Sunday, August 7, 2011


by Scott Bradley

"When a sage rules, does he rule anything outside himself?" (Zhuangzi, 7:2; B. Ziporyn)

This pretty much sums up the political theory of philosophical Taoism. The emperor rules through his sagacity; his spiritual presence is enough to maintain order and contentment throughout the land. Similarly, a hermit-sage on the mountain brings abundant harvests and harmony to the surrounding villages. This is the efficacy of wu wei, nothing is purposefully done, yet nothing is left undone.

This is the primary message of the Tao Te Ching, a treatise for rulers on how best to rule. Zhuangzi, on the other hand, was more interested in personal liberation. (Graham, in fact, comments on the dearth of suitable material for the presumed editor of the Zhuangzi to use in the seventh, shortest and final, chapter of the Inner Chapters, that which deals with political issues.)

I doubt that any of us would subscribe to this political theory as effective for our present age, though it wouldn't hurt to have some 'sages' in power, nonetheless. Our interest in the Tao Te Ching and Zhuangzi is, I think, primarily directed to the personal and individual implications of their teachings. (Which is not to say that social implications do not follow in something like the same manner as suggested in the political theory.)

So, returning to the quote above, considered from the point of view of the individual, it remains a powerful statement on how to conduct oneself in the world. It is enough to 'rule yourself' to transform others. To help others it is sufficient to be ourselves what we would have them be. All external coercion is necessarily counter-productive.

Mencius (Lau translation) also had some instructive thoughts in this regard:

"If others do not respond to your love with love, look into your own benevolence; if others fail to respond to your attempts to govern them, look into your own wisdom;....In other words, look into yourself whenever you fail to achieve your purpose." (IV A 3)

"There has never been a man totally true to himself who fails to move others. On the other hand, one who is not true to himself can never hope to move others." (IV A 12)

"The trouble with people is that they are too eager to assume the role of teacher." (IV A 23)

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

1 comment:

  1. It isn't so much effective to rule yourself as it is to know yourself.

    Teach by making your own mind right and everything else will fall into place. I especially enjoyed the last quote.


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