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Rulers

Part 17 of the Tao Teh King for Awakening

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Of the best rulers the people (only) know that they exist; the next best they love and praise; the next they fear; and the next they revile.

When they do not command the people’s faith, some will lose faith in them, and then they resort to oaths!

But (of the best) when their task is accomplished, their work done, the people all remark, ‘We have done it ourselves.’

(Tao Teh King 17)

Of the best rulers the people (only) know that they exist; the next best they love and praise; the next they fear; and the next they revile.

It is interesting that Taoism was traditionally very outspoken about society, and especially about government. At the same time Taoism advocated being distanced from the regular run of things and was insistent that no coercion in any form was to be applied to other people. So Taoism was a fundamentally live-and-let-live philosophy that felt an obligation to present wisdom to all and then stand back and see what happened. This is of course characteristic of the major Eastern religions (Taoism, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism), at least ideally. It is no surprise that human beings in the grip of ego have always gone contrary to this principle, but anyone who reads the scriptures and the teachings of true sages can see that coercion and even persuasion is a violation of their essential nature. For true religion frees a person, it does not bind or obligate him in in any way. In no other way can hypocrisy and corruption be avoided.

Now I have my own story. If the best rulers are only known to exist, and nothing more, what about rulers that no one knows even exist? That is the way it was in my one-mile-square hometown of four hundred and fifty residents in the nineteen forties. We had no mail delivery, everything came to our tiny post office on the town square. Any outsider wanting to find a house or business had to ask and be directed to it. So imagine our amazement when my uncle George came home one evening and asked: “Did you know all our streets have names?” Our town was over one hundred years old, yet my family who had lived there for three generations had never heard of any street names. It seems that my uncle had found an old map at the town hall which gave the street names.

After everyone had expressed surprise, he topped himself by asking: “Did you know we have a mayor?” Again, this was astonishing. No one had ever heard of a mayor or any form of town government whatever. And when he told us the mayor’s name we were really flummoxed because it the name of a rich drunk that no one even gave a second thought. (I had been told when very small that I must never go into his large impressive house because his family were the wrong kind of people–typical F. Scott Fitzgerald type of moral degenerates, not appreciated in a community like ours in which “poor but honest” topped the list.)

Anyhow, it turned out that the town was “governed” by a town board who had some time in the past decided to call its chairman the mayor. What town board? No one knew of them because they had been appointed long ago and given the power to appoint replacements when one of them died or resigned. That was even more shocking. But since the board did not seem to do anything, we shrugged it off and went on as before. (Actually they did a few things, but very slowly and made it seem that it was county regulation.)

Nearly forty years went by. When I was visited by a cousin and his wife I learned that the old town hall was falling to bits. It contained the library and a huge auditorium where school plays and suchlike were performed, so my cousin’s wife was especially concerned about its imminent demolition and was trying to persuade the locals to raise money on their own to preserve it. Some hope! A few months later my father and mother came for their annual visit and in conversation my father revealed that in the flurry and fury of Save the Town Hall my cousin and his wife had discovered that the sleepy little town actually had over two hundred thousand dollars in the bank gathering interest: enough to repair several town halls. Another aspect of the invisible board’s inactivity. So the hall was saved and today a photograph of it is displayed on the town’s minimal website. (Another board project I suppose.) By the way, the town now has street signs.

The government that governs least is not the best, it is the government that is unknown and does virtually nothing. What my story demonstrates is the wisdom of the Taoist position. Invisible government is best. Next best is government that governs so minimally and wisely that all love and praise it. Not at all good is government that rules by fear, and the worst is reviled by those with good sense.

Since we do not run government as individuals, what is the message of the Tao Teh King to us? It shows us how benevolent detachment while doing our personal best within society is the way of wisdom.

When they do not command the people’s faith, some will lose faith in them, and then they resort to oaths! Moral coercion precedes active physical coercion, so beware. Also they vehemently praise and congratulate themselves and hold themselves up to the people as the pinnacle of virtue and wisdom, implying that those who oppose them are stupid and without right moral sense. In this, government is following the lead of religion much of the time, for religions do just the same. The further a religion drifts from being based on the individual’s free choice, the worse it gets until it, too, is a monstrosity everyone with good sense prays will go away.

But (of the best) when their task is accomplished, their work done, the people all remark, ‘We have done it ourselves.’ And so they truly will have done, as a free society acting willingly on right principles. It is the same with religion. Each person attains moral perfection and enlightenment on their own. The religion pointed the way, but they lived out what they learned and proved its value by reaching the Eternal even while living in time.

Next in the Tao Teh King for Awakening: The Decline of Tao

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Introduction to The Tao Teh King for Awakening

Chapters of The Tao Teh King for Awakening

Preface to The Tao Teh King for Awakening

  1. On the Absolute Tao
  2. The Rise of Relative Opposites
  3. Action Without Deeds
  4. The Character of Tao
  5. Nature
  6. The Spirit of the Valley
  7. Living for Others
  8. Water
  9. The Danger of Overweening Success
  10. Embracing the One
  11. The Utility of Not-Being
  12. The Senses
  13. Praise and Blame
  14. Prehistoric Origins
  15. The Wise Ones of Old
  16. Knowing the Eternal Law
  17. Rulers
  18. The Decline of Tao
  19. Realize the Simple Self
  20. The World and I
  21. Manifestations of Tao
  22. Futility of Contention
  23. Identification with Tao
  24. The Dregs and Tumors of Virtue
  25. The Four Eternal Models
  26. Heaviness and Lightness
  27. On Stealing the Light
  28. Keeping to the Female
  29. Warning Against Interference
  30. Warning Against the Use of Force
  31. Weapons of Evil
  32. Tao is Like the Sea
  33. Knowing Oneself
  34. The Great Tao Flows Everywhere
  35. The Peace of Tao
  36. The Rhythm of Life
  37. World Peace
  38. Degeneration
  39. Unity Through Complements
  40. The Principle of Reversion
  41. Qualities of the Taoist
  42. The Violent Man
  43. The Softest Substance
  44. Be Content
  45. Calm Quietude
  46. Racing Horses
  47. Pursuit of Knowledge
  48. Conquering the World by Inaction
  49. The People’s Hearts
  50. The Preserving of Life
  51. The Mystic Virtue
  52. Stealing the Absolute
  53. Brigandage
  54. The Individual and the State
  55. The Character of the Child
  56. Beyond Honor and Disgrace
  57. The Art of Government
  58. Unobtrusive Government
  59. Be Sparing
  60. Governing a Big Country
  61. Big and Small Countries
  62. The Good Man’s Treasure
  63. Difficult and Easy
  64. Beginning and End
  65. The Grand Harmony
  66. The Lords of the Ravines
  67. The Three Treasures
  68. The Virtue of Not-Contending
  69. Camouflage
  70. They Know Me Not
  71. Sick-Mindedness
  72. On Punishment (1)
  73. On Punishment (2)
  74. On Punishment (3)
  75. On Punishment (4)
  76. Hard and Soft
  77. Bending the Bow
  78. Nothing Weaker than Water
  79. Peace Settlements
  80. The Small Utopia
  81. The Way of Heaven

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