The legendary Chinese theorist Laozi is associated with the long legacy of Daoism (or Taoism). But his work is famously elliptical and also difficult.


The Daodejing or Classic the Ways and also Powers is one of the most analyzed of all Chinese texts. That is traditionally attributed to the Daoist sage Laozi (also composed Lao Tzu),

At simply over 5000 personalities long, the Daodejing is a masterpiece the compression. But due come its brevity and its elliptical style, it has actually been check out in a multitude of different ways: as whatever from a mystical treatise to a hard-headed work about statecraft.

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But what around Laozi, the Daodejing"s purported author? The name “Laozi” literally means “Old Master.” The Chinese tradition says the Laozi"s provided name to be Li Er, and also some accounts do him a modern-day of Confucius. However, end the critical century scholars have increasingly actors doubt ~ above the historicity that Li Er. And even if there to be a historical individual dubbed Li Er, his link with the Daodejing is most likely tenuous.

The sage and the ox

But as usual, where history remains silent, story proliferate. The legend accounts make Laozi a librarian in the court of Zhou. It was a role that provided him time to read the thoughts of the ancients, and also thus to maintain wisdom. The historian Sima Qian tells united state Laozi eventually got sick of court life, and at the age of eighty top west come the frontier areas to live together a hermit. At the frontier, a guard apprehended the philosopher, refusing come let him take trip onwards till he had passed on his wisdom. So Laozi recited the Daodejing and the border-guard composed it down. Climate the Old Master ongoing on his means west, riding ~ above the ago of an ox, and he was lost to history.

Some accounts even go therefore far regarding say that after heading west indigenous China, Laozi ended up in India, whereby he ended up being a teacher that the Buddha. Like everything else around Laozi"s “biography”, there is no proof that any of this is true.

Ming empire (16th Century) relenten of Laozi moving the Daode Jing. Indigenous the freer Gallery of Art. Windy Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Philosophy: Dao and De

Ways and also words

Laozi"s text, the Daodejing, explores two ideas in particular: dao and de (sometimes created tao and te). Both are tricky come translate, and also both subject to considerable debate. The Daodejing begins with the renowned sentence :

The dao that you can dao is no the consistent dao.

The native dao in Chinese have the right to mean both “way” or “path.” yet it can additionally mean “to speak” or “to talk about.” for this reason one common means of translating the opened sentence is to take the an initial and third dao as definition “way” and also the second as an interpretation “to speak about”:

The means you deserve to talk around is not the constant way.

In this reading, the dao, the natural means of things, is something that escapes all our attempts come speak of it.

But there"s a problem here. As soon as translating dao into English as “the” dao, we threat imagining that the dao is some type of metaphysical entity: something big, important and deeply mysterious. However, the definite write-up does not exist in the initial Chinese. For this reason dao can median the dao, or a dao, or even daos, in the plural. This means that you could likewise translate the an initial line together follows:

Ways you can talk around are not continuous ways.

But there"s additionally another level that ambiguity together well, since it is possible to review the 2nd dao not as “to sayor “to talk about, however as a verb related to the noun “way or “path. analysis it favor this, “to dao” would median something prefer “to tread a path”, “to make your way”, or “to lead.” This would provide us something choose the following:

Ways you can tread are not consistent ways.

If you read it choose this, the text might be saying that the routes we take as we do our means through the world—the courses that remain open to us—are constantly subject to change. You can take a certain path today, but that same path might not be open tomorrow (this recalls Heraclitus"s insurance claim that girlfriend can"t step right into the same river twice). To keep on moving, if you room a skilful wayfarer, you require to have the ability to recognise the inconstancy of the paths you room on. You have to be vigilant. And you must be flexible. Due to the fact that if you rely on a pre-ordained and inflexible Way, you will almost certainly stumble.

Powers and potentials

The second concept in the Daodejing is de. In texts from the Confucian tradition, de is often translated together “virtue”; yet when it concerns Daoist texts favor the Daodejing, something prefer “potency” is closer to the mark. So you can read de as the potential or potential the a thing has actually by virtue of gift the type of thing that it is. The de of a fish is the potential it needs to be a fish, to perform fishy things. The de of a tree is the potential it has to exist—or even to flourish—as a tree. And so on.

The native de goes earlier to the Zhou empire where, according to the scholar Constance A. Cook, it described “a liquid inner force easily accessible only come those that participated in the genealogical worship system” (see referral below, p. 117). By the time the Daodejing was written, de had lost its link with ancestor worship. Yet it preserved this sense of within force and also potency. Therefore if we recognize it choose this, the aim of the Daodejing is come tell us exactly how to tread paths through an inconstant people whilst protecting our potency and also our force.

Unlike virtue, de is not something friend practice. The minute you begin thinking the de as something to it is in practised or something that you do, you lose sight that it. Instead, that is something that comes through enabling your potential to express itself through wuwei or non-action. Here"s how Edward Slingerland equates the passage in the Daodejing (translating de as “virtue”):

The greatest Virtue <de> walk not try to it is in virtuous, and so yes, really possesses Virtue.The worst sort of Virtue never stops striving for Virtue, and so never ever achieves Virtue.The human of greatest Virtue does not act <wu-wei> and does no reflect top top what he is doing.

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For the Daodejing, the optimal means of gift is enabling our de to fully express chin by refusing every kinds that forcing and also striving. Only when we eliminate ourselves indigenous striving can our de, or potency, it is in fulfilled. And then, complete of life, us can proceed on our own idiosyncratic way, making new pathways together we navigate our passage through the world.

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