Leave That Fish Alone!

Governing a large country
is like frying a small fish.
You spoil it with too much poking.

Center your country in the Tao
and evil will have no power.
Not that it isn’t there,
but you’ll be able to step out of its way.

Give evil nothing to oppose
and it will disappear by itself.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 60, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

Today is Day Four on the art of governing. It is a manual, of sorts, for would-be leaders. Three days ago, Lao Tzu began, by saying, to be a great leader you must first learn to follow the Tao. Two days ago, he talked about the dangers of the will to power. Yesterday, we talked about the opposite of the will to power, the virtue of moderation. This is the practice of self-restraint when governing. Self-restraint is the highest virtue, when it comes to governing, because the will to power is so very strong, and very hard to resist. Lao Tzu has insisted, all along, that left alone, the world can govern itself. But few are they, that will let that happen. In today’s chapter, we are going to talk about the greatest excuse that anyone will ever give for meddling, for interfering, for trying to control. It is the ever-present problem of evil.

As he often does, Lao Tzu begins with a metaphor. Who, but Lao Tzu, would be able to find a lesson to teach, while frying a small fish? He is very adept at coming up with images, with which his readers would be familiar, to teach a valuable lesson. And anyone who has ever fried a small fish understands, immediately, what Lao Tzu means. I know just how tempting it is to start poking at that fish. It is hard to show restraint. And Lao Tzu says that governing a large country is just like that. You spoil it with too much poking. Just like frying a small fish, governing is an art. You must be constantly on guard against the temptation to poke, to interfere, to do something. The will to power is always rearing its ugly head. Remember, when the will to power is in charge, the higher the ideals, the lower the results.

Nowhere is this more acutely seen than with our attempts to deal with the problem of evil. It seems to me that all of recorded history has been one long war between good and evil. And, as if our history wasn’t enough, our favorite books and movies always have as their plot, some great battle between good and evil; where the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of evil, until good triumphs, in dramatic fashion, in the end. We have been conditioned to believe that evil is something we have to do battle with; and, the only way to do battle with it, is to face it head on.

Needless to say, but after all that conditioning, what Lao Tzu has to say, seems hopelessly naive. And most people are going to dismiss it, without giving it much thought. I hope my readers are not most people.

What are Lao Tzu’s instructions? Remember, Lao Tzu is talking to would-be leaders. He tells us to center our country in the Tao. Don’t forget everything that Lao Tzu has said before to us would-be leaders. Our first instruction was to learn to follow the Tao. Okay, I understand the need to follow the Tao; but how do I center my country in the Tao? What else has Lao Tzu said? You can’t make people do what you want. No matter how good you think it will be for them. Instead, you must be content to serve as an example. First, learn how to follow the Tao. Then, demonstrate this for all the people you are governing. That is what Lao Tzu means by centering your country in the Tao.

This is going to take the utmost restraint. Why? Because, when it comes to evil, every fiber of your being is going to be screaming out for you to do something. And then there is the great mass of people who are scared, and are screaming at you to do something. The will to power is very devious. It will use anything and anyone to be in charge. There will be those who will see this as an opportunity. If we can make people afraid, we can manipulate them. They will be like putty in our hands. When I survey recorded history, I see a lot of this fear-mongering and manipulation of people. It has become more acute in the 21st century. But I think that is only because our modern technology allows us immediate access to the manipulation techniques.

But what is centering our country in the Tao going to do about the problem of evil? It won’t be facing it head on. It won’t be doing battle with it, at all. Instead, Lao Tzu insists, we can render it powerless, simply by giving it nothing to oppose. Evil will still be there. And that means we will need to be ever vigilant to restrain ourselves. But if we are centered in the Tao, if we give evil nothing to oppose, we will be able to step around it, and out of its way. If we continue this course of action, evil will disappear all by itself.

Naive? I understand why you think that. Most people don’t have the patience to restrain themselves until they get the results Lao Tzu promises. Too many people see a way to profit from doing battle with evil. And I am certain that some of you are thinking that this sounds strangely like Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. We are all familiar with the adage, “Chamberlain took a weekend in the country, while Hitler took a country in a weekend.”

And I understand this concern, too. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be addressing it. But, did Neville Chamberlain have his country centered in the Tao? If not, then his appeasement of Hitler wasn’t the same as what Lao Tzu is talking about. We seldom seem to learn the lessons from history; which is why, I am afraid, we are forever doomed to repeat them. But Hitler’s rise to power was a direct result of the disastrous post-World War I policies that brought Germany to its knees. I like to play the “what if” game with history sometimes. And my favorite “what if” in history concerns the so-called “War to End All Wars” that would be better labeled “The War to Begin All Wars.” What if the United States had not been lied and swindled into getting involved? What if the other side had won? What if? In my “what if” scenarios I can’t fathom a Hitler rising to power. But then again, I can’t see us dropping atomic bombs on civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, either. I like my alternative universe’s history. If physicists are right about there being as many universes as there are individual choices, I know there is a universe where evil is still there, but I can step around it, and out of its way.

But I don’t live in that alternative universe. And I am really happy to live in the one that I do. Because Lao Tzu’s words are still true about our Universe. If, would-be leaders will show the restraint to not poke at evil.

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