When the Master governs,
the people are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.
If you don’t trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.
The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done, the people say,
‘Amazing; we did it all by ourselves!’
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 17, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Yesterday, we had a meditation where I challenged you to be the Master of your own mind and heart. Today, Lao Tzu talks about how the Master governs. This could easily apply to how you govern your own mind and heart. But Lao Tzu is talking about governing people, today. Being as I am a libertarian, as well as a philosophical Taoist, I always enjoy any opportunity that Lao Tzu gives me to talk about the art of governing.
We are on chapter 17, and this is only the second time that Lao Tzu has talked specifically about governing. Don’t worry, he is going to have many chapters yet to come about it. Today, I want to try and limit myself to only what he says in this chapter.
He begins by listing from best to worst the kinds of leaders we are going to encounter as a people who are governed. When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. For Lao Tzu, and certainly for myself, that is the ideal way to govern. The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. The Master doesn’t entice the people with flowery speech designed to impress and deceive with the illusion of power and authority over them. When the Master governs, he doesn’t make a big show of himself. He acts; but not with great pomp and circumstance. You wouldn’t spot him at photo ops. He wouldn’t be making the rounds of late-night talk shows, or morning news shows, or prime-time specials. When the Master governs, it isn’t about him at all. That is why the people are hardly aware that the Master even exists. The Master serves as an example of how to go about this art of living. And when the Master’s work is done, the people say, “Amazing! We did it all by ourselves.” And so, they have.
Now, I know what you are thinking right now. This all sounds ridiculously idealistic. Where in the world is there anyone that would govern in this way? You certainly never find a person of this caliber running for office. And anyone that ever has established himself as supreme leader with or without the consent of the people, has ruled, not served. Yes, I know all of this. But idealistic or not, Lao Tzu has a reason for offering this ideal way of governing. Perhaps, it is because he wants us to know we can do better.
And we can certainly do worse. In fact, all of history is replete with examples of us doing much worse. What sets the Master apart from all the rest is that he actually trusts the people. That is his modus operandi. He trusts the people, and lo and behold, makes them trustworthy.
This is a concept most people, quite frankly, just can’t seem to get. I have political conversations with people all the time. And they usually leave me saddened. The level of distrust that most people have for their fellow human beings is astounding to me. It plays right into the hands of those who want to rule over and control us. I just want to tell everyone I meet that they have been hoodwinked. They believe a very convenient lie. The illusion of the way things seem to be. That people can’t be trusted.
What is the eternal reality? Lao Tzu understands human nature all too well. When you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy. But that, of course, is just what the ruling elite wants. It perpetuates the need for them to be in power. It is easy to convince a simple majority, and sometimes just a plurality will do, that we need them to control all those untrustworthy people. When it was they who made them untrustworthy in the first place.
Lao Tzu invites us to see past the illusion to what is eternally real. The people can just as easily be made trustworthy. All that is required is that you trust them. But I won’t be holding my breath waiting for that to happen; because that would not be healthy for the State. The State needs to make enemies of the people. War is the health of the State. And if you don’t think your own governments have been at war with you, for generations now, you haven’t been paying attention.
If we can’t have the Master governing, perhaps a leader who is loved wouldn’t be so bad. At least you would think so. But sadly, they don’t stay loved when they don’t trust the people. Soon, even the most loved, will be feared and then despised. That is the downward spiral of a country that is not governed well. It is a picture of my country; and, it is a picture of yours.
We can do better. We must do better.