The Virtue Of Moderation

For governing a country well
there is nothing better than moderation.

The mark of a moderate man
is freedom from his own ideas.
Tolerant like the sky,
all-pervading like sunlight,
firm like a mountain,
supple like a tree in the wind,
he has no destination in view
and makes use of anything
life happens to bring his way.

Nothing is impossible for him.
Because he has let go,
he can care for the people’s welfare
as a mother cares for her child.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 59, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

We are on Day Three of Lao Tzu’s instructions on the art of governing. Two days ago, Lao Tzu started us out by saying, if you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao. Yesterday, we covered the problems that result when the will to power is in charge. Today, Lao Tzu tells us that for governing a country well there is nothing better than moderation.

Moderation is an often misunderstood concept; so, I think it would be good for us to start out by understanding exactly what Lao Tzu means by the term. Is moderation merely an avoidance of extremes. Or, is there a deeper meaning. Over the years, I have developed a kind of love-hate relationship with the word. And, to an extent I blame Barry Goldwater for that.

Many of my readers are too young to remember that in 1964, Barry Goldwater was the Republican candidate for U.S. President. I was only a babe in arms at the time. But, many of my readers are familiar with the old Barry Goldwater quote, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” It helps to understand that candidate Goldwater was labeled an “extremist” by those that opposed him. “Barry Loves Bombs” was a prominent campaign sign of the time. A still relatively young television audience got to see political commercials featuring atomic bomb explosions with the message that, if elected, Goldwater was going to bomb the living daylights out of Vietnam. Of course, Goldwater lost the election. Johnson was elected. And I will leave to my readers to decide whether Vietnam was spared. But getting back to the quote, maybe extremism isn’t so bad and moderation isn’t so good.

And then there are the so-called moderates in Washington D.C.. Are they an example of the kind of moderation that Lao Tzu is extolling? Far from it, they merely know where the true power in Washington resides. In the middle. And they capitalize on that. Their will to power is very much in charge.

Those were two examples of why I sometimes hate the word moderation. But I also love it. It has been my daily practice for a number of years now. And now, I can explain what Lao Tzu means by the term. I consulted various translations of the text. And I also try to always keep in mind context when interpreting what Lao Tzu is saying. Lao Tzu may spring new words on us, but he always does so, while saying the same things over and over again. And I decided that moderation isn’t so much the avoidance of extremes as it is the practice of self-restraint.

We talked yesterday about what happens when the will to power is in charge. Moderation is the opposite of the will to power: Self-restraint, self-control. I don’t think Barry Goldwater would have a problem with my definition. Though he might add that it isn’t the moderation he was talking about. He might even go so far as to agree that the kind of moderation I am describing is, in fact, a virtue. Lao Tzu certainly considered it a virtue in the art of governing. He said, there is nothing better.

So, setting aside the idea of avoidance of extremes, and focusing on the self-restraint aspects, lets take a look at what Lao Tzu points out as the mark of a moderate person.

It is freedom from their own ideas. Freedom doesn’t mean they don’t have any of their own ideas. They likely have plenty of ideas. And many of them actually good ones. But they aren’t enslaved by their own ideas. Freedom means they practice self-restraint, self-control. They understand that they can’t force issues or try to control outcomes. They understand that trying to make people happy will only make them miserable. That trying to make people moral will only increase vice.

This practice of self-restraint allows them to be tolerant like the sky. We talked about that word, tolerance, yesterday. If a country is governed with tolerance the people will be comfortable and honest. Notice how Lao Tzu invokes images from nature to make his point about the person who is free from his own ideas. Tolerant like the sky. All-pervading like sunlight. Firm like a mountain. Supple like a tree in the wind. The reason, I think, Lao Tzu uses these nature metaphors is because this is the perfectly natural way to be, to act, to govern. Freedom, moderation, is following the Tao. The moderate person is both firm and supple. To be one without the other might have you crumbling; or being blown about every which way. A mountain is firm; but it can be moved. And, that tree may bend; but it is rooted.

Moderate persons, having freedom from their own ideas, have no destination in view. This one has long given me trouble. They have no destination in view? How are they going to know when they get there, if they don’t know where they are going? But this is describing a kind of freedom that I cannot quite wrap my mind around. I finally came to a place where I just gave up trying to wrap my mind around it. I just decided to go with it. I took control of my own wayward mind. I calmed my mind. And let go of all the desires of my heart. And merely live each day, making use of anything life happens to bring my way. What is my destination? Beyond my lone expectation that I will return to the Source, I don’t know; and I really don’t care.

I really can’t begin to explain in words what this kind of freedom means. Lao Tzu explains it by saying, nothing is impossible for them. To let go. To really let go of the need to be in control. To let go of any desire to force things. When it comes to the art of governing, this freedom means that now you can care for the people’s welfare. Just like a mother cares for her children. That is the kind of power that puts the will to power to shame. For this moderation, this freedom, this disinterest, gets results.

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