Ah, the good old days when men were men and, well, I’m sure you get my drift. Just like Confucius did with the Duke of Zhou, Laozi is attempting to evoke a golden age from deep antiquity that almost certainly never existed. He is imploring people to learn from the mythologized behavior of the (nameless) great masters of the past in the hope that everyone returns to the right path.
While appeals for a return to traditional values do still resonate among certain communities today, calls for changes in people’s behavior are now increasingly being driven by fear of impending crises in the future. I wonder if the latter form of discourse will be any more effective than the former.
The great masters of antiquity who were adept in the way,
Were subtle, clever, mysterious, and perceptive;
Their thoughts were too profound to be understood.
Because they could not be understood,
I am forced to attempt to describe them:
Cautious as if crossing a river in winter,
Alert as if aware of danger from all sides;
Dignified like a guest;
Expert in solving a problem as if melting a block of ice;
Honest and simple as an uncarved block of wood;
Open-minded like a valley;
Inscrutable like murky water.
Who can remain calm until the murky water clears?
Who can remain unperturbed until the right time to act arrives?
Those who embrace the way never seek fullness;
Precisely because they never seek fullness,
They can always renew themselves.