Tag: Laozi

On Government

On Government

     Plato said that the philosophers should become kings or those who are kings should become philosophers. (See: Republic, Book V) What did he mean by philosophers? In short, they are those people who understand the reality. The reality is not grasped by the senses but by the reason. Through senses we can know beautiful things, good things, and so on, but by reason we can know the beautiful itself, the good itself and so on. Thus, the objects we are experiencing with the senses are only shadows of the reality. This is explained in his famous Allegory of the Cave. In it there are prisoners who can only see shadows on a wall from the people and things moving behind them, but they cannot see the real people and things behind them. The philosophers are people free from the chains of the cave and can go out and see the reality and understand the highest good. Just because of that, they are the only ones who are best suited to be kings.

     Laozi had the similar idea that the sages should be rulers. Now, who are the sages? They are those people who understand the operation of the source of the world. The world comes from the so called Dao, the Way, which operates in its own particular manner called ziran, naturalness, which in practice is manifested as wuwei, non-action or effortless action. Ziran means to let things follow the natural way of the Dao and develop according to it. Thus, wuwei does not mean no action but action in accordance with ziran, that is, Dao. However, most of the people do not understand this and they function in a way that is unnatural or contrary to the way the world is supposed to function. The sages know how the Dao works, understand its natural operation and know how to implement wuwei in practice. That is why they can be the best rulers. (For more details click here)

     The only concern of these philosopher-kings and sage-rulers is the governing itself. Thus, they have at least two common characteristics. First, they are not concerned with making money. They live simple lives and get just enough to fulfill their basic needs for food, clothing, dwelling etc. Second, they do not have plans or strategies of their own; they are only following people’s needs. “The ruler has no thoughts of his own; he takes the thoughts of the people as his own thoughts”, says Laozi in Chapter 49 of his book. Thus, in governing they are only listening to people’s thoughts and do not act according to their own. It means that they govern only for the benefit of the people and nothing else.

     These kings and rulers are imagined as perfect and absolutely benevolent. However, they are not democratically elected. They are, so to say, dictators. But does that undermine their value? Is not true that maybe more than often democratically elected leaders turn out to be assholes? Is not that because they often act according to their own beliefs, not really listening to people’s thoughts? Or even because they act for their own benefit and self-interests? Nevertheless, leaving the question of feasibility and applicability of the government of the philosopher-kings and sage-rulers aside, the ideas of Plato and Laozi at least stay in our mind as an imagination of a state without asshole-leaders.