The constant Tao has no name; it just is.
Although unassuming, there is none in the land under Heaven who can subject it.
When leaders regard it, all living beings naturally come to them;
Heaven and Earth cooperate shedding sweet dew.
No one makes this happen, it happens by itself.
With the start of control, names come into existence.
One needs to know when to stop;
if one knows when to stop danger may be avoided.
The Tao, in relation to the land under Heaven, is as great rivers or the ocean are to streams and dells.
This chapter is about the natural way of things. Just as little streams in the mountains naturally tend to flow down into great rivers and eventually to the ocean, so there is a natural grain to existence by which things tend to flow in a predictable way. This is Tao. Although the streams may have many twists and turns, still they consistently and persistently find a way down. The effect of gravity is slight, yet its inexorable pull makes it the dominant force in the universe. The Tao is similar. It might be barely noticeable, but it’s persistent influence proves more important than anything else.
Human’s try to exert control and manipulate things to suit themselves. This upsets nature with unfortunate longer term consequences. We don’t know how, where or when to stop.
Getting control of things involves naming and classification which is the basis for the generation of abstract laws on the basis of which we build buildings to live in and bombs to destroy them, transport that enables us to get about that simultaneously poisons the atmosphere, scientific medicine that saves us from many ailments yet leads to the planet being hopelessly over-populated, nations, government and administration that keep us in order while providing the basis and motivations for war and genocide.
The problem is how to get the advantage without incurring the danger and the broad answer is restraint, but humankind has generally proved extremely poor at this. Civilisations come and go, destroying the conditions of their own survival.
Lack of restraint and not knowing when to stop might be thought particularly to be characteristic of our contemporary consumerist, money based, culture where all seems to be predicated upon an expectation of limitless economic growth. The Taoist principles seem to suggest that although we live in the midst of extraordinary riches compared with earlier civilisations, we may also be in serious danger of a great collapse, teetering, as it were, on the cliff edge.
Many people these days advance ideas about how we might live more simply and more in accord with our actual position in nature, but it is hard to believe that humans will actually heed any such advice on a scale likely to make a real difference until it is long too late. It might even already be so.
The Taoist message has both optimistic and pessimistic aspects. On the one hand, the danger is evident. On the other hand, there is a prescription.
The Taoist prescription points to the importance of wise rulers and leaders. A wise leader is one who heeds and accords with the Tao and its Te. Such a leader naturally attracts a following and so is able to achieve things. However, we can deduce that such a leader is actually not personally invested in the idea of having such a following, but might accept the role simply in order to get important things done.
Such a person will receive help from Heaven and Earth in a natural way. In the text it says that Heaven and Earth will make sweet dew. The character for dew also signifies revelation or appearance. There is, therefore, perhaps, here, an implication that adherence to the Tao leads to natural help simply because it leads to the natural way of things being revealed. These meanings all conspire to suggest that there is a natural way that minimises effort in contrast to a manipulative way that involves excessive effort that tends in time to become counter-productive and unsustainable.
Thus civilisations gradually become more and more complex and to sustain this they need more and more energy. The sources of energy, on the other hand, tend to become gradually more and more difficult to obtain - i.e. it takes more and more energy to obtain the energy needed. At some point there is a cross-over and the whole system breaks down. The Taoist would say, “Better to have stopped at an earlier stage and been content with a less complex set-up.”
Will some sort of Taoist style leadership emerge for us before it is too late? Even if it did, would people pay any heed to it? Big questions to reflect upon.
Or again, in our personal lives, do we know when to stop? How to live within our real means? Or are we seduced into having a bigger “footprint” than is really sustainable? How much are we driven by our "name" - our desire for recognition, status, significant possession, and power? The ego is ever at work, but do we know when to stop?
The Tao continues whether we succeed in our schemes or not. It is like the great ocean to which all inevitably returns sooner or later. Reflecting upon it may help to keep us in check and to find satisfaction in simpler ways.