Chapter 72 – Why Not Rule Like a Sage?
When the people lack a proper sense of awe,
Then some awful visitation will descend upon them.
Do not constrict their living space;
Do not press down on their means of livelihood.
It is because you do not press down on them that they will not weary of the burden.
Hence the sage knows himself but does not display himself,
Loves himself but does not exalt himself.
Therefore he discards the one and takes the other.
Translation by D. C. Lau (1963)
When the people do not fear what they ought to fear, that which
is their great dread will come on them.
Let them not thoughtlessly indulge themselves in their ordinary
life; let them not act as if weary of what that life depends on.
It is by avoiding such indulgence that such weariness does not
Therefore the sage knows (these things) of himself, but does not
parade (his knowledge); loves, but does not (appear to set a) value
on, himself. And thus he puts the latter alternative away and makes
choice of the former.
Translation by James Legge (1891)
When the people no longer fear your power,
It is a sign that a greater power is coming.
Interfere not lightly with their dwelling,
Nor lay heavy burdens upon their livelihood.
Only when you cease to weary them,
They will cease to be wearied of you.
Therefore, the Sage knows himself,
But makes no show of himself,
But does not exalt himself.
He prefers what is within to what is without.
Translation by John C. H. Wu (1961)
I began this consideration of Chapter 72 of the Tao Te Ching by quoting the translations of not one, but three, respected scholars because these three different approaches show the difficulty inherent in trying to translate this work. Although I do not read Chinese, the research I did to prepare for these comments has indicated that the literal, word-for-word rendering of this chapter would be something like:
The people no fear power
Standard big power until
Not be improperly familiar with his place dwell
Not be disgusted with his place give birth to
Man alone not be disgusted with
Is because of not be disgusted with
Is because of sage man
Self know not self see
Self love not self precious
Reason remove that take this
In several commentaries I reviewed, it seems that the “modernistic” approach is to adopt a position close to the translations of Lau and Legge, which start by saying that if one does not have a proper perspective with respect to things which should invoke awe or dread, such things will come into his life. Amy Putkonen (who came up with the idea of “Tao Te Ching Tuesdays”) simplifies that approach in her rendering of the chapter by stating: “When people are not expecting it/disaster happens.”
Due to the ambiguities inherent in ancient Chinese script from the perspective of a 20th or 21st Century person writing in English, the context of the language within the whole Tao Te Ching, or at least nearby chapters, must be considered to determine how the words may be rendered to make the most sense. In this part of the book, Lao Tzu has several times given advice to rulers as to how the people should be governed. I believe that he is again offering such advice here. Therefore, I would lean toward accepting John C. H. Wu’s rendition. Wu’s also seems the simplest, so perhaps it wins out simply based on Occam’s Razor.
Following Wu’s translation, I believe Lao Tzu is telling the Prince or Emperor, first, that the people must recognize the extent of his power, otherwise there is danger of rebellion or invasion by a neighboring kingdom which might see a weakness that could be exploited.
Once the power is clearly established, Lao Tzu says, as he has before (e.g., Chapters 57 and 58) that the ruler must permit his subjects personal freedoms and refrain from overbearing regulation and taxation.
Finally, he offers the ruler the example of the sage. The sage is a person who understands his own virtues and abilities, but makes no show of them. He knows that all that is really important is within his own person and does not seek any more than is necessary from the external world. Why can’t governments act similarly?
Yeah, why can’t they?