This Is What Freedom Means

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)

Today, is day three of Lao Tzu’s instructions on the art of governing. Two days ago (chapter 57), Lao Tzu got the ball rolling by telling would-be leaders, if you want to be great you must learn to follow the Tao. You must stop trying to control and let go of fixed plans and concepts. The world will govern itself, if only you will let it. Yesterday (chapter 58), Lao Tzu contrasted a country which is governed with tolerance with one which is governed with repression. The problem when the will to power is in charge is that the higher the ideals, the lower the results will be. In order to be great, leaders must be content to be an example and not impose their will. Today, Lao Tzu opens the chapter by saying that there is nothing better than moderation for governing a country well. The task before us, today, is to understand exactly what Lao Tzu means by that term moderation.

What I want to do is return to the classical understanding of what the word moderation means; and hence, gain a proper understanding of what it means to be a moderate person. Because Lao Tzu is talking about moderation in governing, I tend to immediately think of what moderation and being a moderate means as it relates to politics. But, that has nothing to do with the classical understanding of the word moderation. And is therefore not of any help when trying to understand what it means to be a moderate person. I hope it will suffice for me to say that in modern politics, the power resides in so-called “moderates” and their perceived “moderation”. What Lao Tzu is advocating is the antithesis to the will to power, modern political moderates are enthralled with. The kind of moderation we need to have in our government is very different from the cheap counterfeit on display in governments, today.

So, what is moderation, then? I consulted various translations of the text, since I don’t know Chinese. But, also, I always try to keep in mind context when interpreting what Lao Tzu is saying. Lao Tzu may use different words to convey the same meaning; but you have probably figured out, by now, that he keeps saying the same things. In other words, this term, moderation, may be a different word than he has used before, but its meaning is the same as everything else he has been saying. Moderation is the antidote to the will to power. What Lao Tzu is talking about is self-restraint.

We need leaders who will practice self-restraint. Self-restraint, then, means resisting the urge to try and control, the will to power, the desire to interfere. In other words, it is just another word for the practice of the Tao.

To further elaborate on what he means by practicing moderation, or self-restraint, he tells us the mark of a moderate person is freedom from their own ideas. It isn’t that they are wishy-washy, some milquetoast with no real convictions. It is about not being a slave. No matter how good your ideas are (and no doubt, you are convinced they are good), if you find yourself being tempted to use force to implement those ideas, you are nothing more than a slave to the will to power. Choose freedom! Practice some self-restraint. Because Lao Tzu is talking about the practice of the Tao, he starts listing off metaphors from nature to illustrate what freedom from your own ideas looks like.

Yesterday, Lao Tzu was talking about toleration. And toleration is a key element in what it means to practice moderation. Today, he says the moderate person is tolerant like the sky. That immediately has me picturing a great expanse of blue, unencumbered by anything but an occasional fluffy cloud going by. What is the measure of your tolerance? It is without measure; or, the sky’s the limit.

They are all-pervading like sunlight. I think of how I wake up just before dawn to go out for my 3 mile walk each day. The sun is just breaking out from under the horizon in the east as I begin. But, by the time I am home again, everywhere I look is touched by the sun’s light.

They are firm like a mountain. This certainly is the opposite of wishy-washy. They are firm. They won’t be slaves to their desire to be in control.

But, at the same time, they are supple like a tree in the wind. What a beautiful image this is. That tree is rooted, so it is firm. But it is flexible enough, supple enough, to be able to bend. They won’t break.

But what is this? They have no destination in view? But how are they going to know when they get there, if they don’t know where they are going? What Lao Tzu is describing is a freedom like some of us have never known before. It can be hard to wrap your mind around freedom from your own ideas. I finally gave up trying to understand it, and decided to just go with it. It sure beats being bound. It is being free to make use of anything that life happens to bring my way. Let things come and go, without interfering; only shape events as they happen.

At this point, I am almost giddy with delight in thinking about what freedom from my own ideas really means. Nothing is impossible.

This should be especially encouraging for would-be leaders, who insist they have the best of intentions, when it comes to the people’s welfare. For now that you are free, really free, you can care for the people’s welfare, just like a mother cares for her own child.

This is what true freedom looks like. It means nothing is impossible.

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