Tao Te Ching Chapter17

Of the best rulers
The people (only) know that they exist;The next best they love and praise;
The next they fear;
And the next they revile. 

When they do not command the people’s faith,
Some will lose faith in them,
And then they resort to oaths!

But (of the best) when their task is accomplished, their work done,
The people all remark, “We have done it ourselves.”

Lin Yutang, Translator

The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects. Next comes the ruler they love and praise;
Next comes one they fear;
Next comes one with whom they take liberties.When there is not enough faith, there is lack of good faith. 

Hesitant, he does not utter words lightly.

When his task is accomplished and his work done
The people all say, ‘It happened to us naturally.’

 D. C. Lau, Translator

So. Ruling and being directed is always an interesting subject. There is something in us which rules and directs us, something outside us which rules and directs us.

A  person could think the sage has lost his mind here. Or at least his way. The rich, esoteric depths of the Primal Origin and a focus on unity and oneness lulls us into an introspective calm, and now suddenly we have dualism, rulers and people, and love and fear and hate and commands and curses.

As Louis W. noted in his observations of Chapter 3 of the Tao Te Ching “for centuries much of the Tao Te Ching was viewed as sage advice for the ruler…” There is a mind-boggling amount of scholarly material about the roots and branches of this work as it has come down through the centuries, it is still branching, and now it is viewed as sage advice for anyone.

The longevity of the Tao Te Ching is owed to its simplicity and depth. It speaks to the basis of human being in ways that transcend cultural context. It lends itself easily to personal interpretation. It was written in a single language with particular, now lost and unknown, denotative and connotative words, in a specific age, in a local context. Yet even now, two and a half millennia after it was written, it offers a clean, bare-bones matrix of understanding which we can flesh out with the words and thoughts and awareness of our own individual experience.

It would be easy to think this chapter deals with rulers. It does, of course. Yet there’s a deeper context here, a perspective taken from a wider view. To our modern sensibility this chapter could be a particularly brutal reflection if we take a look at what we allow to rule us.

What rules us, what directs us, and how do we feel about it? How many of us have the courage and honesty to even consider such things? In our existential experience, waking to the truth of these matters might feel as though the sage has taken a butcher’s cleaver and chopped through the meat and bone of our lives.

There are some tough questions here. Are we willing to ask them?

What Rules Us?

What if we discover what rules us? What if the gnawing subliminal core of us about what we have submitted ourselves to were to suddenly see the light of day? Haven’t we already chosen to avoid such honesty out of fear that the truth will not set us free, but bludgeon us into numb despair with the recognition of our own unmindful acquiescence to things we do not love? What happens if we discover that we have chosen to be ruled by things which  we fear and revile and have no faith in as this chapter observes? How would we feel if we woke up and realized that we have chosen to be unmindful of our choice to be ruled by those things?

I marvel at the delusional gymnastics of the existential rational mind. It devotes itself most often to rationale-ist comprehension and its most beneficial use often goes begging for small bits of time in quiet corners not often available to it. It is no more concerned with reconciliation of its nature to the universe at large than a suet ball. There are times when I despair at the seemingly endless capacity of the human mind to deny and deflect the reality of our common and communal human being.

Clarity is not common. I encounter people who only use their minds and see only in darkness. They see darkness everywhere, and deny the light which cannot be seen and yet can be clearly and simply known. There are times when, if I did not remember what I know, I could easily believe that the blindness, insensitivity, and ignorance of humanity was endemic and incorrigible.

In the next chapter, chapter 18 of the Tao Te Ching, the sage speaks of the “intelligence of the body” and remarks upon the effects engendered when it declines. The intelligence of the body reminds us that corporeal, materialistic existence is transient, brief, and microcosmic. In the light of the body’s intelligence we can see acceptance and peace and a sense of community and friendship with all who share this transient existence.

When that knowledge, that intelligence, declines – fear appears in the mind, and our separation from one another is accomplished. The manifestations of this fear are then created and become real to us in our existential experience.

We become susceptible to the fear-sourced definitions and mandates of our culture, our society, the purely mechanical and materialistic universe we choose to perceive. We become desperate, held tightly in what we feel to be the inescapable clutches of a destiny we resist and fear. We devote our minds and bodies to the lost cause of materialistic survival in a vast universe.

And so we become deluded kings and pharaohs, dragging worldly knowledge and accumulations of goods and accounts of our virtue into our tombs in the belief that such things matter and will secure our existential survival in comfort eternally.

And worse than any of these is the life dedicated to these pursuits which has emerged triumphant in its existential achievements and, in its dedication to small things, has become small itself. In addition to creature comfort it has achieved smugness and fluidly practices a fluent and unconscious moral sloth

Here’s what I know for sure. Selfishness, not mammon, is the ruler which sources all evils. It sources greed and gluttony and envy and lust and wrath and sloth and pride. It sources fear, and fear is the existential denier of the divine self, the destroyer of our conscious awareness of who and what we are, really.

Taking personal responsibility for bad choices and making good choices instead is often just more than a person cares to bear, no matter if the eventual result is clarity and freedom and new life. The pain we fear in the discovery of our own fault holds us back from ever finding peace or being truly awake. And perhaps we might find ourselves less comfortable and curried than our present circumstances afford us, no small matter to the existential requirements of our egocentric predicament as spiritual beings in a seemingly separate material body.

In 1950, David Reisman wrote a landmark book, The Lonely Crowd. The Wikipedia entries about Reisman and his work includes the following:

“(It was) …a sociological study of modern conformity, which postulates the existence of the “inner-directed” and “other-directed” personalities. Riesman argues that the character of …American society impels individuals to “other-directedness”, …where individuals seek their neighbors’ approval and fear being outcast from their community. This lifestyle has a coercive effect, which compels people to abandon “inner-direction” of their lives, and induces them to take on the goals, ideology, likes, and dislikes of their community.

And this:

“…people who were inner-directed… discovered the potential within themselves to live and act not according to established norms, but based on what they discovered using their own inner gyroscope.”


We can choose to not be ruled by that which inspires curses and hatred and fear, to not be ruled by things we have no faith in. We can choose to be ruled by what we love and praise and the unseeable thing we know but are at a loss for words to express. The best of all rulers is the divine unknowable essence of all, known but not seen by mind, present in all.

2 Responses to Tao Te Ching Chapter17

  1. Louis W says:

    You have asked a difficult and important question which I do not pretend that I can answer. That doesn’t stop me, though, from commenting based on some thoughts I had about others who have considered the issue,

    As you recognize, we have both external and internal circumstances that “rule” our loves; and they are usually seen as being different. For the external, I am reminded of Cicero’s observation that it is fortune, not wisdom, that rules man’s life.

    With regard to the internal, I am reminded of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As he said, man does live by bread alone – if he is hungry and has no bread. When the basic physical needs for survival are met, then a person’s life is said to be ruled by a desire for safety and security.
    When that is in place, one’s life is said to be ruled by the need to belong to a group and be loved. After that is found, it is said that the desire for recognition or fulfillment becomes the inner ruler. Finally (perhaps), all needs are met and a person becomes “self-actualized.” That is, he becomes “independent of the good opinion of others.”

    When that level of independence is reached, is that all there is? I think not.* Toward the end of his life, Maslow began to discuss a level he called self-transcendence. This is a level at which a person’s life is ruled by the recognition that there are causes that exist beyond the self and by the need to experience a sense of identity that extends beyond the personal self. Your thoughts seem to incorporate that perhaps highest level.

    * There is a joke that seems relevant here: René Descartes walks into a bar. He orders a beer, and when he is finished the bartender asks if he would like another. Descartes replies, “I think not” – and he disappears.

    • bobgriffith says:

      Ha! That’s the second joke you’ve told I hadn’t heard before, and another great one. Please, sir, is there more?

      Sadly, I’m always looking for the deeper meaning, being the serious and humorless fellow I seem to have become. I have to note that the joke is on those Cartesian adherents who believe they will disappear if they stop thinking, when actually that is when they wake up and start living… But that’s just me. ;)

      Maslow’s hierarchy has been of some use to me in my life, more as a sociological table of levels of human interaction than as a road map or checklist for psycho-social development. I’m not a big fan of “levels.” Models that represent dynamic, interactive continuums (a snow globe model, for example) are better for me than stacked or linear arrangements. But Maslow is definitely useful.

      Maslow helped me out in the sense that the hierarchy provided a convenient template for assessing the contextual appropriateness of a conversation and “taking care of” who I was speaking with by maintaining a comfort level appropriate to their understanding. I’m perfectly willing to have a nice friendly chat with anyone. I don’t want my preference for an interaction at the actualized or transcendent “levels” to defeat those momentary connections.

      Most of my life, and maybe all of it now that I think about it, I’ve been able to meet people where they stand and listen to them and interact with them in their comfort zone. I’ve always preferred a connection at what Maslow characterized as the actualized or transcendent level. I’d gently nudge the interaction in that direction if the opportunity appeared, but I wasn’t so invested in going there that it screwed up the fundamental virtue of conversation, which is basically about people connecting and sharing and recognizing one another’s experiences and thoughts and conclusions, and finding the common ground there.

      As a result those conversations could rise to the higher “levels” on their own, and often they did. I learned that while it is rare to encounter an actualized or transcendent person, it is very common to encounter actualizing or transcending people dealing with problems and solutions and the matter of acceptance, all of which are an intrinsic part of their path and a critical component in their awakening to who and what they are really.

      I love those conversations. I’ve had them with laborers and carpenters, doctors and professors, cowboys and mechanics and veterans and drunks and sages and masters. No particular level of psycho-social development was present there, just the fundamental predicament of humanity to understand and reconcile its experience.

      The conversations I found most engaging were involved with honestly sharing a certain challenge of the moment involving a personal sense of insufficiency or failure, or separation. The least fulfilling interactions I have are with folks who think they know, but don’t.

      I must admit that as I have gotten older I have found it tiresome to engage in extended conversations with folks who are stuck in self-defeating loops on their own path. I often quickly scrape them off knowing that the loop will end when it is supposed to and the victim is once again willing to honestly consider the problem, the solution, and find the transcendental moment of acceptance.

      The conversations I treasure now are with folks who honestly seek to know the unknowable and who are challenging the things they see, the things which are insisting upon being real even though they are not.

      I also prefer conversations with woodchucks, deer, dogs, and trees because they are extraordinarily willing to converse about anything and always offer the most wonderful insights into the truth of being.

      And I must say that I particularly enjoy the conversations inspired by you and Amy and Harmony in this ongoing forum. The medium is ponderous, nuances lost, connections slow in developing compared to the old analog conversation which offers much more rapid information exchanges on multiple levels – and yet it does afford a certain comfortable leisure and rhythm and lends itself to contemplative moments between words, which is pretty cool.

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