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.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 59, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
This is the third in a series of chapters on the art of governing, a manual for would-be leaders. I do hope you have read my commentaries on chapters 57 and 58, because they are intended to be read in context. These are some of my favorite chapters in the Tao Te Ching; they allow me to really open up my heart to my readers, as I explain what libertarianism and Taoism mean to me.
In chapter 57, Lao Tzu got it all started by telling would-be leaders they must learn to follow the Tao, if they want to be great. The message that we must give up our need to control is central to philosophical Taoism. It is our desire, which is at the heart of the problems we face in our lives. It keeps us from letting things come and go as they will, and from being content in each present moment. In chapter 58, Lao Tzu introduced tolerance as the opposite of repression in governing. I said, then, tolerance is a word which has taken on a whole lot of negative connotations in recent years. Lao Tzu intends it to mean freedom from the will to power. The will to power is the real culprit, when governments repress people.
Now, here we are, today, with installment three and a new word, moderation. Moderation has also taken on a whole lot of negative connotations in recent years. But I want us to reclaim the word moderation, just like I wanted to reclaim tolerance, yesterday. In reality, moderation and tolerance mean very much the same thing. And, we need to understand what Lao Tzu means by these terms if we are to understand Lao Tzu’s art of governing.
He says, “For governing a country well there is nothing better than moderation.” Nothing better; my ears perk up, whenever I hear words like all or nothing, always or never. I try to be careful in using them. Seriously, just the other day I used the word “all” in a post, saying “all cops are thugs”, and I got taken to task over it. It was hyperbole, friends, hyperbole. I understand there are often exceptions to a rule. So, when Lao Tzu says, nothing is better than moderation in governing, I put myself on high alert.
But then he goes on to explain the mark of a moderate man. You want to know what moderation and tolerance really mean? Here it is: Freedom from your own ideas. Before I let Lao Tzu continue to explain what he means by freedom, I just want to add something here. Freedom from your own ideas doesn’t mean you have no ideas. Of course, you have ideas. You wouldn’t have sought political office if you were devoid of ideas. But the moderate person isn’t enslaved by those ideas. They are able to let go of their fixed plans and concepts. They don’t need to be in control.
I think this is important for us to understand because the words moderation and moderate have been co-opted in recent years by people who very much wish to be in control. If you want to know who is in control in Washington D.C. (and likely anywhere there are seats of power) it is so-called moderates. They let the extremes duke it out, whipping up the party faithful, and ensuring their “moderate” plans will be the ones implemented. But this kind of moderation isn’t what Lao Tzu is talking about. They don’t have freedom from their own ideas, they are just as enslaved to them, perhaps more so than the so-called extremists.
I want to reclaim the word moderation. So, whenever I see people misusing the words, I want to replace the word, moderate, with “scoundrel” or “tyrant”. I think those are more accurate labels for them. Oh, I know, I know, “Not all moderates.” Please……
But getting back to today’s chapter, what does Lao Tzu mean by freedom from your own ideas?
He says a moderate man is tolerant like the sky. Like I said earlier, moderation and tolerance really mean the same thing. How free are you? How willing are you to not be in control? Will you let the world govern itself, or do you just have to interfere, intervene, use force, try to control? For the man (or woman) who is moderate, the sky is the limit on their freedom from their own ideas.
Here is another side note. There has been a lot of talk lately about moderate versus extremist Muslims. In fact, we have been getting a real kick out of those two labels lately to describe all sorts of people. If your views on any subject is at all different from mine, that makes you an extremist. I, who have more sensible views, am a moderate. Barry Goldwater is, no doubt, spinning in his grave. Friends, please stop this. You aren’t helping.
There is so much more to freedom from your own ideas, we have barely scratched the surface. Like sunlight, it is all-pervading. There is that word, all. But what does it mean? Here in the northern hemisphere we still have quite a few more of these short days and long nights. But, every morning I get up before dawn, and welcome the sunrise, as I go for my power-walk. I am now walking more than three and a half miles each day (*pats myself on back), and I like to watch the sunlight as it creeps across the land each morning. By the time my walk is finished, the sunlight has spread everywhere my eyes can see. Freedom is like that. It pervades every thing.
Freedom from your own ideas doesn’t make you wishy-washy. Moderates, contrary to popular opinion, don’t have their fingers in the air trying to determine which way the political winds are blowing. They are firm like a mountain. Yet, like a tree in the wind, they are supple as well. Firm, yet supple. That tree has roots that go deep. But the branches do bend; so don’t look for him to soon break.
He has no destination in view…. Oh. My. God. If he has no destination in view, how will he ever know, when he gets there? My friends, do we really know and understand just how liberating freedom is? We are talking about freedom from expectations, here. He has no expectations, and thus is never disappointed.
Because of his freedom, he is able to make use of anything life happens to bring his way. If you are bound by your own ideas, when life throws you a curve ball, when you were expecting a fast ball, you are going to swing and miss. But, nothing is impossible for him. That, my friends, is what freedom means. It means nothing is impossible for you.
Why? Because you have let go. You have let go of trying to control. You have let go of your fixed plans and concepts. You have let go of everything which prevents you from simply following the Tao. Your own ideas aren’t ruling you. You are the Master! Now, you can truly care for the people’s welfare, like a mother cares for her own children.