"People are difficult to rule because of their knowledge."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 65
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
In ancient times,
Those who followed the Way
Did not try to give people knowledge thereof,
But kept them ignorant.
People are difficult to rule
Because of their knowledge.
To rule by knowledge ravages the country.
To rule not by knowledge blesses the country.
To understand these two is to have precept.
To always have precept is called profound virtue.
Profound virtue is indeed deep and wide.
It leads all things back to the great order.
No Rule by Knowledge
In any Eastern culture, when ancient times are
mentioned, it's always to point out what would be commendable
and wise. The idea that past times were superior to the
present is found just about everywhere, even in the Western
world prior to the scientific revolution, a few hundred years ago.
Actually, it's only the last hundred years or so that
we have changed significantly into regarding the past as
dark and the present as bright. About the future, though,
opinions are mixed.
Lao Tzu was definitely in support of praising his past
as superior to his present. He makes it clear in several lines
of the Tao Te Ching. In the distant past, people were nobler
and wiser, following Tao, the Way, more closely. It made sense
to him, since the ancestors lived nearer to the very
emergence of the world through Tao. Not much had been
Also, there were several classics,
ching, written by excellent minds, already at his time. He probably saw few
contemporary books, except his own, which were possible
to compare to the old ones. His conclusion could be none
other than the deterioration of the human mind in general
and human virtue in particular.
So, when he starts this chapter saying that the sages
of ancient times didn't convey their knowledge of the Way
to other people, he must mean that it was a wise choice
of theirs. People were kept ignorant, so that they were
easier to rule. Otherwise, the country's stability and order were
Why This Book?
It's strange, somewhat contradicting other messages of
his book, that Lao Tzu praises hiding from people even the
understanding of Tao. For one thing, why then would
he write a book explaining it?
But knowledge of Tao is not necessarily
understanding it or being able to follow it. Insufficient knowledge can
even be an obstacle. People think they know, so they close
their eyes and get no closer to Tao. They settle with having
a name for it. This may be the kind of knowledge that Lao
Tzu wants to keep away from people.
Actually, most knowledge is like that. Each
phenomenon in nature is given a name, as is every plant and
animal. That doesn't mean we understand them, nor does it
mean that we are clear about their roles in the world.
Still, those who want to appear learned make sure
to memorize a lot of such names, and thereby claim to have
a perfect understanding of the things named. Already in
the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching we are told that this is a
Tao is not just a road you walk, and its name doesn't
reveal its essence.
Lao Tzu complains in chapter 32: "There are
already many names. One must know when it's enough."
He should have had a glimpse of our time. It would shock
him. Today, we have so many more names on so many
more things, but we still fail to understand how they are
connected, and what ultimate law they obey.
We should halt the naming, and start our quest for
the truth behind all things. That's what Lao Tzu talks about
in his book. In the absence of the truth he prefers that
people are ignorant, not caring for knowledge.
But it's difficult to deny that Lao Tzu also genuinely
doubts educating the masses. The more people know, the more
they will interfere with government. Although Lao Tzu is
compassionate about the well-being of the people, he
knows nothing about democracy.
At the time he lived, there were experiments with it
so far away from his abode that he had no way of
hearing about it. Ancient Greece had no contact with China,
where the democratic idea was unthinkable.
In a democracy, the people's knowledge is
essential. Without it, there's just the pretense of democracy.
People need to know as much as their elected leaders do, or
they will be powerless against them.
On the other hand, in a kingdom or an empire like
that of ancient China, people should be powerless, not to
interfere with the ruler's plans. Then they should be kept
ignorant. It's not the ideal state by far, but Lao Tzu and his
contemporaries saw no alternative.
As for our time, being one where democracy is
somewhat established and cultured, profound virtue should
be explained to people, so that it encompasses all of
them. That's how a democracy can be properly governed,
since everybody has a role in it.
Today, Tao and its virtue need to be learned by all, or
our society will surely fail. So, now Lao Tzu would
probably agree that his book is called for.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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