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Philosopher of the month: Lao Tzu

This August, the OUP Philosophy team is honoring Lao Tzu as their Philosopher of the Month. But who was this mysterious figure? When did he live, what did he teach, and what exactly is the ‘Tao’? Read on to find out more about Taoism:

Who was Lao Tzu?

Lao (Laozi) Tzu is credited as the founder of Taoism, a Chinese philosophy and religion. An elusive figure, he was allegedly a learned yet reclusive official at the Zhōu court (1045–256 BC) – a lesser aristocrat of literary competence who worked as a copyist and archivist. Scholars have variously dated his life to between the third and sixth centuries BC, but he is best known as the author of the classic Tao Te Ching (‘The Book of the Way and its Power’).

According to tradition, Lao Tzu is believed to be an older contemporary of Confucius and the founding figure of Taoism in China. Despite this, many modern scholars doubt the existence of Lao Tzu as a historical figure, and postulate that the Tao Te Ching was written by various authors from the fourth and third century BC. Regardless of Lao Tzu’s historical or mythical status, Taoism is a major school of thought and has been influential throughout Chinese culture, art, and religion.

What is Taoism?

According to Lao Tzu’s teachings, the Tao (Dao), or ‘Way’ is at the center of all life –conceived as the complete totality of existence. The way to mystical freedom is by way of letting go of conventional concerns and achieving union with the Tao. Once union has been achieved, such conditions as poverty and wealth will become meaningless, and ordinary societal values will no longer apply.

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy 2nd edition states that:

Image Credit: ‘Portrait of Lao Zi (Lao Tzu); February 1922, from Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner’s ‘Myths and Legends of China’, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
‘Portrait of Lao Zi (Lao Tzu); February 1922, from Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner’s ‘Myths and Legends of China’. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

“The basic tenet of Taoist thought is that the operation of the human world should ideally be continuous with that of the natural order, and that one should restore the continuity by freeing the self from the restrictive influence of social norms, moral precepts, and worldly goals.”

In essence, Taoism advocates humility, religious piety and harmony with the Tao. Lao Tzu was seen as the living representation of the Tao – bringing salvation and unity into the world.

What is the Tao Te Ching?

The Tao Te Ching (or Daodejing) consists of eighty-one aphoristic and poetic chapters – of what is known today as a mystical, religious, or philosophical text – written by Lao Tzu. It is a work about which there is little agreement. It is a source of Chinese and East Asian reflective traditions, frequently translated into European languages and confusingly subject to diverse and starkly contrasting description and interpretation. It is generally agreed however, that it existed in written form from approximately 300 BC, as the result of earlier oral transmission.

The Tao Te Ching broadly describes the Tao as the source and ideal of existence. It is understood as a series of contradictions; it is unseen, but not transcendent, immensely powerful yet supremely humble, being the root of all things. People have desires and free will (and thus are able to alter their own nature), however many act ‘unnaturally’, thus upsetting the natural balance of the Tao. The Tao Te Ching intends to return its students to their natural state – in perfect harmony with the Dao.

It starts with the classic lines:

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things

Previous ‘Philosophers of the Month’ have included Jacques Derrida, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Søren Kierkegaard. Why not follow #PhilosopherOTM on Twitter for more philosophy content?

Featured Image: ‘The Three Gorges Landscape China – Yangtze River’ by cq19690527. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Greg Gauthier

    Chinese “philosophy” is the original hucksterism. Self-contradictory statements spoken in breathy tones, do not make them suddenly “profound”. They’re also incredibly easy to invent on the fly:

    “The one who sees, is blind” ~ Tao Te Gauthier
    “The master of all, is master of none” ~ Tao Te Gauthier
    “In the future, the past will live again” ~ Tao Te Gauthier

    What’s worse, is the fact that even when they do occasionally get something right, they have no idea why. Setting aside metaphors of blind squirrels, there’s still the problem that if you can’t explain reasonably why you think something is true, its value is essentially nil, whether its true or not.

  2. Mark Saltveit

    What a remarkably ignorant comment by Greg Gauthier.

    >>”Chinese ‘philosophy’ is the original hucksterism.

    All of it? 3 millennia of one of the world’s greatest civilizations generated nothing you deign to call philosophy without scare quotes?

    I’m waiting for you to ridicule Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed, and the hundreds of other uses of paradox in Western philosophy and religion.

  3. Jim Jozwiak

    Since I was marrying into a Chinese family, I thought it prudent to try to understand Confucian thinking.
    I had already become enamored of Lao-Tzu as kind of a distillation of the ideas of Henry David Thoreau.
    Anyway, I came to the startling conclusion that I couldn’t imagine a moral choice which wasn’t the same no matter which line of reasoning I followed, either Confucius or Lao-Tzu.
    Now, isn’t that strange. Two poles of philosophy which disagree on practically everything, and yet, you get the same result, a moral decision that appears to be in accord with “Heaven”.

  4. Zym

    I am finding it difficult to track do any information on the possable life of Lao Tzu/Tze.
    It is my belief he was of such a personality and Character that even if he changed his name he would have left a trail to find his journeys beyond the great Wall.
    I found one thought that believes he may have travel out through Tibet.
    I would appreciate any info…ty

  5. Zym

    I found some information referencing Lao tze meeting with Missionary’s from Salem Near Palestine around the time of Abraham.
    Also that Confucius was a Student of Lao’s.
    I read the story of Lao leaving China and how if it was not for some one stopping him as he left and begging him to leave be hind his teaching “which be came known as the Tao Te Ching” we would not even have been blessed all these years later with such profound challenges.

  6. Zym

    I wish to correct a possible miss-communication.
    In last post about Missionary’s, they had traveled to China thus meeting Tao Tze…. not Lao traveling to Salem.

  7. Zym

    It is my belief the Lao Tze was man whom had undergone a profound Spiritual Transformation which altered his perception of Life and every thing, thus communicating his insights became difficult for others to comprehend.
    Just like the parables of Christ which are left to interpretation my the individual base on where they are in their personal growth, Lao’s 81 verse, also are written in a way to reach each person as the develop spiritually.
    The magnitude of the wisdom in his Verses can only in full be understood by only those whom them selves have gone through a spiritual awakening.

  8. Dr. Hilmar Alquiros

    A Dào that could be well-defined –
    a Dào not of a timeless kind;

    a concept that could be conceived,
    no timeless concept thus retrieved!

    Not to conceive all world’s begin:
    as mother of just everything.

    And thus, without desire, see
    accordingly its subtlety;

    yet always with desire’s sting,
    you just see so its limiting.

    These two, together made: the same,
    yet being different in name –
    as dark together to proclaim.

    As darkest darkness to locate:
    to all those Mysteries the Gate…


  9. Mohammad Ahmad

    Most likely Tao was a Prophet of the Almighty in his time. The Creator has sent His Messengers beyond the Middle East. Lao’s teachings bring man nearer to his Creator.

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