Chapter 60 of the Daodejing uses the metaphor of cooking a small fish to illustrate the need for a ruler of a large state to govern with a light touch to maintain social stability and balance.
Governing a large state is like cooking a small fish.
The metaphor in the opening line sets the tone for the rest of the chapter. Just as cooking a small fish requires delicate handling to avoid breaking it apart, governing a large state demands a gentle and measured approach. Ruling with minimal interference is more effective than attempting to control everything with force.
When the way prevails over the world,
Demons lose their spiritual powers.
Not only do the demons no longer harm the people,
But the ruler also does not harm the people.
The way represents the natural order of things, the underlying principle that governs the universe. When it prevails over the world, it signifies a state of harmony and alignment with the natural order.
Demons (鬼/guǐ) symbolize disruptive forces of both the natural and human type such as famines, floods, wars, and taxes that create poverty, discord, and unrest within society. When a ruler applies the principles of the way to governing the state, he neutralizes these malign influences by protecting the people from harm and ensuring their wellbeing.
Since these two do not harm each other,
Their inner powers converge and return to the source.
The closing lines of the chapter highlight the dual benefits of a ruler who does not harm the people and a state where negative influences are diminished. When these two elements are in harmony, their inner powers “converge and return to the source.” This implies that the ruler’s actions, aligned with the natural order, lead to a harmonious situation where both the ruler and the governed thrive. The concept of “returning to the source” also refers to a return to the fundamental principles of the way, which leads to equilibrium and unity.
Chapter 60 of the Daodejing encourages rulers to adopt a gentle and balanced approach to governance, following the principles of the way. When this is achieved, harmony prevails, negative influences lose their power, and both the ruler and the people benefit in a state of mutual well-being and convergence with the natural order.