If a country is governed wisely,
its inhabitants will be content.
They enjoy the labor of their hands
and don't waste time inventing
Since they dearly love their homes,
they aren't interested in travel.
There may be a few wagons and boats,
but these don't go anywhere.
There may be an arsenal of weapons,
but nobody ever uses them.
People enjoy their food,
take pleasure in being with their families,
spend weekends working in their gardens,
delight in the doings of the neighborhood.
And even though the next country is so close
that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking,
they are content to die of old age
without ever having gone to see it.
This poem is certainly one we moderns would not understand as we live in a global village where the whole world has become our home. We can travel anywhere, now that air travel has become relatively cheap and within almost everyone's capacity. Very few of us in the Western world do not go abroad for holidays or business or whatever. Indeed, should we not wish to travel somewhere physically we can even journey there virtually by way of cinema or the Internet, both of which can bring us anywhere we wish imaginatively. And the imagination and reality are next-door neighbours in a sense.
As a man of 58 years who was born in a small rural Irish town in 1958 and who experienced at least for a few years pre-television era in that country setting, I would have an inkling of what the poet in the above poem is getting at. I well remember a young friend's parents having bought their first tv set as RTE, the Irish public broadcaster began life on the 31st of December 1961. They must have bought it soon enough thereafter, so I would have been about 4 years of age at the time. The TV ushered in the New Ireland, as from then on the global visited in a virtual and imaginative sense the sitting rooms of all the homes in Ireland. Therefore, I can slightly understand the above poem. Now, we must remember that the Tao Te Ching was written roughly around the sixth century BCE in a very rural and primitive setting so the values of a small community would have been the prevailing ones: working in the fields, ploughing, planting seeds, watering the crops, going to the market, harvesting, participating in the local gatherings, chatting and conversing. Everything would have revolved around the extended family or clan, and then around the local tribe or community. The home and the community and the values asssociated with both would have been the origins of the only values known to anyone. Therefore, it is against this background that we have to understand the above poem.
The above poem presents us with the ideal, indeed with the idyll. It is purely romantic and is filled with Utopian sentiments. No such place on earth could possible exist. However, when we remember that it is a poem, that it was written so long ago and that as a poem it should not be taken literally. Bearing all this is mind, we may then read it and meditate upon it and see what wisdom we might learn from it.
One lesson is that of valuing our lives, valuing our experiences of life in the now, valuing simply being. We are all so busy rushing to succeed, make more money, get a better job, travel to more countries, gain more wealth, acquire X, Y or Z new item that we often forget that it is the simple things in life that really make us happy like those mentioned in the poem: (i) enjoying our workaday life, (ii) getting in touch with nature, (iii) gardening, (iv) building up and enjoying our homes, (v) enjoying simple but good meals with our families and friends, (vi) supporting all the events that take place in the community, and (vii) happily growing old listening to the sounds of what naturally occurs in nature.
These are obviously extremely romantic and Utopian ideas, but the poem hints that we may experience an intimation of that blessed state by being more mindful and attuned to living in the now.