Chapter 65 – Ignorance

 Those who practiced the Way in antiquity,
 Did not use it to enlighten the people.
 Rather, they used it to make them dumb.
Now the reason why people are difficult to rule is because of their knowledge;
As a result, to use knowledge to rule the state
Is thievery of the state;
To use ignorance to rule the state
Is kindness to the state.
One who constantly understands these two,
Also [understands] the principle.
To constantly understand the principle—
This is called Profound Virtue.
Profound Virtue is deep, is far-reaching,
And together with things it returns.
Thus we arrive at the Great Accord. 

Translation by Robert G. Henricks (1989)


 The Moral Law [the Way, the Tao] causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War 1(5-6)


Let us begin by looking at the above quotation from The Art of War.  I did not attribute it to any particular translation of that work because, at least in the brackets, I have created a bit of translation mashup.

Statue of Sun Tzu (from

Statue of Sun Tzu (from

The most commonly used English translation of Sun Tzu’s classic is that by Lionel Giles in 1910, and that forms the basis of the quotation I have used here.

In the first part of The Art of War we are told that there are five factors of utmost importance in any warfare.  The first Giles translates as “moral law.”  The others are Heaven, Earth, the commander and method and discipline.  We are going to look at only moral law in this essay.

Although “moral law” is a very good term for what is explained later in the text, more recent translators have sometimes changed the term, which seems to have originally been “tao.”  For example in Samuel  B. Griffith’s 1963 translation, he uses the term “moral influence” but states:  “Here Tao is translated ‘moral influence’. It is usually rendered as ‘The Way’, or ‘The Right Way’. Here it refers to the morality of government; specifically to that of a sovereign. If the sovereign governs justly, benevolently, and righteously, he follows the Right Path or the Right Way, and thus exerts a superior degree of moral influence.”

In Thomas Huynh’s 2008 translation he renders this as, “The Way is what causes the people to have the same thinking as their superiors”  “The Way,” of course is a translation of “Tao.”

Sun Tzu seems to have been a near contemporary of Lao Tzu, living in China some 2,500 years ago.  Both of these ancient masters use the term Tao, but it is not used by each in precisely the same manner.  Nevertheless, for the purpose of this discussion, we will assume that there is only the one Tao.

Having said that, we should look at one other preliminary matter before examining the contents of this chapter.  Lao Tzu begins by mentioning the manner in which “the Way” was practiced “in antiquity.”  That practice is the one which the Old Master considers the proper approach.  There had been masters before Lao Tzu who were closer to the primal Tao, and the changes in the world since those ancient times were not seen as changes for the better.

So, when we are told that those ancient sages sought not to enlighten the people but to keep them ignorant, that mode of action is being presented as the proper one to follow.  The question, then, is why it would be considered good to keep the people ignorant.

Before answering that, we should look at the next lines which tell us that to rule with knowledge is thievery of the state, but to rule with ignorance is kindness to the state.  Thus, we are apparently being told that the government, as well as the people, should go through life in a state of ignorance.  We are left with the same question of why this should be so.

I believe it is because the “knowledge” that Lao Tzu talks about here is what we might call “the ways of the world.”  It is the “knowing” of the Ego; the “knowing” that each of us needs to “look out for number one”; the “knowing” that arises from a limited vision of this world and beyond.

The person who understands the difference between that which is of Nature and Tao and that which is human construct, judgment and rationalization is one who acts with the “profound virtue” of Te.  If the leader of a country (or a company or family or whatever) leads with that profound virtue, then, we are told, we will arrive at the Great Accord.

What is that “Great Accord” we can now ask, since we have been asking a lot of questions today.  First, it is human action in accord with Nature, which is the essence of Tao and Te.

More directly relevant to this chapter, though, is Sun Tzu’s observation that if a ruler follows Tao then the people are naturally in accord with that ruler.  The same principle was discussed in Chapters 57, 58, 59, 60 and elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching.

7 thoughts on “CHAPTER 65 – IGNORANCE

  1. I have the urge to repeat your last four paragraphs, Louis. Well said.

    The sage has a way of changing things up from time to time to keep us on our toes. When knowledge and ignorance come forward with values assigned to them which are opposite our usual understanding, it gets us to thinking. What does the sage mean, really? We have to find meaning in the nuanced, seemingly antithetical expressions.

    Always a good thing to teach the student how to think rather than give them an answer outright, otherwise they’ll be hungry for another in an hour and go looking for someone to give them some more answers rather than finding their own.

    And of course it is always quite convenient and comforting when those who have not learned to think for themselves find the loudly convicted, fundamentalist, literal strict-interpreter shouting a buffet of easily digestible thoughts and gustatory evangelism in the revival tent, church, legislature and capitol. This process, the sage might observe, is about using knowledge to steal enlightenment from the people by filling their heads with bad fish. No one in that picture is telling anybody how to go and catch a fresh one for themselves.

    In the final manifestations of contemporary culture wars at home and abroad there’s a perfect example of what the sage observes about “knowledge” being used to steal from the state and the people.

    It became clearly evident that yet another form of this ancient technique of thievery was appearing in America in the first years of this century, when mind-numbing repetitions of opinion began to be taken as fact. Those who are aware of what I’m talking about don’t need further elucidation, and those who don’t have been poisoned by the bad fish fed to them and I can do nothing for them.

    Suffice it to say that wars, conflicts, legislative gridlock, the Tea Party, Westborough Baptist Church and other voids of Teh exist as a result of this foisting of “knowledge” upon the people engaged there. This knowledge has gutted the people of compassion – stolen it from the state and the people – and replaced it with selfish prejudices and anger, stalemate and deadlock, confrontation and violence.

    The good news is… well, at best a long-shot hope, and more likely only another opportunity to understand and accept what happens when bad knowledge is fed to folks who for one reason or another do not examine the fish on their plate before they eat it.

    We would hope that light shines in these dark places, that the people and their leaders might become ignorant of all the bad “knowledge” in their diet and become aware that kindness follows when such ”knowledge” is ignored. Like I said – at best a long-shot hope.

    This stuff is in our faces every day, we can’t ignore it. Or can we? The sage seems to suggest an alternative. If we become ignorant of twisted “knowledge” and choose instead to learn and understand the principle of Teh, we have the means to arrive at a Great Accord with one another, with Creation, and with the Tao.

    All we have to do is learn one principle – Teh – and for the rest of our lives we’ll be able to tell the difference between a good fish and a bad fish.

    There may always be circuses where trained seals perform, as instructed, for fish, for group membership, for the seeming safety of the group, and for other needs easily met by others. We just don’t need to be there once we understand what they are, and what Teh is.

    I remember one time when I was suddenly confronted by bad “knowledge.” I had caught a beach ball on my nose and then dropped it, thinking it was sort of a silly thing to be required to do. The trainer came up and gave me a strict talking-to, waving a mackerel in my face and informing me that if I wanted any more I was going to have to play by the rules inside the ring there, because “this world wasn’t made for you.” I thought about that for a moment, took a look at the ring, and the trainer, and the fish – and realized he was right. The next thing I knew I was out of there. Never looked back.

    There’s a lot of fish in the ocean of Teh, and they’re all fresh.

    • Seal

      I recently came across a website (I don’t remember which one now) that had a discussion about some of the modern “translations” of the Tao Te Ching. It was said that there were certain authors like Stephen Mitchell and Ron Hogan who have published books that are held out as “translations” when they are actually nothing but paraphrasing of the translations of others. The person commenting there said that the result is closer to the Tao of Pooh than the Tao of Lao Tzu. He also said that “everybody and their dog” is doing that these days. It is refreshing, then, to see that you are letting your seal participate, and not just your dog. It is good to consider diverse opinions.

      In keeping with that theme, I asked my dog what I should write in this reply. Darcy just looked at me quizzically and was silent. I believe she was telling me I should say, “Woof.”


      Another thing Darcy and I were thinking is that the founding fathers of the USA may have subscribed to the advice in this chapter. They seemed to think that the new “democracy” would work because it was filled with ignorant citizens. A good example is the electoral college established by the Constitution to elect the president. The states were allowed to have electors chosen pretty much any way they wanted. There were no firm rules. Women voted in New Jersey when George Washington was first elected, even though the 19th Amendment did not come about for another 130 years.

      The electors then got to choose the president, and they could vote any way they wanted. They weren’t bound by what the people who elected them might desire. The election of the president required a majority vote of the electors. The framers of the Constitution thought it highly unlikely that anyone other than Washington would ever get a majority, so they said if there was no majority the president would be chosen by the House of Representatives

      They could have simply had the House make the choice from the beginning,and this country would be more like a parliamentary system; but they let the ignorant masses pretend they were taking part. Lao Tzu may well have approved that approach.

      • The seal says to tell Darcy “Ark-ark-ark,” and extends a flipper for a high four.

        “There is nothing in the record of the past two years when both Houses of Congress have been controlled by the Republican Party which can lead any person to believe that those promises will be fulfilled in the future. They follow the Hitler line – no matter how big the lie; repeat it often enough and the masses will regard it as truth.”
        John F. Kennedy

        “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
        Martin Luther King Jr.

        “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
        Isaac Asimov

        “It’s a universal law– intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility.”
        Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

        “To know that you do not know is the best.
        To think you know when you do not is a disease.
        Recognizing this disease as a disease is to be free of it.”
        Lao Tzu

        • Also, I found an article where there are some great observations about how high rates of literacy a hundred years ago facilitated the development and application of propaganda – which proved to be a good way to spoon-feed people batches of cooked-up, faux “knowledge”. Or in our current context – bad fish.

          Considering that while literacy may be even more prevalent today since reading is crucial to texting and sending selfies, etc. and that communication speeds have upticked exponentially since that time; and also considering that independent critical thinking is no longer regarded as a skill related to literacy, it gives one pause to think about how many bad fish can be force-fed as “knowledge”, and at how high a rate, nowadays. It would seem it’s endemic and fast-tracked to achieve the results the sage observed in this chapter with the vigorous alacrity of a fast-food drive-through.

          The article is at:

          • I have previously mentioned the book To Be a Revolutionary, which is the autobiography of Padre J. Guadalupe Carney, S. J. He relates that while serving in World War II he was transferred from the engineering corps to become a military policeman at camp holding German POWs in Southern France. He said that by that point in the war most German soldiers had accepted the reality of the Nazi defeat, but many asked him how the United States would be able to cope with the fact that New York City had been completely destroyed by German bombing raids.

            Those prisoners had clearly chosen to believe some form of propaganda dispersed by their government. It may have been in written form or they may have had access to radio broadcasts from Berlin or it could have been word-of-mouth.

            In looking at the extent to which increased literacy aided the development of modern propaganda, we should consider that the ability to read in at least a rudimentary fashion was nearly universal – at least among white, adult males – in much of the “developed world” by the end of the 18th Century. That statement is obviously too general, and an interesting discussion of that literacy rate is found in “Every Man Able To Read” by Jack Lynch in the Winter 2011 Colonial Williamsburg Journal

            More important, I think, is the development of mass media – first print, then broadcast, then electronic – that followed the increased ability of the populace to become consumers of any propaganda. I know that the media would not have developed without the literacy and all that. Again we have a question of which came first, the chicken or the seal? Or Joseph Goebbels or the egg? The point I am trying to make, though, is that the easier it is to get a specific message to a large group of people, the easier it is to spread propaganda.

            When there is only one newspaper in town, that source of information can take one “bad fish” of propaganda and feed it, sort of like Jesus, to the multitudes. In recent times (pun intended), Henry Luce could use his publishing empire to twist the truth and advocate for increased and continuing American involvement in Southeast Asia. However, as the Vietnam experience has shown us, when the people are able to ascertain the true facts, the value of propaganda decreases dramatically.

            With the multiple sources of information – much of it from original sources – that is available today, one would hope that for any important issue, the people would be able to “fish” for information and not simply accept the “bad fish” proffered by those with vested interests.

            As an example, in Colorado there is a proposed constitutional amendment that would permit casino gambling at licensed horse racing tracks. The proceeds of that gambling would be taxed and the tax revenues used to fund education. Several million dollars have been raised for propaganda by the “groups” supporting the measure. What a boon it would be for our public schools, they say. What we the people are not told by such “groups” is that there is only one horse racing track in Colorado these days, and passing the amendment would permit that race track to become the only casino in the Metro Denver area. The “groups” supporting the amendment are financed by the Rhode Island corporation that owns the race track. The true facts, though, can now be found in a few minutes of searching on the internet.

            On the other hand, you could get a version of the facts from the propaganda of the “groups” that have raised millions of dollars to oppose the amendment. Those “groups” are funded almost entirely by corporations that operate casinos in the few mountain towns where they are presently legal, and would have to compete with the proposed Metro area horse track/casino. That is not the important point here, though. What is important is that from information available to me in my own home, I am empowered to look past both sources of propaganda and form my own version of the “truth.”

            So give a man a fish and his meal for the day may be toxic propaganda (like the excessive mercury in some of those fish); teach a man to fish and he can choose whether to accept the toxins or catch his own meal. I am not disagreeing with your comment or the interesting blog you reference. These are simply some thoughts that came to mind.

            “So long and thanks for all the fish.” -Douglas Adams

  2. “So give a man a fish and his meal for the day may be toxic propaganda (like the excessive mercury in some of those fish); teach a man to fish and he can choose whether to accept the toxins or catch his own meal.”

    The point exactly. 42.

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