled by their affection for us, then making them fear us is the logical next step. If we can’t control their hearts, we will control their minds.” And maybe that did work for a time. The people certainly did fear them.

But, to whatever extent and for however long it might have worked, their laws and punishments (becoming more and more numerous) ultimately failed to achieve the desired results. I think at that point the rulers got lost in their impatience and simply turned up the heat on the frog to the max. Their virtue diminished to a point that they acted with force and deceit, with the unintended (but thoroughly predictable) outcome – the people despised them.

That may or may not be a very accurate picture of Chinese, or world history, when it comes to governments. I think it is more accurate than inaccurate, though. It is a nice, neat synopsis of the way things have been.

But what about the way things are? Well, I think we have some kind of blend going on. Some rulers are loved and praised, some are feared, and some are despised. But, in every case, their virtue has been greatly diminished. How do I know that? Because each and every one of them, without any exceptions I have seen or heard of, don’t exercise their power unobtrusively.

It all goes back to what I said I wanted in the beginning of my commentary. I still don’t think I am asking too much. And, I still don’t think it is unreasonable to ask for it. I want some damn honesty. Our rulers aren’t being honest with us. They aren’t even being honest with themselves. And, as Lao-tzu says in today’s verse, “When honesty fails, dishonesty prevails.”

Dishonesty prevails. It has been prevailing for as far back as I can go in history. I know how difficult it can be to get an accurate picture of history out of the history books; because, in all the great conflicts, it was the winners who compiled the historical record. And might made right. Though might is never (well, hardly ever) right. They haven’t been honest with us. They aren’t being honest with us. And, I really hate to break it to you, they aren’t very likely to start being honest with us, in the foreseeable future.

Dishonesty prevails. And there is really only one way to combat that.

Hesitate, and weigh your words. Put those words on the scale. Am I being honest? Really? Or, am I still being dishonest? Let me stop and consider this for a moment. A long moment. Is it really so important that I control their hearts and minds? Wouldn’t it be better, far better, if I left them alone, if I let them be? Could I be less obtrusive in governing?

Like I said earlier, I don’t know. I really don’t know. After reading that last paragraph, I am beginning to think I am expecting a whole lot more honesty, than I can honestly expect. So, maybe I am asking too much. Maybe it is unreasonable.

To expect anyone in power to let the people think they did all the work by themselves, without our rulers wanting to take all the credit for themselves?

Well, a fellow can dream, can’t he?

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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