Daodejing Chapter 19: back to nature or back to basics?

Richard Brown
2 min readApr 22, 2023

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Do away with the sages,
Discard the wise,
The people will benefit
A hundredfold.
Do away with benevolence,
Discard rectitude,
The people will return to
True filial devotion and compassion.
Reject cunning,
Discard profit,
There will be no thieves or bandits.
If these three injunctions
Are insufficient to establish a pattern,
Add the fundamentals.
Cherish the plainness
Of undyed silk,
Embrace the simplicity
Of the uncarved block of wood,
Reduce selfishness,
Minimize desire.

「絕聖棄智,民利百倍;絕仁棄義,民復孝慈;絕巧棄利,盜賊無有。此三者以為文不足,故令有所屬。見素抱樸,少私寡欲。」

Through their philosophies, Confucius and Laozi were seeking a solution to the same problem: namely, what they saw as the imminent collapse of society. But although they both looked to the past for the answer, they had very different approaches to resolving it.

Confucius argued that the answer to curing society’s ills was to go back over 500 years and revive the values and practices allegedly followed by his great hero, the Duke of Zhou. In this chapter of the Daodejing, Laozi calls for what he saw as the artificial virtues that Confucius prized so much to be done away with.

Laozi, on the other hand, advocated a return to a time when the world was governed by the nameless and formless Dao in which every plant and animal, including humanity, had an innate sense of the part they played in the grand scheme of things and thus all lived and worked together in perfect harmony. It was only when humans started to create their own ideas and ethical precepts that they began to deviate from the right path and society began to disintegrate.

Laozi’s answer, therefore, was that people needed to shed all the artificial intellectual and ethical baggage they had accumulated so that they could regain the natural essence of the Dao symbolized by the undyed silk and uncarved block of wood and lead a life of purity and simplicity.

On a visceral level, Laozi’s “back to nature” approach probably resonates more strongly than the “back to basics” advocacy of Confucius; but on a practical level, the reverse is probably true. After all, as much we may tell ourselves how much we long to return to our roots, very few of us would actually go as far as to permanently abandoning our creature comforts no matter how corrupt and hypocritical the society we live in is.

Note
I took this image at Longhu (Dragon Tiger) Mountain, a famous Daoist site about ten miles south of Yingtan in Jiangxi Province. A great place to visit!

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.