Lao Tzu: Father of Taoism
Thinking about Lao Tzu within the context of his work.

Tao Te Ching
The major work of Lao Tzu and Taoism.

Religious is a well-produced resource about the varieties of religion. The article on Taoism is a valuable guide to the contemporary influences of Lao Tzu.



Lao Tzu

In sixth century BCE China, an important philosophical work was written. It is attributed to a philosopher who is called Lao Tzu, meaning 'Old Sage.' Scholars differ over who Lao Tzu was and even whether the Tao Te Ching was written by a single author, as opposed to a body of writings written by many and passed down through generations. Surely the Tao te Ching reads like a well-organized work with a focused intention, so it is reasonable to presume the single author theory, at least for the sake of discussion. Lao Tzu was contemporary with another great Chinese philosopher, Confucius. between them, these two men set the basis for Chinese intellectual, religious, and political culture.

The Tao (also spelled in and usually pronounced Dao) means The Path or The Way.
means Law or Power.
means Virtue or Goodness.
Taken together, the Tao Te Ching can be read as The Way and Law of Natural Goodness.

Now, there is one big problem with the above translation of the book's title: Lao Tzu intended the book to be about a topic that cannot be explained in words at all. The first lines of the book are;

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

Perhaps this sounds vague and mystical to you. But consider what these opening statements might mean and be based on - here is an interpretation.

Lao Tzu intends to address the eternal way, not a particular way of doing things that can be compared to others, but the way of the infinite universe itself. At the onset Lao Tzu shows that he regards the entire reality (all that has, does, and will exist) as being ordered into some eternal pattern or process. Everything in existence must be subject to that eternal way.

Language describes and expresses aspects of existence. While language is a powerful and flexible system, it may have limits. One such limit is the description of the entire reality. Now, we might think; "Why should there be a limit? In theory everything can be described, so with enough descriptions, language could cover the entire reality." This is a tempting thought. It is simply a matter of scale. Even though it may not be practical to try to create an infinite description of an infinite reality, it does seem possible in theory.

Yet, it must be noted that language consists of sounds, words, thoughts, and ideas. All of these, the building blocks of language, are contained within reality and are subject to it's processes. If language were to describe everything, it would have to describe itself as well. And that attempt would have to be captured in language also, and so on and on. That is, the effort to describe everything would create an infinite loop (or regress) that never completes itself. Directly put: language cannot fully describe all of reality because language is a part of that reality, and the part cannot contain the whole.

Thus, when Lao Tzu begins his investigations into the way of reality by warning that; "The name that can be named is not the eternal name" he is pointing out that there is a limit to language and a limit to thought. In the end, the lessons of the Tao te Ching must be experienced and lived. Throughout his work, Lao Tzu observes how language and thought can lead us astray, if we use them to contradict the natural processes of reality. Setting a limit to his words at the onset is a powerful philosophical foundation for the progression of his ideas.

An important lesson can be drawn from the above analysis: philosophers typically seek to provide a reasoned basis for their claims. Sometimes it is not obvious what that basis is, but it is never wise to assume that a philosopher is writing strictly from opinion or impulse. Lao Tzu' s thoughts are soundly based and intricately connected. This is one reason why his philosophical vision so successful survives.



IQ Home



Lao Tzu