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.
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.