Lao-Tzu's "Tao-te Ching" as the Foundation of Taoism

The Tao-te Ching written by Lao-Tzu is the foundation for Taoism, a major Chinese religion. The Tao-te Ching is founded on centering oneself in the Tao, a force that is believed to connect all of humanity and creates a path toward a peaceful life. A good leader must not only be able to center themselves in the Tao, but they must be an example to their people of how to do the same. Following the Tao involves freeing oneself of desire, being content with what you have in your life, and allowing the world to run its natural order of events.

Ruling through the Tao is essential for good leadership. Through the Tao, the Master will lead his people away from harm, “Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself”. On the other hand, if the Master were to deviate from the path, he would ultimately bring evil upon his subjects. The Tao is also what allows the world to operate in its natural order, “If powerful men and women could center themselves in it, the whole world would be transformed by itself, in its natural rhythms”. The natural order of the world is the basis for many of Lao-Tzu’s ideas. It involves letting the world balance itself and work things out on its own. Interfering too much in the natural order of things will lead away from the Tao. The works of the Tao-te Ching create guidelines for how the Master should follow the Tao, and how best to teach his people to do the same so that the natural order is maintained.

Lao Tzu’s very existence is almost as mysterious and complicated as his writings. There are multiple accounts of who Lao-Tzu really is and when exactly he was alive (“Lao Tzu Biography”). But despite the uncertainty pertaining to Lao-Tzu’s actual identity, most accounts agree that he was alive during the time known as the Warring States Period. The Warring States refers to the war between the seven feuding states of China, each battling for dominance of the region. Because of the constant state of violence that the area was in, many philosophers were looking for a way to bring peace to the region. “Lao-Tzu was especially interested in converting the ruling class to his belief because the country was, at this time, in the midst of the era known as the Warring States Period”. This period gave way to the Hundred Schools of Thoughts where many philosophers established well-known philosophical works. In addition to Lao-Tzu, the era of the Hundred Schools of Thought was also the time Confucius, Mencius, Mo Ti, and others developed their own works.

The world that Lao-Tzu lived in greatly influenced his writing. The Warring States period could have been the main reason behind him writing the Tao-te Ching. According to Mark, “The wars continued and various schools of Chinese Philosophy were established which tried to suggest the best way to end the violence and establish a moral government that would care for its citizens.” The desire for a government that puts peace and the well-being of its people as its top priority was a very attractive idea in a time of constant violence and aggression. An ideal world of peace can be seen in Lao-Tzu’s work as he emphasizes the restraint leaders should practice, especially when it comes to waging war. Other influences from the world around him can be seen throughout the rest of Lao-Tzu’s works.

Since the war was a big part of his life, it also becomes a major theme in the Tao-te Ching. In accordance with the Tao, peace should be the main objective of the government. Obviously, war and peace are polar opposites and cannot occur at the same time. Lao-Tzu is realistic and knows that war isn’t completely avoidable. Instead, he believes that one should “enter a battle gravely, with sorrow and with great compassion, as if he were attending a funeral”. As opposed to what many people would normally believe, Lao-Tzu makes it clear that the only objective of war should be peace. Victory should never be an object of war because it is bred out of a desire to be better than the enemy and to make your name known. “The Master does his job and then stops”. Not only is he aware of how far he must go and when he needs to stop, but the Master knows that he only needs his own acceptance and not the acceptance of others to be a good leader. There is no need to wage war just to establish a reputation as a nation.

There are many other qualities involved in becoming a good leader. In one of his more literal chapters, Lao-Tzu clarifies the three most important qualities in the Master: simplicity, patience, and compassion. Simplicity, as put by Lao-Tzu is being “Simple in actions and in thoughts”. This moderation is a key aspect of leading. Without acting in moderation, the Master will interfere too much in the natural order of the world. If one were to rule through moderation, the people would be able to trust his actions and leadership. Not only should the Master act in moderation, but he should be able to remain calm and thoughtful about his actions. “Thus the Master travels all day without leaving home. However splendid the views, she stays serenely in herself”. Moderation and serenity stem from being simplistic, patient, and compassionate. These three attributes create the foundation of a good leader.

Another characteristic of a good leader, in the eyes of Lao-Tzu, is leading by not-doing. The laws and restrictions that are placed on society are what drive people to commit crimes. “I let go of the law, and people become honest. I let go of economics, and people become prosperous… I let go of all desire for the common good, and the good becomes common as grass”. Instead of creating more rules regarding what people can and can’t do, the Master allows them to do what they wish. If given the option he believes they will choose to act for the common good. The Master must interfere as little as possible in people’s lives in order to make them the happiest they can be. “When taxes are too high, people go hungry… Act for the people’s benefit. Trust them; leave them alone”. This example could have been a direct reflection of the high taxes that China faced during the Warring States period. Lao-Tzu recognized that the government was the one with the power and decision on whether or not to make the people happy. Taxing them too much will only instigate protest and revolt. Therefore, staying out of people’s lives not only allows the people to be happier but makes them easier to govern.

For as much as he talks about the value of following the Tao, Lao-Tzu also warns against what happens when one deviates from the Way. “When the great Tao is forgotten, goodness and piety appear. When the body’s intelligence declines, cleverness, and knowledge step forth… When the country falls into chaos, patriotism is born”. While traits such as wisdom and knowledge may be considered good things, Lao-Tzu views them as negative. Knowledge only creates a desire for more knowledge, and it leads one away from the Tao. While these qualities can be positive in some instances, they don’t lead people in the right direction in the end. For example, patriotism is something held in high regard. However, Lao-Tzu saw it as a fake attempt to maintain positions of power during chaotic times. These examples were proof of the destruction that followed when one deviates from the Tao.

Instead of abandoning the Way in search of lesser paths such as knowledge and wisdom, Lao-Tzu suggests that one must let go of everything but the Tao in order to truly reach it. “Throw away holiness and wisdom, and people will be a hundred times happier. Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing”. By letting go of morality and justice, they no longer become a burden, or duty and people won’t try to evade them. These standards that many people operate by are all relative. Valuable objects won’t be of value unless everyone believes they are. Therefore, people won’t steal unless they are led to believe that it would be of value to them. By letting these things go, the people are able to find peace, which is the ultimate goal of the Tao. Lao-Tzu places a lot of faith in humanity. He believed that if given the option, they would choose to do the right thing when they are not pressured by rules and leaders.

Lao-Tzu preached that a key aspect of being free of desire and living a peaceful life is to be content with what you already have. This lifestyle made sense in the middle of a war when laid down in the government's quest for power. Lao-Tzu wraps up his book with the idea of having enough and being okay with it. “If a country is governed wisely, its habitants will be content… Since they love their homes, they aren’t interested in travel… And even though the next country is so close that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking, they are content to die of old age without ever having gone to see it”. It is possible to see how Lao-Tzu wished people would live accordingly, meaning they would have no desire to inflict war upon one another. But in assuming that this lifestyle is the ideal option, he overlooks what it means to live a truly fulfilling life. To a warring nation, it would make sense that he would want nothing more than to stay at home and be happy with what he has, but to a world that has been doing just that for barely a year, people begin to lose their peace of mind.

From a modern perspective, the Tao-te Ching has several shortcomings. Lao-Tzu’s works claim that ambition is just another form of desire and should be avoided, but ambition is what drives people to do better and to become better versions of themselves. Lao-Tzu’s vision was clouded by the negative impacts of desire, which he saw all around him. His works fail to recognize what it means to travel the world and to learn new things, or to challenge yourself to do better.

The Tao-te Ching introduces the idea of the Tao to society, both a force and a path that leads humanity to peace. Lao-Tzu believes that to be a good leader, one must center themselves in the Tao and allow the world to run its natural course. This leader must become an example for their people on how to live free from desire and be content with where they are in life by ruling through moderation and simplicity.

07 July 2022
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