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and ethical conventions was prima facie evidence that humankind had
already lost its “way,” or the tao. The way back to order and tranquility
was not a matter of adhering to these virtues, but of abandoning them:
Sever “sageness,” forsake “wisdom,”
And the people shall benefit an hundredfold.
Sever “ren,” forsake “justice,”
And the people shall again be filial and compassionate.
Sever cunning, forsake profit,
And there shall be no brigands or thieves.
[But as mere] words, these three [measures] are insufficient;
Hence there are more instructions:
Show plain white silk,
Embrace the uncarved block, *
Lessen selfishness,
Bereave the appetites.
The Tao-te ching delivers one of its most stinging indictments of Con-
fucian thought and moral virtues in the following passage:
After the great tao was abandoned
There was “ren” and “justice.”
After “wisdom” appeared,
There was enormous pretension.
After the six human relationships fell into disharmony,
There was “filial piety” and “compassion.”
After the nation slid into turmoil and chaos,
There were “loyal ministers.”
For Taoists, the “sage” or wise ruler clearly foresees this tragic state of
moral affairs as a terrifying possibility and seeks to avoid it. For the
most part he can do this simply by doing nothing: he follows the Taoist
path of nonaction, which politically means blunting his ambitions and
remaining content. Because he actually does little if anything, his popu-
lation is unaware or only vaguely aware of his very existence:
The greatest ruler
Is unknown to his people.
The next best, the people love and honor,
The next they dread,
And the next they revile.
*“Plain white silk” (su) and “the uncarved block” (pu) are Taoist images for natu-
rally unadorned, unspoiled simplicity.
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