Laozi and Heraclitus (3) Laozi


Laozi and the Tao te Ching — Introduction

It is difficult to know what precisely Laozi (also Lao Tzu) thought. Though according to legend he was the author of the Tao te Ching, scholars now know this isn’t the case. Stylistically, the various parts of the book differ too extremely from one another. In addition, some of the aphorisms in the book are known to have pre-dated the 6th century BCE when he is thought to have lived. The text is generally thought to have been completed in the 3rd century BCE. It may well be that going back in Chinese history, the aphorisms in the Tao te Ching became part of an oral culture, passed on among groups of Taoists (Kahenmark, 13-15) . The Tao te Ching is the most translated book in the world except for the bible. And there have been over 200 commentaries on the work since it was written (Kahenmark, 16). As I work through that scholarship on that book over the next year I will reshape this text. I’m largely, at least initially, just attributing the ideas of the Tao te Ching to the legendary Laozi. In those views, we find considerable similarities to the views of Heraclitus.

The Tao

Laozi is known for the emphasis on the Tao. Translated variously as the way, or nature’s way, there were two main characteristics. It was used as a verb “to direct,” “to guide,” or “to establish communication” (K, 22) As a noun it was used to refer to the order of nature familiar in the patterns of seasons and the alterations between night and day and so on. In this way, it has much in common with Heraclitus’ logos. The Tao was thought to reflect the complimentary oppositions of the yin and yang, principles of the cosmic order, which became associated with female and the male, the dark and the light, the cold and the hot, the damp and the dry. In Taoism, this idea of nature’s balancing of oppositions takes on a greater clarity than in the Heraclitian or ancient Greek world generally.

A focus of Laozi, however, becomes to guide or direct or show the way for individuals to establish communication with this cosmic order. Though we will see an ethics in Heraclitus, as he speaks of (sound thought, sound words, and sound action), the focus in Heraclitus is much more on theoretical knowledge than it is in Laozi. Laozi is a moral teacher and focuses on a form of life that will create the means of communication with the Tao, with nature’s Way.

Like Heraclitus, for Laozi the world isn’t static, though. It is in dynamic process; and the processes are cyclic (cp. K, 26). However, the character of these processes remains somewhat unclear.

The Unknowable Tao

As the Tao te Ching opens: “The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.” (Tao te Ching, 1)

The Tao is a reality with similarities to Kant’s thing-in-itself insofar as cannot be known in its ultimate sense. The unchanging Tao is beyond human categorization. The concepts we develop for it, and this would apply to those like Yin and Yang and the concepts that we use to describe its process, have a contingency and incompleteness.

The Tao as mother of all things

That said, the Tao te Ching goes on to describe quite a lot. “(Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all things.” (Tao te Ching, 1) Yet, while the Tao is the source of things, it also is not a separate creator: “All things depend on it for their production, which it gives to them, not one refusing obedience to it. When its work is accomplished, it does not claim the name of having done it. It clothes all things as with a garment, and makes no assumption of being their lord…” (Tao te Ching, 34).

Balancing oppositions

The Tao in the Tao te Ching, like the cosmos in Heraclitus, is viewed as fundamentally in process as oppositions are balanced. “The movement of the Tao by contraries proceeds” (Tao te Ching, 40). Or as Chapter 2 already notes: “All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what ugliness is; they all know the skill of the skilful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what the want of skill is.” On the one hand, here the emphasis is on the balance of oppositions in the world. On the other, the focus is also on the inevitability of oppositions for our conceptual understanding. We do not know the beautiful without a concept of the ugly, and so on.


Besides highlighting the oppositions with a greater clarity than Heraclitus, the Tao te Ching also focuses more on emptiness and nothingness in a manner that Heraclitus does not. “The Tao is (like) the emptiness of a vessel; and in our employment of it we must be on our guard against all fulness” (Tao te Ching, 4). Or, for a text emphasizing emptiness in multiple contexts: “The thirty spokes unite in the one nave; but it is on the empty space (for the axle), that the use of the wheel depends. Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness, that their use depends. The door and windows are cut out (from the walls) to form an apartment; but it is on the empty space (within), that its use depends. Therefore, what has a (positive) existence serves for profitable adaptation, and what has not that for (actual) usefulness” (Tao te Ching, 11). Nonbeing is as fundamental or more fundamental than Being in Toaism, as in Buddhism.

Back to Heraclitus

We see then many similarities here to the views of Heraclitus. In contrast to Heraclitus, Laozi, however, was not known for encouraging an empirical and rational critical outlook. Xunzi, the third century BCE Confucian scholar criticized him saying “Lao Tzu understood looking inward but knew nothing of looking outward” (Qtd. in Kahenmark, 20). Early sources maintain that he was gifted with a spiritual intuition. As noted in the Chaung Tzu, he, along with Kuan Yin “made [their teaching’s] basic principle the Permanent Unseen and its ruling idea the Supreme One. Their outward demeanor was gentle and accommodating; their inward principles were perfect emptiness and noninjury to all living creatures” (Chapter 33, Qtd. in Kahenmark, 21).

The epistemology at work in Laozi is more instrumentalist than realist. Named things have a contingent use value. But it is not through reflective analysis that we will know the law of balance of the Tao, or the order of the cosmos.

In fact, along with the focus on a spiritual intuition as leading to a more reliable kind of knowledge there is a focus on morality and politics. The harmony with the Tao is not achieved through discursive reason. Rather, it is achieved through a spiritual insight that gets us back beyond language, connected with an ethical life. In Heraclitus by contrast, we see a preeminent place for critical reason, for what he calls sound judgment. And this does not appear to be a matter of transcending rational reflection but of achieving it.


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