Study Guide

Tao Te Ching Power

By Lao Tzu


In loving the people and ruling the nation
Can one be without manipulation? [...]
Raising without domination
This is called the Mystic Virtue (10.7-17)

The devious Frank Underwood from House of Cards would think that this one's a joke. We can just hear Kevin Spacey laughing now. Do you think it's actually possible to rule over people without using any kind of manipulative tactics? The TTC says it totally is and that if you dominate people with manipulative tactics, eventually it will cause you to lose all the power you gained.

The highest rulers, people do not know they have them
The next level, people love them and praise them
The next level, people fear them
The next level, people despise them (17.1-4)

So the TTC gives four levels of rulers here: the completely incompetent ones whose people hate them, harsh dictators whose people fear them, populist ones whose people adore them, and, best of all, rulers who are so humble and subtle that the people don't even know they're being ruled. We figure almost every ruler currently on the planet falls somewhere on that spectrum. Think of a few modern-day leaders and figure out where they land. Would the TTC approve of them?

Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see that they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose (29.1-6)

According to the TTC, anybody who tries to control the world is doomed to fail. It's been right so far—from Hitler to Voldemort. Do you think it's possible for some person to become powerful enough to actually control the world?

Therefore, the honored uses the lowly as basis
The higher uses the lower as foundation
Thus the rulers call themselves alone, bereft, and unworthy
Is this not using the lowly as basis? Is it not so?
Therefore, the ultimate honor is no honor
Do not wish to be shiny like jade
Be dull like rocks (39.15-21)

Here, the TTC advises that rulers be humble (there's that theme of humility creeping into other themes again). Which kind of ruler would you rather have: one who constantly talks about how awesome they are, or one who isn't flashy at all? Which rulers in the world right now follow this idea and which don't?

When there are many restrictions in the world
The people become more impoverished (57.6-7)

These days in the USA there's a lot of debate on what kind of restrictions the government ought to put on Wall Street and the banks. Mr. Banker might point to this quote from the TTC and say, "Hah! See, no restrictions means money for all." But then Mr. Occupy might say, "Um, whatever. How about all the places where the TTC warns about the dangers of getting rich and the importance of being generous to everyone?" On which side of the debate do you fall?

When governing is lackluster
The people are simple and honest (58.1-2)

Hmm... would a candidate ever get elected if they promised the people a lackluster government? It's kind of an iffy word choice, but this snippet is getting at the same ideas as the rest of the TTC. Those in power should be humble and straightforward with the people. Can you think of any leader who's truly been like this?

Ruling a large country is like cooking a small fish (60.1)

Okay, we had to throw this one in there. How fun is this quote? It might seem pretty random if you've never tried to cook a small fish. The key things to know is that it takes just the right level of heat, and you have to be careful how much you poke it with that spatula or else it might fall apart. So to rule a large country you need be patient, humble, and not too extreme in anything you do. Also, you should eat fish because it's good for you. And delicious.

Therefore, using cleverness to govern the state
Is being a thief of the state
Not using cleverness to govern the state
Is being a blessing of the state (65.6-9)

We doubt this quote is suggesting that our rulers ought to be stupid, although it does sort of sound like that. Instead, it seems like yet another warning about using a bunch of manipulative tactics. If you do, your government will eventually fall like a house of cards. That's the second House of Cards reference for this theme. Can you tell what we've been binge-watching?

The people's hunger
Is due to the excess of their ruler's taxation
So they starve (75.1-3)

Some questions to consider about taxes: 1) At what point are they an example of the government overexerting its power? 2) At what point are they the right thing to do for the good of the people? The Democrats and Republicans have been duking it out for years over this one. Where do you fall?

When people no longer fear force
They bring about greater force
Do not limit their place
Do not reject their livelihood (72.1-4)

Here's the big warning for all you tyrannical dictators out there. Go ahead and rule your country by force, but one day you'll weaken and the people will take the power back—and most likely they'll take it back violently. Don't say the TTC didn't warn you. Hmm. We wonder if tyrannical dictators ever browse thorough Shmoop.