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.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 65, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Something of which I am constantly reminding myself, is that the Tao Te Ching is intended to be taken as one whole unit. Lao Tzu originally wrote it without any chapter divisions; and, he no doubt, intended it to be read in one sitting. Later, editors came along and put in the chapter divisions. Usually, I find that helpful. It allows me, for instance, to take just a chapter each day; and, use it for a launching point for my own ramblings. The downside, though, is that I am gaining new readers all the time; and they are starting in the middle of the journey. I can’t tell you the number of times that I have had conversations with friends in real life, who have told me, “I am trying to read your blog posts, and I am lost.” This is frustrating to me. I don’t really have the best of solutions to offer them. Other than, “Go back to chapter one.” Context rules. I certainly didn’t begin in the middle of the journey. I had to start at the beginning.
I have been thinking of this the last couple of days, because that is true of so much more than my blog posts. Other bloggers are not bound by a particular day’s chapter; but, they are writing about current events; and, those current events didn’t happen in a vacuum. There is a whole lot of historical context that they understand as they are writing; and, I suspect they are hoping their readers are not completely ignorant of that history.
I have been having conversations, a lot of conversations, just recently with both friends and acquaintances, not to mention perfect strangers on other social media, where I have been discussing current events; and trying to apply the teachings of Lao Tzu, given the historical context of what is going on in the world. Just yesterday, I was told my thinking was overly simplistic and hopelessly naive. That was before I took a little bit of time to school her in the history of U.S. imperialism and hegemony over the last 100 years.
Why did I do that? And what does it have to do with today’s chapter? It has to do with the problem of ignorance. And Lao Tzu has his own unique way of addressing it. He said, “The ancient Masters didn’t try to educate the people, but kindly taught them to not-know.” What the…? I have always believed so strongly in education as the cure for ignorance. What can Lao Tzu possibly mean?
But, as is usually the case, I am looking at this all wrong. Just like when Lao Tzu says to not-do, he doesn’t actually mean that nothing is going to be done; when he says to not-know, he doesn’t mean that nothing is going to be learned. I am convinced that Lao Tzu strikes at the roots while we are off looking at the branches. I might be treating a symptom of a problem by hacking at the branches. But, that tree isn’t going to give up so easily; if I don’t deal with the root.
So, let’s look at the root with Lao Tzu. “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.” That is dealing with the root.
People are ignorant. What do you do? The problem with the ignorant is that they don’t know that they don’t know. This is what makes them ignorant. They think they know the answers. And, when they already know the answers, you can’t very easily point out where they are mistaken, and guide them to the truth. Because, they know; and, they are downright willful about it.
That reminds me of many, many years ago when I was in high school. Yes, boys and girls, that was back when we had to walk miles and miles to school in several feet of snow, barefoot, and all uphill, both ways. No, I am just kidding. That was the conditions when my Dad was a boy. Anyway, we were given this anecdote of what it means to navigate through high school: “When you are a Freshman, you don’t know anything; but, you don’t know that you don’t know anything. When you are a Sophomore, you still don’t know anything; but, you know that you don’t know anything. When you are a Junior you now know; but, you don’t know that you know. And, when you are a Senior, you know; and, you know that you know.” Sometimes, I think where our education system is failing us is that we don’t kick everyone out when they are sophomores. I think Lao Tzu would agree. It is then, that people can figure things out for themselves.
All I was really trying to accomplish yesterday, with my short history lesson, was to encourage the person to question whether they really did know. “Hmmmm, maybe I don’t know?” I was merely trying to plant that seed of doubt. Because, if they can come to a point where they know that they don’t know, then they can find their own way. I am not looking to manipulate here. Guide, yes; manipulate, no. Lao Tzu honestly believes that people can find their own way. Just like he honestly believes that the world can govern itself. And yes, I get that that is overly simplistic and hopelessly naive. But, I am just simple and naive enough to agree with him.
Now, why is any of this important? It is important because Lao Tzu is still talking about learning how to govern well. Remember, Lao Tzu is training leaders in the art of living. So they can then serve as an example for everyone else. He is speaking to us would-be leaders and telling us that we need to avoid being clever or rich. If you want to guide the people you will find that the simplest pattern is the clearest. Yes, that was how they said “Keep It Simple, Stupid” in Lao Tzu’s day.
If we (us would-be leaders) will be content with an ordinary life, we can show all the people (by our example) the way back to their own nature. That is teaching them to not-know. To realize that they don’t know. Then they can find their own way. And the world can govern itself.