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Wisdom of a Chinese Sage: Part I

This article presents a selection of Lao Tzu’ views especially on governance. Lao Tzu is considered first of the libertarian thinkers, and his thought is rated as radical libertarian creed. Wisdom is what is meant for all and for all times. It never dies or becomes irrelevant. One such example of wisdom is the writings of Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher. One of his aphorisms that I happened to be familiar with more than 20 years ago still inspires me. It was, “Learning consists in adding to one’s stock day by day, the principle of Tao (the way, the path) consists in subtracting.”

by Dr. Khalil Ahmad

Wisdom is what is meant for all and for all times. It never dies or becomes irrelevant. One such example of wisdom is the writings of Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher. One of his aphorisms that I happened to be familiar with more than 20 years ago still inspires me. It was, “Learning consists in adding to one’s stock day by day, the principle of Tao (the way, the path) consists in subtracting.”

Lao Tzu (old sage) was the founder of Taoism and lived in the sixth century before Christ. He was an older contemporary and personal acquaintance of Confucius, who travelled to meet him. They discussed ritual and propriety, central tenets of Confucianism. Their discussions spanned many months. It is said that Confucius learned much from these discussions than the scrolls kept in libraries.

His wise counsel earned him many followers. He served as a keeper of the archives at the imperial court. When the kingdom was disintegrating, he thought of leaving it and, at the age of 80, travelled on a buffalo to the western border of China, what is now Tibet. But seeing that men were not following the path to natural goodness, he was saddened and disillusioned. He was afraid of the written word lest it be taken as dogma. Before he left the western border, he was exhorted by the keeper of the Han Gu Pass to record his teachings. Thus he composed Tao Te Ching (The Way and Its Power), a book consisting of 5,000 characters.

His teachings, especially related to governance, are so relevant to our overall situation that it seems they were written for Pakistan and were meant for Pakistan. If we go through his book, we see one theme recurring time and time again in various ways, and it may be summed up in his own words as:

If I keep from meddling with people
They take care of themselves,
If I keep from commanding people,
They behave themselves,
If I keep from imposing on people,
They become themselves (Poem 57).

This is exactly the libertarian principle. Also, that is why Lao Tzu is considered the first of the libertarian thinkers, and his thought is rated as a radical libertarian creed. From him comes the maxim that the ‘individual and his happiness is the key unit and goal of society’. He is of the view that if the institutions of a society hinder the flourishing of an individual, they must be abolished. He says if under a government “laws and regulations are more numerous than the hairs of an ox”, such a government is “more to be feared than fierce tigers”.

His advice to the government is: be inactive. It means that the “government, in sum, must be limited to the smallest possible minimum”. ‘Inaction’ was the proper function of government, since only inaction can permit the individual to flourish and achieve happiness. Any intervention by the government, Lao-tzu declared, would be counterproductive and would lead to confusion and turmoil. “After referring to the common experience of mankind with governments, Lao Tzu came to this incisive conclusion, ‘The more artificial taboos and restrictions there are in the world, the more the people are impoverished…the more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be’” (Rothbard, Murray, ‘Lao Tzu – Libertarian’, The Journal of Libertarian Studies). It is here that the meaning and importance of the above-quoted lines from his Poem 57 come in to full light.

In Poem 17, he says:

1. In the highest antiquity (the people) did not know that there were (their rulers). In the next age they loved them and praised them. In the next they feared them, in the next they despised them. Thus it was that when faith (in the Tao) was deficient (in the rulers) a want of faith in them ensued (in the people).

2. How irresolute did those (earliest rulers) appear, showing (by their reticence) the importance which they set upon their words! Their work was done and their undertakings were successful, while the people all said, ‘We are as we are, of ourselves!’

Isn’t he talking of a government unnoticed by the people? Isn’t he despising Oriental Despotism? What we are bearing in Pakistan today is an all-intrusive government. Not only the government, but all other groups that derive strength from government or its unlawful inactivity. In Poem 31 and 69, he denigrates the violent means of governing people, and merits and demerits of war. He writes in Poem 31:

1. Now arms, however beautiful, are instruments of evil omen, hateful, it may be said, to all creatures. Therefore they who have the Tao do not like to employ them.

2. The superior man ordinarily considers the left hand the most honourable place, but in time of war the right hand. Those sharp weapons are instruments of evil omen, and not the instruments of the superior man – he uses them only on the compulsion of necessity. Calm and repose are what he prizes; victory (by force of arms) is to him undesirable. To consider this desirable would be to delight in the slaughter of men, and he who delights in the slaughter of men cannot get his will in the kingdom.

3. On occasions of festivity to be on the left hand is the prized position, on occasions of mourning, the right hand. The second in command of the army has his place on the left; the general commanding in chief has his on the right — his place, that is, is assigned to him as in the rites of mourning. He who has killed multitudes of men should weep for them with the bitterest grief; and the victor in battle has his place (rightly) according to those rites.

And in Poem 69, he writes:

1. A master of the art of war has said, ‘I do not dare to be the host (to commence the war); I prefer to be the guest (to act on the defensive). I do not dare to advance an inch; I prefer to retire a foot.’ This is called marshalling the ranks where there are no ranks; baring the arms (to fight) where there are no arms to bare; grasping the weapon where there is no weapon to grasp; advancing against the enemy where there is no enemy.

2. There is no calamity greater than lightly engaging in war. To do that is near losing (the gentleness) which is so precious. Thus it is that when opposing weapons are (actually) crossed, he who deplores (the situation) conquers.

In Poem 53, he again dwells upon his philosophy of inaction, and shows how ‘action’ manifests itself. He writes:

1. If I were suddenly to become known, and (put into a position to) conduct (a government) according to the Great Tao, what I should be most afraid of would be a boastful display.

2. The great Tao (or way) is very level and easy; but people love the by-ways.

3. Their court (yards and buildings) shall be well kept, but their fields shall be ill-cultivated, and their granaries very empty. They shall wear elegant and ornamented robes, carry a sharp sword at their girdle, pamper themselves in eating and drinking, and have a superabundance of property and wealth; such (princes) may be called robbers and boasters. This is contrary to the Tao surely.

In Poem 57, he is more emphatic on the freedom of the individual, and says that freedom makes people responsible. He writes:

1. A state may be ruled by (measures of) correction; weapons of war may be used with crafty dexterity; (but) the kingdom is made one’s own (only) by freedom from action and purpose.

2. How do I know that it is so? By these facts: in the kingdom the multiplication of prohibitive enactments increases the poverty of the people; the more implements to add to their profit that the people have, the greater disorder is there in the state and clan; the more acts of crafty dexterity that men possess, the more do strange contrivances appear; the more display there is of legislation, the more thieves and robbers there are.

3. Therefore, a sage has said, ‘I will do nothing (of purpose), and the people will be transformed of themselves; I will be fond of keeping still, and the people will of themselves become correct. I will take no trouble about it, and the people will of themselves become rich; I will manifest no ambition, and the people will of themselves attain to the primitive simplicity.’

(to be continued)


Dr. Khalil Ahmad is associated with Alternate Solutions Institute, Pakistan’s first free market think-tank

This article appeared in The Post on October 4, 2007.