“The Master has no mind of her own.
She works with the mind of the people.
The Master’s mind is like space.
People don’t understand her.
They look to her and wait.
She treats them like her own children.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
We Americans are allergic to the paternalism of antiquity. Whether it’s the philosopher-kings of Plato or the junzi of Confucius, we are wont to read the ancient approach to politics as unacceptable because it doesn’t respect the modern values of freedom and equality. Nobody tells us what to do!…especially not high-minded, overeducated bureaucrats who think they are smarter and better than us. But this prejudice against paternalism rests on an immature view of adults and children.
To treat people like your own children is not to condescend to them, but to respect them. It is not to impose your vision of the good on them, but to claim a stake in their own flourishing. It is not to fill their minds with your ideas, but to empty them (“people don’t understand her”) so that they can think for themselves. It is not to coerce them to behave in accord with your rules, but to grow the space between stimulus and response (“wait”) so they can act with inner freedom. It is not to make yourself feel superior, but to encourage them to not feel inferior—or superior—to anyone. To treat people like your own children is not to regard them as childish, but to help them become more childlike.
Paradoxically, without a little paternalism, people won’t be truly free, and won’t treat each other equally.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”
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