Eremitism in Ancient China, part 4: Lao-tzu (Laozi)

The social and political disintegration of ancient China in the Warring States period (480-222 B.C.E.) gave rise to the Hundred Schools of philosophical thought. The highlight of this process was the emergence of the tao chia or School of Tao. Taoism experienced its nascent philosophical phase with Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu (4th-3rd centuries B.C.E.), followed by a period of political philosophizing in the Lieh-tzu, Wen-tzu, and the Huai-nan-tzu (mid-second century B.C.E.). In contrast to other schools of thought, Taoism maintained the clearest formulation of what would become a preeminent philosophy of eremitism.

The first-century B.C.E. historian Ssu-ma Chien makes Lao-tzu an older contemporary of Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.) and the author of the Tao-te-ching. Lao-tzu was an imperial archivist, encountered Confucius in at least one terse exchange (but dozens in Chuang-tzu), and retired from government service into reclusion. Leaving the province for the mountains, Lao-tzu encountered the keeper of the pass named Yin, who bade him write down his ideas and beliefs as a personal favor. The result was the Tao-te-ching. Lao-tzu then disappeared into the mountains never to be seen again.

Ssu-ma Chien's account is understood today to be legendary. Lao-tzu is variously identified with Tan the historian (though the latter lived a century after Lao-tzu's death), with Lao Lai-tzu, who also wrote a Taoist text, and with a certain Tuan-kan Tsung. None of these identifications are based on evidence. Indeed, the first literary reference to the purported historical figure named Lao-tzu (the name means "old man") dates only from the third century B.C.E. It has become a useful convention to refer to both the person and the text as Lao-tzu.

The Lao-tzu

The Lao-tzu is an anthology of wisdom literature, a presentation of Taoist cosmology, sociology, politics, and ethics -- in short, philosophy, distinct from the later tao chiao or Taoist religion. The order of the universe, perceived by reason and intuition, points to an order or way of the natural world and, in turn, to an order or way of human society, of social organization and behavior. From the social order in harmony with these observed principles or virtues, the Lao-tzu recommends a political counterpart to those who govern in society.

However, the Lao-tzu ultimately addresses the reader seeking wisdom, and thus extends its sage advice to those who would govern their minds and hearts. The foundation for a philosophy of eremitism is laid out in its thorough-going anthropology and psychology, though no explicit reference to the eremitic life is mentioned.

While the compilers of the Lao-tzu remain anonymous, the layers of passages by various contributors have been assembled without much intervention or editing. Redundant or contradictory passages are reshapings of consensus and paradox. Originally composed in short rhyming sections for memorization, the Lao-tzu clearly reflects the hand of philosophers, no longer the single-minded scholar-gentlemen of Chinese thought aloof from society, class, or daily life.


The cosmology of the Lao-tzu is based on the ineffability of the universal principle or source. No name fully encompasses what it is, reminiscent of the via negativa or the "not that": "The Tao that can be named is not the Tao" (1). The Tao or way is not an object or being but a pattern and principle, yet it is not not-being.

As a thing the Tao is shadowy and indistinct, yet within it is an image;
Shadowy and indistinct, yet within it is substance.
Dim and dark, yet within it is an essence (21).

And again,

From above it is not bright
From below it is not dark
Dimly visible, it cannot be named.
It returns to that which is without substance.
The shapeless shape
The image without form
Indistinct and shadowy.
Stand before it and there is no beginning;
Follow behind it and there is no end (14).

Many passages of the Lao-tzu return to descriptions of the Tao: the "mother of the ten thousand things" (1), "empty vessel" (4), "gate of all mystery" (6), "nameless uncarved block" (15), "mysterious virtue" or "primal virtue" (51), "heaven's net" (71). The language is deliberately vague.

At the level of observable nature, the Tao can be identified in its workings: heaven and earth as primordial and enduring, water as infinitely yielding but strong, high winds that abate in due time, downpours that do not last, the utility of the vessel in its empty space. These workings are abstracted into tangible qualities:

The heavy is the root of the light,
The still is the lord of the unrest (26).

The softest thing in the universe
 overcomes the hardest thing in the universe (8).

Society and politics

The way manifests itself at the next level, which is the social and political. At this level, the Lao-tzu recommends specific virtues and behaviors to those who rule, and describes social conditions prevailing when the way is followed (or not followed).

The Confucian dilemma of "service or reclusion" is echoed in Lao-tzu, but absent is the scholar-gentleman as intervening class or intelligentsia, with his fawning moralizing and his political optimism. Instead the condition of contemporary states is bluntly presented as a contrast to the ideal state that exists (or would exist) when society is ordered and spontaneously  harmonious. Inevitable corruption is a falling away from the Tao, with the emergence of artificial and contrived institutions and culture as the result.

A famous passage charts the emergence of artificiality in social conventions, where instead of spontaneously living in conformity with the Tao, society invents and names its conventions as it sinks further away from naturalness:

When the Tao is lost, there is "virtue"
When virtue is lost, there is "benevolence"
When benevolence is lost, there is "justice"
When justice is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty,
the beginning of confusion. (38, also 18)

The next passage resonates with the experience of average people:

When the way prevails, horses plough the fields.
When the way does not prevail, horses are bred for war (46).

These passages amplify a realistic view of society without the Tao, reminiscent of the ancient Odes or Songs of ancient Chinese literature:

The court is corrupt,
The fields are overrun with weeds,
The granaries are empty,
Yet there are those who dress lavishly,
Carry sharp swords,
Indulge themselves with food and drink,
Possess more than enough.
They lead the nation to robbery.
All of this is far from the way. (53)

Why do the people go hungry?
Because the rulers devour much in tributes.
That is why the people go hungry.
Why are the people rebellious?
Because the rulers are busy in actions.
That is why the people are rebellious.
Why do the people think so little of death?
Because the rulers demand so much of life.
That is why the people do not fear death. (75)

The ideal society is that in which the Tao governs, in which the ruler is humble and self-effacing (66), not intervening or being clever (65), not boasting, proud, or violent (30).

In governing the people, the wise ruler empties their minds of concerns but fills their bellies, weakens their ambitions but strengthens their bones, as the Lao-tzu puts it so evocatively. The wise ruler always keeps the people innocent of knowledge (referring to contrivance and presumptuousness) and free from desire. The wise ruler insures that the clever never dare to act (3).

The best of all rulers, says the Lao-tzu, is but a shadowy presence to his subjects, just as the Tao is shadowy and indistinct in the harmony it maintains in the universe. The next best ruler is the one whom the people love and praise. Next comes the ruler they fear. Next comes the ruler they despise (17).

Even more to the point in presenting a portrait of society and authority are passages in the second half of the Lao-tzu (traditionally titled Te, meaning virtue or power). Here, the actions of the corrupt ruler are recognized as inevitably bad, so that inaction is best.

The more laws and restrictions in the empire, the poorer the people become. The sharper men's weapons are the more trouble in the land. The more ingenious and clever men are the more novelties multiply. The more rules and regulations the more thieves and robbers there are. (57)

Hence the famous dictum enjoining wise rule on the part of those with authority over the people: "Ruling a country is like boiling a small fish." (60)

The genuine ruler allows society to pursue its natural inclination to follow the Way.

Tao abides in non-action [wu-wei],
Yet nothing is left to be done.
If kings and lords observed this,
The myriad things would develop naturally.
If kings and lords desired to act,
They would return to the simplicity of formless substance [literally, nameless uncarved block].
Without form there is no desire.
Without desire there is stillness.
In this way, the realm would be at peace. (37)

With this understanding, the Lao-tzu can then sketch the ideal society:

A small county of few people.
People do not travel far.
They take death seriously.
They have boats and carriages but no use for them.
They have armor and weapons but do not display them.
They knot rope,
Their food is plain but good,
Their clothes is simple but fit,
their homes are secure,
their way of life is full of contentment.
They glimpse their neighbors afar, hear dogs bark and cocks crow.
Yet they grow old and die leaving their neighbors in peace. (80)

The individual

Lao-tzu deliberately blurs the distinction between ruler and sage. Ultimately he identifies the sage with the universal reader or listener, anyone who wants to follow the Tao. Translators have observed this use of specific words with larger applications and, for example, have translated "empire" as "land" or "universe" according to the context, and "ruler" as "sage" and "sage" as "virtuous person." Power over others becomes discipline over the self, manifested in the virtues. The transition of Confucian scholar-gentleman to Taoist sage or philosopher points to the universality of Taoist philosophy applied to every potential of the individual, regardless of status.

Thus, Lao-tzu ultimately addresses the individual. Sometimes advice about conduct and worldly affairs is presently obliquely, in the formula of what the sage would do. For example, a good walker leaves no tracks (27), or know the strength of yang but keep to yin (28). The sage avoids extremes, excesses, and complacency (29). The sage knows that there is no greater vice than desire, no greater curse than discontent, and no greater misfortune than wanting things for oneself. "Knowing that enough is enough, one will always have enough" (46).

Other passages point directly to characteristic virtues:

Know honor yet keep humility;
Know the white but keep to the sullied. (28)

The sullied is representative of what Chuang-tzu would perceive as the imperfect and therefore the undesirable from the point of view of the world.

Key passages on the virtues demonstrate that te is not only virtue in a moral or ethical sense but also power in the sense of self-discipline with respect to the world:

Be watchful like one crossing a winter stream,
Alert like one aware of danger,
Courteous like visiting guests,
Yielding like ice about to melt,
Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood,
Hollow like caves
Opaque like muddy pools. ...

Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfillment.
Not seeking fulfillment,
they are not swayed by desire for change. (15)

Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind rest at peace. (16)

The great lesson of the Tao lies in what Lao-tzu calls inaction or non-action (wu-wei). This principle was to become a fundamental principle of Taoism, based on the premise that the self-rectifying harmony of the Tao points to the virtue of harmony, balance, and serenity in human attitudes and responses to phenomena and events.

Inaction thus understood stands in opposition to the competitiveness, acquisitiveness, intervention, desire and violence displayed by the world. It is not just a matter of working and striving more cleverly or efficiently, which would still evoke the values of worldliness and a false premise about the nature of the universe.

The sayings of Lao-tzu seem disingenuous: "The Tao of the sage is work without effort" (8). But inaction is not indifference or turpitude. Working with the universal harmonies is the preservation and nurturing of values, of strengths or powers in the individual, especially when projected to the whole of society, where the ideal society already mentioned is the logical fruit of this process.

The sage stays behind, thus he is ahead.
The sage is detached, one with all.
Through selfless action, the sage attains fulfillment. (7)

The sage, as practitioner of wu-wei in public actions, extends self-action into every sphere of reality.

Without going outside you can know the whole world.
Without looking through the window you can see the ways of heaven.
The farther you go, the less you know.
Thus the sage knows without traveling.
The sage sees without looking.
The sage works without doing (47).

Wu-wei reflects the pattern of the universe, which the sage implements as virtue or "power." But this effort is a simplification, a sloughing-off, a dropping away of desire.

In the pursuit of knowledge one does more every day;
In the pursuit of the Tao one does less every day.
You do less and less until you do nothing at all.
When you do nothing at all, there is nothing left undone. (48)

Following the universal way is the opposite of following the way of the world, of society, and of people. The virtuous person does not contradict the world but rather does not follow it, as in the section of Lao-tzu wherein busy guests attend a great festival or depart for an outing while the narrator acknowledges, in a rare use of the first-person voice:

I alone do nothing, reveal nothing,
Like a newborn babe before it learns to smile.
I am alone with no place to go. ...

Others are clever and insistent.
To them I alone seem muddled and listless.
They have their purpose,
While I calmly drift like the wind over the sea. ...

I alone am different.
I am fed by the Great Mother. (20)


Confucianism has been contrasted to Taoism as optimistic versus pessimistic. Confucianism is optimistic about rulers, elites, and the state, assuming that these should be the target of efforts at education, reform, and cajoling. The Lao-tzu does not identify with this form of optimism and does not expect rulers, elites, and the state to change or improve.

Nevertheless, it may be said that the Lao-tzu is optimistic about the individual, about the individual's power and potential for change. However, the change advocated by the Lao-tzu is of a different origin and character, intersecting but not paralleling Confucianism. He addresses what may be called a spiritual elite, not a political or social elite.

 The Lao-tzu establishes the principles of Taoism, presenting a radical critique of society and its values. Lao-tzu presents the requisite philosophy for those who discover virtue to reside in the self's perception of the universal pattern, the Way, and not in the patterns of society. Complemented by the Chuang-tzu, the Lao-tzu provides the foundation for a philosophy of solitude and eremitism that extends far beyond the experience of ancient Chinese thought.


A list of bibliographical references will appear in a forthcoming part of this series.