Chapter 3 – 1984 and the Meadow Beyond
Placing one person above another
Collecting rare things causes theft.
Openly displaying valuable possessions
causes desire and disturbs the mind.
The sage eases people’s hearts
by reinforcing one’s true center,
And strengthening character.
The sage encourages people to live simply
without desire and to support each other.
By practicing non-action and non-doing,
All will be at peace
I have just returned from a very pleasant trip to Costa Rica and am writing this while still weary from travel. Consequently, I hope to keep this comment fairly brief.
We often forget that for centuries much of the Tao Te Ching was viewed as sage advice for the ruler and not self-help for the proletariat as it is sometimes thought of today. The more mystical interpretations of the work are often based on the later writings of Chuang Tzu. This chapter is a good example of straightforward advice to a prince that could as easily have come from Macchiavelli as from Lao Tzu.
However, there is almost always more to the Old Master than meets the eye. Virtually every line in the Tao Te Ching can be read on many levels. I will mention three of those levels, though others are certainly present.
One of the basic tenets of the dystopian society described in George Orwell’s 1984 is that “Ignorance Is Strength.” It is also frequently said that “ignorance is bliss.”
The concept is quite simple. If the basic needs of the people are met, and they are not aware of anything beyond a simple lifestyle, they will be satisfied with their lives and their ruler. Therefore, a government that keeps its citizens content and uninformed will be successful.
How does a ruler succeed under this approach to governing? Lao Tzu gives us several answers. The society must be egalitarian, without placing one person above another. Things should not be given special value – they should be merely utilitarian – so that no one will covet his neighbor’s goods (or wife). People should work together for the common good. These are all things the ruler should bring about by practicing non-action and non-doing.
In other words, the prince must be like his subjects. If he has special privileges or comforts or treasures that are not shared by everyone, then seeds are sown for desire, competitiveness, contention, greed, jealousy and so many other weaknesses of the flesh. The ruler must not merely set a good example for others to follow; he must actually be one of the people leading a simple life without striving for more.
In our culture, where the median income of major corporate CEOs is about 200 times greater than that of the average worker, where the government often acts as if it is not subject to the same laws as its citizens, and where crowds gather to stand in line to purchase the newest iPhone update, this ideal seems pretty much beyond our reach.
Of course, the reason we have competitiveness or greed or jealousy is the propensity of the mind to make distinctions and judgments. We believe it is better to have lots of money than to have none, so we strive for gold and silver and pieces of paper. We believe that it is good to have power or control over others, so we fight for promotions and look down on those we feel are different from us.
Distinctions and judgments such as these are part of our world of 10,000 things, though. To avoid beliefs that this is good and that is bad, that this is right and that is wrong, it is necessary to think outside the mundane box and move toward the mystical Way of Chuang Tzu and others. One of those others is the 13th Century Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, who wrote:
Out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down
in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language –
even the phrase “each other” –
do not make any sense.