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Wisdom of a Chinese Sage: Part II

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.

by Dr. Khalil Ahmad In Poem 58, Lao Tzu eloquently outlines the difference between a wise and a (Pakistani) government:

1. The government that seems the most unwise, Oft goodness to the people best supplies, That which is meddling, touching everything, Will work but ill, and disappointment bring. Misery! Happiness is to be found by its side! Happiness! Misery lurks beneath it! Who knows what either will come to in the end? 2. Shall we then dispense with correction? The (method of) correction shall by a turn become distortion, and the good in it shall by a turn become evil. The delusion of the people (on this point) has indeed subsisted for a long time. 3. Therefore the sage is (like) a square which cuts no one (with its angles), (like) a corner which injures no one (with its sharpness). He is straightforward, but allows himself no license; he is bright, but does not dazzle.

In Poem 59, he says he who does not know his limits is fit to be a ruler (of Pakistan). And under such a ruler, it will not be possible for self-responsible persons to flower.

1. For regulating the humans (in our constitution) and rendering (proper) service to the heavenly, there is nothing like moderation. 2. It is only by this moderation that there is effected an early return (to man’s normal state). That early return is what I call the repeated accumulation of the attributes (of the Tao). With that repeated accumulation of those attributes, there comes subjugation (of every obstacle to such return). Of this subjugation we know not what shall be the limit; and when one knows not what the limit shall be, he may be the ruler of a state. 3. He who possesses the mother of the state may continue long. His case is like that (of a plant) of which we say that its roots are deep and its flower stalks firm, this is the way to secure that its enduring life shall long be seen.

In Poem 60, he is of the view that the greatest task, such as governance, needs extreme care in dealing with the smallest and most delicate things.

1. Governing a great state is like cooking small fish. 2. Let the kingdom be governed according to the Tao, and the manes of the departed will not manifest their spiritual energy. It is not that those manes have not that spiritual energy, but it will not be employed to hurt men. It is not that it could not hurt men, but neither does the ruling sage hurt them. 3. When these two do not injuriously affect each other, their good influences converge in the virtue (of the Tao).

In Poem 61, he dwells on the same theme, the opposite of which is characteristic of every Pakistani government, be it military or civilian.

1. What makes a great state is its being (like) a low-lying, downflowing (stream) — it becomes the centre to which tend (all the small states) under heaven. 2. (To illustrate) the case of all females — the female always overcomes the male by her stillness. Stillness may be considered (a sort of) abasement. 3. Thus it is that a great state, by condescending to small states, gains them for itself and that small states, by abasing themselves to a great state, win it over for them. In one case the abasement leads to gaining adherents, in the other case to procuring favour. 4. The great state only wishes to unite men together and nourish them. A small state only wishes to be received by, and to serve, the other. Each gets what it desires but the great state must learn to abase itself.

In Poem 65, he says that the wisest ruler is he who has no ideology or a system of thought to impose upon the people. While in Pakistan what happens with a government, regardless of the fact it is civil or military, elected or unelected, is that it has an ideology of its own and tries its utmost to make people convert to it. The state in Pakistan does have an ideology.

1. The ancients who showed their skill in practising the Tao did so, not to enlighten the people but to make them simple and ignorant. 2. The difficulty in governing the people arises from their having knowledge. He who (tries to) govern a state by his wisdom is a scourge to it while he who does not (try to) do so is a blessing. 3. He who knows these two things finds in them also his model and rule. The ability to know this model and rule constitutes what we call the mysterious excellence (of a governor).

Again in Poem 75, he counts the vices of an all-pervasive and all-intrusive government. He says that such a government kills the urge of life in people. In other words, he may be understood as saying that under such a government human life loses all value, and is cheaper than death.

1. People suffer from famine because of the multitude of taxes consumed by their superiors. 2. People are difficult to govern because of the (excessive) agency of their superiors (in governing them). It is through this that they are difficult to govern. 3. People make light of dying because of the greatness of their labours in seeking for the means of living. It is this which makes them think light of dying. Thus it is that to leave the subject of living altogether out of view is better than to set a high value on it.

Another small quote is ascribed to Lao Tzu: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The entire hullabaloo on the increasing or decreasing poverty in Pakistan defies this simple wisdom. Billions of rupees have been spent on poverty alleviation programmes, but all governments have been saying that there is still much to do. Someone very incisively summed it up as the ‘Poverty Industry’. This industry makes the government’s spending justified. To help keep this ‘industry’ running, funds are needed. And the irony is that these funds are provided directly or indirectly by the poor in the form of numerous taxes. Again these funds are spent on their ‘welfare’ minus the share of the government bureaucracy, etc., amounting to the largest chunk of the funds to alleviate poverty.

It may be said that these teachings of Lao Tzu provide every government with a code of conduct to achieve good governance. His teachings remind us of Thomas Jefferson’s quote: “That government is best which governs least.” This is a limited, small, and un-intrusive government, which leaves individuals with ample space to pursue their lives as they wish. It provides them with protection from encroachers, be they individuals or groups, or be they from within or outside the country. It protects the life, property, and freedoms of every individual citizen from all violators.

If a government itself turns out to be a violator, like the government of Pakistan, what to do then? What Lao Tzu recommends is very depressing. He advocates a “withdrawal from society and the world, a retreat and inner contemplation”. But isn’t that what we in Pakistan have been doing and what has been described as ‘political apathy’ since the people welcomed the first despot in 1958? We have been living a life of skin-deep depression and frustration. We degraded ourselves to the lowest level of abasement. We lost our self-respect and dignity before the inhuman intrusions of the government.

But there are signs of change. A section of our society, which is connected with the laws and the Constitution of Pakistan, has taken up the cause of ensuring people their fundamental rights. It has got up to the task of saving the Constitution and its custodian, the judiciary. It has started a struggle to bring Pakistan closer to the rule of law where there will be no intrusive rulers, repeatedly despised by Lao Tzu, where people will be free to pursue their life and happiness.

(Wisdom of a Chinese Sage: Part I)


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

This article appeared in The Post on October 5, 2007.