The Master and the Common Man in the Tao Te Ching – Some Reflections


Leandro Castelluccio

Image obtained de Wikimedia Commons (see in: link)

In the Tao Te Ching of Lao-tzu, there is a verse that says the following:

“The Master doesn’t try to be powerful; thus he is truly powerful. The ordinary man keeps reaching for power; thus he never has enough. The Master does nothing, yet he leaves nothing undone. The ordinary man is always doing things, yet many more are left to be done.”

This expresses an interesting conception of the behavior of the human being, that in a certain way can get to reflect daily intuitions that we might have, but this deserves certain reflections.

In the same sense of the verse, we can apply other concepts, such as justice, kindness, intelligence, etc., so we could say that the master does not try to be fair and therefore is truly fair, the common man seeks be fair, therefore he never is. In a certain way this may reflect the attitude of an interested behavior, which in the eyes of the people would reflect an egoistic attitude beyond the action as a primordial goal, and this would give it the character of being negative to such behavior. In this way, people who seek to be fair or seek to be powerful do so with a conscious intention, that is, they have an interest, they want to be just or powerful, so their actions can focus on that and not on justice or capacity in itself. This suggests that many behaviors and attitudes that may be seen by others as fair may actually have hidden ends, such as seeking to be powerful. That is, there is a difference between being powerful, and as such, expressing attitudes of power and another thing is to look for it in an interested way in the sense that the behaviors lose their genuine character and one does not really perceive oneself as powerful, in short one is not powerful for oneself. Powerful here does not necessarily imply a negative sense, we can speak of someone powerful in ability or in competence, a great athlete is a powerful individual in his field.

Imagine then a person who is fair with someone not because he considers that it is important or the right thing, but because the person wants to feel morally superior or better than others because “he is fair”, in that case, the person stops being fair, and becomes someone “interested” or with hidden interests, say, that do not refer to being fair to the person, for the quality of the situation itself, that is, for the value of being fair to others. Those who manipulate others for their own purposes may seem fair or good in their actions, but in reality they do not care about them, only to the extent that it favors them, independently of others. This is an interpretation of the Lao-tzu verses, which I believe should not necessarily be confused with the idea that if something has a personal component it is no longer good or just, or in general terms, ethical or moral. There is inevitably a personal and self-centered component regarding experience, so that the quality of reward and valuation of certain ethical or moral acts or behaviors have a selfish aspect to put it in a way, and this is not a bad thing, it is part of our nature.

On the other hand, we can include another aspect to the interpretation of Lao-tzu, and this refers to the conscious or unconscious character of the behavior. It would seem according to this thinker, that the unconscious component is of great importance, and that being, on the contrary, very aware of something, can generate interferences in the natural development in our world regarding our behavior. Think, for example, of elite athletes, whose abilities are so naturalized that there are no conscious processes (in the sense of much awareness and conscious maintenance of all the variables at play during the behavior), so that the action is, we could say, automatic or spontaneous. Moreover, when the behavior does not flow unconsciously, naturally or automatically, performance is lower. What Lao-tzu seems to reflect is that the same happens in the case of our behavior in other areas. A component of affinity is needed with the natural development of an attitude or behavior (we can call it naturalness) for it to be truly fair or good, or for the person to be skilled or powerful. He who is very aware of all this, who tries too hard to achieve all that, who keeps all the variables in his mind at the time of performing the behavior, does not manage to be truly fair or good, etc. But here we must also bear in mind that an action of an unconscious nature can be bad and that unconscious component can be on the contrary an obstacle for rectifying the behavior and achieving a more positive attitude, so one case does not imply the other necessarily, that is, consciousness can in turn be a factor that promotes a positive change. And again, it is also true that certain ideas or things that people hold consciously can be the other way around, harmful to the person or to others. The matter is not as simple as one thing is good and the other bad. It could also be argued that it is conscious aspects that interfere when the unconscious behavior is negative and does not find its positive natural development, but this can takes us to a point where we do not see the whole, that both the conscious and unconscious aspects can have a positive or negative character, the solution is perhaps in the balance.

To what extent does much of this conscious nature of things affect our happiness? Think of the awareness of our own body, its alleged imperfections, how we should be, what we should have, what is moral and immoral, many of the things that we maintain consciously regarding these aspects are problems that we generate ourselves and to ourselves: expectations and unnecessary demands that affect our well-being. This also is a subject for reflection.

“The Master, by residing in the Tao, sets an example for all beings. Because he doesn’t display himself, people can see his light. Because he has nothing to prove, people can trust his words. Because he doesn’t know who he is, people recognize themselves in him. Because he has no goad in mind, everything he does succeed.”

“He who stands on tiptoe doesn’t stand form. He who rushes ahead doesn’t go far. He who tries to shine dims his own light. He who defines himself can’t know who he really is. He who has power over others can’t empower himself. He who clings to his work will create nothing that endures. If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go.”

*Tao Te Ching, Lao-tzu

*Different free versions of free acquisition are available on the Internet

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