Ideas of Lao Tzu, by Theme

[Chinese, c.580 - 520 BCE, Born at Honan. Founder of Taoism.]

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1. Philosophy / A. Wisdom / 2. Wise People
Wise people choose inaction and silence
     Full Idea: The sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practises the teaching that uses no words.
     From: Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching [c.350 BCE], I.II.6)
     A reaction: Notice that this is an active 'deed', and a positive 'practice'. He is not just recommending indifference and lethargy. Personally I don't find the advice very appealing, but it might be good if you live in 'interesting times'.
One who knows does not speak; one who speaks does not know
     Full Idea: One who knows does not speak; one who speaks does not know.
     From: Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching [c.350 BCE], II.LVI.128)
     A reaction: A famous remark, which my western mind finds simply perplexing. It strikes me as wicked selfishness to keep your wisdom to yourself, and not try to persuade others to follow it. We are all in this together, I say.
1. Philosophy / D. Nature of Philosophy / 7. Despair over Philosophy
Vulgar people are alert; I alone am muddled
     Full Idea: Vulgar people are alert; I alone am muddled.
     From: Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching [c.350 BCE], I.XX.47)
     A reaction: Personally I think all human beings are deeply perplexed when they actually address their situation, but most people never spend more than a few minutes a year worrying about it.
11. Knowledge Aims / A. Knowledge / 1. Knowledge
Pursuit of learning increases activity; the Way decreases it
     Full Idea: In the pursuit of learning one knows more every day; in the pursuit of the Way one does less every day.
     From: Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching [c.350 BCE], II.XLVII.108)
     A reaction: Everything in my culture has raised the status of the pursuit of learning, so that I can hardly comprehend what is proposed by the Way. I don't believe that the Way can be achieved without great learning, but one might move beyond learning.
To know yet to think that one does not know is best
     Full Idea: To know yet to think that one does not know is best.
     From: Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching [c.350 BCE], II.LXXI.173)
     A reaction: Tricky. Self-deception doesn't sound like a virtue to me. There are epistemic virtues, and caution about one's own knowledge has to be one of them, but a totally false assessment sounds counter-productive.
19. Language / F. Communication / 1. Rhetoric
Truth is not beautiful; beautiful speech is not truthful
     Full Idea: Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful.
     From: Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching [c.350 BCE], II.LXXXI.194)
     A reaction: A sharp disagreement with Keats ('Ode to a Grecian Urn'). A deep and important question, especially in relation to Plato's discussion of rhetoric (where he is very ambivalent). Great mathematics is beautiful. Truth can harsh. On the whole, I disagree.
22. Metaethics / A. Value / 2. Values / d. Death
One with no use for life is wiser than one who values it
     Full Idea: It is just because one has no use for life that one is wiser than the man who values life.
     From: Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching [c.350 BCE], II.LXXV.181a)
     A reaction: To have no use for life certainly seems to put a person into a position of superiority, especially when the 'Titanic' is sinking. However, if our lives have no value, I don't know what does. A balance must clearly be struck.
22. Metaethics / A. Value / 2. Values / f. Love
Do good to him who has done you an injury
     Full Idea: Do good to him who has done you an injury.
     From: Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching [c.350 BCE], II.LXIII.148)
     A reaction: Compare Idea 6288 (Jesus). People like this really mess up the social contract theory of morality. If they are going to return good for your evil, there doesn't seem much point in helping them, given how much effort is involved. Most peculiar…
23. Ethics / C. Virtue Theory / 2. Elements of Virtue Theory / c. Motivation for virtue
To gain in goodness, treat as good those who are good, and those who are not
     Full Idea: Those who are good I treat as good; those who are not good I also treat as good; in doing so I gain in goodness.
     From: Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching [c.350 BCE], II.XLIX.111)
     A reaction: Socrates (idea 346) and Jesus (Idea 6288) had similar ideas. Who, though, is going to administer justice, and where is the idea that people 'deserve' good or ill treatment? Schoolteachers should treat all children as if they were good.
23. Ethics / C. Virtue Theory / 2. Elements of Virtue Theory / g. Desires
There is no crime greater than having too many desires
     Full Idea: There is no crime greater than having too many desires.
     From: Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching [c.350 BCE], II.XLVI.104)
     A reaction: It seems harsh to call this a 'crime', given that no one is likely to choose to have 'too many' desires. The crime is in deciding to stimulate desire to excess, or deciding to show no sensible restraint.
24. Political Theory / C. Ruling a State / 2. Leaders / a. Autocracy
The best rulers are invisible, the next admired, the next feared, and the worst are exploited
     Full Idea: The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects; next comes the ruler they love and praise; next comes one they fear; next comes one with whom they take liberties.
     From: Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching [c.350 BCE], I.XVII.39)
     A reaction: This fits our understanding of football referees to perfection. It might apply to anyone doing a vital adminstrative job, such as compiling a school timetable. It is hard, though, to accept anonymity as a mark of success.
24. Political Theory / C. Ruling a State / 3. Government / a. Government
People are hard to govern because authorities love to do things
     Full Idea: It is because those in authority are too fond of action that the people are difficult to govern.
     From: Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching [c.350 BCE], II.LXXV.181)
     A reaction: I love this. It should be on the wall of every human institution in our civilization. How the heart sinks at the prospect of a 'new initiative'. Not that I am against action; it is just important to recognise that inaction is sometimes the best option.
25. Social Practice / D. Justice / 2. The Law / a. Legal system
The better known the law, the more criminals there are
     Full Idea: The better known the laws and edicts, the more thieves and robbers there are.
     From: Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching [c.350 BCE], II.LVII.132)
     A reaction: Nice. I link this with my favourite moral maxim from Democritus (Idea 519). The idea is that continual emphasis on what you should not do fills the mind with evil possibilities. Moral perfection must start by taking goodness for granted.