Laozi was an ancient Chinese philosopher born in the 6th century BC who would become known as the founder of Daoism, a philosophy which sees the Dao (Way) as the fundamental principle by which the individual, society, and government can act in harmony with Nature. Through practicing the principle of non-action (wu-wei), one can become one with the Dao and in doing so develop character or virtue (te). By “acting without acting,” doing what is natural and spontaneous, and being in harmony with nature, Laozi believed man is able to be fulfilled, and society can return to a state of peace and tranquility. Laozi wrote his philosophy in what is known as the Daodejing, where he gives advice on how to follow the Way, in particular to the Sage Ruler. His beliefs in non-conformity, and emphasis on emptiness and will stand in contrast to the political activity and emphasis on ritual in Confucianism.
Legend has it Laozi (meaning “Old Master”) was heading West when he was stopped by a gatekeeper. He was asked to expound his wisdom, and so he wrote 5,000 Chinese characters which are the basis of what is known as the Daodejing (The Classic of the Way and it’s Virtue). This work is both poetic, philosophical, and mystical at once. Laozi’s central belief is that there is a Way (dao) by which everything ideally operates. This Way is spontaneous and natural, without form or name, the creator of all things as well as the principle by which they fulfill their nature and exist in harmony with one another. Laozi says, “We look at it and do not see it; Its name is The Invisible. We listen to it and do not hear it; Its name is The Inaudible. We touch it and do not find it; Its name is The Subtle.”
Understanding the Way, we can become one with it and be one with ourselves, others, and the world (“the 10,000 things”). Knowledge of the Way is described mystically, whereby one is able to return to a prereflective state where one finds harmony with his surroundings based on his intuition and feeling. In this state, one realizes that he is one with the rest of the world, and in doing so he begins to look at things from this larger perspective. Laozi is critical of those who think that one can compensate for a lack of understanding with fancy principles and philosophies. He is opposed to those social institutions and conventions created to facilitate virtue, when in reality they are an imposition on man’s true nature.
Laozi explains that the Way is the way of non-action (wu-wei). He says, “do nothing yet nothing remains undone.” Harmony with nature is the result of integrating with one’s surroundings, not trying to overcome them. He emphasizes the value of empty space, for example, the way a vase needs not only the clay, but also the space in the middle in order to have function. He emphasizes the feminine, explaining that it is through weakness that one has strength. The ability to yield, to be flexible, allows bamboo to bend in strong winds, while the oak tree is split. He says, ““The best is like water. Water is good; it benefits all things and does not compete with them. It dwells in places that all disdain. This is why it is so near to Tao.”
By following the Way, man is able to develop virtue (te). He compares the virtuous person to a child, who is full of wonder and acts spontaneously. The child balances male and female, active and passive, and in this way exists in a state of harmony. This principle will become developed in Chinese thought as the principle of yin and yang. Laozi also explains how the child is filled with qi, vital energy, and encourages us to cultivate our own source of vitality. The concept of qi is integral to Chinese medicine and martial arts.
Just as the individual is encouraged to follow the Way, likewise the Way is the principle by which society properly functions. Laozi believes problems arise when one does not follow the Way. He explains, “Whatever is contrary to Tao will soon perish.” He sees Chinese society as having fallen from an earlier Golden age into a time of warfare and fragmentation, where people do what’s pleasing to the “eye” rather than the “belly.” Instead of living in harmony with nature, man discriminates between things and in doing so makes value judgments. He sees some things as good and others as bad, some things as beautiful and others as ugly. Laozi explains that it is only in considering one thing beautiful that ugliness comes into being in the first place. Man further becomes alienated from his nature by seeking to only have those things that are beautiful. This leads to desire, greed, and ultimately self-destruction.
Laozi will encourage people to act with moderation. He says “To hold and fill to overflowing is not as good as to stop in time. Sharpen a sword-edge to its very sharpest, and the (edge) will not last long. When gold and jade fill you hall, you will not be able to keep them.” He will stand in opposition to those who focus on rituals and ceremonies, on public acts of virtue and honor, seeing these things as a perversion of man’s essential nature. Instead, he embraces the virtues of silence and teaching without words. He says, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.”
The Daodejing advise rulers on how to govern properly. Instead of imposing large taxes, having many laws, and waging wars of conquest, the Sage Ruler must also embrace the principle of non-action (wu-wei). “The sage says: I take no action and the people of themselves are transformed. I love tranquility and the people of themselves become correct. I engage in no activity and the people of themselves become prosperous.” Wars are seen as evil and the result of a ruler’s ego. Laozi explains, “Even when he is victorious, he does not regard it as praiseworthy, for to praise victory is to delight in the slaughter of men.” For Laozi, the ideal society is a simple one where where villagers are able to work the land and live together in peace. He explains, “The more laws and orders are made prominent, the more thieves and robbers will be.” Likewise, “ The people starve because the ruler eats too much tax-grain.” In this way, when the ruler interferes, the people suffer.
Laozi’s philosophy of the Way is one of wisdom. He extols the virtues of simplicity, tranquility, harmony, weakness and emptiness, silence and virtue. He criticizes a society which he sees as bringing about its own ruin through man’s inability to control his excessive desires. What is seen as man’s greatest strengths, his intellectual abilities, and his sense of independence, Laozi sees as his greatest faults. In the Daodejing, he encourages man to return to his true nature, the Way. In addition to giving practical advice, this text also includes paradoxical statements which encourage the reader to transcend rational thought and be inspired by a state of wonder. His view of the good life and how humans can live in harmony with others and the world will be further developed by Chuangzi and the other Daoists, and will come to influence developments in Confucianism, Buddhism, Neo-Taoism as well as many aspects of Chinese society.