If a country is governed with tolerance,
the people are comfortable and honest.
If a country is governed with repression,
the people are depressed and crafty.
When the will to power is in charge,
the higher the ideals, the lower the results.
Try to make people happy,
and you lay the groundwork for misery.
Try to make people moral,
and you lay the groundwork for vice.
Thus the Master is content
to serve as an example
and not to impose her will.
She is pointed, but doesn’t pierce.
Straightforward, but supple.
Radiant, but easy on the eyes.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 58, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Today’s chapter is the second in a series of chapters on the art of governing. In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu told would-be leaders, “If you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao.” For those who are unfamiliar with philosophical Taoism, “the Tao” is what Lao Tzu calls the way things are. He calls it an infinite and eternal reality, which governs our entire universe. To follow it, is to go with the flow of yin and yang. Yin and yang are complements of each other; seeming opposites, they always balance things out in our universe. That is the way things are. Not following the Tao means not accepting how our universe operates. You will find yourself always swimming against the current. The universe is forever out of control; so, following the Tao means not trying to control. If you want to be a great leader, you must stop trying to control. Finally, following the Tao means letting go of any desire to intervene or interfere with the natural order of things. Yin and yang will balance things out, naturally. Would-be leaders, with their fixed plans and concepts, try to set limits; but, yin and yang are limitless. So, if you want to be a great leader, you must let go of fixed plans and concepts. If I could tell would-be leaders only one thing it would be, the world can govern itself, let it. That is what the Tao is all about. It does its thing wholly independently of any scheme we can ever conceive, or put into practice. It doesn’t need our good intentions. It doesn’t need our assistance. All we really need to do is go with the flow, or get out of the way.
In today’s chapter, Lao Tzu goes from talking to would-be leaders, to contrasting countries, based on whether they are following the Tao. A country whose leaders are following the Tao is a country which is governed with tolerance. When Lao Tzu talks about tolerance, he is talking about letting, as in letting the world govern itself; or, in the case of a country, letting the country govern itself. The people of that country are comfortable and honest, in a word, content. Would-be leaders, when you let your country govern itself, the people will be content. That is the result, which flows naturally.
Lao Tzu contrasts the country which is governed with tolerance, with one that is governed with repression. This is a country whose leaders interfere with the Tao, instead of going with its flow. Because its leaders interfere with the natural order, the people are depressed and crafty. They aren’t content. And the more they are repressed, the more depressed and crafty they become. This is also a natural consequence. Yin and yang always work that way.
The problem is the will to power. This is entirely counter to the Tao. The first country is governed by leaders who have let go of the will to power. In the second one, the will to power is in charge. These leaders may have the best of intentions; but, the higher their ideals, the lower the results will be. Try to make people happy, and you lay the groundwork for misery. Try to make people moral, and you lay the groundwork for vice.
This is so important to understand. If you want happy and moral people, then don’t try to make them so. In the first country, the people are happy and moral, as a result of being left alone. The second country tries too hard. And, as things get worse, they roll up their sleeves and try harder. But that isn’t how things roll in our universe, which is why would-be leaders must learn to follow the Tao.
Would-be leaders, if you want people to be content, you must be content, to serve as an example, and not to impose your will.
So, I would ask would-be leaders, what kind of example would you be? Could you be pointed, without piercing? Could you be straightforward, yet supple? Could you be radiant, but easy on the eyes? That would mean you are a master at following the Tao.