The Virtue of the Small: Taoist Lessons for our Politicians

Last February 20, MLQ3 presented a plethora of passages from The Analects of Confucius to introduce the Chinese notion of tian ming or ‘the Mandate of Heaven and how it relates to our current political situation. I’d like to expand on his theme by consulting another popular text that originated from the time of the same Zhou Dynasty — the Tao Te Ching.

The small overcoming the large — that is the hallmark of Taoist philosophy.

Tracing its roots to the Warring States Period during the 5th century to 221BCE era of the Zhou Dynasty, Taoism was a response to the times in the same way that Confucianism, Legalism and Mohism were. Developed during a time of intense feudal conflict and oppression, all systems were concerned with the establishment and maintenance of social order.

Of the four, Taoism had a broader appeal. Confucianism and Legalism were primarily elitist philosophies that preoccupied the ruling classes, and Mohism was more a religion than anything else.

Taoism had no centralized organization and the Tao (the Way) was not exclusive to “Taoists”. The Tao, by and large, is simply the belief that the world has a certain way about it. From this springs the cultivation of one’s inner nature (puh), yielding to forces beyond our control so that we may be in control (wu wei) and being virtuous in allowing others to be happy in the same way we are (te). Moreover, this philosophy — no, way of life — has implications beyond the self especially once the self achieves harmony with the way of all things. Inevitably, Taoism has implications for governance as well, and the Tao Te Ching was not short on advice for the Dukes of Zhou, and now, for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

The following excerpts are from the translations of Derek Lin.


Do not glorify the achievers
So the people will not squabble
Do not treasure goods that are not hard to obtain
So the people will not become thieves
Do not show the desired things
So their hearts will not be confused

Thus the governance of the sage:
Empties their hearts
Fills their bellies
Weakens their ambitions
Strengthens their bones

Let the people have no cunning and no greed
So those who scheme will not dare to meddle

Act without contrivance
And nothing will be beyond control

This chapter is a stern warning against materialistic desire and its role in governance and society. It speaks against a culture of corruption which, as defined in this passage, is all about false glorification and misaligned priorities. We see this best in our culture of political patronage where politicians favor the few over the many due to political reasons. When that happens, some parties become “cunning” and “greedy”, and seek to depose the ruler. Instead, the rule of the wise and virtuous begins by ensuring the people’s basic needs and in order for them to be happy. “Act without contrivance / And nothing will be beyond control.” Truer words haven’t been said.


Favor and disgrace make one fearful
The greatest misfortune is the self
What does “favor and disgrace make one fearful” mean?
Favor is high; disgrace is low
Having it makes one fearful
Losing it makes one fearful
This is “favor and disgrace make one fearful”

What does “the greatest misfortune is the self” mean?
The reason I have great misfortune
Is that I have the self
If I have no self
What misfortunes do I have?

So one who values the self as the world
Can be given the world
One who loves the self as the world
Can be entrusted with the world

This chapter speaks to everyone. Nonetheless, it makes me think of two things in particular: our politicians who value their personal interests over the common good, and Jun Lozada. I recall his response to one of the questions, “Walang wala na ako.” It was when he admitted that he was at the end of the line and had nothing left to lose that he opened himself to larger world — that would be us.


The highest rulers, people do not know they have them
The next level, people love them and praise them
The next level, people fear them
The next level, people despise them
If the rulers’ trust is insufficient
Have no trust in them

Proceeding calmly, valuing their words
Task accomplished, matter settled
The people all say, “We did it naturally”

This chapter is the essence of the Tao of leadership, which in actuality, is non-leading. Take note of the distinctions: the ideal leader, the benevolent leader (who we love), the intimidating ruler (who we fear) and the incompetent leader (who we despise). Note these distinctions whenever you find yourself in a leadership role.

How does ‘non-leading’ work? Simple: we make our leaders accountable for their words. When they do this, they will have to do more work in an unhurried and conscientious manner. This is what accountability is all about. By being vigilant, we actually feel that we’re stakeholders in the political process. “We did it naturally.”


Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose

Because all things:
Either lead or follow
Either blow hot or cold
Either have strength or weakness
Either have ownership or take by force

Therefore the sage:
Eliminates extremes
Eliminates excess
Eliminates arrogance

This is a classic Taoist passage right here. Taoism is all about balance and moderation, something a lot of government officials need right now. Anything taken to the extreme is abhorrent and will cause instability. Look at where we are now.


A strong military, a tool of misfortune
All things detest it
Therefore, those who possess the Tao avoid it
Honorable gentlemen, while at home, value the left
When deploying the military, value the right

The military is a tool of misfortune
Not the tool of honorable gentlemen
When using it out of necessity
Calm detachment should be above all
Victorious but without glory
Those who glorify
Are delighting in the killing
Those who delight in killing
Cannot achieve their ambitions upon the world

Auspicious events favor the left
Inauspicious events favor the right
The lieutenant general is positioned to the left
The major general is positioned to the right
We say that they are treated as if in a funeral
Those who have been killed
Should be mourned with sadness
Victory in war should be treated as a funeral

NOTE: In ancient China, weapons were carried on the right hand. Thus, right is associated with violence while left is peace.

Lao Tzu’s position about violence and the military is clear — he denounces them. This passage speaks volumes about the military’s role in the entrenchment of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in Malacanang. The past years have been rife with reports about extra-judicial killings allegedly carried out by the military. Such actions cannot possibly bring favor as the Chinese observed centuries ago.


Govern a country with upright integrity
Deploy the military with surprise tactics
Take the world with noninterference
How do I know this so?
With the following:

When there are many restrictions in the world
The people become more impoverished
When people have many sharp weapons
The country becomes more chaotic
When people have many clever tricks
More strange things occur
The more laws are posted
The more robbers and thieves there are

Therefore the sage says:
I take unattached action, and the people transform themselves
I prefer quiet, and the people right themselves
I do not interfere, and the people enrich themselves
I have no desires, and the people simplify themselves

The first two lines draw the distinction between governing a country and deploying the military — you can’t rule your people with surprise tactics! This passage is a direct rebuke of authoritarianism. A ruler may strengthen himself by keeping the people under control, but that only leads to poverty which in turn weakens the ruler’s power base. Look at what happened to Mao Zedong. The last four lines are practical suggestions on how to maximize and value freedom. Moreover, they also emphasize the importance of having a virtuous leader — where the head goes, the body follows. Look no further than the very top to explain our culture of corruption.


When government is lackluster
The people are simple and honest
When government is scrutinizing
The people are shrewd and crafty

Misfortune is what fortune depends upon
Fortune is where misfortune hides beneath
Who knows their ultimate end?
They have no determined outcome
Rightness reverts to become strange
Goodness reverts to become wicked
The confusion of people
has lasted many long days

Therefore the sages are:
Righteous without being scathing
Incorruptible without being piercing
Straightforward without being ruthless
Illuminated without being flashy

This chapter continues the themes from chapter 57. “Lackluster” in this case means not having excessive interference. This chapter also speaks to our culture at large. Our quest for truth won’t be easy. We can see from the story of Jun Lozada that the line between truth and lies are blurred. Nonetheless, why do we believe him and not the lackeys of Malacanang? It is precisely because of the four things that the sages are: righteous (without being self-righteous), incorruptible (but tolerant of those who are not as such), straightforward and illuminated.

Let me end with Chapter 78 which is one of the most beautiful chapters in the Tao Te Ching. It doesn’t speak straightforwardly about government because it simply speaks volumes about everything else. This also presents the essence of the weak overcoming the strong.


Nothing in the world is softer or weaker than water
Yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong
This is because nothing can replace it

That the weak overcomes the strong
And the soft becomes the hard
Everybody in the world knows
But cannot put it in practice

Therefore, sages say:
The one who accepts the humiliation of the state
Is called its master
The one who accepts the misfortune of the state
Becomes king of the world
The truth seems like the opposite

Water is the central metaphor of Taoism. Water may seem weak at first, but it is immensely powerful in its simplicity. It is the universal solvent. It can carve the hardest rocks and dig the deepest ravines. Being like water is about being able to yield and adapt to any situation. It is not about meeting force with force, but being able to absorb it and transform it into something else.

This is what the advice of the sage is all about. “The truth seems like the opposite” simply means that though accepting humility and misfortune may seem like we are weak, we actually gain immense power because then we are able to transcend them. I remember the words of one of my early philosophy professors: “By knowing our limitations we have already transcended them.”

I suppose this is the reason why the story of Jun Lozada resonates so much with our people. Nick Joaquin may be right; we may have “A Heritage of Smallness”, but this is a heritage that gives us tremendous power. In 1896, a small ragtag rebel group ignited a revolution that won us our independence from a 300-year old colonial power. In 1986, a dictator was toppled after the death of one man. And now, 2008, an ordinary Filipino who testified when he had no where else to go has shown how truth is slowly but surely setting us free from a system built on deceit and lies. Our history is not short on stories such as this. The weak will triumph over the strong as it always does. Such is the Tao.

Let me end with a quote from one of the smallest men in history who made a difference in such a big way. He wasn’t a Taoist but he may as well have been.

When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall — think of it, always.

– Mahatma Gandhi

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