The Sayings of Lao Tzu

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The Sayings of Lao Tzu

By Lionel Giles


WITH rare modesty and intelligent self-appreciation, Confucius described himself as "a transmitter, not a maker, one who loved and believed in the ancients." This judicious estimate fairly sums up the position of China's most prominent teacher. Incalculable though his influence has been over millions of the human race, it is due rather to his sterling common sense backed by the moral strength of his character, than to any striking intellectual power or novelty in his ideas.

But some fifty years before the time of Confucius there lived another great Chinaman, who, besides being a lover of antiquity, takes high rank as a profound and original thinker. Apart from the thick crop of legend and myth which soon gathered round his name, very little is known about the life and personality of Lao Tzu, and even the meagre account preserved for us in the history of Ssu-ma Ch‘ien must be looked upon with suspicion. All the alleged meetings and conversations with Confucius may safely be rejected, not only on account of chronological difficulties, but because they are exactly the sort of invention which would to likely to pass current in an early and uncritical age. We need not, however, go so far as those who impugn the very existence of Lao Tzu as an individual, and regard the book which passes under his name as a mere collection of scraps of ancient proverbial philosophy. Some colour, indeed, is lent to this theory by the uncertainty that attaches to the proper interpretation of the name Lao Tzu, which is variously explained as (1) Old Boy, because he is said to have been born with a white beard (but we may rather suspect that the story was invented to explain the name); (2) Son of Lao, this being the surname of the virgin mother who conceived him at the sight of a falling star; or (3) Old Philosopher, because of the great age at which he wrote his immortal book, the Tao Tê Ching.

The mention of this classic, or "Treatise of the Way and of Virtue" (as it may be translated for want of better English equivalents), brings us naturally to the vexed question as to whether the text which has come down to us can really be attributed to the hand of Lao Tzu, or whether it is not rather a garbled and unauthorised compilation of his sayings, or even the mere forgery of a later age. The Chinese themselves, it may be remarked, are almost unanimous in denying its authenticity. It has been urged that we must make allowance here for Confucian bias; but the internal evidence alone should suffice to dispel the notion, to which many eminent sinologues have clung, that the Tao Tê Ching in its present form can possibly represent the actual work of Lao Tzu. On the other hand, it is highly probable that much of it is substantially what he said or wrote, though carelessly collected and pieced together at random. Ssu-ma Ch’ien, who published his history in 91 B.C., and was consequently removed from Lao Tzu by a much longer period than we are from Shakespeare, tells us that the Sage wrote a book of five thousand and odd words; and, indeed, by that time the Tao Tê Ching may possibly have existed in something like its present shape. But anyone who reflects on the turbulent condition of China during the intervening centuries, and the chaotic state of primitive literature before the labours of Confucius, to say nothing of the Burning of the Books in 213 B.C., will find it hard to convince himself that Ssu-ma Ch’ien ever had before him the actual writings of the philosopher.

Arbitrary and confused though the arrangement of the Tao Tê Ching appears, it is possible to trace a coherent line of thought throughout the whole. And although no coiner of paradox on such an extensive scale as Lao Tzu could hope to achieve absolute and invariable consistency, it is easy to see that the Tao Tê Ching is something more than a mere jumble of stray aphorisms--that it is, in fact, the well-defined though rudimentary outline of a great system of transcendental and ethical philosophy. That this magnificent scheme of thought never reached its full expression in Lao Tzu's treatment is largely due to the fact that he was perpetually struggling to convey his ideas through the medium of a language still imperfectly developed, and forming an inadequate vehicle for abstruse philosophical conceptions. This, too, combined with an extraordinary conciseness of diction, is the cause of the obscurity which hangs over several portions of the text, and which the labours of innumerable commentators have done very little to clear away. To the wide scope thus afforded for the imagination we owe the startling discoveries, in the body of the work, of the Doctrine of the Trinity, and of the Hebrew word for Jehovah, thinly disguised in its Chinese dress. Sad to say, both of these once famous theories are now totally discredited.

The real value of the Tao Tê Ching lies not in such puerilities, but in its wealth of suggestive hints and pregnant phrases, each containing a world of thought in itself and capable of expansion into volumes. Whether Lao Tzu ever developed the germs of thought thrown out with such prodigality, we do not know. At any rate, no record of the development remains. And if Lao Tzu failed to work out his own system, the task was never satisfactorily accomplished by those who came after him. It is true that an enormous superstructure of Taoist literature has been raised upon the slender foundation of the Tao Tê Ching, but these Taoist writers soon forsook the austerity of Lao Tzu's way for the more attractive fields of ritual and magic. Lao Tzu was a Socrates who never found a Plato or an Aristotle to reap the goodly harvest he had sown; even Chuang Tzu, the greatest of his followers, whose exquisite literary style contrasts strangely with the rugged sentences of the Tao Tê Ching, scarcely seems to have caught the true spirit of his Master, and is apt to lose himself in the vague speculations of a dreamy mysticism.

Lao Tzu's work, however, was able to command attention on its own merits. It was first officially recognised as a "canon" or "classic" under the Emperor Ching Ti (B.C. 156-140) of the Han Dynasty, after which the study of Tao survived many vicissitudes, being now under a cloud, and now again in high favour at Court. One Emperor was in the habit of holding forth on the doctrines of Lao Tzu before his assembled ministers, and would forthwith degrade any one who stretched, yawned, or spat during his discourse. Another published an edition of the Tao Tê Ching, which is described in the preface as "the root of all things, the teacher of kings, and the most precious jewel of the public." The first Emperor of the later Chin dynasty asked if Tao was of any use in government. Chang Ch‘ien-ming told him that "with Tao a corpse could govern the Empire." By successive edicts the Tao Tê Ching was made obligatory at the examination for graduates of the second degree, every one was required to possess a copy of the work, and it was cut on stone at both capitals. Later on, printed copies were distributed to all directors of education, and it was translated into the language of the Nü-chên Tartars. Finally, Kublai Khan ordered all Taoist books to be burnt, with the exception of the Tao Tê Ching, thus showing a just appreciation of the gulf separating Lao Tzu from the later writers on Tao.

In view of the disjointed and inartistic character of the work, and its antagonism to many of the principles of orthodox Confucianism, it is small wonder that native scholars, with true Chinese subordination of matter to form, seldom profess to hold it in great esteem; and, indeed, its qualities are not such as would strongly appeal to an essentially hard-headed and materialistic race. Yet, on reflection, it will certainly appear that the teaching of Lao Tel has not been barren of practical results. The great political lesson of laisser-faire is one that the Chinese people has well assimilated and perhaps carried to excess; it may even be said to impregnate their national life more thoroughly than any doctrine of Confucius. From two great evils of modern civilisation--the bane of over-legislation and the pest of meddlesome and overbearing officialdom--China is remarkably free; and in few other countries does the individual enjoy such absolute liberty of action. Thus, on the whole, the Chinese may be said to have adopted Lao Tzu's main principles of government, with no small success. It is hard to believe that a rigidly despotic Empire, encumbered with an irksome array of laws and statutes, could have remained homogeneous and intact throughout so lengthy a period. Who can doubt that the enormous bulk of China has managed to defy the disintegrating action of time by reason of its very inertness and placidity? It has been suggested that Lao Tzu may have reached this doctrine of non-interference by observing that the Supreme Power, Tao, governs the Universe by fixed laws, and yet leaves to man an apparently unrestricted freedom of will. Be this as it may, he was undoubtedly the first man to preach the gospel of peace and intelligent inaction, being in this, as in many other respects, far in advance of his age.

In those troublous times, when the land was torn by internecine feuds, and the spirit of militarism was rife, it is not a little remarkable to find him expressing unqualified abhorrence of war, though, to be sure, this was but the logical outcome of his system of quietism. Few can help being struck by the similarity of tone between the sayings of Lao Tzu and the Gospel enunciated six centuries later by the Prince of Peace. There are two famous utterances in particular which secure to Lao Tzu the glory of having anticipated the lofty morality of the Sermon on the Mount. The cavillers who would rank the Golden Rule of Confucius below that of Christ will find it hard to get over the fact that Lao Tzu said, "Requite injury with kindness," and "To the not-good I would be good in order to make them good." It was a hundred and fifty years later that Plato reached the same conclusion in the first book of the Republic.

It is interesting to observe certain points of contact between Lao Tzu and the early Greek philosophers. He may be compared both with Parmenides, who disparaged sense-knowledge and taught the existence of the One as opposed to the Many, and with Heraclitus, whose theory of the identity of contraries recalls some of our Sage's paradoxes. But it is when we come to Plato that the most striking parallels occur. It has not escaped notice that something like the Platonic doctrine of ideas is discoverable in the [paragraph continues]"forms" which Lao Tzu conceives as residing in Tao. But, so far as I know, no one has yet pointed out what a close likeness Tao itself bears to that curious abstraction which Plato calls the Idea of the Good. The function and attributes of this grandiose conception are not set forth quite so fully or clearly as those of Tao, but it certainly covers a great deal more than the ordinary moral connotation of our word "good." * It is at once the creative and sustaining Cause of the Universe, the condition of all knowledge, and the Summum Bonum or supreme object of man's desire. Being a metaphysical entity, it cannot be perceived by the eye or ear of sense, and is therefore ridiculed by the inferior man of little intelligence, while only the few can enter into close communion with it. Now, all of this might stand equally well as a description of Tao. On the other hand, the inactivity and repose which are so insisted on by the Chinese thinker as the primary characteristics of Tao, would have been less intelligible to the Greek, and seem to bring us nearer to Buddhism.

The lack of reliable information about Lao Tzu is very disappointing. One cannot help wishing that some of the less important details touching the life of Confucius could be exchanged for an authentic personal account, however brief, of his older contemporary. All that we know for certain is that, after having spent most of his life in the State of Chou, he set out at an advanced age towards the West, passed the frontier, and was never heard of again. Thus Lao Tzu's gigantic figure looms but indistinctly through the mist of ages, and to gather some idea of his personality we must be content to fall back on his own rough-hewn sentences. There is one striking passage in which he describes himself, half sarcastically and half in earnest, as a dullard and a clown compared with ordinary men, and this, he seems to indicate, is the result of his adherence to Tao. These words, evidently written in great bitterness of spirit, may have been wrung from him by a sense of his failure to convert the careless generation which would have none of the Tao he venerated as the most precious thing under heaven. In showing himself, the man of Tao, in such a disadvantageous light, his meaning was probably much the same as that of Plato in the allegory of the Cave, where he depicts the blindness and bewilderment of those who descend once more into the darkness of their prison after having contemplated the dazzling brilliance of the sun.

Lao Tzu's despondency would have been greater still, could he have foreseen how his pure and idealistic teaching was destined to be dragged in the mire of degrading superstition, which for centuries has made Taoism a byword of reproach. Though frequently described as one of the "three religions of China," this cult is really little more than an inextricable mass of jugglery and fraud, absorbed from various popular beliefs and other sources, including even the rival creed of Buddhism, and conducted by a body of priests recruited from the very dregs of the Empire. Such a fate, however, is less to be wondered at than deplored, seeing that the great Founder himself took no pains to establish a practicable system. He propounded lofty sentiments, and neglected the homely details without which his ideas could not bear fruit. Moreover, when all is said and done, idealism can never hope to hold its own in human affairs, until indeed the new era dawns of which Plato dreamed long ago, and this world of ours becomes ripe for the dominion of Philosopher-Kings.

     June 21, 1904.

16:* Lao Tzu, like Plato, recognizes very little distinction between Knowledge and Virtue, the rational and moral sides of man's nature. Virtue with him is simply the knowledge of Tao, just as with Plato it is the knowledge of "the Good."



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