Once upon a time
those who ruled according to the Way
didn’t use it to make people knowing
but to keep them unknowing.
People get hard to manage
when they know too much.
Whoever rules by intellect
is a curse upon the land.
Whoever rules by ignorance
is a blessing on it.
To understand these things
is to have a pattern and a model,
and to understand a pattern and a model,
is mysterious power.
It reaches far.
It follows things back,
clear back to the great oneness.
Le Guin’s commentary:
Where shall we find a ruler wise enough to know what to teach and what to withhold? “Once upon a time,” maybe in the days of myth and legend, as a pattern, a model, an ideal?
The knowledge and the ignorance or unknowing Lao Tzu speaks of may or may not refer to what we think of as education. In the last stanza, by power he evidently does not mean political power at all, but something vastly different, a unity with the power of the Tao itself.
This is a mystical statement about government–and in our minds those two realms are worlds apart. I cannot make the leap between them. I can only ponder it.
I like the last paragraph of her commentary, because this is the feeling I have about many of the poems in the Tao. There’s less for me to explicate, but more for me to consider. Even this poem, it’s impossible for me to tell you its value, or how you should take it.
It’s just something to consider. You may reject it–and this is an easy one to reject, given its seemingly undemocratic view towards knowledge and/or education–but I still think it’s worth considering. Especially the second half of the poem.
Lao Tzu goes from something seemingly clear and concrete and uses it to transition into something that’s hard to grasp. Hard to even contemplate, in many ways. But that’s what these quiet moments are for. Read this, then take a walk. Do some mindless chores around your home. Exercise, if you have the time or inclination, and let these thoughts about mysterious power roll around in your head.
It does lead me to believe that Lao Tzu is not recommending that people remain uneducated or stupid. The text is strange for a lot of reasons, and opaque for even more. But one of the strangest qualities is the lengths Lao Tzu goes to describe what a leader should be, while advocating for anarchism in other poems. Many more deal with power than they do with anarchism, but I think they’re both important together. His attention to power, and the power people can wield and what they tend to use it for, leads, I think, into his discussion of anarchism.
Because of the corrupting aspect of the kind of power humans desire, he believes it’s better to keep power out of the hands of individuals. Rather, the public should be empowered, and hold influence over any individual. Including the leader.
Lao Tzu, then, seems to be discussing three things through the Tao Te Ching in relation to power:
- The ideal leader
- The typical human leader
- The need for a powerless leader