Limits: Translations, even my nearly literal one above, invariably lose some of the ancient ‘original intention’ due to the modern cultural context we bring to our language’s words… our ‘education’. Studying the Word-for-Word translation of the Chinese character’s many synonym-like meanings helps mitigate this. (Click graphic at right for on-line Word-for-Word.)
Govern a big country as if boiling a small fish.
So that the way is present for all under heaven,
Its spirit is not magical.
Not only that its spirit is not magical,
Its magic does not hinder the people.
Not only that its magic does not hinder the people,
The wise person does not hinder the people.
Neither assists in hindering,
Therefore, each ascribes virtue to the other.
Chapter of the Month
The first two lines are straightforward enough. The problems with boiling small fish come with not giving the task enough care, so it disintegrates. We seem instinctively to ‘budget’ our care and attention to focus on big important issues and ignore the mundane ‘small fish’ of life. The misstep here is simply not realizing that those big issues we care so much about have their foundation in the small. Feeling the way is present for all under heaven, is the result of caring for the mundane. This is life built on an all under heaven foundation of the mundane. This echoes chapter one’s the constant: The way possible to think, runs counter to the constant way. The constant is the character, cháng (常): ordinary; common; normal; constant; invariable; frequently; often; usually… what could be more mundane? Also, something Jesus said parallels this, “for he that is least among you all, the same shall be great”.
I know lines 3 to 6 read a little strange. Reading it over a few times helps; you really need to use the comma at the end of line 4 to feel how the case builds. The word magical also helps confuse. However, this is better than the likely misunderstanding that can result from rewording. It will help to consider the various meaning of the character here, and its use as either a noun or an adjective.
shén (神) Noun: god; deity; spirit; mind; expression; Adjective: clever; supernatural; magical; miraculous
The last lines of this chapter put me in mind of other chapters (excerpts below) that speak to the knack of stopping in time, which is the key to moderation. Of course, knowing where the balance point of moderation involves the same careful moment-to-moment that boiling a small fish requires.