Methods of Government, explained by Mr. Lao Tzu

Mr. Lao Tzu, I am glad to write this letter to you and I wish you to stay in good health. Being myself interested in the art of state governance I could not fail to be moved by your outstanding writings. Philosophers with such profound views as you have are rare, so, desiring to further dispute certain ideas about government and administration I have found nothing better than to write this letter to you and thusly invite you to discussion. Please accept this letter calmly as it is due to a philosopher, for I have not wished to contest your wisdom, but only to share some views which I have obtained via long years of struggles and dangers. My most sincere desire is to have an advice with you because truth is sprout in discussion. Thereto let me pass to my argument.

In your famous Tao Te Ching you write:

 “If you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao. Stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself[1].”

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Another piece of your writing which attracted my attention is:

“If a country is governed with tolerance, the people are comfortable and honest. If a country is governed with repression, the people are depressed and crafty. When the will to power is in charge, the higher the ideals, the lower the results. Try to make people happy, and you lay the groundwork for misery. Try to make people moral, and you lay the groundwork for vice.[4]”

I agree with you entirely that a ruler is always an example for his subjects, however, I would like to notice, that ruling only by example is a much too vague basis for power. There are always people who do not accept any virtues and who are willing to overthrow even the most perfect ruler, at least to take his place. So I think that except for example a ruler is to inspire love and fear to the people, and at that fear is more important than love, because love is changeful and does not depend on ruler’s will, and fear is an instrument which is always available for a ruler[5].  Moreover, I believe that a ruler is to incur evil and forget about virtues in some cases. I mean those vices without which he might hardly save the state; because, if one considers everything well, one will find that something that appears a virtue, if followed, would be his ruin, and that some other thing that appears a vice, if followed, results in his security and well-being[6].

You speak about love and fear not as of methods of ruling, but as of ruler’s qualities when you write that “When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. Next best is a leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised.”[7]

As I have already mentioned, I believe, that fear is a better foundation for power than love, but now I would like to speak exactly of the ruler’s qualities. To my opinion a ruler is not to be good or bad, he is to be reasonable. What works good once can be not so good next time. Fortune, or Tao as you call it, may change, so the best ruler is the one who skillfully adapts to the situation and never freezes in his qualities. The ruler has to deal with different people who have different desires and so it is hardly possible for him to be same for all. A ruler has not to follow an ideal, but he is to be realistic[8].

You call upon princes to let things happen as they happen when you say:

“Center your country in the Tao and evil will have no power. Not that it isn’t there, but you’ll be able to step out of its way.[9]”

Let me used a term which I am used to and call Fortune that what you call Tao. I believe that this argument is weak, because it assumes that the country is ideal. And what about the countries which are not ideal and which are not in conformity with fortune? I would compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defenses and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with Fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her[10]. So a ruler does have to act in order to bring his principality to perfectness and make it protected even from Fortune itself.

Let me conclude my modest letter by this. Hope you were not bored while reading it and you will find it possible to answer my most humble writing.

Cordially yours humble servant,

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli

Works Cited:

1. Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, 25th-Anniversary Edition, Vintage, 1997

2. Machiavelli.  The Prince. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998

3. Mary G. Dietz, Trapping The Prince: Machiavelli and the Politics of Deception, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Sep., 1986), pp. 777-799

4. David Hall, Commentary on the Lao Tzu by Wang Pi by Ariane Rump, Wing-tsit Chan, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Jan., 1981), pp. 97-98

[1] Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 25th-Anniversary Edition, Vintage, 1997. Verse 57

[2] Niccolo Machiavelli.  The Prince. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p.- 83
[3] Lao Tzu dows not speak so directly, but it is usually mentioned by commentators. For example see: David Hall, Commentary on the Lao Tzu by Wang Pi by Ariane Rump, Wing-tsit Chan, Philosophy East and West, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Jan., 1981), pp. 97-98

[4] Lao Tzu, 58

[5]  See: Niccolo Machiavelli, chap. XVII
[6] Lao Tzu, 58

[7] Lao Tzu, 17

[8] For this Machiavelli’s argument see: Mary G. Dietz, Trapping The Prince: Machiavelli and the Politics of Deception, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 80, No. 3 (Sep., 1986), pp. 777-799

[9] Lao Tzu, 60
[10] Niccolo Machiavelli, p.- 119

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