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)
Yesterday, I don’t know whether you noticed it, there was a segue from not-doing to not-knowing. Really, the two go hand in hand. Lao Tzu was talking about the example of the Master, who has nothing to lose and therefore loses nothing. All his desires are non-desire. What he has learned is to unlearn. I say this is an example; because, by his practice of not-doing doing, or effortless action, he reminds people of who they have always been.
From there, we spring into today’s chapter. With our great emphasis on education, today’s chapter may sound strange indeed. Because Lao Tzu looks way back, to the ancient Masters. What can we learn from them? Well, one thing we might learn is that education tends to puff us up.
Now, I am going to stop right there and affirm that I think education is a good thing. I am college educated. And, I home-schooled my own children. Not for religious reasons, like so many people were doing back when I was home-schooling. But, because I believed strongly enough in educating my children, that I didn’t believe it could be entrusted to the State. My children are adults now, and they are products of my strong beliefs in education. And, I take pride in that. Notice how puffed up I can get over education? Even today, I am working in education as a private tutor. For me, there is nothing so rewarding, as seeing light bulbs go on, as once difficult concepts are mastered by my students.
Having established that I am all for education. And, admitting it with pride. I want to continue discussing why the ancient Masters didn’t try to educate the people. As we read through this chapter, it seems like Lao Tzu is promoting having simple, compliant people to govern. If that raises any red flags for you, good. Just remember that the way things seem to be are not always the way they are.
Let’s look a little closer. The ancient Masters kindly taught the people to not-know. Is this really wanting them to remain in a state of ignorance? Is that what Lao Tzu is meaning? I don’t think so.
Far from promoting ignorance, I think Lao Tzu is promoting humility. Remember what I said earlier. Education tends to puff us up. That word, tends, is a very important one. That is why I am using it. You probably remember the often misquoted line of Lord Acton, “All power tends to corrupt…” Tends means it has a tendency. And tendency means it is likely to happen. And this means that it can be avoided, if we are careful. But how to be careful? First, by being aware of the tendency. Second, by avoiding it, if we can. Getting back to education, which tends to puff us up, we need to be careful that we don’t let our education puff us up.
That is the danger the ancient Masters are avoiding. They understood that when people are puffed up, thinking they already know the answers, people can be difficult to guide. But the converse is also true. When people know that they don’t know, they can find their own way.
That doesn’t sound like simple and compliant people to me. That sounds like people that have knowledge but aren’t puffed up. They know that they don’t know. And because they aren’t full of pride, they aren’t doing stupid things.
Speaking of prideful and stupid things. Today’s lesson isn’t really just for the masses of people. It is for those who want to learn how to govern. Lao Tzu tells us that those who govern us err when, full of pride, they do stupid things. That is why anyone, who is wanting to govern well, must not rely on their own cleverness and riches. The need for humility is most important the more powerful you become.
Our rulers, full of pride and, dare I say it, stupidity, just don’t get it. The simplest pattern is the clearest. But they can’t see it. Because they have made things so very complicated. Attempting to manage more and more of our everyday lives. Centrally planning things that they can’t possibly keep up with. That, of course, never stops them.
Learn to be content with an ordinary life. That isn’t just advice for the rest of us. If only our so-called leaders would learn to be content with the ordinary, instead of always trying to achieve the extraordinary. Reaching for greatness, they just make a complete mess of everything. But if they were content with the simple and ordinary, they would then be an example to the people. Which, (ahem), is what leaders are supposed to be. Showing people the way back to their own nature. Of how to be content with your simple and ordinary life.