In Chapter 57 of the Daodejing, Laozi compares conventional “active” approaches to ruling a state with the application of the principle of non-action (無為/wúwéi) and its sibling non-interference (無事/wúshì).
Here is a breakdown of the three key sections of the chapter and a discussion of its main ideas.
Rule a state with uprightness.
Wage war with cunning.
Win over the world through non-interference.
In the opening section of the chapter, Laozi lists three approaches to government. While he concedes that uprightness and cunning have a role to play when ruling a state and waging war against and enemy, he argues that the only way to win over the long-term support of the people is by not meddling in their affairs and leaving them to lead their lives in peace and contentment.
How do I know this to be true?
Through the following:
In the second section of the chapter, Laozi argues that conventional active approaches to ruling a state lead to serious unrest and growing criminal behavior as people are forced to adapt their behavior to protect themselves and their families in an increasingly complex and arbitrary society.
The more restrictions and prohibitions there are in the world,
The poorer people are.
Laozi begins by warning that the implementation of ever stricter regulations and prohibitions ostensibly aimed at improving social order only serve to make people’s lives harder by limiting their freedom to go about their daily business and putting them at the mercy of corrupt members of the ruling class.
The more sharpened weapons people possess,
The more troubled the state is.
As social instability grows due to increased government repression, people feel a greater need to protect themselves with weapons, making violence and disorder much more likely.
The more clever and cunning people are,
The more novelties proliferate.
People also become a lot smarter and more devious in circumventing laws and regulations, leading to growing mistrust between the ruling class and the people and across society at large.
The more laws and decrees there are,
the more thieves and robbers appear.
As the ruler applies ever more stringent controls on the people, the state is locked into an increasingly vicious cycle that fuels higher and higher levels of lawlessness, hardship, and violence. Once the situation has reached this stage, the collapse of the state is not far away.
So, the sage says:
I take no action and the people are transformed of their own accord.
I cherish stillness and the people do what is right of their own accord.
I do not interfere and the people prosper of their own accord.
I am free from desire and the people return to the uncarved block of their own accord.
In the third section, Laozi advocates a counter-intuitive approach to government in which the ruler guides the people with a light touch rather than a heavy hand.
Rather than attempting to impose his will on the people, the sage trusts in their inherent good nature. By embodying stillness, non-interference, and freedom from petty desires, he creates an environment in which everyone can thrive of their own accord and naturally find their way back to a simpler and more authentic state of being.
In this chapter, Laozi emphasizes the value of simplicity, of letting things be, and of leading by example rather than by force. He is making a call to trust in the wisdom and goodness of the people and the natural order of the universe, rather than trying to control and manipulate every outcome.