Chapter 66 – Only the Lowly

 The great rivers and seas are kings of all mountains streams
 Because they skillfully stay below them.
That is why they can be their kings.
Therefore, in order to be the superior of the people,
One must, in the use of words, place himself below them.
And in order to be ahead of the people,
One must, in one’s own person, follow them.
Therefore the sage rejoices in praising him without getting tired of it.
It is precisely because he does not compete that the world cannot compete with him. 

Translation by Wing Tsit Chan (1963)

I don’t think this chapter adds very much to what Lao Tzu has said previously, so I will confine my Tao Te Ching Tuesday contribution to a few odd thoughts.


I was running in a local road race a few years ago, and as I came up on a runner ahead of me I notice that on the back of his shirt it said, “I must hurry to catch up with them – I am their leader.”  That seems to be the kind of leader Lao Tzu is extolling here.  It is similar to tOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhe statement in Chapter 49 that the sage – or, here, the leader – has no fixed personal ideas, but regards the ideas of the people as his own.

Even a great leader cannot take his followers to a place they are not prepared to go.  You might consider this in the context of the conversation between Peter and Jesus at the Last Supper, as described in the Gospel of John:

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” 37 Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” 38 Jesus answered,“Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times. (John 13:36-38, English Standard Version of Bible)

Of course within hours Peter did deny Jesus three times.  He was not yet ready to follow the path to crucifixion, so the leader went on without even his most ardent follower.  Mountain streams, on the other hand, are quite ready to flow down into the great rivers and seas and they freely move toward those larger bodies of water.


I referred to a different translation in the discussion of Chapter 22, but Wing Tsit Chan’s translation of that chapter includes this sentence:  “It is precisely because he does not compete that the world cannot compete with him.”  Those are the exact words that are found at the end of Chan’s translation of this chapter.  The concepts raised in Chapter 22 are relevant here.


In this series of essays looking at the Tao Te Ching, we have been pretending that Lao Tzu was a real person who wrote the book sequentially with the 81 chapters in which it is almost always presented today.  Scholars tell us, though, that the earliest known manuscripts do not divide the text into chapters.  They also say that later manuscripts contain passages that are not in earlier ones, so there must have been changes over the years.  Lao Tzu may or may not have been a real person, but that was certainly not his real name.  “Lao Tzu” means something like “Old Master” or “Old Boy.”

Be that as it may, let us continue to pretend that the text was written by that Old Boy in the order in which it is presented in these pages.  I find it interesting that just a few lines earlier, in Chapter 65, Lao Tzu tells us that the sage and the ruler should keep the people ignorant.  Here he says that the effective ruler must, in the use of words, place himself below the people he governs.

Now in the last chapter he said that to use ignorance to rule the state is kindness, and we discussed what that might mean.  Here, though, he says that in communicating with the people, the ruler must place himself below those ignorant folks.  Does that mean that he must present himself as even worse than ignorant?

If that is the case, it would seem that many of our modern politicians are following his advice with abandon.  I don’t necessarily want to say that any one politician is worse than another, but Texas Governor Rick Perry comes to mind.  As you may recall, he dropped out of the 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination largely because of the repeated gaffes  in his speeches and comments, at least as they were reported to the public.  (If you don’t recall, here is a link to a top-10 list of some of the things he said:

I must admit that I do not know much about Gov. Perry – some people I know in Texas refer to him as “big hat – no cattle” – and I am mentioning him as an example of a tangential thought.  So now I am pretty far off-topic.  I should probably quit before I wander off even more.


Fourmile FallsHumility is a good virtue.

7 thoughts on “CHAPTER 66 – ONLY THE LOWLY

  1. Hi Louis,

    It is an interesting distinction that you have made between here and the previous chapter – between taking the lower position and in Chapter 65, where he was suggesting keeping the people ignorant.

    Do you think the juxtaposition of those two concepts was on purpose?

    Perhaps by leaving his work as “anonymous”, which by the way the old story goes – he had no intention of writing this stuff down anyways. He just wanted to leave a country that had gone a bit nuts. This is the ultimate in letting the others lead. Make a small book, at the suggestion of someone else, and have the entire world study it for thousands of years beyond your lifetime… remain nameless with only one or two bad drawings of yourself as proof you even existed. Let them question your existence and even your authorship…

    I think that if one is confident in who they are, there is no need to lead others by being ahead of them. If you are “behind” them, then you can see where they go with things and subtly make suggestions for them so that they feel as if they thought of the idea and that it did not come from you. This is the following that I think of in this chapter.

    As for keeping the people ignorant, your last chapter essay was brilliant in explaining that. The giant gap between intellectual knowing and true understanding puts these two seemingly related concepts in two entirely different ballparks. If, as a leader from behind, we have any possible way to guide people in any direction – it would be to encourage them to stay away from this idea of having all the answers. Stay ignorant and encourage others to do the same – subtly, of course.

    • Amy, after reading your and Bob’s comments on this chapter I began to wonder If I may have been too hasty in saying that the chapter presents little that is new. There is a good deal of substance here in a form I see as a variation on a theme that has appeared throughout the work. Like a good composer, Lao Tzu has let each of those variations serve a purpose and support and enhance the theme.

      I do agree with the comments you have made – and I must confess that I was being perhaps too flippant in my comments about politicians. In writing this reply I was inclined to quote e e cummings’ couplet: “a politician is an arse upon/which everyone has sat except a man”; but I won’t, though I just did, because I wouldn’t want to leave the obvious interpretation without looking at Luke 19:30. See how easily I get off-topic?

      Whether he really lived – or is alive today – or not, I think you may have explained the Old Master quite wonderfully here.

  2. (I like it when things go off topic, and this time in particular because your mention of Rick Perry reminded me of Molly Ivins, the late, great take-no-prisoners journalist who was a sequoia among shrubs in the uncompromising hard-core political badlands of Texas. I think Molly demonstrated the equally powerful opposite side of the coin when it comes to how to lead, but for now I’ll confine myself to the sage’s context. I wrote a public remembrance of Molly in 2007 shortly after she moved on, and I’ll post it over on my blog.)


    The sage talks about pragmatic ways of conduct in the “service industry” of ruling and leading. And it’s good stuff. The convenient example for me to share here is my own experience as a General Contractor – although the capital letters bother me and I usually describe my experience in that past life as being just a carpenter. A carpenter glorified by paperwork and a title, with added responsibility.

    In my experience “leading” proved to be an art which over the years became best described by two phrases: “Herding cats,” and “Putting a rubber band around jell-o.” My clients and subcontractors and suppliers looked to me for guidance for their part in a process that involved literally hundreds of details which at times seemed to daily wander off the path we were headed down and collapse into puddles somewhere. I had to figure out how to keep the process on track, moving toward our mutual – but not always mutually recognized – goal of a final product created by the diverse skills and energy of a large number of people.

    I found that the best way was to be “below” them, to “follow” and be their servant and help them do what they needed to do.

    I learned that clients are best served by being listened to, and responded to, with honesty and reassurance. As in when the client asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, you respond, “I don’t know. But I’ll find out and get back to you.” And then you do what you say. Honesty is reassuring, even when it involves owning lack of knowledge, or recognition of poor performance, or informing the client of the “hard news” rather than handing them a line of shined poopy. And that’s not about being “first.”

    It starts with the mindset that you are the servant, and it’s your job to serve, and the best way to serve is with humble concern, recognizing and meeting the concerns of others with honest speech and best effort, placing them “first.”

    It’s the same with subcontractors, specialists in a variety of fields who follow one another sequentially through a project who often have vast expertise in their specialty yet often are less informed about how what they do affects the next person to follow them. In specific matters of their specialty I deferred to their knowledge and put them “first.” In communicating the larger picture (the plumber needs this area; the furnace folks need this area; there’s going to be a clothes chute here) while serving them and the next subcontractor and the project as a whole I would express that information with them as being a shared problem which I needed help figuring out, again placing them “first.”

    I knew the call and could have simply issued ultimatums, but I found it best to be deferential and cooperative rather than overbearing and unilateral. As a result they would become participants in the problem solving process and figure things out for themselves. The subcontractors began to “take care of the next guy” and feel good about themselves for doing that. Eventually there was a lot less cussing the sub behind them and ignoring the one in from of them, and a lot more discussion and contact happening there.

    They learned to put others “first,” and when that mindset was in play a lot of the daily problems which can appear in the course of a project – I called them “alligators” – never crawled out of the swamp in the first place. Although I have to say the swamp is ugly, dark and deep and there were always alligators to beat, and promises to keep, and many, many miles to go before any project was put to sleep.

    And then there’s that word thing, the one the sage speaks of when he observes, “One must, in the use of words, place himself below them.” Again, this is about deference and cooperation and clear communication, which involves serving the person you are working with by helping them clearly understand the point in their own terms, from their own perspective. In most cases, “effluent” is not as good a word as “sewage,” and knowing the difference and when and where each is most effective serves that understanding.

    And then there are times when the only proper expression is the modern version of that Old English and Old German root which is a word that has proven to be a common exclamatory expression of chagrin occurring shortly after the same thing happens, and is also a good expression of what runs downhill when one feels one is being dumped on…

    It’s very important to remember that it’s not about talking down to the other person, it’s about talking to them. I’ve learned that if I’m going to use words like “effluent,” well it’s probably best to wait until I’m writing a commentary on the Tao Te Ching for myself and not too worried about whether anybody understands me or not when I start speaking in a 19th century manner and style about word etymology.

    So it is in these ways that one “in order to be ahead (or at the head) of the people, One must, in one’s own person, follow them.” Lin Yu Tang’s translation of Chapter 66 says it this way:

    “…the Sage stays above,
    And the people do not feel his weight;
    Walks in front,
    And the people do not wish him harm.

    A light hand and a cooperative mindset serves a leader well. If you’re a brother you ain’t heavy, and it’s better not to say “This way, you idiots!” when you can say, “Hey, guys, it’s over here. Take a look at this…”

    The Lords of the Ravines (Lin Yutang, 1955)

    How did the great rivers and seas become the Lords
    of the ravines?
    By being good at keeping low.
    That was how they became Lords of the Ravines.

    Therefore in order to be the chief among the people,
    One must speak like their inferiors.

    In order to be foremost among the people,
    One must walk behind them.

    Thus it is that the Sage stays above,
    And the people do not feel his weight;
    Walks in front,
    And the people do not wish him harm.
    Then the people of the world are glad to uphold him forever.

    Because he does not contend,
    No one in the world can contend against him.

    • Although I don’t eat meat, I have heard of General Tso’s Chicken. Now I will need to look at the menu for General Contractor’s Rubber-Banded Jello.

      Since, as I mentioned last week, it has been said that everyone and his dog is writing commentaries on the Tao Te Ching, I decided to run this chapter by Darcy. She is supposed to be part kelpie (the Australian dog, not the Scottish water spirit). Consequently, she replied that “leading from behind” is precisely how she gets the sheep next door to move away from her fence.

      Her answer points out the difference between a farm dog and a good human facilitator or leader. In the long run, when dealing with people and not sheep, herding is not the best way to lead. It is like being behind but acting as if you are in front.

      That is not what you have described in your dealings with subcontractors, suppliers, homeowners, building inspectors and others; but it is a distinction that we should all try to understand.

      • Agreed, definitely. And the GC’s R-BJ thing is inspired – funny enough to make me snort-laugh when I read it. Glad I wasn’t drinking this cup of coffee at the time, it would have come out my nose. Cheers.

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