The Dao takes no action,
But leaves nothing undone.
If princes and kings are able to stay true to it,
All things will be transformed of their own accord.
If, during their transformation, desire should arise within them,
I will calm them down using the nameless uncarved block of wood.
This will free them of desire.
Being free of desire, they will be tranquil;
And the world will find peace of its own accord.
The most effective leaders don’t interfere with what their people are doing or how they leaders their lives. They don’t indulge in grandiose schemes or fight for ever greater power. The less they micromanage their people’s affairs, the more the people will accomplish of their own accord.
There will of course be times when the people are tempted to go off track. On such occasions, the effective leader will humbly and gently nudge them back on the right direction by showing them the right path exemplified by the “uncarved block” of wood.
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.