Tao Te Ching
THE TAOISM OF LAO TZU
Tao Te Ching
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 corrupted, yet.
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 at risk.
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 mistake.
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.
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.
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