Heaven and Earth are ruthless;What Waley translates "ruthless" most translators render "not benevolent" and this, I think, more accurately conveys the intended meaning. It is true that Nature can seem cruel, but the real point is that it is indifferent to what seems to us as cruelty. Waley thinks this chapter is a polemic against the Legalists, who advocated rule by iron-fisted law on the basis of the ruthlessness of Nature, but it seems much more likely that it is addressed to Confucians, who advocated benevolence on the basis of the benevolence of Nature. In either case, Laozi answers, No, Nature simply happens without ulterior motive. Our task is to surrender into this and thereby emulate it.
To them the Ten Thousand Things are but as straw dogs.
The Sage too is ruthless;
To him the people are as straw dogs.
Yet, Heaven and Earth and all that lies between
Is like a bellows
In that it is empty, but gives a supply that never fails.
(The Way and Its Power, V; Waley)
"Yet" even if Nature is empty of meaning, it is still a wonderful and endless upwelling of giving. In the previous chapter (IV) we read: "The Way is like an empty vessel, that yet may be drawn from without ever needing to be filled." Why empty? Because we cannot consign it content. As straw dogs enjoying our moment in the sun, we "bask in the broad daylight of Heaven", rejoicing in the bounty of life. Yet we understand that our moment is but a brief expression of a Reality beyond our comprehension.
The sage treats people as straw dogs. When they flourish, they are most precious, just as the effigy used in sacrifice is precious. But we need not concern ourselves that their existence is brief, and when their time is done, we need not concern ourselves that they are no more. There is a larger context. The sage is he who is always informed by this larger context in which nothing real is ever lost, where all is always and necessarily well.
The straw dog metaphor expresses the paradoxical nature of all existence; because things are, they are wonderful; when they are no more, there is no loss.
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