“I think one who knows how to govern the empire should not do so”
– Chuang Tzu, c. 369-286 BC –
An excerpt from the Mâ Thî, or the ‘Horses’ Hoofs’ parable by the philosopher Chuang Tzu and translated by Herbert Giles (1926), warning against those who excessively brag about knowing. Interestingly, the parable uses horses as an example of how ‘know-how’ often clashes with nature.
Horses have hoofs to carry them over frost and snow; hair, to protect them from wind and cold. They eat grass and drink water, and fling up their heels over the prairies. Such is the real nature of horses. Palatial dwellings are of no use to them.
One day Poh Loh appeared saying, “I understand the management of horses.”
So he branded them, and clipped them, and paired their hoofs, and put halters on them, tying up their heads and shackling their feet, and keeping them in stables, with the result that two or three in every ten died. Then he kept the hungry and thirsty, trotting them and galloping them, and grooming them and trimming them, with the misery of tasseled bridle before, and the fear of the knotted whip behind, until more than half of them were dead.
The potter says, “I can do what I want with clay. If I want it round, I use compasses; rectangular, a square.”
The carpenter says, “I can do what I will with wood. If I want it curved I use an arc; if straight, a line.”
But on what grounds can we think that the natures of clay and wood desire this application of compasses and square, of arc and line? Nevertheless, every age extols Poh Loh for his skill in managing horses, and potters and carpenters for their skill with clay and wood …
Horses live on dry land, eat grass and drink water. When pleased, they rub their necks together. When angry, they turn round and kick up their heels at each other. Thus far only do their natural dispositions carry them. But bridled and bitted, with a plate of metal on their foreheads, they learn to cast vicious looks, to turn the head to bite, to resist, to get the bit out of the mouth or the bridle into it. And thus their natures become depraved – the fault of Poh Loh.
Chuang Tzu, c. 369 -286 BC, translated by Herbert Giles
Legge, James (1891). The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Taoism, Part I. Oxford: Oxford University Press. New York: Dover Publications
Giles, Herbert Allen (1926). Chuang Tzǔ: Mystic, Moralist, and Social Reformer. New York: AMS Press