“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.”
In yesterday’s verse, Lao-tzu contrasted directness with deception. In today’s verse, he teaches that nothing is direct: directness becomes deception. This is why the art of governing requires non-action.
Where the government stands aloof, the people open up. (If only….)
But where the government steps in, the people slip away. This is a truism. It has always been true. It will always be true. Yet, they keep stepping in; apparently thinking that doing the same thing, and doubling down with their efforts, will somehow produce different results.
What they don’t understand is that happiness rests in misery, and misery hides in happiness. And who knows where these end? You can’t force people to be happy. You only make them miserable. But if, when they were miserable, you took a step back, and stood aloof, happiness would soon result.
Talk all you want about your good intentions, and I will tell you good becomes evil. Nothing is direct. Directness becomes deception. Always. It is just the way things are.
Then you will tell me, “Ah, but the people have been lost for a long, long time.” I won’t disagree with you on your diagnosis. But your prescription is all wrong. You want to intervene, to step in.
Non-action is the better way. 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.
“You just want me to do nothing.”