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Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (Perennial Classics) Paperback – September 5, 2006
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“I have read many translations of this ancient text but Mitchell’s is by far the best.” (James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces)
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Chinese --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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The traditional interpretation of this text is that it was written as a guide for the enlightened and wise ruler and in this, it invites comparison to Machiavelli but such a comparison is beyond the scope of this review. In any case, Lao-tzu does not recommend a specific form of government or path to good government, but he does advocate a specific outcome which is concern for human well-being under any ruler or form of government. The government, however constituted, should be an expression of wisdom and enlightenment. Wisdom here is the exercise of judicious discretion on the part of the ruler so as not to disrupt the natural order of society. If there is any path to good government identified by Lao-tzu, it is that of good behavior. As in Verse 17, “When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists.” Or, as stated in verse 57 “If you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao. “Stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts and the world will govern itself.” I have had to learn this firsthand in my experience with what I like to call the tyranny of goals and treachery of plans. Lao-tzu, in speaking about the Master in Verse 30, also says that “He understands that the universe is forever out of control…” and in Verse 3 he speaks of “… emptying people’s minds…” (eliminating the tyranny of goals?) and “…weakening their ambition…” (avoiding the treachery of plans?). This much at least must seem odd to a western perspective. I believe the Tao is defined in Verse 67 as “…simplicity, patience and compassion.” Which should seem odd to no civilized person.
What Lao-tzu advocates as good for the individual, is also the basis of good government, the antithesis of accumulating wealth and power. Such things are just dead weight upon the ‘soul’. This means to me that ethics comes necessary before politics. Thus, Lao-tzu’s political philosophy minimizes the power of the ruler or the state, but he should not be mistaken for a classic liberal or a modern libertarian in the western sense. Instead, Lao-tzu speaks about the Master acting by not doing anything and teaching without speaking. His is a combined philosophy of ethics and governance stressing the oneness and the all-relatedness of all reality leading to spiritual peace and inner fulfillment. It is not my desire to westernize Lao-tzu, but It is difficult to resist comparisons to western models in reading Lao-tzu. I am reminded of the oneness of Neoplatonism or the pantheism of Spinoza. And, I also think Lao-tzu would agree with Epictetus in that “wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
Most powerfully for me is the remainder of Verse 57 where Lao-tzu advises that we let go of law, economics and religion to become more honest, prosperous and serene. In other words, our legal, economic and religious systems are just labels and that if we want a more honest, prosperous and serene society, we must be more honest, prosperous and serene people. The problems and the solutions are all to be found in the same place, with us and within us.
Ironically Lao-tzu was writing prior to the time of the first ‘modern’ bureaucratic government in China, and in the world, the short-lived but highly authoritarian state of the Qin Dynasty.