So Lao Tzu Says You Cannot Improve The World …

The origin text gives no impression that improving the world is impossible

lao tzu improve the world

“Do you want to improve the world? I don’t think it can be done.”

This is an often-quoted translation of the initial line of verse 29 of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.

It leaves many people puzzling.  Why on earth would Lao Tzu say that one couldn’t improve the world?

The world has apparently improved over the centuries since the time of Lao Tzu by whatever measures that one can think of.  Has Lao Tzu been proven wrong?

I would think the confusion is caused by the translation, not the teachings of Lao Tzu.

The origin text gives no impression that improving the world is something that cannot be done. What it says is that if you want to control the world by imposing your will, you are unlikely to be successful.

Just adjusting a few words would have made the message from Lao Tzu closer to the original text.  This is the translation of Gia-fu Feng and Jane English:

Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I do not believe it can be done.

The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it, you will lose it.

Still, I’d think that the use of the world ‘improve’ is a bit off, because the word ‘improve’ is constructive and positive.  But the original word ‘wei’ (为) is a neutral word that can mean something negative as well.

For that matter, although Lin Yutang’s translation is a bit verbose, it sounds to me to be closer to the original text.

There are those who will conquer the world
And make of it (what they conceive or desire).
I see that they will not succeed.
(For) the world is God’s own Vessel
It cannot be made (by human interference).
He who makes it spoils it.
He who holds it loses it.

Thanks to Tec Estromberg for the picture.

3 thoughts on “So Lao Tzu Says You Cannot Improve The World …”

  1. Maybe the world can’t be improved, and the original rendering was correct. Maybe it’s the reigning cultural paradigm that fills our heads with the idea in perpetuation of its own self-laudatory ambitions.

  2. I hardly find smart phones and air conditioning to be the kind of improvement Lao tzu was talking about. Do we still have murder, rape, theft, war violence, disparity, and persecution? Did those things magically disappear after the 20th century? No? Then stop being such a Damn first world millinial

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