Lao Tze for Contemporary society

Zenith of the Chinese political philosophy development was during the period of 春秋戰國時代, (Spring and Autumn – Warring States period) five to seven nations fiercely fought in order to be the inheritant of 周 and unite China under their name. In order to meet the dire needs of countless rulers, diverse philosophies developed. Some of them are so deep that I find their core principles applicable even to contemporary society.

Such application is possible perhaps because such theories had deep concerns about human nature and governing dynamics – the factors that won’t largely change over time. Political theorists at this age offered a whole new framework, rather than shallow and hand-on political techniques. Among 諸子百家 (Hundred Schools of Thoughts) in 春秋戰國時代, I would like to review 老子, in contemporary light.

Perhaps, 老子 (Lao Tze) is already really well-known in western world, along with his classical writing 道德經 and followingly created Taoism. However, most discussions about him seem to stay in level of metaphysical philosophy. Also, his image tends to be described as someone surreal and mysitcal in contrast to 公子 (Confucius) Yet, I suggest that his teachings are valuable to contemporary politicians.

Ideal ruler in theory 老子 is called 聖人. (Holy Man) The term is somewhat analogous to Superman of Nietzsche that he trenscended human limit. However, while Superman earned such status with relentless tries and battle, achievement of 聖人 is achieved mainly by letting things go. For very easy analogy, 老子 compares 聖人 to water:


上善若水. 水善利万物而不爭, 處衆人之所惡, 故幾於道. 居善地, 心善淵, 與善仁, 言善信, 正善治, 事善能, 動善時, 夫唯不爭故無尤. (Water harbours supreme goodness and is closest to 道, for it serves everything, not try to compete, and just flows to lower, unpreferable places. Wisdom of seeking low ground, mind of the depth, humane socialization, credible words, just ruling, dedicated serving, and timely movement. For it never competes, it never gets criticized.)


How natural is water? Its movement embodies rules of physics perfectly. In fact, 道, which becomes the prime measure of what is good and bad in theories of 老子 is a principle that runs cosmic cycle – the nature. Though we cannot conceptualize 道, we can always find the pattern and feel it intuitively. Thus, he specifically tells rulers to rule naturally, with least intervention:


太上不知有之, 其次親而譽之 … 功成事遂 百姓皆謂我自然 … 生之畜之 生而不有 爲而不恃 長而不宰 是謂玄德 (The best is to be not well known, the next best is to be revered … Let people say, “It was all naturally done, even after success … Give birth and raise, but don’t try to possess. Even you accomplish everything, don’t hang on it. Rule but don’t dominate. Such is the great virtue.)


While he wants us to be as natural as possible, he also wants us to avoid excessiveness, even if that is socially considered as good thing, because it could be unnatural:


虛而不屈, 動而愈出, 多言數窮, 不如守中 … 持而盈之, 不如其已, … 功遂身退, 天之道 … (Empty but limitless, more you move, more you show. Many words will only make you troubled. There is no better thing than keeping midway.)


絶聖棄智, 民利百倍. 絶仁棄義, 民復孝慈 … 絶學無憂 … 小卽得 多卽惑 (Stop pretentious knowledge, it benefits people by hundreds. Stop pretentious love, and people will recover compassion and filiality … Stop learning, and you have no worries … If you have little, you get. If you have a lot, you are coerced.


Complex and artificialized, our society seems to have lost what benefit simplicity gives. Maybe we must look back and try to discern whether what we believe as ‘good’ or ‘just’ today are actually shading bigger facts and greater goods.