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)
Today, we continue our series of chapters on the art of governing, a manual for would-be leaders. The last two chapters, Lao Tzu devoted to teaching Wei Wu Wei, the practice of doing without doing. And, whenever Lao Tzu talks about this fundamental tenet of philosophical Taoism, it is never long before he teaches on the practice of knowing without knowing. This practice is just as important, if we are going to practice doing without doing.
Lao Tzu opens today’s chapter by referring to the ancient Masters. These were the leaders of the people in ancient times. Lao Tzu refers to them as wise and virtuous men and women, who led the people by being content to serve as an example for them. Being content to serve as an example is contrasted with trying to educate the people. They didn’t try to educate. Instead, they kindly taught people to not-know.
Anyone who has ever tried to educate people knows how difficult it is to guide them, when they think they already know all the answers. I frustrated my own father countless times. Yesterday, was Father’s Day, as I am writing this, so I am still thinking a lot of my father. And, whenever he was trying to teach me something, I was always ready with, “I know, I know.” I can’t begin to tell you the number of times he threw up his hands in frustration; because, if there was one thing he did know, it was that I didn’t know. I just thought I did. So, he would let me go on, in my willful ignorance, until I would come running back to him, frustrated with my own self, as I came to realize I didn’t really know.
When you are a willful child, like I was, those lessons are learned the hard way. But wise and virtuous leaders know, if they can teach people to know that they don’t know, they really will be able to find their own way. That was what my own father was always about with me. He wasn’t trying to keep me from going my own way. He was trying to show me, so I could go my own way. But, I was stubborn, and woefully ignorant of my own ignorance. And, I was convinced he was trying to control me. Stupid, stupid me.
Interestingly, this is one thing libertarians get accused of, all the time. We are just willful brats who don’t want to be controlled, so we reject authority. When we grow up, if we ever grow up, we will understand that our paternal government loves us, and has our best interests at heart. That sounds to me like Winston Smith’s realization at the end of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. But, I would more easily come to “love big brother”, if our paternal government was actually following Lao Tzu’s teachings.
Still, besides the libertarian aspects of philosophical Taoism, one of the things that drew me into Lao Tzu’s teachings is how it resonated with my own father’s teachings. It just took me a few years to realize this. I am thankful my own father lived long enough to hear me say, “You know, Dad, you get wiser, the older I get.” Because, for the longest of times, I thought I, alone, had all the answers, and Dad was hopelessly ignorant. Dad got the last laugh, however. I had my own pair of children who took to instruction from me in their own willful way. However, they both wised up, much sooner.
But, I don’t want to get side-tracked, here. These are instructions for would-be leaders. If you want to learn how to govern, avoid being clever or rich. The being clever is thinking you know, and relying on that knowledge. I learned why that needs to be avoided. And, the reason we should avoid being rich is because, by relying on those riches, we lose touch with who we are. The simplest pattern is the clearest. Keep it simple, stupid. (Sorry, just talking to myself, there). Leaders need to be content with an ordinary life, because if they can’t be content, how are they going to show people the way to true contentment.
And, the way to true contentment is to get back to our own true nature. Being who, and what, we are. There is no other way.