Dàodéjīng 3: not Aristotelian

Not preferring the worthy allows people to not quarrel.

Not prizing hard to obtain goods allows people to not act like thieves.

Not displaying what can be desired allows people’s hearts to not be troubled.

Thus the sage’s government empties their heart and fills their belly.

Weakens their will and strengthens their bones.

Always allows people to be without knowledge, without desire.

Allows those that know to not dare act.

Acts without action, so that nothing is without government.

There’s a popular interpretation in the West that says early Daoism is a bit like Aristotle. I think that’s wrong.

It’s hard to imagine any Aristotelian saying ‘don’t prefer the worthy/excellence’ (however they choose to define worthiness). It’s just as hard to imagine them saying empty your mind and fill your belly, much less hoping that the knowledgeable will not dare to act.

Anti-ethics interpretations of Aristotle do exist; but, even so, this verse can only be called ‘Aristotelian’ if you bend that word far from it’s usual meaning. I’m utterly suspicious of the idea that other traditions should reduced to particular schools of Western philosophy; but a more fruitful analogy would surely be with monastic writers: for example, Benedict’s Rule or Bernard’s Steps.

The only way it is close to Aristotle is in comparison to the almost infinite distance from modern bureaucratic expertise, policy recommendations, campaigns for change, idolatry of progress, and parliamentary bills for every perceived problem.

Anyhow, notes on this version:

A more fluid rendering of the first three lines would be ‘If the worthy are not preferred, the people will not quarrel’ and so on. This, however, loses the emphasis on ‘NOT x, allows NOT y’. The last line asserts the importance of non-action, so I think the negativity is emphasised for a reason.

‘Allow’, shi (使) is often given as ’causes’ or even ‘makes’. To me this carries the wrong connotations, as it undermines the emphasis on wuwei (nonaction) in the last line. To ’cause’ someone to do something in English very much suggests intentional doing and even coercion.  Shi allows for ‘enables’ or even ‘gives free reign too’. ‘Allows’ seems a good balance.

‘Act like thieves’: is broad and allows for general subterfuge, sneakiness, taking by force, and even murder. I considered ‘act criminally’, but that seems to sacrifice the obvious link to material goods from the start of the line.

‘Government’: zhi (治) is also broad. It means to simply put things in good order, ‘policy’, and (in medicine) cure, as well as a seat of government (eg Westminster, Washington). I think the English word has the same flexibility, but tends to be read as ‘the institution of government’ above other possibilities. Still, I think it captures the range of associations better than the alternatives.

‘Hearts’: is closer to the older English reading of ‘heart’ than the modern. It means the combined seat of the emotions and intellect, not the emotions in conflict with the intellect. In honour of Mary Midgley, I nearly went for ‘heart and mind’.

‘Empties their heart’ etc: it’s not entirely clear that ‘their’ refers to the people. It might refer to the sage, or even the sage’s government. It is usually read as referring to the people, and I think that is the most plausible possibility, but I tried to preserve this ambiguity. This is why heart, belly, and will are not plural. Probably, the sage’s government empties the hearts of sage, government and people all together.


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