Who was Laozi, and what is the Dao?
Laozi (604?-517? B.C.E.)
“Laozi” in Chinese means “Old Philosopher”; his real name was Li—i.e. a plum. He did not seek pupils but they came to his retreat; and to them he read aphorisms and taught the Dao—the Way i.e. the absolute unifying principle governing the universe—to live in harmony with nature.
He was one of those quiet and sensitive souls who want above all things else to be let alone; and his conception of government was built like Thoreau’s upon his hunger for personal independence and spiritual peace. Laozi told his disciples:
In the highest antiquity the people did not know they had rulers. In the next age they loved and praised them. In the next, they feared them. In the next they despised them. . . . As restrictions and prohibitions are multiplied in the Empire, the people grow poorer and poorer. When the people are subjected to overmuch government, the land is thrown into confusion. . . . The greater the number of laws and enactments, the more thieves and robbers there will be. Therefore the sage says: “So long as I do nothing, the people will work out their own reformation.”
Knowledge had no honor in this philosophy; Laozi denounces it with all the fervor of Rousseau. If there were less education, he thought, there would be fewer rascals. Nothing could be more disastrous than letting philosophers rule; they would meddle with everything. “He who tries to govern a state by wisdom is a scourge to it.” Ability in making theories is a sign of incompetence in practice; “they who know don’t talk; they who talk don't know.” (George Bernard Shaw would be chagrined to find how old his opinion of teachers is.)
Knowledge is unnatural, but truth and happiness are only to be found in natural things. There is a law, a Way or Dao, in nature; and the secret of perfection lies in the obedience of everything to its own nature, and to the nature of the whole, even to the praising of inaction:
Leave all things to their natural course and do not interfere. . . . Do nothing by self-will, but rather conform to the Infinite Will, and everything will be done for you. . . . (The) Dao is eternally inactive, and yet it leaves nothing undone. If kings and princes could but hold fast to this principle, all things would work out their own reformation. If, having reformed, they still desired to act, I would have them restrained by the simplicity of the Nameless Dao. The simplicity of the Nameless Dao brings about an absence of desire. The absence of desire gives tranquility. And thus the Empire will rectify itself. . . . Activity conquers cold, but stillness conquers heat. Purity and stillness are the correct principles for mankind.
At every turn, we find in Laozi a remarkable agreement with Christ:
Requite injury with kindness. . . . To the good I would be good; to the not-good I would also be good, in order to make them good. With the faithful I would keep faith; with the unfaithful I would also keep faith, in order that they may become faithful. . . . He who has no faith in others will find no faith in them.
Keep behind, and you shall be put in front. He that humbles himself shall be preserved. He that bends shall be made straight. He who is great makes humility his base. He who, conscious of being strong, is content to be weak—he shall be the paragon of mankind.
To know, but to be as not knowing, is the height of wisdom. The sage knows what is in him, but makes no display; he respects himself, but seeks no honor for himself. . . . All things in nature work silently. They come into being and possess nothing. They fulfil their function and make no claim. . . . All things alike do their work, and then we see them subside. When they have reached their bloom, each returns to its origin. Returning to their origin means rest, or fulfilment of destiny. This reversion is an eternal law. To know that law is wisdom.
We do not know when Laozi died but if we may believe Sima Qian, the old Chinese historian, he lived at least till 517 B.C.E., when, in his eighty-seventh year, he was visited by a teacher called Kong Fuzi, who was destined to become the central figure in the history of China. The younger man was then absorbed in historical research, and asked Laozi to tell him of ancient kings and of primitive religion; to which Laozi answered scornfully:
Those about whom you inquire have moulded with their bones into dust. Nothing but their words remain. When the hour of the great man has struck he rises to leadership; but before his time has come he is hampered in all that he attempts. I have heard that the successful merchant carefully conceals his wealth, and acts as though he had nothing—that the great man, though abounding in achievements, is simple in his manners and appearance. Get rid of your pride and your many ambitions, your affectation and your extravagant aims. Your character gains nothing for all these. This is my advice to you.
The greatness of Kong Fuzi shows out at once in his acceptance of the reproof. He heard the voice of authentic wisdom in the old master’s words, and made no complaint at the stern reception given him. Instead, he said to his disciples:
The birds—I know they can fly; the fishes—I know they can swim; the wild beasts—I know they can run. The runner may be caught by the trap, the swimmer may be taken with a line, and the flyer may be shot by an arrow. But there is the dragon—I cannot tell how he mounts on the wind through the clouds, and rises to heaven. Today I have seen Laozi, and can compare him only to the dragon.
And then the new master went forth to fulfill his own mission as the most influential philosopher in history and to become known in the West as Confucius.