The Value of Not-Knowing

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.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 65, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

The Value of Not-Knowing

Yesterday, Lao Tzu was talking about having nothing, desiring nothing, and unlearning. That is, returning to our primal identity. In an earlier chapter, Lao Tzu pointed at a newborn and said, be like that. Having nothing and desiring nothing seems straightforward enough. But, what about unlearning? That is the topic of today’s chapter.

Instead of trying to educate people, the ancient Masters kindly taught them to not-know. Notice, Lao Tzu calls this a kindness. And, the reasons it was a kindness, he explains in the next stanza.

People are difficult to guide, when they think they know the answers. But, when they know that they don’t know, people can find their own way.

Notice, here, that the ancient Masters weren’t trying to keep people ignorant. They did want them to know. And, what the people needed to know is that they don’t know. That word, guide, doesn’t mean force or coerce, either. Guiding is actually quite passive, here. For, the whole point of the people knowing they don’t know is so they can then find their own way.

Now, Lao Tzu brings this all back to my favorite topic in the Tao Te Ching, the art of governing. The value of not-knowing in governing, Gary Johnson take heart, is if you want to learn how to govern, you want to avoid being clever or rich.

Being clever, thinking you know, is the antithesis to knowing not-knowing. And their own cleverness gets our leaders, and would-be leaders, in trouble all of the time. The simplest pattern is the clearest. But the clever often fail to grasp the most simple thing.

And, if our leaders weren’t so tainted by riches, they could be an example to show all people the way back to their own true nature, being content with an ordinary life.

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