Tao Te Ching

Tao Te Ching book lying on a table next to a vase with a bouquet of flowers
Tao Te Ching is book #7 from The Literary Project.

Lao Tzu (also known as Lao Tze and Laozi), is the reputed author of Tao Te Ching (or Daodejing). He was the first philosopher of Taoism, giving rise to the Taoist religion as well as influencing Buddhism and Confucian thought (according to the ancient historian Sima Qian, Confucius went to him for advice in what was, of course, a legendary meeting). Lao Tzu was a member of the royal court of the Zhou dynasty when he departed during its decline, wrote the Tao Te Ching at the behest of the gatekeeper of Xiangu pass during his westerward withdrawal, and then disappeared forever.

Although the Tao Te Ching is the most translated work in all Chinese literature, scholars are not so sure that it was, in fact, completely written by one man. Many theorize that it was the work of many authors over many years, and some even question the historical existence of Lao Tzu the sage.

A note on the date of this text: The Dover Thrift Edition I own notes a possible origin of around 300 BCE. The Zhou dynasty that was in decline when Lao Tzu left ended in 249 BCE, so 300 BCE makes sense. But Confucious was supposedly younger than Lao Tzu, and he died in 479 BCE. Since this work is thought to have also influenced Buddhism, I decided, after some deliberation, to list the book in the Literary Project list at 500 BCE, right before the later works of Confucius and Siddhartha Gautama.

Portrait of Lao-Tzu
Portrait of Lao-Tzu by Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506). (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

On Government

Within the first few pages, my individualistic American self was turned off at what sounded–at least to me–like communist sentiments:

‘Ch 3. Keeping the People at Rest’
“Not to value and employ men of superior ability is the way to keep the people from rivalry among themselves; not to prize articles which are difficult to procure is the way to keep them from becoming thieves; not to show them what is likely to excite their desires is the way to keep their minds from disorder.
Therefore the sage, in the exercise of his government, empties their minds, fills their bellies, weakens their wills, and strengthens their bones.
He constantly (tries to) keep them without knowledge and without desire, and where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them from presuming to act (on it). When there is this abstinence from action, good order is universal.”

In other words, the ruling sage knows what’s best for everyone, and no one need think for themselves. Just eat and do not think.

‘Ch 19. Returning to the Unadulterated Influence’
“…If we could renounce our artful contrivances and discard our (scheming for) gain, there would be no thieves nor robbers.”

But if we renounced our desires, dear Lao Tzu, I’m afraid we would no longer be human.

‘Ch 65 Pure, unmixed Excellence’
“The difficulty in governing the people arises from their having much knowledge.”

This last one could easily be read to justify censorship of all free expression.

Hm…We’re not off to a great start here.

On Humility

Humility is a favorite theme of Lao Tze’s. It is apparent that humility is a highly valued trait–if not the most valued.

‘Ch 22. The Increase Granted to Humility’
“…the sage holds in his embrace the one thing (of humility), and manifests it to all the world. He is free from self-display, and therefore he shines; from self-assertion, and therefore he is distinguished; from self-boasting, and therefore his merit is acknowledged; from self-complacency, and therefore he acquires superiority.”

Constrast the above with the following description of the arrogant person:

‘Ch 24. Painful Graciousness’
“…he who displays himself does not shine; he who asserts his own views is not distinguished; he who vaunts himself does not find his merit acknowledge; he who is self-conceited has no superiority allowed to him”

Humility is so important to Lao Tzu, that it is his top fear as a leader:

‘Ch 53. Increase of Evidence’
“If I were suddenly to become known, and (put into a position to) conduct (a government) according to the Great Tao, what I should be most afraid of would be a boastful display.”

But the following chapter makes me question the nature of humility:

‘Ch 66. Putting One’s Self Last’
“That whereby the rivers and seas are able to receive the homage and tribute of all the valley streams, is their skill in being lower than they;–it is thus that they are the kings of them all. So it is that the sage (ruler), wishing to be above men, puts himself by his words below them, and, wishing to be before them, places his person behind them.”

If the sage is “wishing to be above men” and “wishing to be before them,” is he truly humble? Can he be authentically humble if his humble acts are driven by an internal, hidden motive to actually be superior?

On the Nature of the Tao

What is the Tao? Even after reading Tao Te Ching I cannot be sure. I finished the work feeling as though I was being kept from some universal secret after having been promised an explanation.

‘Ch 10. Possibilities’
“(The Tao) produces (all things) and nourishes them; it produces them and does not claim them as its own; it does all, and yet does not boast of it; it presides over all, and yet does not control them. This is what is called ‘The mysterious Quality’ (of the Tao)”

In trying to grasp onto some understanding of what the Tao is, the following chapter made me draw a mental model of the Tao as Energy:

‘Ch 25. Representations of the Mystery’
“There was something undefined and complete, coming into existence before Heaven and Earth. How still it was and formless, standing alone, and undergoing no change, reaching everywhere and in no danger (of being exhausted)! It may be regarded as the Mother of all things.
I do not know its name, and I give it the designation of the Tao (the Way or Course). Making an effort (further) to give it a name I call it The Great.
Great, it passes on (in constant flow). Passing on, it becomes remote. Having become remote, it returns…”

And then the following made me further re-frame the Tao as a divine Energy, granting Grace and Salvation:

‘Ch 62. Practising the Tao’
“Why was it that the ancients prized this Tao so much? Was it not because it could be got by seeking for it, and the guilty could escape (from the stain of their guilt) by it? This is the reason why all under heaven consider it the most valuable thing.”

I’m still not sure though. It seems the Tao is a thing that both is and isn’t. It is the source of all existence–of all Heaven and Earth–and yet it does not strain in effort. It is all contradiction; it is beyond my mental grasp.

Favorite Quotes

All in all, I disagree with Lao Tzu’s views on government, appreciate his love of humility, and am confused by his definition of the Tao. Other than that, we did see eye-to-eye in the following passages, which I starred with excitement during my reading.

The following two are about stillness:

‘Ch 15. The Exhibition of the Quality’
“Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear.”


‘Ch 26. The Quality of Gravity’
“Gravity is the root of lightness; stillness, the ruler of movement.”

The following paints a gentle, compassionate, and pacifist Lao Tzu:

‘Ch 31. Stilling War’
“Those sharp weapons are instruments of evil omen, and not the instruments of the superior man;–he uses them only on the compulsion of necessity. Calm and repose are what he prizes; victory (by force of arms) is to him undesireable. To consider this desirable would be to delight in the slaughter of men; and he who delights in the slaughter of men cannot get his will in the kingdom.
…He who has killed multitudes of men should weep for them with the bitterest grief.”

On self-knowledge (what philosopher doesn’t note something about the need for self-knowledge?):

‘Ch 33. Discriminating between Attributes’
“He who knows other men is discerning; he who knows himself is intelligent. He who overcomes others is strong; he who overcomes himself is mighty.”

The following two quotes are nicely framed concepts in contradiction:

‘Ch 42. The Transformations of the Tao’
“So it is that some things are increased by being diminished, and others are diminished by being increased.”

‘Ch 63. Thinking in the Beginning’
“All difficult things in the world are sure to arise from a previous state in which they were easy, and all great things from one in which they were small.”

And the following chapter contains, perhaps, Lao Tzu’s most famous quote (in bold):

‘Ch 64. Guarding the Minute’
“The tree which fills the arms grew from the tiniest sprout; the tower of nine storeys rose from a (small) heap of earth; the journey of a thousand [miles] commenced with a single step.
[emphasis added]

And finally, a quote about knowledge and the paradox of feeling we know less and less as we learn more and more:

‘Ch 71. The Disease of Knowing’
“To know and yet (think) we do not know is the highest (attainment); not to know (and yet think) we do know is a disease.”

Mulling over the idea of the Tao–and failing to comprehend it while simultaneously knowing more about it than I did before–has most definitely humbled me. It’s true: an increase in knowing makes me acutely aware of what I don’t know!

Perhaps Lao Tzu would be proud of this knowledge-seeking Individualist after all…even with all our initial disagreements.