The Case for Radical Moderation

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)

The Case for Radical Moderation

Just when I thought I had overcome the problems with the word tolerance, in yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu uses another much-maligned word, moderation, in today’s chapter. And, just as with toleration, we are going to have to tackle moderation with the same circumspect analysis.

Forget everything you think you know about moderation. That is the best place to start. Because, for governing a country well, Lao Tzu insists, nothing is better. And, if we have preconceived ideas of what moderation is, in practice, we may have a very hard time believing this is true. So, don’t let those get in the way. Onward! Let’s see what Lao Tzu means by moderation. Then, and only then, should we go back and see whether or not our preconceived ideas were right or wrong.

To tell of moderation, Lao Tzu turns to the example of a moderate person to show us. And, of course, he resorts to the use of metaphors. How better to picture it for us?

He begins by saying the mark of a moderate person is freedom from their own ideas. If you have been following along in these chapters with me, that should sound familiar. Moderation means freedom! If you are practicing moderation, you won’t be enslaved to your own ideas. And, you won’t be enslaved by the will to power.

You see, I have tended to view moderation, not as freedom from, but absence of, ideas. My view of the moderate person was of a person with their wet finger pointed toward the wind. A milquetoast, really. They will just go wherever the wind blows. But, they don’t have any core values to anchor them. And, this is just the kind of preconceived ideas we need to let go of.

It isn’t that the moderate person has no ideas. Nor, that they are without core values to anchor them. At least, that is the case with the moderation Lao Tzu is speaking of. What marks them is freedom from their own ideas. And, that begins with how tolerant they are. Yes, there is that word again. Tolerance plays a huge role in making them free. They are tolerant like the sky. Completely open to whatever the moment brings. Their tolerance is like sunlight. It is all-pervading. And, just like how Lao Tzu described tolerance in yesterday’s chapter, this enables them to be firm like a mountain, yet supple as a tree in the wind.

I think this is where I got the mistaken notion that they just have their finger to the wind, and choose their opinions based on whichever way the wind blows. But, it isn’t like that, at all. A tree doesn’t get blown about in that way. It has roots that go deep. Yet, it is flexible, and can bend.

We tend to think that you have to have some destination in view. Exactly, how are you going to get where you are going, or know when you get there, if you have no destination in view?

But, Lao Tzu is talking about freedom, here. They aren’t bound by their own fixed plans and concepts. They have let go of these. They have stopped trying to control. They are free! And, being free, they can make use of anything life happens to bring their way.

I want you to take a moment to think about this kind of freedom. If you are this kind of free, and you can make use of anything life happens to bring your way, nothing will be impossible for you.

This is why, for governing a country well, nothing is better than moderation. Because you have let go, you can truly care for the people’s welfare, just as a mother cares for her own child.

Just think about that. As long as you are bound by your own preconceived ideas, your fixed plans and concepts, you will have to be in control. The will to power will be in charge in your life, and all your ideals, the very highest of them, will have the most dismal of results. You may think you know what is best for the people. And, you will be frustrated every step of the way. You are rigid! You can’t bend. You will be broken.

If you really want to care for the people’s welfare, give up caring. Let go of all desire for the common good, and the good will become as common as grass.

Are you beginning to see just how radical moderation is? We have become so accustomed to there being someone in control. We elect rulers to control us, because we don’t trust ourselves. But, without all that need for control, the world is fully capable of governing itself. All that is required are leaders who will be great, because they have given up trying to control.

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