In former editions the translator accepted the following version: "Heaven and earth exhibit no benevolence; to them the ten thousand things are like straw dogs. The holy man exhibits no benevolence; to him the hundred families are like straw dogs."
Does that mean that heaven and earth have a mode of procedure of their own; that their actions can not be measured by the usual standard of human benevolence? May we assume that human lives serve their purpose best if they become sacrifices just as straw-dogs are offered on the altars of heaven and earth? This solution can neither be proved nor refuted, but it seems too modern.
We learn from the commentators that
straw dogs are burned in place of living dogs as sacrifices to heaven and earth, and so the reference to them means treatment without regard or consideration. It is possible that Lao-tze meant to say that "heaven and earth" treats all people with an impartial indifference as God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good (compare Chapter 79). But Lao-tze might as well have meant the very opposite, that "if heaven and earth and also the sage were without benevolence, they would treat the people like straw dogs." The Chinese text seems to favor the former interpretation, but the first sentence may be conditional and then the latter rendering which has been adopted by Harlez would be correct.
The question is whether Lao-tze did or did not believe that heaven and earth and the Tao were endowed with sentiment. An answer will be difficult if not impossible, but I am now inclined to think that he was more of mystic than a philosopher, and he recognized in the dispensation of the world a paternal and loving providence.
The phrase "heaven and earth" has a deeper meaning to the Chinese than to us. According to Chinese notions the primordial essence, called tai chi, 4 "the great Ultimate," divided itself into two principles called Yin and Yang (mentioned in Chapter 42). The former is negative, female, dark, passive; the latter is positive, male, light and active. The former is represented by earth, the latter by heaven; the former by the moon, the latter by the sun. The "ten thousand things" (i. e., all existences in the world), owe their characters to different mixtures of these two elementary principles.
Emptiness is one of the virtues praised by Lao-tze, and the emptiness of heaven is to him an example of the emptiness which man ought to possess. By emptiness Lao-tze understands the absence of personal ambition, of desire, or to use
his own phrase, it is "the doing of the not-doing" (wei wu wei).
Lao-tze concludes the chapter with a homely saying concerning gossip, which acquires a deep and peculiar meaning in the context by comparing "fulsome talk" to the emptiness of heaven.
The Chinese text reads to yen, literally, "many words," i. e., gossip.
138:4 In Chapter 28, 2, Lao-tze calls this same ultimate, wu chi, "the infinite." For further details see Chinese Philosophy, pages 24-34. Compare also page 167 in this book.