A Journal for Western Man




Lao Tzu's Naturalistic Metaphysics,

Ethics, and Politics

Dr. Edward W. Younkins

Issue LXI- May 31, 2006



            Lao Tzu (Laozi), an older contemporary of Confucius, lived in the 6th century B.C., and is thought to be the founder of Taoism. The conjectured years of his life are 604-531 B.C. The legendary Taoist philosopher, whose name can be translated as the “Old Master,” wrote a manual of self-cultivation and government, as well as a metaphorical account of reality, called Daodejing (a.k.a. Tao te Ching)—translated  as “Book of the Way and Its Power” and recognized as a masterpiece in Chinese philosophy.

            Tao or Dao can be translated as “the Way” or the way nature is. It means a road or alternatively the process of reality itself. It is a pathway or a heading in a particular direction along a road. Referring to the natural flow of things, Tao counsels man to follow the course of nature and to seek the path of least resistance much like water does. It is the way of human life when it progresses in harmony with the universe. Actions taken in conformity with nature are more productive and easier to perform than attempting to go against nature. For Lao Tzu, nature encompasses natural phenomena, the spiritual, and the social including socio-political institutions.

            Tao is said to be the force that flows throughout all life and the one existing thing that connects the many things. The Tao underpins all things and sustains them. It is the source of the One within all as all existence derives its being from Tao. Tao is the life principle according to Lao Tzu. It is a name for the ground of all being. Tao, the origin and goal of things, antecedes the world and all differentiation.

            According to Lao Tzu, Tao is the source of original, necessary, undifferentiated qi-energy that brings forth and nourishes all entities. Tao is the beginning of all things. In actualizing itself, Tao posits objects, thereby producing the world. Qi-energy creates the universal yin and yang forces that then blend to produce the harmonic qi-energy that endows human beings. Tao is thus a fundamental creative process that is concurrently and paradoxically, a negating process conferring life but also reclaiming it. There is an ebb and flow of the forces of reality. For Lao Tzu, opposites, as evaluative-dichotomies, are interdependent, and play a prominent role in his pantheistic philosophy. Taoism expresses a materialist form of pantheism and denies the existence of a personal creator God. Gods play no role and exercise no influence in human lives.

            Te is the power or virtue that is spontaneously produced from Tao. Te, a descriptive term, is power or virtue as in the healing virtue of certain plants. Te is the Tao at work. Lao Tzu teaches that there is no need for human tampering with the flow of reality and espouses “nonwillful action,” “effortless action,” and the ability “to act naturally.” A person should thus follow the way things spontaneously increase or decrease. “Inaction” permits a person to flourish and to attain happiness. The term “wu wei” means nonaction, or, more accurately, nonassertive action.  Wu wei is the core of Lao Tzu’s naturalistic ethics.  It involves men’s authentic actions while they perform as though not acting. Assertive use of the will is against the nature of Tao and its operation in the universe and is to be avoided. Nonassertive use of the will is preferable if it involves the resistance of someone’s assertive use of the will or if it is employed to advance Tao and its operations in the world. Lao Tzu explains that the operations of Tao are intrinsically determined and not brought about by assertive action or desire. It is only the assertive use of the will that interferes with the spontaneous evolution of Tao.

            Lao Tzu recommended withdrawal from society and retreat into contemplation. He set an ethical goal for the individual only in the retreat into the wisdom and values of the inner self. His ideal society is one in which people live in simplicity, harmony, and contentment, and are not bothered by ambition, desire, or competitive striving. Desires cause harmful relationships between the self and others and lead men to appropriate things for their own satisfaction. Desires are evoked by the attractiveness and variety of things. Lao Tzu counsels people to make their desires negligible, to minimize their personal interests, to limit and diminish the self and the self-other distinction, and to return the self to a state of primitive contentment. He denounces the gratification of one’s appetites and senses and the search for wealth and status. A person who lives according to his true being and nature will seek solitude and creative quietude and will act through freedom from desires, selflessness, softness, moderation, and openness to all things. He will follow a peaceful, simple, and frugal way of life—not searching for wealth, power, or fame. Such a person will reject intolerance, hatred, and unnecessary violence and will embrace love and harmony.  Lao Tzu is thus presenting a way of life by which a person could escape being harmed by the world.

            For Lao Tzu, causal evils bring about human suffering in the world. The human sufferings produced by causal evils are consequent evils. He explains that causal evils originate from the use of the human will. Causal evil results when a person asserts something in thought or action against his own nature, other individuals, or the natural world. Lao Tzu’s goal is to eliminate causal and consequent evils from the world. Life without such suffering is the ideal state of existence. He is talking about man-made sufferings and not natural ones. A natural death is to be welcomed but early, violent, and untimely deaths are to be prevented.

            Lao Tzu maintains that inaction is the proper function of government. He is concerned with realizing peace and sociopolitical order. He wants to allow each individual as much freedom as possible. It follows that a Taoist ruler will not use coercion or permit others to use it against peaceful people. The government must not assert its will against individuals to exploit, dominate, or interfere with them. Although rulers possess weapons, it is preferable that they are not used. It is apparent that Lao Tzu views politics within a larger ethical context. 

            He says that a good ruler is inconspicuous, humble, and demands nothing. Lao Tzu contends that codified rules and laws result in a society that is more difficult to care for. The more ordinances and laws, the more robbers and thieves there will be. When the state takes no action, the people of themselves will be transformed. When the government engages in no activity, the people will prosper. Lao Tzu says that life should be happy in a small state and that, without laws or compulsion, men would live in harmony.

            Lao Tzu disapproves of aggressive measures such as war, cruel punishment, and heavy taxation—which express a ruler’s own desire for power and wealth.  He cautions the ruler not to be oppressive with military strength. War is evil, brings suffering, and is a most assertive use of the will. Wars involve conflicts of wills, usually for wealth, power, or fame. To practice peace is to practice the Tao. Lao Tzu asks by what authority the ruler presumes to act upon others. He recommends the restraint of judges and observes that the internal violence of the state is embodied in cruel punishments – especially the death penalty. With respect to taxation, he says that the people starve because the ruler eats too much tax grain. Rulers thus prosper at the expense of the masses. Lao Tzu did not value competition and observed that exploitation or oppression of citizens by a ruler is a type of willful action or competition. He explains that peaceful actions do not require moral justification, but that coercive actions do require moral justification. Lao Tzu lived during a militant period and wanted to avoid constant feudal warfare and other conflicts.

            It is obvious that Lao Tzu viewed the state as a likely oppressor of the individual. He thought that any truth in government abides in nonaction and in weakness. The state should not be an organization of functionaries. Lao Tzu thus opposed a multitude of laws and thought that the state should and could control by means of noninterference. He observed that the fulfillment of others and of things results not from the prominence of a ruler’s virtues but from the withdrawal of self.

            Lao Tzu criticized the civilization of his own time because of its wars, government oppression, taxation, and the lofty values of human culture. He was skeptical with respect to utility of the artificiality and over-refinement of civilization. He was not totally opposed to technical and social contrivances. Lao Tzu did not completely dismiss technology, but he was worried that it may engender a false sense of progression.

            He says that the fall from the Tao is caused by government and society having lost the truth.  The fall from the Tao stems from desire, intention, and self-striving.  The use of free will can interfere with Tao. People, including rulers, should therefore avoid determined action and strong will. A person should be passive and not try to change anything. A sage would move and live naturally and would be empty of pretense and free from desires. He would not attempt to help life along or make a display of himself. A sage would claim moral ignorance, would understand the reversibility of things in the world, and would endeavor to create a peaceful atmosphere.

            Lao Tzu’s life-oriented philosophy advanced a doctrine of liberation of the individual through withdrawal. He speaks from the standpoint of perfection and eternity. In his radical naturalistic conception of the universe, individual happiness is the basis of a good society. He advocates nonaction both in personal fulfillment and in the sociopolitical order. His perfect ruler takes no willful action. In battle his principle is defense without aggression. He does not believe in revolution. Simplicity and spontaneity are keys to the truth. He says that nature does nothing but leaves nothing undone. Lao Tzu’s ethics advocates withdrawal from society, contemplation, and cultivation of internal virtues. As a quietist, he says man cannot solve social problems, but he can forsake them.

Dr. Edward W. Younkins is Professor of Accountancy at Wheeling Jesuit University. He is the author of Capitalism and Commerce: Conceptual Foundations of Free Enterprise [Lexington Books, 2002]. Many of Dr. Younkins's essays can be found online at his personal web page at www.quebecoislibre.org. You can contact Dr. Younkins at younkins@wju.edu.

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