Country: China

  1. Biography of Lao Tzu
  2. The Book "Lao Tzu"
  3. Simplicity and Naturalness
  4. The Biography of Lao Tzu

Biography of Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu, whose real name was Li Er, was a philosopher who lived around the 4th century BCE in ancient China. He is the author of the ancient Chinese text "Lao Tzu" (also known as "Tao Te Ching"), which is considered the canonical work of Daoism. The main concept in his philosophy is the "dao," which is metaphorically compared to water for its adaptability and invincibility. The resulting action that arises from the dao is "wu wei," which translates to non-action or non-striving. It emphasizes yielding, compliance, and the renunciation of desires and struggle. According to Lao Tzu, a wise ruler should reject luxury and war and instead guide the people back to the simplicity, purity, and ignorance that existed before the emergence of culture and morality.

The Book "Lao Tzu"

Out of the many thousands of books written in China, one is likely to be translated and read outside the country more frequently. This is a thin volume written over two thousand years ago known as "Lao Tzu" or "Dao De Jing" ("The Classic of the Way and Its Power"), which serves as the primary text on which Taoist philosophy is based. It is a subtle book written in an unusual and enigmatic style, allowing for multiple interpretations. The central idea revolves around the "Tao," which is usually translated as "the way" or "the path." However, the overall concept is somewhat vague, as "Lao Tzu" starts with the words: "The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name." Yet we can say that the Tao roughly means "nature" or "natural order." Daoism holds the view that an individual should not struggle against the Tao but adapt to it and work with it. Active striving for power is not only amoral but also foolish and meaningless. The Tao cannot be defeated; instead, everyone should strive to live in harmony with it. (Daoists may note that water, which is soft, formless, and yielding, flows effortlessly to low places, submitting without resistance even to weak forces, yet over time, it can erode solid rocks.)

Simplicity and Naturalness

For the individual, simplicity and naturalness are usually preferable. Violence should be avoided, as should the thirst for money or fame. A person should not seek to change the world but rather respect it. For governments, an inactive policy is usually wiser. There are already too many regulations in place. Creating new laws or harshly enforcing existing ones usually worsens the situation. High taxes, ambitious government programs, and military actions all contradict the spirit of Taoist philosophy. According to Chinese legend, the author of "Lao Tzu" was a man named Lao Tzu, who is said to have lived during the same time as Confucius. However, Confucius lived in the 6th century BCE, and some contemporary scholars believe that "Lao Tzu" was written earlier based on its style and content. There is serious debate about the date of the book's creation. (The "Lao Tzu" itself contains no mention of its author's identity, place, date, or historical event.) However, the year 320 BCE is well suited, with an error margin of about four years or perhaps less.

The Biography of Lao Tzu

This issue leads to a great deal of controversy regarding Lao Tzu's life and even his existence. Some believe the legend that Lao Tzu lived in the 6th century BCE and therefore conclude that he did not write "Lao Tzu." Other scholars consider him a mere hero of legend. The minority view, which is generally accepted, is as follows: 1) Lao Tzu was a real person and the author of "Lao Tzu"; 2) he lived in the 4th century BCE; 3) the story that Lao Tzu was a contemporary of Confucius is fabricated and was created by subsequent Taoist philosophers to give prestige to this person and his book. It is worth noting that neither Confucius (551-479 BCE), nor Mozi (5th century BCE), nor Mencius (371-289 BCE) mentioned Lao Tzu or the Tao Te Ching, but Zhuangzi, an important Taoist philosopher who lived around 300 BCE, constantly referred to him.

As the existence of Lao Tzu itself is debatable, we should tread cautiously with biographical details. However, there are reliable sources for the following statements: Lao Tzu was born and lived in northern China. He spent part of his life as a historian or custodian of official archives, probably in Luoyang, the capital of the Zhou dynasty. Lao Tzu is not the real name of this person but rather a title meaning something like "old master" in translation. He was married and had a son named Zhang, who later became a military commander in the Wei district.

While Taoism began primarily as a secular philosophy, it eventually evolved into a religious movement. However, while Taoism as a philosophy continued to be based mainly on the ideas expressed in "Lao Tzu," Taoist religion soon became filled with supernatural beliefs and customs that had little to do with Lao Tzu's teachings. If we assume that Lao Tzu was the author of "Lao Tzu," his influence on history is enormous. His book is very small in volume (less than six thousand characters in the Chinese language, almost the size of a single newspaper page!), but it contains much food for thought. A series of Taoist philosophers used it as a starting point for their own ideas.

In the West, "Lao Tzu" is a much more popular work than the writings of Confucius or any of his followers. There have been forty English translations of this book published, more than any other except the Bible.

In China itself, Confucianism is the dominant philosophy, and in cases where there is a clear conflict between the ideas of Lao Tzu and Confucius, the Chinese adhere to the latter's views. However, Lao Tzu is respected by followers of Confucius. Moreover, in many cases, Taoist ideas simply merge into Confucian philosophy and thus influence millions of people who do not consider themselves Taoists. It seems that Taoism has a significant impact on the development of Chinese Buddhist philosophy, especially Zen Buddhism. Although only a few people identify as Taoists, there is no other Chinese philosopher, apart from Confucius, who has had such a broad and profound impact on human thought as Lao Tzu.