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)
Today’s chapter is the third in a series of chapters on the art of governing, a manual for would-be leaders. Lao Tzu led things off, two chapters ago, by stating the fundamental lesson all would-be leaders must learn on how to govern by following the Tao, “Leave it alone, and the world will govern itself.”
In yesterday’s chapter, Lao Tzu touted the virtue of toleration in governing a country, while contrasting it with governing through repression. I understand what Lao Tzu means by toleration. He is talking about letting the world govern itself. But, I also understand that toleration, in this day and age, has come to be something often forced. And, that kind of toleration runs counter to the Tao, which doesn’t force anything.
Today, Lao Tzu touts the virtue of moderation in governing. Once again, I find myself cringing at the word. I was reading a Jacob Sullum article in Reason Magazine, just yesterday, which perfectly illustrates my own aversion to what counts for moderation in politics, today. He said, “The most worrisome thing about Merrick Garland…is that reporters routinely describe him as “moderate”. Although that label is supposed to be reassuring, in politics it usually refers to people who combine the worst aspects of the left and right, united by an expansive view of government authority and a narrow view of individual rights.” I won’t get into the debate on whether or not Senate Republicans should hold hearings on Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court; but, I will gladly say, Lao Tzu’s moderation is nothing like the moderation we have come to expect in politics.
Moderation and tolerance are very much the same thing; so, it shouldn’t be any surprise, when we find Lao Tzu saying that one of the marks of a moderate person is they are tolerant.
But, I am getting just a little ahead of myself. Let’s back up, so we can better understand why Lao Tzu believes, “For governing a country well, there is nothing better than moderation.” If Lao Tzu doesn’t mean, by moderation, the things we have come to expect of moderates in Washington (or wherever seats of government reside), what does he mean?
He describes it for us, quite thoroughly. “The mark of a moderate person is freedom from their own ideas.” Those of us who call ourselves libertarians place a pretty high value on freedom; so, what does freedom from your own ideas, entail?
First of all, it means tolerance. Tolerance being, not what we would consider a “moderate” position, but an extreme one. Remember what we learned about tolerance in yesterday’s chapter. It was contrasted with repression. The tolerant person would let the world, or the country, govern itself. They wouldn’t try to impose their own will. They are content to serve as an example. Repression is the other extreme. Where the will to power is in charge, the people, of any country, are repressed. And, just to make sure we understand how extreme this position of tolerance is, Lao Tzu says the moderate person is tolerant like the sky. The sky is the limit to the freedom you have, from your own ideas.
To understand that tolerance means freedom from your own ideas is to understand that those who would repress us are in bondage to their own ideas. They aren’t free! The will to power is in charge, not them. They, as well as everybody under them, are in bondage.
Moderation, properly understood, is the best way to govern a country well. It doesn’t follow the dictates of the will to power. It follows the Tao. All you would-be leaders, ask yourself just a few questions, to see whether you are free, or in bondage. How willing are you to not be in control? Will you let the world govern itself? Or, do you just have to intervene, interfere, and use force to try to control?
But, there is more to freedom from your own ideas than just tolerance. It is also all-pervading, like sunlight. What does Lao Tzu mean by this? I, along with the majority of the population in the world, live in the northern hemisphere. Here, we have just passed the vernal equinox, and the days are getting longer and longer as we press on to the summer solstice. Every morning I get up before dawn, and go out for my morning power walk. This is how I welcome each new day. As I am walking, I get to see the beginnings of the sunlight as it shines over the eastern horizon; but, while I am out walking, the sunlight slowly creeps across the land. By the time my walk is through, the sunlight pervades all over the land. This is a wonderful illustration of how, when you have freedom from your own ideas, your ideas spread everywhere. Those who want to repress you, think without the use of force, their ideas won’t spread. But, when you follow the Tao, your ideas spread naturally, pervading everywhere. Please understand this, having freedom from your own ideas, doesn’t mean you don’t have any ideas. Of course, you have ideas! But, by following the Tao, your ideas can now flourish.
Being a moderate person doesn’t mean being wishy-washy. It means being firm, like a mountain. Yet, supple like a tree in the wind. Your ideas have roots which run deep. They are firmly planted in the Tao. But, though the wind may blow every which way, the tree won’t be rooted up. It will still stand firm.
This next one is the one which is most often misunderstood. The moderate person has no destination in view. What? No destination in view? But, how will you know, when you get where you are going? Hey, let’s not fail to understand what Lao Tzu means by freedom from your own ideas. You aren’t so bound to a particular direction, or a particular course of action. You aren’t bound by expectations; so, you can never be disappointed. You, my friends, are free. And, that means you can make use of anything, which life happens to bring your way.
There really is nothing quite like freedom. And, you are free! What freedom really means is, “Nothing is impossible for you!” So, there you have it. Why it is so important to let go of every desire to try to control, every desire to make people happy or moral, every desire for the common good. Now, you can care for the people’s welfare, as a mother cares for her child.