Lao Tzu (Dates Uncertain c. 6th Century BC) The Naturalist and Green Environmental Specialist

~ A stone sculpture of Laozi, located north of Quanzhou at the foot of Mount Qingyuan

Life and Times

Little is known of the philosopher Lao-tzu. His name for one is not his real name. ‘Lao-tzu’ literally means ‘old master’ in Mandarin. The existence of such a figure in Chinese history is clouded but many believe him to be the older contemporary of Confucius. The Great Historian Sima Qian did write of such a figure in his monumental work called the ‘Historical Records’.

According to historical sources, Lau-tzu was a man that lived in northern China. For a time, he was a historian (or curator) of the official achieves in one of the provinces of China. Some say that he was married and had a son named Tsung who later became a general in the state of Wei.

Legend has it that Lao-Tzu left the court in search of solitude and peace as the Zhou dynasty of China went into decline. At the last pass of the Western border of China, the imperial guards who recognized him asked him for a record of his teachings. As a result of their request, Lao-tzu wrote the Tao dejing and continued his journey West (Atkinson, 2011). He was never heard of again.

The Tao dejing is a very short book. It contains less than six thousand Chinese characters and it is regarded as the first philosophical work in Chinese history (Yu-Lan, 1976). The Tao dejing is one of the most frequently translated Chinese book in the West. Due to its poetic method and cryptic style of writing, the Tao dejing has many different intepretations (Hart, 2000). The lack of punctuations and grammatical markers in ancient Chinese writings makes interpreting the Tao dejing a worthy challenge (Ryden, 2008).

Lao-tzu through the Tao dejing has been regarded by many Chinese to be the founder of the Taoist movement. A religion has developed out of the teachings of Lao-tzu that bears not similarities with the original teachings contained within the Tao dejing. Taoism as a philosophy is very different from Taoism as a religion. Taoist philosophy advocates going back to the natural order of things while Taoist religion is superstitious and obsessed with immortality and in maintaining one’s youth.

Taoism, both as a philosophy and as a religion remains very influential in the lives of many Chinese. Taoism has influenced the Buddhist development in China and also Zen Buddhist in Japan.

Main Ideas:

  1. Everything is the universe flows or progresses according to its natural order or Tao (translated as the Way). The Tao is eternal, nameless, and the ultimate origin of everything (Cooper & Fosl, 2010).
  2. The natural order of the universe works by ‘reversion’. Anything that has gone too far in one direction will inevitably move in the opposite direction (Honderich, 2005).
  3. One should not work against the Tao but one should submit to the will of the Tao and work with it.
  4. The perceive state of ‘weakness’ of certain things enables it to thrive in the long run. Water with time erodes the hardest rock.


  1. One should live a simple life in accordance to the Tao.
  2. Violence, wealth and fame should be avoided. These desires will ultimately lead to loss.
  3. One should not seek to reform governments. The best form of government is one that is inactive and that allows the Tao to take its course.
  4. One should be non-assertive and let nature take its course.



Metaphysical Philosophy

The Tao cannot be explained and it cannot be taught. The Tao is elusive, ambiguous and obscure. Lao-tzu hints that the Tao can only be understood partially through intuition and feelings.


“The Way that can be told of is not the eternal way;

The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth;

The Named is the mother of all things .”


“He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.[1]

“One cannot learn the Way.

Looking at her, you will not see her; listening to her you will not hear her.

Vague and elusive is the Way.

Meet it and you will not see its head. Follow it and you will not see its back.”

The Tao is the source or origin of everything in the universe. 

“The Way generates the Unique;

The Unique generates the Double;

The Double generates the Triplet;

The Triplet generates the myriads things.

The myriad things recline on yin and embrace yang .”

The following three quotes from the Tao dejing shows that everything is defined by their opposites, absence or negation. It also shows that when any object or occurrence reaches its ‘extreme state’, it will reverse its course. Hence, the saying, ‘reversal is the movement of the Tao’. 

“Being and beingless generate each other;

Difficult and easy form each other;

Long and short shape each other;

High and low complete each other;

Note and voice match each other;

Front and back follow each other.”


“Only by bending can you be whole;

Only by twisting can you be straight.

Only by hollowing out can you be full;

Only by being used up can you be new.

Only by reducing can you obtain;

Only by having excess can you be tempted.”


“When the people of the world all know beauty as beauty,

There arises the recognition of ugliness.

When they all know the good as good,

There arises the recognition of evil.”


Moral Philosophy 

Lao-tzu advocated a sage philosopher as a model of the ideal man. This sage philosopher does not seek violence, fame, wealth and any other worldly pursuits.


“He does not reveal himself, therefore he shines brightly;

He does not affirm himself; there he radiates out;

He does not appropriate to himself, therefore he achieves.

He does not magnify himself, therefore he increases.”


“It is only because he does not compete that, therefore, under heaven there is none who can compete with him.[2]


“The five colors turn a man’s eyes blind;

The five notes turn a man’s ears deaf;

The five tastes turn a man’s palate dull.

There is no guilt greater than lavish desires.

There is no calamity greater than discontentment.

There is no defect greater than covetousness.

Therefore, he who is contented with knowing contentment is always contented indeed.”

The sage philosopher does not seek to change anything in his surrounding but goes with the flow of things and let nature take its course. 

“One may know the world without going out of doors.

One may see the Way of Heaven without looking through the windows,

The further one goes, the less one knows.

Therefore the sage knows without going about,

Understands without seeing,

And accomplishes without any actions.”


“The best man is like water.

Water is good; it benefits all things and does

not compete with them.

It dwells in lowly places that all disdains.

This is why it is so near to the Way.

The best man in his dwelling loves the earth.

In his heart, he loves what is profound.

In his associations, he loves humanity.

In his words, he loves faithfulness.

In government, he loves order.

In handling affairs, he loves competence.

In his activities, he loves timeliness.

It is because he does not compete that he is without reproach.”


“The great man dwells in the substance,

And does not rest with the superficial.

He dwells in the fruits of reality,

And does not rest with the flowers of appearance.”

In the two quotes below, Lao-tzu advocates that’s self-knowledge and honesty are important traits of a sage philosopher.

“To know others is wisdom; to know oneself is insight.”

“To conquer others is to have force; to conquer oneself is to be strong.[3]

“To know that you do not know is the best. To pretend to know when you do not know is a disease. Only when one recognizes this disease as a disease can one be free from the disease.[4]


“In contrast with Confucianism, Lao-tzu does not support rites, rituals, ceremonies and traditions. Lao-tzu advocates going back to the primal state of humanity and regards the accepted social etiquette and norms as a form of hypocrisy and artificial man-made rules that are detrimental to society.”


“Ceremonials are the degeneration of loyalty and good faith, and are the beginnings of disorder of the world.”

Political Philosophy

For Lao-tzu, minimal government intervention is best for the state. People should be free to conduct their affairs. His laissez faire approach is similar to modern day free market economic theories.

“Governing a large country is like steaming a small fish.”


“The Sage governs the people by

Purifying their minds,

Filling their bellies,

Weakening their ambitions and

Strengthening their bones.

He always keeps them innocent of knowledge and desires,

And makes the crafty afraid to run risks.

He conducts affairs on the principle of take-no-action.

And everything will surely fall into order.”

According to Lao-tzu, competition is the source of conflict and disagreement. One should always try to remove temptation from the eyes of the people. In the quotes below, Lao-tzu seems to suggest to keep the citizens of the state ignorant. 

 “The good fellow does not have much; the fellow with much is not good.[5] Difficulty in governing people comes from their knowing too much.[6] By knowing nothing, the people will be free of desires. Being free of desires, they will be tranquil, and the world will of itself be rectified![7]


“Try not to exalt the worthy, so that the people shall not compete.

Try not to value rare treasures, so that the people shall not steal.

Try not to display the desirable, so that the people’s hearts shall not be disturbed.”


“In the quote below, Lao-tzu rejects Legalism and the imposition of more laws and regulations to govern a state.”


“The more prohibitive enactments there are in the world,

The poorer the people will become;

The more sharp weapons men have,

The more troubled the state will be;

The more laws and orders are made prominent,

The more robbers and thieves will spring up. ”

Lao-tzu himself is a pacifist. The Tao dejing is littered with passages that condemn violence and a militaristic state. A general is just a mass murderer that is exalted for the number of murders he commits in the name of his country.

“Weapons are nothing but instruments of evil.

They are used only when there is no other choice.

Therefore, he who wins a battle is not praiseworthy.

If he thinks himself praiseworthy,

He delights in the victory.

He who delights in the victory,

Delights in the slaughter of men,

He who delights in the slaughter of men

Will not succeed under Heaven.

For the multitude killed in the war

Let us mourn with them with sorrow and grief.

For the victory won by force,

Let us observe the occasion with funeral ceremonies. 

When the world knows the Way,

Warhorses are used in farming.

When the world knows not the Way,

Even mares in foal have to serve in battle.”


“An adept commander will stop when he has achieved his aim.

He does not use force to dominate the world.

He achieves his aim but does not become arrogant.

He achieves his aim but does not boast about it.

He achieves his aim only because he has no other choice. ”


“Never seek to dominate the world with military force.

The use of force is intrinsically dangerous:

Wherever armies are stationed,

Briers and thorns grow wild.

As soon as great wars are over,

Years of famine are sure to afflict the land.”


Religious Philosophy

In contrast to Taoism as a religion, Taoism as a philosophy believes in allowing nature to take its course. Death is as natural as life and is part of the process of one’s existence. As a philosopher, there is no indication in the Tao dejing that Lao-tzu himself believed in a God (at least in the Western sense of the word). For Lao-tzu, the Tao is the beginning and end of everything. It is the origin and final resting place of all. The Tao has no emotions and is not an entity. It is simply the great pattern of nature that lives through its cycles and various forms.

“Human beings in life are soft and weak,

In death are always stretched, stiff and rigid.

All things come into being, and I see thereby their return.

All things flourish, but each one returns to its roots.”

“You speak of death as though it is a heavy and evil thing.

But is it not as natural to die, as it is to live?

Is it not as natural to walk in the lands of the dead,

As it is to walk in the lands of the living?”

“When you employ the Way to approach the world, ghosts will have no spirit. Or rather it is not that ghosts have no spirit, it is that their spirit cannot harm people.

Fear not the dead.”


The philosophy of Taoism contains many thoughts and ideas that are central to the Chinese way of living. Chinese proverbs like, ‘It is good to be neither too high nor too low’ comes from the Taoist believe of avoiding extremes (in case of reversals). 

Taoism may also be one of the reasons why individual Chinese do not take pride in entering the military. There is an old story of how a sad father’s fortune was reversed when his son could not be conscripted into the military after breaking his leg a few days before the conscription began. 

As for the Tao dejing itself, it remains as elusive as it ever was since it was written. The following quote seems to sum it all: How easily we can find our own image in the Daodejing! It is a magic mirror, always found to reflect our concept of the truth (Holmes, 1957).


Works Cited

Atkinson, S. (Ed.). (2011). The Philosophy Book. London, Great Britain: Dorling Kindersley Limited.

Cooper, D. E., & Fosl, P. S. (Eds.). (2010). Philosophy: The Classic Reading (1st Edition ed.). Oxford, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hart, M. H. (2000). The 100: A Ranking of The Most Influential Persons In History. New York: Hart Publishing Co. Inc.

Holmes, W. (1957). The Parting of the Way: Lao-tzu and the Taoist Movement. London: Methuen and Co.

Honderich, T. (Ed.). (2005). The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. New York, United States: Oxford University Press.

Daodejing. (2008). (E. Ryden, Trans.) New York, United States: Oxford University Press Inc.

Yu-Lan, F. (1976). A Short History Of Chinese Philosophy. (D. Bodde, Ed.) New York, United States of America: The Free Press.

[1] Daodejing, Chapter 56.

[2] Daodejing, Chapter 22.

[3] Daodejing, Chapter 33.

[4] Daodejing, Chapter 71.

[5] Daodejing, Chapter 81.

[6] Daodejing, Chapter 65.

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