Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: Chapter 3
老 子: 「道 德 經」 : 第 三 章
不 尚 賢 ，
使 民 不 爭 ﹔
不 貴 難 得 之 貨 ，
使 民 不 為 盜 ﹔
不 見 可 欲 ，
使 民 心 不 亂 。
Not esteeming the clever and good, keeps the people from contention.
Not valuing what is hard to obtain keeps the people from theft.
Not gazing at adorable things keeps the people from disorder in the heart.
The character 使 means ”to use”, so this section implies a little more than it is easy to bring out by the translation. There is a sense that the Tao Te Ching is written as advice for the wise ruler. Being a ruler is a bit like being an artist or craftsman with the people as the clay or material. If the ruler is trying to make a thing of beauty from the people, then contention, theft and disorder are blemishes in the desired work. A poor artist - let us say a wood carver - starts off with a plan and a fixed idea of the desired end product - something good, rare and adorable. These qualities are lauded. However, the particular piece of wood already has qualities of its own. The skilled craftsman works with the qualities that are already inherent in the material and does not hold up abstract ideals that must be conformed to. In the end, by working with the natural grain, something good, rare and adorable does, indeed, emerge, but not from a process of imposition. The same is true in governing a state or community. If one sets up goals and incentives and set one tends to set people against one another. If you run things on a basis of gain and loss, people will value getting over giving and will start cheating and stealing. If you give more attention to favourites, people will have turmoil in their hearts.
是 以 聖 人 之 治 ，
虛 其 心 ，
實 其 腹 ，
弱 其 志 ，
強 其 弱 。
Therefore, the sage governs by
emptying his heart
trusting his gut
weakening his will
strengthening his weakness
This could as well apply to governing the people or governing oneself. To empty the heart means to have few desires or attachments. I have translated 實 其 腹 as “trusting his gut” which I think conveys much of the sense to a modern Western reader. I more precise rendering would be "trusts the hara". Some translators take it to mean “fill the stomach” but i think that is an error. The Taoists practised a yoga that involved concentrating energy in the hara - the region just below the navel - and this is still practised in martial arts and other oriental exercises. The first character 實 implies faith, trust and value.
The character 志 - "will" - also means "ambition". So the sage has few ambitions. These two last lines are a very fine expression of the Taoist attitude - weaken the will, strengthen one’s weakness. There is strength in weakness, which is to say in humility and flexibility. There is resilience in adaptability. The rigid snaps where the flexible bends. The characters for strength and weakness both contain the element 弓which is a picture of a bow. In weakness, 弱, it occurs twice. A bow is a good symbol for Taoist principles because it implies strength and weakness at the same time. The bow is a weapon, hence strength, but it’s utility depends upon its flexibility. Also, when the bow is drawn, the bottom is brought up and the top is brought down - another symbol for Taoist social principles.
常 使 民 無 知 無 欲 。
使 夫 智 者 不 敢 為 也 。
為 無 為 ， 則 無 不 治 。
Generally one needs people without wisdom, without desire, and one needs that those who do have wisdom do not dare to act, or at least, “act without acting” - rule without misgovernment.
In a state or community there is more need for ordinary people than for leaders, and it is better if people have few desires. The small number who do have leadership ability should be cautious and not over-govern. They should act when necessary but only because it is necessary, not in order to put on airs or display their own cleverness. The slogan “act without acting” in which the first “act” means do what is necessary and the second “act” means pose or perform, runs all through the book and is a main plank of Lao Tzu’s philosophy. Misgovernment occurs when the ruler or leader is serving his own ego rather than the needs of the community. Ego is a performance - an act that a person puts on.
Many translators gloss this section as meaning that the sage deliberately keeps people ignorant, but I think that is going too far beyond the text.
This chapter is about leadership and government and applies to groups of any size from a small community up to a state or empire.
It suggests that the good ruler “strengthens his weakness” in the sense of making himself into a servant of truth, emptying his heart of vanity and desire and responding to need without putting on airs.
It further suggests that it is more important to make people content than competitive. You need a few people with leadership capacity, but not too many and the ones that there are do well to remain inconspicuous.