There may or may not have been such a person as Lao Tzu (Lao Zi in the modern transliteration). “Lao Tzu” simply means “venerable sage”, so it’s not a personal name. None the less, Lao Tzu has always been considered the original author of the Tao Te Ching (modern version: Dao De Jing).
Lao Tzu is supposed to have been a contemporary of Sun Tzu and Kong Fu Zi (Confucius) (and, indeed, of Ezekiel, Pythagoras and Buddha). There are stories of Confucius consulting Lao Tzu for advice, but I suspect that these were made up long afterwards to enhance the status of Lao Tzu’s teachings versus Confucianism when the two philosophies became rivals.
If you read the Tao Te Ching, in any of its modern translations, it’s sometimes hard to grasp the meaning. It isn’t that the text has become very much mangled and corrupt during the two-and-a-half millennia that it has been copied and re-copied: the very oldest existing texts are older than 300 BC, and are much the same. It’s just that there are so many antique references and allusions that don’t mean much to most of us today. But the core of it still makes sense.
Makes sense in a strange, poetical kind of way, that is. Behind everything in the book is the concept of the Tao (“the Way”). The Tao is a kind of principle of existence, the essence of balance in the Universe, the natural “way” of life. Except it’s not. As the Tao Te Ching points out at great length “the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao”. It’s a concept that can’t be put into words, or even understood by rational thought.
You might think that for a relentless rationalist like myself, the Tao Te Ching would seem like a farrago of bullshit and double-talk, and so it does. But somehow, simultaneously, it’s been the only system of philosopy or metaphysics that speaks to me. And I’m not alone. People with a Western scientific background have been attracted to Taoism for over a hundred years. I think it was Nils Bohr who included the ying-yang symbol in the Danish coat of arms he was awarded to recognise his Nobel Prize in Physics.
You see, when I was a physicist, believing six impossible things before breakfast was child’s play, so it’s no problem taking on the spirit of the Tao Te Ching without getting bogged down in the literals. And, anyway, it’s full of good advice on how to live a serene and happy life.
- Force begets force.
- One whose needs are simple can fulfill them easily.
- Material wealth does not enrich the spirit.
- Self-absorption and self-importance are vain and self-destructive.
- Victory in war is not glorious and not to be celebrated, but stems from devastation, and is to be mourned.
- The harder one tries, the more resistance one creates for oneself.
- The more one acts in harmony with the universe, the more one will achieve, with less effort.
- The truly wise make little of their own wisdom for the more they know, the more they realize how little they know.
- Glorification of wealth, power and beauty beget crime, envy and shame.
- The qualities of flexibility and suppleness, especially as exemplified by water, are superior to rigidity and strength.
- Everything is in its own time and place.
- The differences of opposite polarities — the differences between male and female, light and dark, strong and weak, etc. — help us to understand and appreciate the universe.
- Humility is the highest virtue.
- Knowing oneself is a virtue.
- Envy is our calamity; overindulgence is our plight.
- The more you go in search of an answer, the less you will understand.
- Know when it’s time to stop.