The ancient Masters
didn’t try to educate people,
but kindly taught them to not-know.
When they think that they know the answers,
people are difficult to guide.
When they know that they don’t know,
people can find their own way.
If you want to learn how to govern,
avoid being clever or rich.
The simplest pattern is the clearest.
Content with an ordinary life,
you can show all people the way
back to their own true nature.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 65, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
After taking a couple days break from specifically talking about the art of governing, Lao Tzu returns to it. In this way, he is showing how what he has talked about for the last couple of days was not really a departure. We have been talking about the importance of doing not-doing. He always follows that with the importance of knowing not-knowing. We did talk a little about this, yesterday. We think we know, we might even go so far as to say to the Master, “I know, I know” but we don’t really know. That is our problem.
Lao Tzu’s whole teaching on the art of governing revolves around the idea that a great leader wouldn’t tell people how to live their lives or try to force people to live a certain way, a great leader would be content to serve as an example of how to live your life. That is why Lao Tzu’s first instruction to would-be leaders is for them to learn to follow the Tao.
Today, Lao Tzu looks back at the ancient Masters, who Lao Tzu said, didn’t try to educate people. Lao Tzu is explaining that they, the ancient Masters, the leaders of their day, didn’t use force to educate (or indoctrinate) people. In other words, they didn’t tell people how to live their own lives. Not trying to educate didn’t mean that there weren’t lessons to be learned. But the lessons were taught without words. The people were shown by the example of the Masters. The people already “knew” everything they needed to know. In fact, they already “knew” too much. For the knowledge they had had resulted in them being puffed up; and, they were hard to guide. So, what did the ancient Masters teach? They kindly (very important word) taught them to not-know.
I have this nagging suspicion that some people reading about this need for the people to not-know are going to write it off as an excuse for keeping people ignorant, and therefore easily manipulated. But that isn’t what the ancient Masters were about, at all. Follow what Lao Tzu says here.
When people think that they already know the answers, like those of us that are so quick to say, “I know, I know” when we don’t really know, they are difficult to guide. In other words, “How can we serve as an example, when they won’t look and listen?” This reminds me of my ongoing instruction as I instruct the 6 year old girl I tutor. I have told her countless times, you have to look and listen to learn. When you think you already know the answers, when you say, “I know, I know” you might as well be covering your eyes and stopping up your ears. Any possibility of learning is put on hold. True leaders, great leaders, want to guide the people they are leading. That is the point. If you didn’t think you could serve as an example, you wouldn’t be in the position you are in. But looks what happens when the people realize they don’t know. This isn’t when they get manipulated. This is when they can finally find their own way. Great leaders are content to serve as an example. They don’t have any ulterior motives. They are most delighted when the people they are guiding are able to find their own way. That is why that word “kindly” from the first stanza is so important. You want people to realize they don’t know, because you generally care for them.
Here is a hypothetical aside that I imagine some people, who really yearn for power, might ask right about now. “Well, what if we try it your way, Lao Tzu, but the people don’t find their way so easily? Can we really trust the people, after all? When do we get to use force to make them do the right thing?” You guys really think that the end justifies whatever means, don’t you? You are so hungry for power that you can’t wait to reach for more. But the truth is that if the people don’t respond to your satisfaction, then is not the time to use force. Then is the time to reexamine how well you were demonstrating following the Tao. It really isn’t that difficult. If it is so difficult, the fault isn’t with the people, who you don’t think can be trusted. The fault is with you, who we know can’t be trusted. The great way is easy, you people just prefer the side paths.
If you want to learn how to govern, there are two things that you really need to avoid. The first is being clever. Because no matter how very clever you think you are, you aren’t. How can you begin to kindly teach people to not-know, when you don’t practice not-knowing? The second thing to avoid is being rich. The problem with your wealth is that it gets in the way of living a simple ordinary life. The kind of life that you want to emulate for the masses of people. You need to be one of us. Not some actor.
When you are relying on your cleverness and riches, you won’t see that the simplest of patterns is the clearest. You will make things way more complicated than they need to be. Your cleverness, your riches, blind you to the simplest of truths. If you, yourself, are content with an ordinary life, then you can show all the people the way back to their own true nature.
This is the role of a leader. First, learning for themselves how to be content, then serving as an example of how to be content, for everybody else to see. Anything beyond that is counter to the way of the Tao.