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.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 60, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Today, Lao Tzu continues teaching on the art of governing. He has told would-be leaders that they must learn to follow the Tao. The art of governing is the practice of the Tao. It is our only defense against the will to power. We learned, yesterday, about the importance of practicing self-restraint when governing. Lao Tzu said that nothing is impossible to those who are not slaves to their own ideas. Today, Lao Tzu is talking about why it is we are so sorely tempted to interfere, or intervene. Self-restraint is the highest of virtues when it comes to governing. It is hard to restrain your self.
Today, Lao Tzu likens governing a large country to frying a small fish. You spoil it with too much poking. That is the image that Lao Tzu uses. Anyone who has ever fried a fish knows the temptation to poke at it. But you must restrain yourself. Those who govern a large country have that same temptation to want to start poking, to interfere, to intervene, to try to force things.
And the time when that temptation is the greatest is when you are faced with the problem of evil. We have been conditioned to want to do something about evil. To begin with, all of recorded history seems to be one long battle between good and evil. And then, in order to reinforce what we read about in our history books, our great works of fiction, both books and movies, always seem to have as their plot, some great battle between good and evil. The odds seem against any possibility of good triumphing in the end; but against all odds, good always triumphs. But not without a fight. This is how we have been conditioned to believe that evil is something that must be vanquished. You have to face it head on. You can’t leave it be. Or, good has no hope of triumphing.
What Lao Tzu advises, on the other hand, seems almost hopelessly naive. He has us thinking of what happens when you poke too much at that fish you are frying. Now, imagine, poking at evil. What do you think that will accomplish? Gee, when you think of it like that, it begins to make sense. Why would you want to poke at it? Why egg it on? Why stir things up? At least that is how I see things. The powers that be, consumed by their will to power, will counter, evil can’t be allowed to endure. We must do something.
Lao Tzu isn’t buying it. He says, center your country in the Tao and evil will have no power. Once the fish is frying, leave it alone. Don’t poke at it. But, but, if we don’t do something about evil, won’t it just grow bigger and badder? Consider the source for those who make this argument. They want you to give them carte blanche to deal with the problem of evil; but there is no end to that war. Evil is always going to be a problem. The only question is how great a problem it is going to be. Centering your country in the Tao doesn’t eliminate the problem of evil. But it does take away its power. It will still be there, but you can step out of its way.
The will to power is very tempting here. You don’t really expect us to do nothing about evil? Surely, we have to do something? Lao Tzu tells you exactly what to do. Step out of its way. That is the thing to do. Give evil nothing to oppose, and it will disappear all by itself.
If only that would be good enough for the powers that be. But they have their own agenda. And that means ever reaching for more and more power. They can never have enough of that. So, they keep poking. Giving evil something to oppose. And evil provides them with their reason for being. There is a symbiotic relationship between evil and the will to power. War is the health of the State. That is why they won’t stop poking.