Daoist sages of ancient times,
Did not enlighten the people about the way,
But kept them on the path of simplicity.
Now the people are difficult to rule,
Because they have too much cleverness.
To rule with cleverness
Is to rob the state.
To rule without cleverness
Is to bless the state.
To understand this pattern,
Is to have primal power.
Primal power is deep and distant!
It leads all things back to the natural order.
Effective leaders understand that it is not enough to talk the talk. You have to walk the walk. People will pay far more attention to what you do than what you say. The more you have to explain what something means, the less people will be able to understand it.
1.) Commentators have varying interpretations of the meaning of the character愚/yú in line 3, with some defining it in a pejorative sense as stupidity, foolishness, or ignorance. Given that this chapter is a thinly veiled attack on what Laozi regarded as artificial Confucian knowledge of morality and ritual, I have opted to translate it in a more positive sense as simplicity, meaning unpolluted by false teachings and values.
2.) The character 智/zhì in line 5 usually means knowledge or wisdom. Since Laozi is using it sarcastically to refer to artificial or fake knowledge concocted by the likes of Confucius that leads people to become more devious and dishonest, I have translated it as cleverness. Other alternatives include crafty and cunning.
3.) See Chapter 19 for a similar warning of the dangers of artificial or fake knowledge.