Important Reflections on the Tao Te Ching.

The Tao Te Ching, sometimes translated as the “Classic of the Virtuous Way”, is rumored to have been written by Lao Tzu. He is said to have been a sage of the royal court, or also a magistrate or astrologer, perhaps during the Warring States Period, though others claim he was a contemporary of Confucius. In Chinese Daoism, he is venerated as one of the great elders present at creation (Taji) and is credited as the author of the Tao Te Ching.

While Confucianism, formed mainly from the aforementioned basis of the Analects, can be said to advocate for a strong state, rigid mores, and deference to cultural customs, the Tao Te Ching is uniquely distinct. Confucianism has much to say about politics, but Taoism is far more ontological and existential. As with early Gnostic Christianity, Taoism is concerned with the appropriate and formless “Way”, or Tao, of all things. In the Analects, Master Kong encourages individuals to make appropriate propitiations, or actions, but the Tao Te Ching encourages “not acting” (3) and centering oneself in the Tao, which is beyond good and evil, and Taoism is suspicious of the pursuit of knowledge, as is common for theology which prefaces faith over reason. However, the Tao Te Ching does offer some political advice for the Master: relinquish the desire to control, the Will to Power, and let the people lead with humility -a great Master allows the people to believe they have accomplished great things.

The text is composed of approximately 5,000 characters and 81 short chapters.

“Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will be blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity”
(9).

“Colors blind the eye.
Sounds deafen the ear.
Flavors numb the taste.
Thoughts weaken the mind.
Desires wither the heart.

The Master observes the world
but trusts his inner vision.
He allows things to come and go.
His heart is open as the sky”
(12).

“A good traveller has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition
lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts
and keeps his mind open to what is.

Thus the Master is available to all people
and doesn’t reject anyone.
He is ready to use all situations
and doesn’t waste anything.
This is called embodying the light.

What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher?
What is a bad man but a good man’s teacher?
If you don’t understand this, you will get lost,
however intelligent you are.
It is the great secret”
(27).

“Without opening your door,
you can open your heart to the world.
Without looking out your window,
you can see the essence of the Tao.

The more you know,
the less you understand.

The Master arrives without leaving,
sees the light without looking,
achieves without doing a thing”
(47).

“The Master gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings.
He knows that he is going to die,
and he has nothing left to hold onto:
no illusions in his mind,
no resistances in his body.
He doesn’t think about his actions;
they flow from the core of his being.
He holds nothing back from life;
therefore he is ready for death,
as a man is ready for sleep
after a good day’s work”
(50).


For this reading I used Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching.

Confucius and Socrates

Among Western scholars, comparisons between Confucian literature and the Platonic corpus are made frequently. To their credit, both literary characters are memorable for their obsession with virtue and the appropriate means of political life. Both, presumably, emphasize the importance of a rigid social or political order, devotion among the citizenry, and both were considered a threat to their cities in their day -Socrates was condemned to death and Confucius (Master Kong) was exiled during the Warring States period of ancient China. Both can claim a dogma that degenerated into a religion in future ages, Confucius can be said to be the founder of the Confucian state religion that lasted for thousands of years in China that yielded the origins of certain politico-theological doctrines such as the ‘Mandate of Heaven.’ Plato’s Socrates, distinct from the Socrates we encounter in Xenophon, can be said to be the founder of all Western philosophy and the genesis of later religious doctrines, such as Christianity -a notable inversion, or perhaps, perversion of ‘Platonism.’

However, we also are compelled to acknowledge the sharp distinctions that exist between Kongfuzi and Socrates, distinctions that reveal considerable polarizations between what is now called ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ philosophy. First, it should be emphasized that Socrates claimed not to possess knowledge and only to ask questions, whereas Confucius answers the questions of his pupils with distinct responses, often ontological responses related to appropriate religious or political behavior. Socrates often explored ‘what is’ questions with his interlocutors to continue to challenge them to seek answers, rather than relying on the rumors of the masses, or the insubstantial knowledge of the Sophists, akin to public lawyers in antiquity. This relentlessly revolutionary, self-overcoming, that is central to Western civilization, forms the grounding for the future: capitalism, republicanism, and freedom. Second, Confucius strongly encouraged obedience to strict ancestor worship and religious doctrines, for the sake of an orderly state/city. However, Socrates is often called a skeptic. One of the two charges brought against him in Athens is that of not respecting the gods of the city. Socrates is a freethinker, though he does not clearly, explicitly encourage a youthful disrespect for the gods of Athens.

The Confucian genesis and the Socratic legacy each demonstrate some stark distinctions that have endured for thousands of years, establishing the foundations of classical Chinese civilization and Western civilization.