Lao Tzu (c. 570 BC)

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Lao Tzu is remembered as the first philosopher of Taoism. He is often cited as a contributor to, if not the author of, the Tao-te Ching, the basic philosophical discourse on Taoism. His life is shrouded in mystery and legend, but it is generally accepted that he was active sometime in the early sixth century B.C. and served as a resident scholar, called a shih, at the royal court of the Shou. By the seventh century A.D. he was worshipped as an imperial ancestor by the T'ang and regarded by commoners as the equivalent of a Western saint, or demigod. Legend says that an aged Lao Tzu upbraided a young and overconfident Confucius and that the young man later compared Lao Tzu to a dragon rising in the sky, riding on the winds and clouds.

Taoism, the philosophy of Lao Tzu, posits the existence of an ultimate reality, beyond the description of words, that is the moving force of the universe. Corruption and degradation occur in the perceived world when objects and men move in opposition to this primal force, called the Way, or Tao. The object of the Taoist is to meditate on this ultimate reality in order to understand its direction and to lead a life in conformity with nature. Such a life of serene contemplation and material simplicity stands in marked contrast to the Confucian life of active public service. Nonetheless, Confucianists regard Lao Tzu as an important philosopher and even a contributor to their own philosophy.

Lao Tzu's work on Taoism is primarily an instruction for rulers. It says, for example, that the rule of the prince should go unnoticed by his subjects if he rules in conformity with the way of the universe. This ancient philosophy invites comparison with Adam Smith's "invisible hand," but the Tao is largely spiritual rather than material in focus. Nevertheless, Lao Tzu did argue that a people ruled lightly in accordance with the Tao will become peaceful and prosperous. Moreover, the Tao says that concerns about government and its intrusiveness are common to all peoples and all times.

Taoism spread over much of Asia and is thought by some to have had a small influence on the Buddha through a fertile exchange with Hinduism in India. Before the Cultural Revolution, Taoism, along with Confucianism and Buddhism, was considered one of the three primary intellectual forces shaping Chinese thought.


Works by the Author

Tze, Lao. The Wisdom of Laotze. Translated by Lin Yutang. New York: The Modern Library, 1948.

Works about the Author

Robert A. Ballou, Friederich Spiegelberg, and Horace L. Friess, eds. The Bible of The World. Edited by Robert A. Ballou, Friedrich Spiegelberg, and Horace L. Friess. New York: The Viking Press, 1939.


The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.

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