Born in the Chinese province of Henan, Lao Tzu lived from c. 604-c.531 BCE.
He was a philosopher attributed with the writing of the Tao-Te-Ching and the reputed founder of Taoism. (“Tao” meaning the way of all life, “Te” meaning the fit use of life by all men, and “Ching” meaning text.) Lao Tzu was not his real name but rather an honorary title given to him by his followers meaning “Old Master”.
Lao Tzu believed that human life is constantly influenced by outer forces; not unlike everything else in the universe. He knew that simplicity was key to all truth and freedom. He always encouraged those who followed him to observe and to seek to understand the laws of nature. Lao Tzu believed that one should develop intuition and build up personal power, which would then be used to lead life with love sans force.
As he often contemplated the natural world, Lao Tzu felt that it was man and his doings that created an affliction on the otherwise flawless order of things. Thus he counseled his followers to turn away from the silliness of human pursuits and to return to their natural wellspring.
Lao Tzu taught that straining and striving are not only useless but also counterproductive. One should venture to do nothing in the sense of discerning and following the natural forces; to follow and shape the natural flow of events. All this is known as the Taoist doctrine of wu-wei. It can be understood as a way of mastering circumstances by understanding their nature and then shaping ones actions to comply.
The Taoist philosophy followed an interesting circle. On one hand, that Taoists rejected the regulation of life and society and preached instead to turn away from it to a solitary meditation of nature. On the other hand, they believed that by doing this one could ultimately have power enough to harness the whole universe. That by doing “nothing” one could accomplish “everything”.
In this way Lao Tzu’s philosophy reached out to political rulers and advised them of how to govern their land. Thus Taoism, in a sense became a sort of political philosophy following these lines: “The Taoist has no ambitions, therefore he can never fail. He who never fails always succeeds. And he who always succeeds is all-powerful.”
According to legend, nearing the end of his life, Lao Tzu set off into the desert toward what is now Tibet, sadden and disillusioned that men were so unwilling to follow the path to natural goodness. When he arrived at the final gate at the Great Wall of China, the gatekeeper convinced Lao Tzu to record his teachings and the principles of his philosophy before he left. He then composed in five thousand characters, eighty-one sayings that make up the Tao Te Ching. This ancient Chinese text is the most translated classic worldwide next to the Bible.
From his solitary contemplation of nature, removed from human affairs, Lao Tzu conjured a philosophy that has, both in critical as well as a constructive sense, a direct and practical political message:
Why are people starving?
Because the rulers eat up the money in taxes.
Therefore the people are starving.
Why are the people rebellious?
Because the rulers interfere too much.
Therefore they are rebellious.
Why do people think so little of death?
Because the rulers demand too much of life.
Therefore the people take life lightly.
Having to live on, one knows better than to value life too much.
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