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 the 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: http://blog.chron.com/rickperry/2012/01/rick-perry%E2%80%99s-top-ten-oops-moments-of-his-campaign/.
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.