Daodejing: idyllic visions and harsh realities

Richard Brown
2 min readMar 25, 2024

Not that I had any doubts beforehand, but these messages from ChatGPT refusing to create images showing the suffering of the common people as a result of the greed and corruption of the ruling elite provide a timely reminder of the contemporary relevance of the Daodejing.

Sadly, the behaviour of the elite has not changed one iota in the two millennia that have passed since the text was written. The social inequalities that Laozi (and Confucius) pointed to and the refusal of ruling elites to address them remain.

Despite his condemnation of the excesses of the governing class and its hangers-on, Laozi does not call for a revolution to overthrow them in the Daodejing. He advocates instead that rulers should reform themselves by renouncing their desire for wealth, power, and glory, and leading a simple life in harmony with the Dao just like the ancient sages of antiquity.

In Chapter 80, the penultimate chapter of the Daodejing, Laozi lays out his vision of what the world be like if the ruling class followed the teachings of the Dao. It would be comprised of myriad small agrarian communities that can sustain themselves using traditional farming techniques without the need for aggressive expansion or indeed direct contact with their neighbours.

Because they would be led by an enlightened sage-ruler who barely interfered in their affairs, the people would be content and find such joy in the simple pleasures of life that they would have no desire to venture further afield. They would live and die together with family and friends in a place where they had deep roots rather than rotting away unnoticed in distant lands.

An idyllic vision indeed, but one that has never been embraced either by the ruling class of Laozi’s time or any others since. Indeed, as the world becomes ever more globalized, it can be argued that we have never been further from achieving it. History may not rhyme perfectly, but when it comes to tales of human ambition, greed, and vanity it never fails to repeat them.

Links
Daodejing Chapter 80: a primordial age of innocence
Daodejing Chapter 80 breakdown: living in splendid isolation

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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.