If you want to gather, first spread out
If you want to weaken, first strengthen
If you want to abolish, first foster
If you want to take, first give
This is called wei ming, the delicate overcoming the tough.
Fish should not leave the deep.
The instruments of state power should not be revealed to the people.


“If you want to gather, first spread out,” makes me think how Pureland Buddhism became the most widespread form of Buddhism in Japan as a result of its leaders all being banished to different parts. This was done with the intention that they no longer be capable of gathering and making trouble. The result was that what might otherwise have been a passing fashion in the capital became a popular movement disseminated throughout the country such that a few generations later it had become one of the major organising factors in Japanese society.

“If you want to abolish, first foster,” makes me think of the apocryphal story about the South American country where the president was asked by a minister, “What should we do about the rebels?” and he is said to have replied, “Give them a building. Soon they will become conservatives.” There is much truth in this. People become rebels because they are frustrated. Give them something positive to invest their energy in and the trouble passes.

In the traditional family, the art of being a woman was to make the man think that it was he who was making the decisions. Such subtle arts have been swept away by our modern preference for political correctness, gender equality, openness and fairness in all things. This makes it difficult to understand what Lao Tzu is advocating, which is so totally different from our modern ideals.

From his point of view, if you make everything transparent you are asking for trouble. Once people know how a system works their effort will go into manipulating it rather than being natural and everybody will learn to be a cheat. By making the system open you make the people crooked, whereas if the system is obscure the people are more likely to be straightforward and honourable. This seems counter-intuitive, but the basic point here is precisely this: that reality works in counter-intuitive ways.

To give an example. If the government wants to know how efficient its hospitals are, it can make a few spot checks by sending in inspectors. It will probably get the most accurate information if the inspectors are in plain clothes and unannounced and the hospital staff are not told what it is that they are actually counting. If, on the other hand, performance indicators are made public - say, that what will be measured will be waiting time for outpatient appointments - then one will see a sudden artificial improvement in the item that is to be measured - waiting times will become shorter - but this will have been achieved at the expense of something else that is not going to be measured. Furthermore, the inspection will have to be on a much bigger scale, covering the whole country. It will be vastly expensive and the results will be worthless.

In other words, if it is transparent, people will play the system. The only people who will then get penalised are the honest straight-forward ones who just carry on as normal and do not try to cheat. Realising that things are not working out as intended, the government will then introduce several new levels of manager-controllers to check up on everything. This will be intended to make people work harder, but the net effect will be to make staff demoralised. Everything will have been done in a transparent and open way and the result a disaster. It might have been better to have left doctors and nurses to get on in a more natural way and kept the control system minimal, subtle and out of sight. Does this sound familiar?

A simpler example is to do with publicity. If there is something wrong in society, often the most effective means to eliminating it is simply to not draw attention to it. In many cases this will lead to it dying out quite quickly. The more something is aired in public the more it is promoted. One can see this happening with much of the popular press. When I was young, for instance, the quality press did not report crime. Crime was not regarded as news. Nowadays the latest awful crime is all over social media. Is this an improvement?

Wei ming has several related meanings. It means twilight, which is a time when it is not too dark yet not too bright either. Or, it means subtle discernment, or what is conveyed by the colloquial term canny. It can mean gently brilliant. It refers to subtlety and to achieving things by mysterious ways. It can involve a skilful sleight of hand.

In the modern world of democracy we have lost respect for mystery. We think everything should be open and declared, but human deception still goes on. We introduce more and more regulations, but life just becomes more complicated and stressful. Are we missing something about human nature?

Lao tzu thinks that this modern desire for openness is misguided because human frailty will never be eliminated and the very effort to eliminate it tends to make evils become more insidious and widespread.

The modern state, for all its democracy, is kept safe from terrorism by secret police operations that are never revealed to the public. In practice, governmental power is wielded in secret ways, but because we have democracy there has to be a cover story for public consumption. Politicians may be humiliated if they are caught telling lies to the public, but all leading politicians must tell lies to the public so the punishment is more for being caught out than for the dishonesty.

We tend to think of Taoism as nice and sweet, but it also has something in common with Machiavelli who dared to write a book about how power actually works. Lao Tzu had worked in a medieval Chinese government. When he said that the fish should not leave the deep, he meant that there are many things that should not become public knowledge because, if they do, passions will become needlessly inflamed and yet more disaster will inevitably follow.

Of course, there is a certain contradiction between the general Taoist advocacy of naturalness and its ideas about how the state operates. The message is that for the ordinary person to be able to live a natural life s/he needs a measure of safety and this safety is best provided if unselfish philosopher rulers use their subtle understanding of human psychology to prevent bad things getting out of control. To do so is truly honourable. But we might ask, how many such truly unselfish persons are there in the political domain?

These are all rather challenging questions. Things do often work in paradoxical ways, both for good and for ill. Those who favour good must be at least as subtle as those who are intent on ill or they will soon be out maneuvered.

This kind of Taoist realism gets expressed in such ideas as that benevolence and rectitude are a step down from naturalness. In other words, if one tries to run things on a basis of ideals and principles one will probably do as much harm as good. Human affairs cannot be reduced to formulas. Each situation demands a unique response in which some invidious choices must be made. There are, for instance, many situations where telling a lie might save a life. There are then even more where telling a lie will save somebody’s pride or feelings. But where is the cut off point? At what point does telling the lie cease to be justified? Taoism suggests that such questions cannot be answered in the abstract or in principle, but, rather, that it takes the wisdom of Solomon to find the necessary skilful means in each situation.

Although we might wish and believe that if everybody were honest all would be well, this is not what actually happens, and just trying to keep oneself pure does not always best serve the common good. Sometimes it is wiser to keep some things secret and not have the fish leave the deep.

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I love how you always transcribe these old texts to the present. It is a long way to become as wise as Salomon.


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