TAO TE CHING 37: Unnamed Simplicity





Tao is always wu wei and nothing fails to get done
If rulers can hold to it
all living things will transform of themselves.

The urge to change and meddle
I shall subdue by means of unnamed simplicity;
By unnamed simplicity subdued, people will abandon desire.
When desire is subdued by calm the land under Heaven will rectify itself.


When the book is taken as having two sections, the first on Tao and the second on Te, this chapter is the last chapter in the first half. Some very ancient copies of the work are actually arranged the other way around - as a Te Tao Ching - in which case this would be the last chapter of the whole book. In any case, it does underline a very central contention of the work, which is that holding to unadorned simplicity facilitates a return to naturalness, not only for oneself but for all beings. This is especially so if rulers can adhere to it.

There is some contention about the fourth character of the first line, possibly due to confusion with Chapter 32. Consequently, some translations read the first line as “Tao is always without name” and see the general meaning of the chapter as being about namelessness. I do not know the merits of the different original texts so cannot enter into this controversy, but the rendering I have used - wu wei rather than wu ming - at least seems coherent and certainly in keeping with general Taoist principles.

The notion of wu wei speaks of a need for restraint. Before rushing in to fix things, pause and observe. What are the natural tendencies that are already at work? They may well do your work for you if you have patience, whereas launching a crusade may become horribly counter-productive. When you hear the cry, “Something must be done about it!” Take a step back and consider the whole situation. Put things in perspective. Nature has her own ways of sorting things out.

The ruler of a big country cannot make the people conform. He or she can only seek to create the conditions in which they will naturally maintain harmonious relations. Often the best means to this end is non-interference. Appreciate what is already there and work with it.

The term translated here as “simplicity” literally means an uncarved piece of natural wood. The implicit idea is that the ordinary craftsman starts from his own idea of what he wants to carve and then tries to impose this idea upon whatever piece of wood happens to be to hand. This is like the ideologue who has a preformed idea of what an ideal society should look like and tries to impose the blueprint upon the population. Leaders of this kind may enjoy a brief popularity as they appear to have all the answers, but their schemes soon come undone, just as the woodcarver my easily find the wood splits in inconvenient places.

The skilled carver, on the other hand, does not rush in with a preformed idea, but spends some time studying and getting to know the piece of wood until he senses what it wants to be. This is like the ruler or leader who studies the people and the land and seeks ways to facilitate whatever it’s traditions, resources and natural strengths may be. Such a leader is pragmatic and patient and not doctrinaire.

If the text is about namelessness, then I think we can take name, ming, not in the narrow sense of appellation, but more generally to refer to all the isms that try to force society into a mould. While the good ruler should have done her lessons and know about political theory and statecraft, she must thoroughly grasp the fact that it is an art not a science and in the growth of a society something new and interesting is always emerging.

In any case, this chapter is a concluding assertion of the equivalence of Tao and naturalness, the idea that if we keep things simple and not try yo meddle in everything, all will work out OK, whereas when we try to be too clever or too controlling corruption inevitably ensues. The frequent repetition of the term "land under Heaven" in the book keeps reminding us that we are not the masters, there is something higher and the environment that we inhabit is already sacred before we start to interfere.

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