The Proverbial Question Of Which Came First?

The ancient Masters
didn’t try to educate the 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 nature.

-Lao Tzu-

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

Yesterday, I said that for Lao Tzu the art of living and the art of governing were one. It took me awhile to figure that out. But coming to that realization transformed my life.

We’re going to take a look at today’s chapter in that context. Lao Tzu talks all the time about the ancient Masters. He certainly esteemed them. They informed his philosophy. He says today that they didn’t try to educate the people. Because they understood the problem wasn’t a lack of education. The problem was they already knew too much. Or more precisely, they thought they knew the answers already.

When you think you already know the answers, it will be difficult to guide you. The ancient Masters taught the people to not-know. This is that unlearning that I said we needed to be practicing. But, don’t mistake guiding for manipulating or controlling. They weren’t wanting to manipulate or control the people, Guiding was a very subtle practice. It wasn’t about manipulation or control.

In fact, Lao Tzu tells us it was just the opposite of that. When the people come to the realization that they don’t really know, and that is because they have learned to not-know, the people can find their own way.

That right there is how the art of governing is one with the art of living. The art of governing isn’t about control. It is about leading, guiding. And that is through being someone who is content to serve as an example. Of course this establishes the difference between rulers and leaders. But that isn’t all that Lao Tzu is trying to get across. The point of governing, of leading, of guiding, of serving as an example – is to show all the people the way back to their own nature.

The ancient Masters understood that people can find their own way; if only they aren’t confounded by their so-called knowledge. People don’t need to be forced to do the right thing. They can figure it out for themselves. All that is necessary is humility. The people need to be humble enough to come to the realization that they don’t really know. And the leaders need to be humble enough to be content to serve as an example, rather than needing to force some outcome.

This is why Lao Tzu says to those who want to learn how to govern, that cleverness and riches are not what is needed. Those actually are a hindrance. They will puff you up. Make you proud. And humility is what you need to be cultivating. The simplest pattern is the clearest. This is important whether you are just one of the people; or, you are wanting to be a leader of the people. Keep it simple. If you are going to serve as an example, you want a simple and clear pattern.

This simple and clear pattern is being content with an ordinary life. Once again, this does separate rulers from leaders. Rulers tend to be extravagant in their living. That doesn’t serve as an example to the people. Instead, it just enflames their desires. Leaders are a completely different breed from rulers. Leaders are content with an ordinary life. One that serves as an example to the people. Instead of enflaming desires, it calms them. And, people find their way back to their own nature.

Just like the proverbial question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? We need to understand how the art of living informs the art of governing and the art of governing informs the art of living.

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