The Tao Te Ching is considered one of the most fundamental pieces of Chinese literature, written by Laozi between 403 BCE and 221 BCE during the Warring States Period. These years, marked by perpetual feudal warfare between city states within the central Chinese plains, were riddled with hostility, shifting coalitions, dishonored compromises, and conspiracy, the likes of which were previously unseen for hundreds of years. Accordingly, revolutionary technological advances in warfare — refined smelting techniques, more cost-effective weapons, etc. — were critical to the success of each of these entities, and increased both the efficiency and fatality of consolidating territorial power in the region. And while this period ended in 221 BCE with the Qin dynasty’s ascent to power, it was precisely between all the butchery and devastation of warfare that the Tao Te Ching proposed an alternative perspective on living: to exist in the brutal and ravaged yet unapologetically beautiful world with harmony, an unyielding flame of goodness and integrity.
Tabulated in 81 distinct yet interrelated verses, the text outlines a transcendental pathway (or Tao) through which we can embed ourselves into the very fabric of the universe, obtaining fulfillment and tranquility while simultaneously expelling egotism and self-destruction. So with this historical context in mind, in this paper I will analyze the core guiding principles prevalent throughout the Tao te Ching — namely harmony, human intelligence, and leadership — and pay special attention to how each of these themes relates to the social and chronological context in which the text was situated. Ultimately in doing so, I will probe both the basic values and beliefs of the Chinese society in which the text was produced and widely disseminated.
The first, and perhaps the principal value within the Tao te Ching is harmony, or cosmic balance. That is, living one’s life intertwined with — instead of opposed to — the surrounding world, of fundamentally understanding that each one of us is interconnected with everything else in existence, and that all of us are situated below the inescapable omnipresence of the Tao. In this way, the text contends that mankind is an infinitely small yet vastly critical component of the world’s grandiosity, and that individuals can attain some semblance of self-actualization through living in harmony – not solely in the social sense with other people, but also with Earth’s natural resources. Daoists then, understood that the world was perfect in and of itself, a path of non-action that subscribed to the ideal that the more they tried to intentionally accomplish something, the less their chance of success was. In their society, achievement and its fruits were bestowed upon only those individuals who had learned nature’s paradox, the ability to temper effort with patience, of first planting the tree of their future themselves and then letting nature spontaneously facilitate its growth. The Daoist deference to the environment demonstrated a deep satisfaction with living humble lives as farmers with no inclination to rise above the natural world’s unpretentiousness. Through living within their means and eliminating “unwarranted” desire, Daoists valued humility instead of anthropocentrism; they valued acting-less action, simply letting fate take its course unimpeded. Thus, they deferred themselves to the vastness of the universe while recognizing their integral part within it, believing that “if [they] wanted to become whole, let [themselves] be partial,” and “if [they] wanted to become straight, let [themselves] be crooked.” But they were also proponents of a universal Holism, that the world should be viewed as an entire dynamic unit rather than a collection of juxtaposed parts, that it is futile to demand one’s individual way on the world, because everything in existence — the stars, the trees, the rippling waves of the ocean — must adhere to the natural laws of the Tao that govern all.
Moreover, the text emphasized how human intelligence was by itself insufficient to comprehend the real source of the Tao. Instead, it implored its readers to “stop thinking, and end [their] problems,” to lack ambition, to be altruistic, yielding, and malleable in the pursuit of purity. But this line raised questions amongst philosophers about whether the text was ultimately defeatist, that even if we are unable to understand the complexity of the universe due to human limitations, should we make no effort at all? Are chemistry, philosophy, astronomy and evolutionary biology misguided in their pursuit of knowledge for its own sake? And even if there is no value to these fields, is it fair to go one step further and label them problematic, to renounce reason and understanding altogether, and to commit philosophical suicide? If taken literally, these lines in the Tao te Ching paint Daoist society as having been content with ignorance, as primitive and susceptible to totalitarianism, as wholly living in an idealized and abstract — but ultimately illogical — bubble opposed to modern civilization. But if these lines are taken instead as an argument for intellectual minimalism, to think less outside oneself and be more introspective, to forget about shortcomings and instead capitalize on strengths, then it presents Daoist society as having been a forerunner of modern Humanism.
Finally, it must be noted that both Daoist and Confucian ideology held notable presence in Chinese society, and highlighted the clear and present danger of centralized political power in the region. That being said, their clashing teachings in response to the same circumstances provided regional Chinese rulers with the opportunity to choose between political philosophies— further fragmenting Chinese society and extending the wars between city states to the realm of ideology. While Confucianism emphasized active involvement in governmental affairs through the Mandate of Heaven, which “legitimized regime change” and provided a divine incentive to withdraw support from wayward rulers, Daoism instead valued a laissez faire approach to politics. While Daoists also recognized the need for stable, powerful rulers spearheading their societies, the clear difference was that for them, an optimal king seldom interfered in the everyday lives of his people. Accordingly, the best form of action was non-action, as both ruler and commoner, and the most effective form of leadership was when “the people [were] hardly aware that [their leader existed].” But even though Daoists valued leaders who gave to others and elevated their people, the text raises a key distinction between philanthropy and a strive to gain their subjects’ approval — the former was considered noble and the latter extremely debilitating for efficient rulership. Thus, it is through the Tao te Ching that we can see a people that held fantastically high standards for their leaders: favoring those who served their subjects, maintained humanity and humility, showed genuine concern for others, and preserved society’s natural progression. But even further, Daoists valued rulers who at every fundamental level personified the Tao, who understood their place under the universal cosmic order, and realized the futility of opposing the natural will of the world.