Lao tzu is said to have lived in the 6th century BCE, about a hundred years before Socrates. He was perhaps some twenty years older than his famous countryman Confucius, who supposedly visited him once to discuss philosophy with him.
Lao tzu is known as the author of the Tao Te Ching, the “bible” of Taoism. That small book consists of slightly more than 5000 Chinese characters, and it is usually divided into 81 short numbered sections, many of them poems. It has been translated many times into all leading languages, and one has to take note of the fact that these translations frequently differ from each other to a remarkable degree. It is often not clear what the original text actually says. And this is not helped very much by reading the text in the original language, because even Chinese scholars often disagree as to how particular section are to be understood. Depending on their own particular personal inclinations, scholars emphasize quite different aspects of the teachings attributed to Lao tzu.
Still, a number of identifiable ideas run through the Tao Te Ching, and certain philosophical concepts emerge as one contemplates the 81 sections of the book: Interfere as little as possible in the workings of the world, don’t be competitive or argumentative, being is more important than having, create the stillness in yourself that allows you to know your own hidden self, and to become aware of the underlying order of things–these are some of the elements of wisdom that have become known as Taoism. With scores of thinkers writing commentaries on the Tao Te Ching in the course of centuries, and with further commentators discussing and enlarging the original commentaries, Taoism has become one of the great philosophies or religions of the world. In spite of its loosely defined boundaries as a body of doctrine, Taoism has played a similar role in Chinese culture as Buddhism has in other parts of Asia, or Islam in the Near East and North Africa.
It has been pointed out earlier that when we talk about “Socrates” we do not really talk about a historical person, but more about a character that talks and acts in the books of Xenophon and Plato. Strictly speaking this “Socrates” may not be much more than the figment of these writers’ imagination, although we do know that some person of that name once existed. The fictional nature of a major teacher is even more pronounced in the case of Lao tzu. “Lao tzu” may not even be a real name; it simply means “old master.” Most recent scholars argue that there never was one particular individual who wrote the Tao Te Ching, and that the book consists of a compilation of poems and sayings that originated from a variety of sources and periods. Still, most people have gotten used to the idea that Lao tzu was an author and a wise man who lived in central China at a time of great political and military turmoil, who made a living by working in the archive of his home province, and who left China toward the end of his life to conclude his days in solitude outside the boundaries of civilization. Riding on a buffalo he supposedly reached the border gate on a high mountain pass. There the gate keeper persuaded him to interrupt his journey, and to write down his teachings before leaving the empire for good. Within a few days, so the story goes, Lao tzu wrote down the 5000 characters that constitute the core of the Tao Te Ching.
“Tao” means “way,” and it refers to the ultimate order of things, the ultimate basis of reality. “Te” is often translated as “virtue,” but that can be misleading. Under the influence of Christianity, Westerners usually identify a virtuous person as some sort of god-fearing goody two-shoe who staunchly adheres to the conventions and preconceptions of his own community. This is a misunderstanding that has also arisen in connection with the conception of “virtue” of the Greeks and Romans of Antiquity. The Latin term “virtus” is often better translated as “manliness,” or even “power”–power not in the sense of social coercion, but in the sense American Indians often use it: as inner strength that grows out of being close to one’s real inner self. Tao Te can therefore be rendered not only as The Way of Virtue, but also as The Way of Power. Ching, although part of the title, is not part of the name of the book, but simply an indicator that the book is a “classic.”
The last section of the Tao Te Ching summarizes a good deal of the practical wisdom of Taoism. It spells out in some detail how a wise person conducts his or her life-in contrast, presumably, to the way in which most people lived and live their lives then and now:
- Sincere words do not sound nice,
- Nice-sounding words are not sincere.
- Good men don’t argue,
- Argumentative men are not good.
- The wise are not learned,
- The learned are not wise.
Wisdom does not inspire the accumulation of goods;
Living for others makes for a full life.
The more you give away, the richer you are.
The Tao of heaven is to benefit, not to harm.
The Tao of wisdom is to do your thing, but not to compete.
Sincere words may not be “nice” in several ways: They may not be elegant, or stylish, or written with any concern about sounding good. Sincere words are straightforward and simple, and simplicity in every respect is one of the virtues advocated throughout the Tao Te Ching. Stylistic adornments, as any pomp and circumstance and decoration, can only get in the way of the important things in life. Minimalism is the form of the Tao.
Sincere words may also lack nicety by being blunt, unwelcome, or controversial. Speaking sincerely is not the same as making conversation. And conversely: Generally acceptable writing and talking (the kind that gets politicians elected to office, for example, or the plethora of manipulative advertising that subliminally pervades even “factual” news reports) is not the sort of communication where much sincerity or truth is to be found. Wisdom, in other words, requires that one go beyond the prevailing discourse of any time. Sincere words are almost like pieces of silence in the incessant din of everyday communication.
Yet, in spite of being controversial at times, a wise person is not argumentative or quarrelsome. Combative or cantankerous argumentation often betrays a person’s desire to win, to prevail, not a desire to find the truth. Like lawyers in court who have to win their case by any means necessary, certain ideologues gratify their egos by succeeding in forcing their view on others, by humiliating, as it were, their opponents. Even if they have the truth on their side, the truth is not their real goal, but rather a means to puff up their own selves. Thus, a wise person stays clear of this sort of argument, and people who are embroiled in this sort of discussion do not have the leisure and relaxation that is needed for an impartial contemplation of things.
“The learned are not wise” is not necessarily an advocacy of ignorance. It simply means that wisdom does not come automatically with knowing a great many things. In section 33 of the Tao Te Ching it says: “He who knows others is learned/ He who knows himself is wise.” It often happens that very erudite scholars or learned professors are surprisingly primitive and unenlightened when it comes to their own personal affairs. Their extensive knowledge goes only skin deep, or it has nothing to do with them as persons at all. What they know has not transformed their lives or personalities in any way; it remains something external to who they are.
Wisdom, by contrast, is something lived; it pertains to the deepest and most passionate concerns that any person has about his or her life. Such depth knowledge is not disconnected from the knower; it is, in fact, a kind of self-knowledge. Just as Socrates suggested to give up the study of the natural sciences as long as the students did not know themselves, a wise person in Lao tzu’s sense will make sure that extensive learnedness will not become a distraction from the more serious work of getting to know his or her own true nature: The danger of becoming an impressive knowledge machine without a human center is forever too great.
In China as elsewhere it was common for rulers and ruled to dream about becoming rich by accumulating wealth. The Tao Te Ching advises us repeatedly that this is a misguided dream. Taoism advocates a way of life that looks for fulfillment in creative activity, not in the accumulation of possessions:
- To give birth, to nourish,
- To bring forth without taking possession,
- To produce without appropriation,
- To create without controlling-
- That is the hidden virtue.
As a voluntary mother raises a child not for material gain, but because the experience itself is meaningful, a wise person does not live and work in order to accumulate possessions, but will concentrate on the process of living. Process is more important than product; being is more important than having. Being is more important than having. Usually the production and accumulation of goods is a sacrifice of time and energy, undertaken solely for some sort of external reward; while they work at the creation of wealth, most people do not truly live. Life is postponed until some later date. An enlightened person, by contrast, is a person who lives in the present.
A non-possessive way of life in this sense would not only be gratifying for individuals, but would also create a different social and political landscape-different from the state of warring armies that were set in motion at the time to secure territories and possessions for their ambitious and rapacious lords:
- When the world is in accord with Tao,
- The galloping stallions are used for their fertilizer horseshit.
- When the world loses the Tao,
- Cavalry ravages the countryside.
To be truly civil, according to the Tao Te Ching, a culture has to cultivate not the ambitious acquisitiveness that encourages permanent competition, interference, and aggression, but rather an inner stillness that allows people to appreciate the riches that are actually at hand:
- There is no greater curse than the lack of contentment.
- Nothing is worse than the desire to possess.
- Therefore contentment with contentment will be contentment.
An important aspect of being content with seemingly little is, of course, the idea that true wealth does not consist in the accumulation of external goods, but in the development of an inner life: “Therefore the sage wears coarse clothes on the outside, while keeping the jade in his bosom” (Section 70).
The very last statement of the Tao Te Ching reads: “The Tao of wisdom is to do your thing, and not to compete.” The recommendation to abstain from competition parallels the one to abstain from combative arguments. Being in accord with the Tao will relieve people from the pressure to be better than others, to best them in words and deeds, to prevail at all cost, or to assert one’s self by interfering in the natural order of people and things. The idea of laying low, of being passive in important ways, of laissez-faire in almost every respect, is probably the most general theme in the entire Tao Te Ching. At a time when many rulers reveled in vanquishing and humiliating their foes, when suppressing and exploiting ordinary people, and particularly women, was a frequently used source of ego gratification, Taoists advocated the virtue of “no-action,” the virtue of what was then perceived as female passivity:
- He who is aware of the Male,
- But keeps to the Female,
- Becomes the river of the world.
- Being the river of the world,
- He has strength that is not cut to pieces.
- He is in touch with the origin of things.
The river (or the ravine) is an archetypal image of the female. The wise person will identify with the female, and thus partake in the power that is not only more comprehensive than anything else (that which in the end encompasses everything), but also stronger than the seemingly dominant male:
- Gentleness overcomes strength.
- How did the great rivers and oceans become the lords of the waters?
- being good at lying low.
- That’s how they became the lords of the waters.
- In order to be chief among the people,
- One must be in touch with ordinary folks.
- In order to be foremost among the people,
- One must walk behind them.
As the last section indicates, the Tao Te Ching is not only a guide to personal living, but also a compendium of advice for potential rulers. There are many passages of the following kind-passages that advocate a systematic policy of peace:
- He who by Tao guides a ruler of men
- Will oppose all conquest by force of arms.
- Even in victory there is no beauty,
- And whoever calls victory beautiful
- Is someone who delights in slaughter.
The advice to abstain from aggression, to be wise rather than learned, or to live a simple life rather than one mired in frenzied and acquisitive business, may be meaningful in many practical contexts. In the Tao Te Ching, however, such individual recommendations are embedded in an over-all view that envisions the world as a holistic order that not only does not need any wholesale improvements, but that may not even tolerate grand interferences of the sort certain human civilizations are capable of. Awareness of this comprehensive and holistic order is what ultimately motivates the “no-action” approach to the world that characterizes Taoism:
Those who want to take the world and shape it Will not succeed.
The world is a sacred vessel;
It cannot be tampered with.
To shape it is to destroy it.
To seize it is to lose it.
The good runner leaves no tracks.
By doing nothing everything gets done.
The basic attitude of “no-action,” of contemplative tranquility, allows one to see the world not only from the limited perspective of one self, from the perspective of one individual, but from a far more comprehensive point of view that brings into focus the whole of the world-the whole within which countless individuals come into being, interact with each other, and then return to the ground from which they sprang:
Be utterly passive;
Maintain the utmost tranquility.
While countless things take shape and move,
I see them all fall back to their repose–
Like vegetation that luxuriantly grows,
And then returns to the soil from which it springs.
Returning to the soil is rest;
Returning to the soil is destiny.
Returning to one’s destiny is finding the eternal law.
Knowing the eternal law is wisdom.
Not knowing it invites disaster.
Knowing the eternal law results in tolerance;
Whoever knows it is impartial.
To be impartial makes you a citizen of the world.
In being universal in this sense one is in harmony with nature.
Once in harmony with nature one is in accord with Tao,
And being in accord with Tao is to be eternal:
No harm will then threaten your life.
As mentioned earlier, it is tempting to look at leading philosophers or teachers in any civilization as representatives or spokespersons of their respective cultures. This temptation is particularly virulent when for political reasons individual cultures compete with each other for prestige, and when insecure individuals hunger for “identities” that might be obtained by claiming prestigious cultures as their own. Such an understanding of cultural matters entails a serious misunderstanding of philosophers and their roles in their respective cultures, however. That becomes quite apparent when one takes a short look at what Lao tzu (if there was such an individual) and Socrates (if he was the man that Xenophon and Plato say he was) have in common.
First, both thinkers were not so much representatives, but rather thorough critics of the culture from which they originated. They did not praise the prevailing values, standards, and activities of their societies, but exposed most of them as more or less foolish illusions or cruel and brutalizing machinations that resulted in long and unnecessary sufferings for the majority of people. The greatness of these and other philosophers does not lie in their showing how praiseworthy their cultures were, but rather in their attempts to radically change them.
Competitive acquisitiveness in particular was identified by both of them as something that diminished people’s lives at all levels. There were not only the wars of pillage that raged at the time throughout China and Greece, but also the (in the philosophers’ eyes) wasted lives spent in the obsessive pursuit of amenities and goods. The prevailing culture in China and Greece was also one in which people systematically neglected what both philosophers considered of foremost importance for a good life: to know one’s self. This, according to Lao tzu and Socrates, even their more learned contemporaries failed to do-and perhaps particularly their learned contemporaries. For all the impressive erudition that could be found in ancient China and Greece, the two philosophers thought that the establishments of higher learning of their cultures was tainted by a systematic falseness.
Some scholars may say that in spite their agreement in practical matters, Taoists and the followers of Socrates have a quite different view of reality, a different ontology. With regard to some details that may be so. Their over-all vision of the universe, however, may not have been all too incompatible, after all. Socrates gave up the study of the natural sciences in favor of reflecting on his own actual and practical existence. He never claimed to know anything about the ultimate nature of reality. But does the Tao Te Ching make any such claim? On the contrary. The book starts out with the famous declaration that nothing can be said about ultimate reality: “The Tao that can be told of is not the ultimate Tao; … the nameless is the origin of heaven and earth” (Section 1).
It is, indeed, a significant part of the wisdom of Lao tzu as well as Socrates to be keenly aware of the limits of their knowledge. Socrates preferred to practice the (female) profession of midwifery by helping other people to give birth to their ideas, rather than imposing his own thoughts on them. And he considered himself wiser than others only to the extent that he was more aware of his own ignorance than most other people were of theirs. Surprisingly-or perhaps not surprisingly-the Tao Te Ching expresses the very same thought:
Whoever knows that he does not know is supreme;
Whoever pretends to know what he does not know is in a bad way.
It seems clear, then, that philosophers like Lao tzu or Socrates cannot be used as quasi-propagandists of “their” respective culture (or that culture is anything to brag about in the way propagandists try to do). In its important aspect philosophy is never part of any culture, but always a critical transcendence of it. Both Lao tzu and Socrates went far beyond the cultures from which they came, and that is why they outlived them.