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Tao Te Ching, Chapter 57

Govern the state by being honest.

Wage war by being clever.

Achieve the realm by not meddling.

How do I know it is like that? By this:

The more regulations

The poorer the people.

The more sharp weapons

The more troubled the country.

The cleverer the people

The more distractions.

The wider the knowledge of law,

The more there are thieves and rogues.

So the wise say:

I take no action and the people transform themselves.

I remain still and the people set themselves right.

I don’t interfere and the people themselves prosper.

I am free of desires and the people of themselves

Hold to the un-carved block.

Tao Te Ching from Poetry in Translation.
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2003 All Rights Reserved
This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.

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In the above translation, Chapter 57 has 18 lines. In my reading of those lines, I feel the lines can be given the following arrangement:

“Govern the state by being honest.
“Wage war by being clever.
“Achieve the realm by not meddling.

“How do I know it is like that? By this:
“The more regulations
“The poorer the people.

“The more sharp weapons
“The more troubled the country.

“The cleverer the people
“The more distractions.

“The wider the knowledge of law,
“The more there are thieves and rogues.

“So the wise say:
“I take no action and the people transform themselves.
“I remain still and the people set themselves right.
“I don’t interfere and the people themselves prosper.
“I am free of desires and the people of themselves
“Hold to the un-carved block.”

It is that arrangement that I will use in order to provide my commentary.

 
CH57L1-3 work as a unit, establishing the foundation for this chapter:
“Govern the state by being honest.
“Wage war by being clever.
“Achieve the realm by not meddling.”

With those three lines Lao Tzu is establishing a counterintuitive thought for the student.

My book has CH57L1 convey the thought that kingdoms (governments) are established and maintained when they keep to the rules.

My book has CH57L2 convey the thought that wars (battles) are won when they break the rules.

My book has CH57L3 convey that all under heaven is won and achieved only by “letting-alone” which conveys a situation where rules are not establish and thus rules cannot be broken, which leads to achievement for the entire realm under heaven.

So with these three lines, Lao Tzu is establishing the truth for this chapter.
CH57L1 is achieved by one method.
CH57L2 is achieved by another method.
CH57L3 is achieved by yet a different method.

Therefore CH57L1 and CH57L2, both, are in opposition to CH57L3, where each line of truth is achieved in a specific manner.

From there, by asking a question, Lao Tzu offers his own retort (CH57L4-12) to the truth that was established in the first three lines, then Lao Tzu offers four items as evidence to support the truth of CH57L1-3, then moves to an appeal to the wise (CH57L13-18).

 
 
In CH57L4, Lao Tzu asks a question in retort to the truths of the first three lines. Lao Tzu pointedly asks his student: “How do I know it is like that?”

So how does Lao Tzu know that CH57L1-3 are true?

Lao Tzu begins the answer by saying “By this:” which is an transition phrase leading into four separate couplets, offering four answers, establishing the truth of CH57L1-3 through four different ways.

 
Lao Tzu offers the first of four items as evidence in CH57L5-6:
“The more regulations
“The poorer the people.”

That is Lao Tzu’s first answer to his question of CH57L4, which was asked by Lao Tzu assuming there would be critics skeptical of the truth of CH57L1-3.

In CH57L5-6, Lao Tzu makes a statement of what Lao Tzu believes is observable (empirical) truth.

Some might argue to the contrary, but Lao Tzu’s statement for his first answer stands, and must be seen through the established truth of the first three lines.

Lao Tzu is almost daring the student to ask: do increased regulations actually enrich and prosper the people the kingdom (government) is there to govern?

Lao Tzu is offering a counterintuitive answer, stating that regulating people actually hurts the progress of the people whom the kingdom (government) seeks to govern.

 
Lao Tzu offers the second of four items as evidence in CH57L7-8:
“The more sharp weapons
“The more troubled the country.”

That is Lao Tzu’s second answer to his question of CH57L4, which was asked by Lao Tzu assuming there would be critics skeptical of the truth of CH57L1-3.

My book has line CH57L8 convey that in response to weaponry, the land grows “benighted” where benighted means being “in a pitiful or contemptible intellectual or moral ignorance, typically owing to a lack of opportunity; [being] overtaken by darkness” [google: define benighted].

Like the first answer, some might argue this second answer to the contrary, but Lao Tzu’s statement for his second answer stands, and must be seen through the established truth of the first three lines.

Lao Tzu is almost daring the student to ask: does increased militia readiness actually bring peace to the people of a kingdom (nation)?

Lao Tzu is offering a counterintuitive answer, stating that increased weaponry (weapons themselves, also militia / military) does not actually make for a more peaceful people.

 
Lao Tzu offers the third of four items as evidence in CH57L9-10:
“The cleverer the people
“The more distractions.”

That is Lao Tzu’s third answer to his question of CH57L4, which was asked by Lao Tzu assuming there would be critics skeptical of the truth of CH57L1-3.

This answer is a little bit more complex. With this answer, Lao Tzu seems to be looking directly at the people themselves, whether the people that govern or the people that are governed.

Again, Lao Tzu is simply stating what Lao Tzu believes is empirical evidence which should be interpreted through the truths of CH57L1-3.

My book has CH57L9 convey “cunning craftsman” who create “pernicious contrivances” (CH57L10) where pernicious means “having a harmful effect, especially in a gradual or subtle way” [google: define pernicious] and where contrivances mean “the use of skill to bring something about or create something” [google: define contrivance].

Importantly, the above translation uses the word “cleverer”. The word clever means “quick to understand, learn, and devise or apply ideas; intelligent” [google: define clever].

But my book utilizes the word “cunning” where cunning means “having or showing skill in achieving one’s ends by deceit or evasion” [google: define cunning].

Candidly, I am not actually capable of reading the original language, but from translation context as presented in the English of Chapter 57, I am thinking “cunning” represents Lao Tzu’s intent. Why? Because Chapter 57 does not dispel intelligence (cleverness), but the Chapter appeals to the student’s intelligence, and that the student should appeal to the intelligence of the people, but the Chapter does declare that deceit (cunningness) is a dishonorable trait that is a detriment to the person and to the people as a whole.

Therefore Lao Tzu is again offering an empirical truth, deceitful people create deceitful things.

 
Lao Tzu offers the fourth of four items as evidence in CH57L11-12:
“The wider the knowledge of law,
“The more there are thieves and rogues.”

That is Lao Tzu’s fourth answer to his question of CH57L4, which was asked by Lao Tzu assuming there would be critics skeptical of the truth of CH57L1-3.

My book has CH57L11 convey that the increase in promulgation of law has an increase in “thieves and bandits” (CH57L12).

Again, Lao Tzu seems to be appealing to empirical evidence to support the established truth of CH57L1-3.

Counterintuitively, while increased laws aim to assist the people, the increase in laws actually creates things the increased laws aim to prevent, thieves and bandits (rogues), which come to exist in all levels of society, from the poorest to the wealthiest, from the governed to the governor, and even those who act as a voice interceding on behalf of the person and people.

 
Having provided four evidences of truth (CH57L4-12) as confirmation to the three elements of truth (CH57L1-3), Lao Tzu turns attention to what the student needs to do in order (CH57L13-18) for the established truths of CH571-3 to come to be.

 
 
CH57L13-18 work as a unit, establishing the conclusion for this chapter.
“So the wise say:
“I take no action and the people transform themselves.
“I remain still and the people set themselves right.
“I don’t interfere and the people themselves prosper.
“I am free of desires and the people of themselves
“Hold to the un-carved block.”

With CH57L13, Lao Tzu turns attention to what the above translation calls the “the wise” but my book calls “a sage”.

With CH57L13, Lao Tzu is appealing to the wise (sage), wherever they might reside, in poverty or luxury, governed or governor.

Importantly, with CH57L14, Lao Tzu uses the first person pronoun “I”. With the use of “I”, Lao Tzu could be interpreted as speaking from himself.

Counterintuitively, Lao Tzu is not. Lao Tzu is telling the wise (sage) to speak CH57L14-17 as if they own the statements themselves, utter the statements from their own first person perspective in order to accomplish the truths of CH57L1-3.

 
In CH57L14, Lao Tzu states:
“I take no action and the people transform themselves.”

Again, counterintuitive. Remain without action, and the people themselves will find it within themselves to change and transform. Difficult it might be, but transformation, a change of heart, has to come from within the individual.

Importantly, in CH57L14 Lao Tzu seems to be appealing to the intelligence of not only the wise (sage), but also the intelligence of the people, when both the sage and the individual are intelligent, the sage leaves the individual alone to work their life through their own intelligence.

 
In CH57L15, Lao Tzu states:
“I remain still and the people set themselves right.”

This line works in conjunction with the previous line, and conveys similar thoughts: the wise (sage) does not utilize their wisdom and experience to help the people.

Instead, the wise (sage) has confidence that the people will use their own intelligence to set themselves right in their own lives.

 
In CH57L16, Lao Tzu states:
“I don’t interfere and the people themselves prosper.”

This line works in conjunction with the previous line, and again conveys similar thoughts: the wise (sage) does not utilize their own ability to do things for the people.

Instead, the wise (sage) has confidence that the people will use their own intelligence to prosper themselves.

 
In CH57L17, Lao Tzu states:
“I am free of desires and the people of themselves”.

The final statement that Lao Tzu wants the wise (sage) to speak from themselves holds a profound realization.

If the wise (sage) wants to achieve the truths of CH57L1-3, the sage has to become CH57L14-16, which will allow the sage to experience CH57L17.

What is the experience of CH57L17?

When the sage embodies CH57L14-16, the sage is not burdened with the people and desires of the people.

That sounds counterintuitive because it seems the wise (sage) should be burdened with the need for the people to transform themselves, to set the people right, and to help the people prosper. Why? The assumption is the sage has transformed, been set right, and prospered. Therefore, the assumption is that the sage wants the people to experience the same thing the sage experienced.

But, for Lao Tzu, when the sage has returned to the Tao, then the sage knows that it is not the responsibility of the sage to change the person or the people. Why? The sage did not actually change their own self, the Tao changed the person into a sage, and thus, as a sage, the sage has to recall the truth of CH57L18 “Hold to the un-carved block.”

It is not the sage who carves the block into the object the block is to be. It is the Tao who does the carving, and the carving can only be accomplished with the sage leaves each individual and the people themselves to their own intelligence to figure out that they need to return to Tao.

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