Moderate Folks and Fanatics

"The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas."  Tao Te Ching, Ch. 59, as interpreted by Stephen Mitchell (1992).

The first two questions I have about this passage are relatively simple: If it is true that the mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas, then is the mark of a fanatic that he is enslaved to his own ideas?

If so, how does a fanatic become enslaved to his own ideas?

The next two questions I have about this passage are perhaps less simple: In so far as most or all of us see the world through the lens of our ideas about the world, are not most or all of us somewhat less than free of our own ideas?

If so, what would it mean to be free of one's own ideas?


  1. The most fanatical people I know of are usually enslaved by someone else's ideas.

  2. Sounds aboout right.
    Moderation seems insipid to me. I can't imagine any opinion worth holding is worth holding moderately.

    I rather enthusiasm.

  3. Stephen, you've taken a completely different view than I had of the sentence. To be sure, there is a time for fanatic stands, such as against child abuse. However, I think you must realize, or you will come to realize, that it is impossible to have the correct opinion all by yourself all of the time. So you can go about fanatically holding views which are actually dead wrong. And if you listen to others, as Garnet suggests, you could then make yourself a slave to someone else's wrong ideas.

    Instead, I took the message a different way. Freedom from your own ideas is detachment of the egotistical bias. The moderate man (or woman) submits his (or her) idea for consideration among the others offered, and then selects the best solution based on the needs at that time, as opposed to dogmatically holding to a concept for the sake of ideological purity regardless of the situation at hand.

    Paul, perhaps you become enslaved when you think your view is the only correct one. Such views are usually not completely irrational, but rather have been fed by confirmation bias and from hanging out too much with like-minded messages.

    Surely we are not ever actually free from our own ideas, but, as noted above, our attachment to our own ideas as being absolutely superior can vary greatly. Being free from your own ideas is, in my opinion, another way to admit that you do not know everything or know the best solution all of the time, so you should not unjustly cling to every little thing which pops up in your head.

  4. @ Stephen: I'm for careful reasoning when arriving at ideas. And I'm for checking my reasoning against that of other people's reasoning. But, last, I'm for going wherever the logic and evidence take me. That is, I don't believe in stopping short of recognizing a conclusion simply because the conclusion is not the one I wanted.

  5. @ TWF: There are so many hundred ways in which reasoning can go wrong -- to be absolutely certain of one's ideas is impossible.

  6. By the way, I was not suggesting that you, Paul. were a slave to your ideas. :-) I just highlighted your name to let you know I was answering your questions. I think you understood that, but just in case, I wanted to clarify that.

  7. I was deeply alarmed by your sudden, unprovoked attacks on my character, TWF!!!! I could only imagine you'd been talking to my ex-wives.

    More honestly, thanks for the clarification, but I didn't take your wording as referring to my ideas.

  8. A person is sovereign in hir (his/her) own mind. As such, final arbiter in determining what to believe - belief is all we have, certainty is a chimera (or so I believe!).

    Now only a foolish sovereign would fail to seek wise counsel from the independent sovereign minds that co-inhabit the world s/he lives in.

    Then, proportioning belief in accordance with the quality and quantity of evidence, believes with greater or lesser degrees of assurance.

    In brief: balance between my thoughts and others' thoughts, trying at least to be aware of the biases of my sources as well as myself.

    Sounds good enough for government work. (But critiques are the essence of improvement.)

  9. @ Exrelayman: In my experience, there is quite often some aspect of any issue that I myself don't see until it is pointed out to me by someone else.

  10. I think it means that a wise person is willing to re-examine his ideas when faced with contrary evidence.

    But then, I'm inclined to see things in a way that fit with my view of the world...

  11. How about instead of
    "The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas." Tao Te Ching

    (capturing the flow of the comments so far)--
    "The mark of a moderate man is freedom IN his own ideas." (
    i.e., flexibility) Jon Te Ching (Tao's great great great great ... grand-nephew, twice removed).

  12. Great Blog and intriguing questions!

    @Paul, I agree with your perspective of classifying people as moderates or fanatics. I feel like both categories could be either enslaved to their ideas, or become free depending on circumstances/experiences/mindset. People change radically depending on experiences. Motivation makes change possible.

    Besides, I feel like fanaticism could sometimes be a definition of the moderate man. Take for example, a moderate man who is committed to family life and a basic job. He might view an activist as a fanatic since the former cannot understand the latter's priorities, motivation and purpose.

    The lens through which we view the world is responsible for defining people as moderate or fanatic.

    1. Quite interesting, Safia. I wonder if there could be a definition of fanaticism that defined it independent of moderation?

  13. There's a Buddhist koan that I had been working on for a while that said, "If you meet Buddha [or God] on the side of the road, kill him."

    What it meant was that as we go along our spiritual or wisdom paths, we get an idea or image of what we are looking for. If we stop right there and say, "This is it, this is God," then we stop progressing down that road. We close ourselves off to whatever else we might come across.

    I think what the Tao was saying was that we need to have a balance between our established ideas but still allow for new and sometimes contradicting ones. Otherwise, we obstruct our path, our flow, the Tao by refusing to continue and see what else there is we haven't considered yet.

    1. I agree, Kristian. Having a fixed idea of what is seems to be an enemy of experiencing the new.


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