Take no action

The definition of wuwei (無為) is much more subtle than simply “take no action” or “do nothing”; more strictly speaking, it means “don’t interfere” or “only act when it is absolutely necessary”.

Laozi witnessed at first hand the huge damage that the ruling political class can cause with its obsessive need to increase its power and influence by tightening control of the population with ever stricter laws and regulations. His advice to them was to give up their grandiose dreams and selfish scheming and allow the people to get on with their lives so that everyone could live in peace and tranquility.

「道常無為而無不為,侯王若能守之,萬物將自化;化而欲作,吾將鎮之以無名之樸。夫亦將無欲,無欲以靜,天下將自定。」
The Way takes no action,
But nothing is left undone.
If kings and lords are able to stay true to it,
All things will be transformed of their own accord.
If they are transformed but still desire to act,
I will restrain them using nameless simplicity.
Nameless simplicity will free them from desire.
Being free from desire, they will be tranquil;
And the world will find peace of its own accord.

Chapter 37 marks what is traditionally regarded as the first half of the Daodejing, which explores the nature of the way (道/dao). The second half, perhaps not too surprisingly, investigates the meaning of virtue (德/de).

Two 2,000-year-old silk manuscripts of the Daodejing discovered in 1973 in Mawangdui (馬王堆) in the modern city of Changsha in Hunan province, however, place the two parts in the opposite order. These manuscripts have been found to predate the “traditional” version, so in all probability the order in them is the “correct” one.

To avoid unnecessary confusion, however, I have stuck to the “traditional” order for the purpose of my own translation.

 

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