It’s an Invitation, not a Toy

The Daodejing is billed as a work of political philosophy, but paradoxically it says almost nothing about governance in any direct fashion. Even when it does address the subject directly, its advice is about as clear as Rodin’s:

“Governing a large state is like cooking a small fish.”

“Look at the state through the state; look at the empire through the empire.”

“Bring the common people back to keeping their records with knotted string.”2

At this point the skeptic might ask what makes this a philosophical position, and not mere mumbling? If it’s to be political philosophy, and not just political advice, it’s got to give us some specific principles to build upon, hasn’t it?

Those questions are founded on an unspoken assumption: that open-ended, imprecise language is incompatible with philosophical argument. Clearly, the Daoists challenge that assumption. This challenge itself is pretty audacious—as audacious, perhaps, as expecting children to enjoy a box of parts when you could just as easily have bought them a toy. That, of course, is exactly the challenge the LEGO Group set out for itself: to sell not toys but parts, and then let the kids do the assembly themselves.

One LEGO brick by itself isn’t a toy, though, is it? It doesn’t do anything. What it really is, when you get right down to it, is an invitation. Get a pile of them and you can create any toy you can imagine—and not just toys, but architectural models, works of art, even prosthetic limbs. The only way the brick can do this is by having no standing of its own. It’s because it’s not a toy that it can be the greatest toy ever. By being nothing, it can be anything.

In that way it’s actually a perfect model for understanding the dao. It also encapsulates what makes open-endedness valuable even when you’re trying to do some really important philosophical work, like figuring out what the ideal state would be like and who its ideal ruler would be.

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