Dào Dé Jīng with footnotes: 3

Standard disclaimer

Not preferring the worthy allows people to not argue. [i] [ii] [iii]

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. [iv] [v] [vi] [vii]

Thus, the wise person’s order empties their hearts and fills their bellies. [viii]

Weakens their wills and strengthens their bones. [ix]

Always allows people to be without knowledge, without desire. [x]

Allows those that know to not dare to act. [xi]

Acts without action, so that nothing is not orderly. [xii]


[i] This line is a direct reversal of Mozi’s meritocratic ‘prefer the worthy’ (Lau 1963, xxxi). Roberts (2001, 33-34) suggests that this chapter’s absence from the Guodian texts supports the idea that it postdates Mozi (approx. 485-410BC).

[ii] Shǐ (使), ‘allows’, is sometimes translated ‘makes’ or ‘causes’. In the context, this seems too strong. Shǐ also means ‘to give free reign to’ (Kroll 2015, 414), so the coercive implications of the English ‘makes’ are misplaced here. Similarly, Lau (1963, 7) gives ‘keeps from’ and Ames and Hall (2003, 81) give ‘saves from’.

[iii] ‘Argue’, zhēng (爭), is often given as ‘contends’; but this gives it a stuffy narrowness that seems at odds with the context. Academics ‘contend’. People argue. ‘Argument’ in normal usage still contains, for instance, academic arguments. No two Englishmen ever had a ‘contention’ in the pub.

[iv] ‘Heart’, xīn (心), is closer to older English usages than modern. Modern English puts rationality and emotions in conflict and associates ‘heart’ with the latter; but in older English uses, and here, ‘heart’ includes the two in alignment. Xīn is broad, it includes a person’s thoughts, emotions, judgments, and intentions (Cua 2003, 795; Pregadio 2008, 1100) without implying mind/body duality (Allan 1997, 85). Allan interprets the core metaphor as pool that may be either clear or cloudy (with certain emotions) (1997, 86).

[v] The Ma-wang-tui texts in omit xīn (心), ‘heart’ (Henricks 1989, 192), giving ‘…allows the people not to be troubled’.

[vi] Heshang Gong’s commentary says of the start of this chapter that ‘for the sage, governing the kingdom is no different to governing the person’ (Roberts 2001, 34)

[vii] Ivanhoe (2003, 85) links this line to Analects 12.18 (Slingerland 2003, 133).

[viii] ‘Order’, (zhì, 治) is often given as ‘government’. Its meaning, however, is wider: ‘setting things in their proper channels’, of which good governance is just one example (as is curing in medicine) (Kroll 2015, 608). ‘Order’ carries the wider associations better than ‘government’, while still emphasising the political reading.

[ix] In the context, (其), ‘their’, probably refers to the people; but if this line and the one preceding it appeared alone, then ‘their’ would refer to the ‘wise person’, and the couplet would look like advice on self-cultivation. This reinforces Heshang Gong’s comment on the start of the chapter (footnote 6). Lau (1963, 108) makes a sustained argument that the chapters sometimes seem to combine miscellaneous sayings, so it is possible that in this phrase did originally refer to the wise person.

[x] Wúyù (無欲), ‘without desire’ also appears in line 5 of chapter 1. At first glance, its appearance here seems to undermine the idea that the text is neutral about the ‘with desire’ and ‘without desire’ options in that chapter, and instead support the idea that ‘always be without desire to watch its subtlety’ is preferred (see further Lau 1963; xxiv – xxxiii; Henricks 1989, 188). Things are probably not, however, so straightforward. If being without desire is favoured, is it to be desired? The interpretation risks unnecessary contradictions. They can be avoided. This line does not say ‘do not allow the people to be with desire’, merely ‘do allow them to be without desire’. It is not a contradiction to allow both ‘with’ and ‘without’ desire (see footnote 2). It is merely an example of wúwéi.

[xi] Wang Bi interprets ‘those that know’ as simply ‘those that know how to act’ (Lynn 1999, 56). Roberts believes it refers to ‘travelling political counsellors’ (2001, 34). In the context, the two may be the same.

[xii] The Ma-wang-tui version of the last two lines is slightly different. The reference to wúwéi, ‘acts without acting’, is absent (Hendricks 1989, 192).

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