The Laozi Philosophy (Lao Tzu)
: when examining the philosophy of Laozi it should not surprise the reader that like Homer, he is half a myth and only half a man.
Some, like A.C. Graham, argue that the works of Laozi are but the amalgamation of various different legends, while others like Sima Qian of the Han dynasty subscribe to a more unifying picture of the old master.
Just about every aspect of his life and philosophy is open to interpretation, far too many to expound upon in one video.
So if the information laid out here is slightly different than what another has said then know that this is par for the course when examining a text that dates back to the 6th-century B.C.E.
Even by 100 B.C.E very little to no factual evidence was available to substantiate the life experiences of Laozi.
We are told that he was born a native of the Chu, a southern state in the Zhou dynasty; here he lived for a substantial amount of time even serving as keeper of archival records at the court.
It was here, probably, that he met Confucius
who is said to have traveled to Luo Yang for the purpose of advising him on certain ritual matters.
It was not until he left the Chu and met YinXi, an official in charge of the northwestern Chinese border, that Laozi would write the doctrine that would inspire all of China for thousands of years.
Upon its production was simply called the Laozi, to name a book after its author was common practice in early China.
It was not until later on that the book would gain the title which many recognize by today the Dao.
De Jing roughly translated to the classic of the way and virtue.
It is concerned with the Dao or way, and how it finds expression in virtue, De, especially through what the text calls naturalness, ziran, and non-action, wuwei.
After finishing the book Laozi set off, nobody knows where he went, but what the old master left behind would inspire
a thousand books of commentary in its honor.
When we look at the Chinese character for Dao, we find that it suggests heading in a certain direction along a path, “the great Dao is very even,” said Laozi, “but people like to take byways.”
Thought metaphorically we can see that he alludes to the proper way that life should be lived and the methods which lead us to or away from such a way of life.
Though it should be known that the Dao De Jing is clear and expressing that this character is no more than a symbol.
What Dao is cannot be captured by the language it is nameless, formless, and indescribable.
It is the beginning of all things, an absolute entity that is the source of the universe.
Dao should not be mistaken for a being in and of itself, but rather transcendent of all beings.
The concept of “Wu” is used here meaning “nothingness” or “non-being.”
In terms of Daoist cosmology, it is unclear whether or not the Dao De Jing promoted a fully developed yin-yang cosmological theory, but what is clear is its intent to demonstrate simply that two would not be possible without one, in other words, material things would not be possible without Dao.
Here we have another term open to many different interpretations but we will take it to mean virtue, and as ambiguous as that may seem it will serve to make clear its relation to Dao De is in its essence a response to the question of human nature, what the Dao De Jing seems to be conveyed here is not a virtue obtained through conscious effort, but instead a virtue inherent in all human beings.
This inherent quality, when fully realized, is what allows us to better conform to the Dao it is through Ziran and Wuwei that we are able to abolish undesirable traits such as pugnacity and acquisitiveness so as to uncover the De that lies beneath.
“Ziran” can be roughly translated to mean “naturalness” and it serves to describe the workings of the Dao by emphasizing how the Dao finds expression in nature.
It also gives us context to the way that life should be lived according to the ways of nature, the further we move away from a state of naturalness by performing self-serving deeds to the end of satiating our own desires, the further we move away from virtue.
If Ziran is how we uncover our “De” then “Wuwei” is how we uncover “Ziran.”
“Wuwei” is roughly translated to “non-action” and what it describes is how we may achieve naturalness.
Though it should be known that by “non-action” the Dao De Jing does not mean complete passivity, but rather abstinence from self-serving actions and desires.
While it is often connected with practices such as quietude and emptiness we should think of “Wuwei,” not as a guide to particular practices, but as a mode of being or general ethical orientation that guides our actions.
It is only through the application of “Wuwei” that we are able to progress towards “Ziran” and thus towards alignment with Dao.
The Dao De Jing calls on us to recognize and understand the relativity of knowledge and value.
It describes the implications of discriminating based on the assumed value of a given trait such as when we ascribe beauty to one individual and hideousness to another, or when we ascribe rarity to one mineral and worthlessness to another.
This distinction gives rise to discrimination based upon inferiority and superiority which can have all kinds of social and political repercussions.
It is important to note that what we see here is not a recommendation to abolish all distinction, but rather a recommendation for a return to a life of natural simplicity.
When “Ziran” is complete the individual of Dao, finally free from desire, realizes their authentic De and finds fulfillment.
Much of what we find in the Dao De Jing is ambiguous and culturally specific, but its groundbreaking innovation and Formative insight allows it to remain relevant even now roughly 3000 years after its creation.
It gives to us a defensible solution to the timeless problems of pride, desire, and discrimination; it forces us to evaluate not only
the values which are so deeply ingrained in our own consciousness but also the societal values that guide and dictate so much of our lives.
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