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Blazing the Trail to Tao: Laozi. The Philosopher Who Never Existed Essay

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Updated: Apr 20th, 2019

There is hardly a single person who has never heard of the Tao – the roads that people choose and the destinies that await for these people. However, there are comparatively few people who have actually heard of Laozi, the founder of Daoism and its key principles.

One of the most influential philosophers of all times and the major figures in the history of the Chinese philosophy, Laozi has paved the way for the Chinese people to the Enlightenment, offering his own answers to the greatest questions of all times, namely, what the meaning of life is and whether it is possible to choose one’s own destiny.

Weirdly enough, there is little to no information about one of the greatest thinkers in the history of China left.

Leaving sufficient heritage after his death and offering the world the philosophy of Tao, Laozi seems to have never been given a proper credit – or, on the contrary, was given too much of it; considered not only the wisest man who has ever existed, but also practically turned into a legend, Laozi is considered most as a mere mortal, but as a prophet.

As a matter of fact, even the fact of Laozi’s existence has not been proven yet; to most Japanese, he remains a legendary figure, a person who embraces the wisdom of the universe; naturally, he can hardly fit in the world of mere mortals, which creates the premises for considering him a part of the Chinese mythology.

When reading Laozi’s biography, one will most likely find a lot of conflicting and even absolutely incredible facts. For instance, according to some of the sources, Laozi and Confucius were the same person; no matter how absurd this idea might sound, it still cannot be disproved, since there are insultingly few sources which have Laozi’s life documented.

However, even though it is impossible to restore the information about Laozi, one can still find out why the confusion about the biographical data of the great philosopher appeared. If reading Fowler’s work closer, one will notice that two different readings of Laozi’s name were triggered by the lack of the biographer’s accuracy:

Confusion about the names of Lao-tzu/Laozi may have arisen because the ancient historian Ssu-ma Ch’ien/Sima Quan had great difficulty in writing a biography of Lao-tzu/Laozi – so much so that he possibly endorsed the connection of the historical person Li Erh/Li Er with a legendary Lao Tan/Lao Dan. (Fowler 96)

Consequently, the scanty amount of biographic facts could have been triggered by the same reasons. Anyway, there are still some facts about Laozi’s life which can be considered more or less credible.

However, when browsing through the numerous stories of Laozi’s life in search for essential biographical facts, one can come across a number of irrelevant, yet incredibly interesting details.

For example, along with the fact that Laozi was born around 100 B.C., Fowler mentions that Laozi’s mother conception happened “after she had seen a shooting star” (Fowler 96). However, according to the legend, Laozi was already born a white-haired sage, which means that these myths have nothing to do with the truth.

While giving credit to the famous philosopher, these stories still need to be taken with a grain of salt. Anyway, it has been found that Laozi was an archivist in Zhou.

However, as soon as Laozi had the chance to make sure that the dynasty had fallen into regression, he left the state and started the life of a nomad and a traveler, blazing his trail to the Promised Land of wisdom on his oxcart.

According to the existing evidence, when arriving at the border pass, “Laozi wrote down the content of the Tao Te Ching/Daodeijing in five thousand Chinese characters, before disappearing into the West” (Fowler 96) and lived for around 160 years.

Rather basic, the given legend does not give the audience a detailed portrait of the philosopher, which is quite a pity. However, the tale creates a veil of mystery over Laozi, which must have been the reason for him to become a part of the Chinese religious mythology.

As it has been mentioned previously, there are little to no texts left about the great philosopher. Likewise, there are no texts left from Laozi to the people of the XXI century.

However, some of the texts which still mention the great philosopher’s name offer a lot of food for thoughts. Lao tzu Tao Te ching, or 老子道德經, also known as The Canon of the Path and Virtue (Loewe 269), is the manuscript which is often attributed to the philosopher, though other ideas about the authorship also exist.

Offering a strong basis for a completely new look at the human nature, destiny and the meaning of life, the given manuscript sets the stage for the development of not only a new philosophy, but also a new religion.

It is necessary to pay special attention to some of the frequently occurring terms. Once defining the basic phenomena which Laozi discovered or developed in his work, one will be able to understand the essence of the philosopher’s new concept. There are five basic notions which one has to get a better idea about before proceeding with the theory.

The first and the foremost, Tao, or, rarely, Dao, is considered to be the social order which is based on the key moral principles.

Hence, Tao predetermines objective reality. It is essential to add, however, that Tao has several definitions which, when comprised, allow to consider it from several viewpoints and, therefore approach it in a more objective way.

According to a somewhat vague definition offered by Liu, “Tao is an on-going process of participation and discovery” (Liu 3). Therefore, Tao can be considered as the unceasing process towards a goal which is practically unreachable – the goal of complete enlightenment.

Indeed, according to the further explanations offered by Liu, even the above-mentioned manuscript itself refers to Tao as something completely mysterious, something that a human mind can hardly embrace: “Later chapters of the Tao Te Ching, therefore, refer to Tao as ‘vague,’ ‘mysterious,’ ‘hidden,’ ‘unknown,’ ‘unfathomable,’ ‘nameless’ – that which is known only through perpetual encounter” (Liu 3).

In a way, Tao is individual for every person, which means that Tao has countless variations of definition; as Liu explains,

Not merely do different people understand Tao differently, what each person finds in the Tao depends on and, in some sense, reflects his own character. Thus Tao is somewhat like a mirror, in that it reflects the perceiver and his or her context. (Liu 3)

Another important element that makes a huge chunk of Laozi’s philosophy is Te, or De. While Tao is referred to as the process of cognition which people are supposed to go through in the course of their entire life, Te is considered the set of basic moral principles which people are supposed to comply with if they want to find their own Tao and to be able to follow it.

Moreover, Te stems from Tao, which makes the two completely inseparable. Also spelled as “De,” the given phenomenon is defined in a rather precise manner by Kohn: “De is thus what one has ‘obtained’ from the Dao, a ‘latent power’ by the ‘virtue’ of which any being becomes what it is” (Kohn 21).

Therefore, Te, or De, both allows one to define his/her own way to reach Tao, and at the same time stems from Tao. However, the two should not be considered equal elements; according to Kohn, Te complements Tao, making only a part of it, though a very large one: “As such, the Dao does not only point to the ‘beginning,’ but through de also suggests the end of all things” (Kohn 21).

Therefore, it can be considered that Laozi managed to respond to such issues as the meaning of life, no matter how clichéd that might sound.

In his attempt to marry the concepts of Tao and Te, the path of life and the moral concepts which are supposed to guide one on this path, Laozi managed to respond to one of the greatest problems of the humankind, namely, how to search for the meaning of life and what moral principles one should be guided by on this search. Hence, Laozi responded to the problem of moral dilemmas.

Interpreting Laozi’s works as an attempt to reveal the mystery of human life and find out what the meaning and purpose of existence means making a very general statement. Speaking of the particular problems which Laozi responded to, one must mention the numerous social issues.

However, Laozi’s manner of solving the social issues was quite different from the methods which other Chinese philosophers, such as Confucius, practiced. As Hinton explains, “While the Way of philosophical Taoism has defined the private spiritual realm for Chinese intellectuals throughout the millennia, the Confucian Way has defined the societal realm” (Hinton xxvii).

Hence, it can be concluded that Laozi was preoccupied with the concerns of the Chinese intellectuals than with the problems of the rest of the members of the Chinese society.

Since the search for one’s own path in life presupposes dealing with certain conflicts, one might have thought that Laozi faced a number of conflicts in his quest for his ultimate Tao.

As a matter of fact, according to the existing evidence, Laozi was against adding the Confucian ideas of humanism and sophistication to his theory fearing that the given elements will cause the conflict within the teaching: “Lao Tzu is totally opposed to the Confucian ideal of humanism, insisting that humanism and sophistication in conflict with nature brings about the evils of the world” (Mosley 5).

Therefore, it was hardly possible to imagine Laozi taking part in a certain conflict. Despite the fact that the philosopher is often confused with Confucius and, moreover, the two are often considered the same person, there are a lot of differences between the theories of the two, and the attitude towards conflicts is one of those differences.

Laozi followed the same policy of non-involvement in politics as well. However, his being abstain from the political stage did not mean that the philosopher avoided contemplating the idea of politics within the state and the manner in which the political tactics and strategies should be implemented.

According to what Fu says, Laozi managed to develop a peculiar idea of how political strategies should be executed in an ideal state:

In Lao Zi’s terminology, the Sage is identical with the ruler. The Sage, who is in perfect harmony with the Dao, treats the people just as nature treats all creatures [….]. There is no compassion in the heart of the Sage-Ruler for the humankind. (Fu 36)

Hence, it is obvious that Laozi advocated the policy of totalitarian rule. Though the idea of non-involvement into conflicts and the idea of looking for one’s own Tao might not seem quite compatible with the image of a monarch who controls the population and rules with an iron fist, when considering the two concepts closer, one will see that together, they make perfect sense.

While the philosopher claims that the civilians should comply with the moral rules which are defined by their own Tao, there should obviously be person who is going to supervise the processes which take place within the state.

Otherwise, with each civilian choosing his/her own Tao, the state could be torn asunder by the conflict between the Tao of different people. Hence, serving as the observer who controls the situation within the state, the ruler is an integral part of Laozi’s idea of an ideal state.

Once the elements of the state are in their places, reaching for the harmony which Daoism aims at becomes possible. Hence, calling Laozi the philosopher and a politician would be quite a far-fetched statement, since the Sage promoted civilians’ complete non-interference into the political affairs (Guo 76).

However, granted that Laozi did offer his own vision of an ideal political system, there are reasons to believe that he had a lot to do with politics in theory.

There is no denial that the philosophical ideas which Laozi offered to the humankind are completely priceless. Though the philosophical postulates which Laozi developed to support his theory could be argued against, it is still obvious that the philosopher offered an intriguing theory of objective reality.

Creating a detailed theory which was based on two elements, namely, Tao and De, Laozi managed not only to explain the way in which people choose their life tracks, but also to provide the way in which people could develop spiritually.

Moreover, the seeming simplicity of the theory proved completely misleading, opening a whole lot of paradoxes when being considered closer, starting from the relativity of bliss to the idea that the male and the female, the ying and yang, are integral parts of the universal order.

With a fascinating doctrine to study and nonetheless fascinating life to learn about, Laozi was an extraordinary man and a philosopher who changed people’s perception of reality once and for all. A man of incredible intelligence and amazing power of reason, Laozi deserves to be mentioned among the most influential philosophers of the history.

Works Cited

Fowler, Jeaneane D. An Introduction to the Philosophy and Religion of Taoism: Pathways to Immortality. Sussex, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 2005. Print.

Fu, Zhengyuan. Autocratic tradition and Chinese politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Guo, Xuezhi. The Ideal Chinese Political Leader: A Historical and Cultural Perspective. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002. Print.

Hinton, David. Tao Te Ching: Lao Tzu. New York, NY: Counterpoint Press, 2000. Print.

Kohn, Livia. Daoism. Leiden, NL: BRILL. 2000. Print.

Liu, Da. The Tao and Chinese Culture. New York, NY. Taylor & Francis, 1979. Print.

Loewe, Michael. Early Chinese Texts. A Bibliographical Guide. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1993. Print.

Mosley, Stephen. “Tao Te Ching/Lao Tzu.” JOY: The Journal of Yoga. 3.7 (2005): 1-16. Print.

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