Tao Te Ching
THE TAOISM OF LAO TZU
Tao Te Ching
The second part of the Tao Te Ching has several chapters on government, and how to improve it. This is one of them. What Lao Tzu expresses in his views on governing the country, often seems very similar to modern democratic ideals. That would be going too far, though.
It's clear that he thinks of a state ruled by a sovereign who doesn't need regular voting procedures to stay in power, or a parliament to convince. He thinks of kings and dukes and the like. Their power is not questioned, but their use of it is.
Lao Tzu doesn't hope for a revolution. He might even abhor it, if he were able to imagine such a thing. He thinks about the existing authorities, and what advice he would give them.
Legend has it that he did himself work as a government official, although not a very prominent one, before leaving the country in dismay. So, he knew about the shortcomings of leadership, and the damages it brought to the empire as well as its population. When writing a text of as much as five thousand words, he was bound to touch on the subject.
Apart from insisting on the ruler's responsibility to act according to Tao, the Way, Lao Tzu also stresses again and again that the ruler should work for the best of the people. That was by no means the norm in his time. In many countries around the world it still isn't.
The emperor had the whole country at his disposal, to do whatever he wanted with it, as if his wishes came from Heaven. Concern for the people was far down on the list.
Lao Tzu brings it up to first place, and he has two main reasons for it. One is that compassion and careful concern are in accordance with Tao. With such leadership the country would progress as it should, to everyone's delight.
The other reason is that a ruler who ignores the needs and sentiments of his subjects may be overthrown. To Lao Tzu, a rebellion of that kind, no matter how understandable, deviates even more from the Way than bad leadership does. In his mind, it would open for chaos.
The world is governed by Tao, and a country should be governed by a king. Lao Tzu sees no alternative. But the king needs to follow Tao, or the whole order is at risk.
In this chapter he points out that a ruler should execute his powers mildly. If people are too burdened by their ruler, they will cease to respect him, and obey him as little as they can get away with.
If he inflicts on their homes, narrowing their space of living, he strikes them where it really hurts. There will be a reaction. The same is likely if he harasses them at their work, demanding too much or disturbing them in their daily chores. They can't let that continue at length, or they risk their very livelihood.
A ruler is free to do a lot of things and take heavy tolls from his subjects. But if he shakes the very ground under their feet, they must counter it somehow.
Lao Tzu expresses it by playing with words, using `weary' in ambiguous ways, but the subject is quite serious. The ruler needs the people's trust, and that can only be reached by proving worthy of it.
The sage trusts his own capacity and wisdom, but still remains humble and discreet. So should a ruler. It's the best way to serve Heaven and Tao, but it can only be done by primarily serving the people.