There’s a common conception of the Tao Te Ching. People characterize it as upholding some sort of self-imposed, nature-loving twist on laissez-faire political theory: “accept, give in, let Nature take Its course and yield to all oncoming consequences – it’ll work itself out in the end”.

This is wrong. Is the Tao Te Ching just about laissez-faire?

The Book of the Way advocates no such thing. When you build a house, for example, to protect yourself from the elements – thus thwarting nature – that’s an intelligent thing to do.

Nowhere in the words of the Tao Te Ching is an argument made against the practice of building and occupying houses, or anything like it. In fact, as it turns out, the opposite attitude is found, in favour of building houses. It’s right here in Chapter 11. So the Tao Te Ching cannot be about instilling in the reader this overly self-disregarding attitude of “let The Wind blow you where It Will”. We build houses to make a windless space.

With some intelligent questioning and doubting of the laissez-faire characterization then… when you look to see if there’s evidence which will render it false, you don’t have to go far.

Is the Tao Te Ching just about laissez-faire?

If, however let’s say, the discourse here was to do with effective technique, in any given context, appreciating when to yield is a fundamental strategic insight. It’s overlooked a lot, but a good deep understanding of when and what to not-do, what to not-oppose or not-force, is something which anyone, in any walk of life, will benefit from.

So yes, in the writing of this book there is demonstrated an appreciation for exactly this effectiveness of space, timely yielding and not-doing, but the Tao Te Ching comes nowhere near commending (much less recommending) a blanket laissez-faire approach to living, which is both impossible and a bit stupid.

It must be something else.

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