I began reading an explanation on Taoist ethics by Paul Carus from a book on the internet archive (God bless them). I found Carus’ exposition to as clear as still water, and I typed it out in an effort to absorb more of it.
I put this online for three reasons: for future reference, because the plain-text version of the Internet Archive is a very poor OCR rendition, and because the curious reader might enjoy stumbling upon it.
The Ideal of Lao-Tze’s Ethics
By Paul Carus, 1898.
Upon his faith in the seasonabless, goodness and unfailing rightness of the Tao, Lao Tze builds his ethical system, trusting that through the Tao the crooked shall be straightened, the imperfect shall be made complete, the lowly shall receive abundance as sure as valleys naturally and without any effort of their own fill themselves with water. Thus the Tao resembles water. Lao Tze demands the surrender of personal ambition and all selfish strivings. His aim is not to fashion, not to make, not to push or force things, but to let them develop according to their own nature.
Virtue, according to Lao Tze, is simply the imitation of the Tao. The Tao acts, but does not claim; it begets and quickens, but does not own; it directs and arranges, but does not rule. The sage will not make a show of virtue, of benevolence, of justice, of propriety; his virtue is pu teh, or unvirtue. He will make no pretense of being virtuous, but simply imitate all things Heaven’s Tao. In a word, the ideal of morality consists in realising wu ming chih p’u, the simplicity of the Ineffable, of the nameless or unnamable Tao.
This, according to Lao Tze, he acts a part in the world, as a player does on the stage; he who endeavors to bring about artificial conditions; he who meddles with the natural growth of society, will fail in the end, and virtue is simply wu wei or “not acting, not making, not doing”. Non-action or wu wei cannot mean inactivity, for it is with Lao Tze a principle of action. He never tires preaching wei wu wei, to act non-action; he expressly declares that “an able man acts resolutely” and assures us that “through non-action everything can be accomplished”.
Lao Tze’s propositions “to act non-action” and “to accomplish everything by non-action,” appear paradoxical, but his idea is simple enough. He who attempt to alter the nature of things will implicate himself in a struggle in which even the most powerful creature must finally succumb. But he who uses things according to their nature, directing their course, can do with them whatever he pleases. Build strong walls and heavy dams to prevent the landslide caused by the waters that sink into the ground, and the waters will break through and carry your dam down into the valley; but provide the under-ground water with outlets in the places where it naturally endeavors to flow, and there will be no danger of a catastrophe.
The same is true of the social conditions of mankind. Lao Tze requests the government not to govern, but to simply administer. Rulers should not interfere with the natural development of their people, but practice not acting, not meddling, non-interference, or, as the French call it, laissez faire, so that the people shall scarcely know that they have rulers. The less laws and prohibitions there are, the less crime there will be. The less the welfare of the people is forced by artificial methods, the greater will be their wealth and prosperity.
Lao Tze’s principle of “not-acting” is accordingly not inactivity; it is simply not acting a part; not doing things in an artificial way; it not not forcing the nature of things. The term (wu wei) is best explained by its synonym wu yü, being without desire. Man is requested not to have a will of his own, but to do what according to the eternal and immutable order of things he ought to do. It is the surrender of attachment to self, and the utter omission of jhren tao, of man’s Tao, the peculiar and particular Tao of oneself and following the course prescribed by the eternal Tao. It is, briefly, not “non-action” but “non-assertion” and this is the translation by which wu wei is rendered in the present translation as coming nearest to the original meaning.
Zhuang Tze, Lao Tze’s most accomplished disciple, characterises wu wei as follows:
Non action makes one lord of all glory; non action makes one the treasury of all plans; non-action makes one the burden of all offices; non-action makes one the lord of all wisdom. The range of the true man’s action is inexhaustible, but there is no-where any trace of his presence. He fulfills all that he has received from Heaven, but he has not seen that he was the recipient of anything. A pure vacancy (of his own and private affairs) characterises him. When the perfect man employs his mind, it is a mirror. It conducts nothing and anticipates nothing; it responds, but does not retain. Thus he is able to deal successfully with all the things and injures none.
wu wei is the condition of genuine virtue. It leads to simplicity, to emptiness of heart, to sincerity, to stillness and purity, to righteousness, to plain-ness, to truth. The application of Lao Tze’s ethics is tersely expressed in the sentence: “Recompense hatred with goodness”.
Lao Tze further characterises his ethics as kwei ken returning to the root. There is no idea (except perhaps the ideas of simplicity and purity) on which Lao Tze dwells with more emphasis than upon the ideal of pacification, which he calls stillness, peace, equanimity and ease.
The ideal of non-action as the basis of ethics in the sense in which Lao Tze understands it, is very different from the expressions and moral preachings that the Western people, the energetic children of the North, are accustomed to. Nevertheless, there are remarkable coincidences with Lao Tze’s ethics not only in Buddhism, but also in the Bible and the literatures of Western saints and sages.
The virtue of the Taoist, which is tranquility, quietude, rest, corresponds to the Biblical injunction: “Rest in the Lord!” and “In quietude and in confidence shall be your strength!”, or as the Apostle has it: “We beseech you, brethen, that ye study to be quiet.”
This tranquillity, if acquired by all, would become peace on earth to the men of good-will.
The Bible characterises God in words that would have been very congenial to Lao Tze. We read:
He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow and cuteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire”.
And the ethics of this God, who is the ideal of peace on earth, is stillness. The Psalmist continues:
“Be still and know that I am God.”
That God should be conceived as non-action was a favorite idea of Philo, the Neo-Platonist, the same who for the first time used the term Logos in the sense in which is was adopted by the author of the Fourth Gospel. Philo calls God the non-actor, not in the sense of being passive but as absolute existence. Indeed, activity is as natural to God as burning is to fire, but God’s activity is of a peculiar kind; it is efficiency, not exertion; it is not a particular work that he performs, but an omnipresent effectiveness which Philo finds difficult to characterise without falling a prey to mysticism. Philo was a mystic, and God to him is the Unnamable and Unspeakable.
Stillness, that is to say, self-possessed tranquility, or quietude of soul is the condition of purity. Anything that agitates the mind disturbs it, for troubled waters cannot be limpid. Zhuang Tze says:
Sadness and pleasure show a depraving element in virtue; joy and anger show some error in their course; love and hatred show a failure of their virtue… It is the nature of water, when free from admixture, to be clear, and, when not agitated, to be leve; while, if obstructed and not allowed to flow, it cannot preserve its clearness—being an image of the virtue of Heaven. Hence it is said to be guileless and pure, and free from all admixture; to be still and uniform, without undergoing any change; to be indifferent and not self-asserting; to move and yet to act like Heaven:—this is the way to nourish the spirit”.
Christianity and Buddhism are classified by Schopenhauer as the religions of pessimism, because they recognise the existence of evil in the world from which we must seek salvation, and in addition to several other similarities the Taoist philosophy would fall under the same category. Zhuang-Tze lets the robber Chi express his view on happiness in these words, which apparently voice the author’s opinion:
The greatest longevity man can reach is a hundred years; a medium longevity is eighty years; the lowest longevity is sixty. Take away sickness, pining, bereavement, mourning, anxieties, and calamities, the times when, in any of these, one can open his mouth and laugh, are only four or five days in a month. Heaven and earth have no limit of duration, but the death of man has its (appointed) time”.
The world is full of anxiety and misery; and salvation consists solely in a surrender of that selfish craving for pleasures which, in common people, in the main-spring of action.
Lao-Tze’s ethics of returning, and becoming quiet, remind us of Isaiah’s word “In returning and rest shall ye be saved” and the Psalmist says: “Return unto thy rest, O my soul”. Lao Tze insists on faith as much as St.Paul, saying:
He whose faith is insufficient shall receive no faith
Further, Lao Tze says
The softest overcomes the world’s hardest.
The weak conquer the strong, the tender conquer the rigid
St. Paul uses the same expression:
God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty”
When I am weak, then I am strong
My (God’s) strength is made perfect in weakness.
As the Tao is the same to all people, so the sage is the same to all people. He makes no discrimination. Lao Tze says: _The good I meet with goodness, the not-good, I also meet with goodness”. Since genuine merit can be accomplished only through non-assertion, the condition of greatness is modesty of lowliness. As the water that benefits all the world seeks always the lowest places, so the sage abhors self-exaltation. As Christ says, “Whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased” and “he that shall humble himself be exalted”, so Lao Tze compares the Tao of Heaven to a bow, he says _it brings down the high and exalts the lowly”. Lao Tze says that the imperfect will be restored, the crooked shall be straightened, the valleys shall be filled, which reminds one of the words of Isaiah:
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low : and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.
Christian philosophers of the Middle Ages, especially the Mystics, present an even more striking analogies to Lao Tze’s terminology than St. Paul. As Lao Tze speaks of the “Tao’s course” as a “regress” or “a return homeward” and of man’s necessity of “returning to the root” so Scotus Erigena in his book De divisione naturae, 519 AD, declares:
God gathers all in one and resolves them in Himself in an ineffable regress.
Master Eckhart’s sermons contain many passages that might have been written by Lao Tze; so especially his praise to the virtue of simplicity, his recommendation of quietude and rest, the importance which he attributes to unity, and his identification of the highest height and with the deepest depth of humility.
There is no doubt, the Taoists could claim Eckhart as one of their own.
Johannes Scheffler, called Angelus Silesius, a born Protestant, who was so much affected by mystic sentiment that he turned Roman Catholic, says:
We pray, but lo! God has no will; stillness he is for me
Rest is the highest good; indeed were God not rest; I’d turn away from Him, as being no longer blest.
The Tao Te Ching exercised a strong influence on Tolstoy. He too, speaks of non-action, le non-agir. Labor, in his opinion, is no virtue; labor is useless, no, pernicious, for labor keeps men too busy to leave them time for thought, is the curse of the world. Most of us, says Tolstoy, have not time for the consideration of truth and goodness, because we are rushed. An editor must arrange his journal, the general organises his troops, the engineer constructs an Eiffel tower, men of affairs arrange the World’s Fair, the naturalist investigates heredity, the philologist must count the frequency of various phrases in certain authors, and no one has leisure enough for a moment of rest; no one has time for finding that peace of soul which the world cannot give. They do anything except that which they ought to do first.
Tolstoy is right, for thinking reforms the world, not laboring. Thought is the rudder that changes the course of the ship of toiling mankind; the energy of the steam that labors in turning the wheels is useful only so long as it is controlled by thought in the right way. For acquiring the right ideal that will guide us in the right direction, we need not labor, nor need we excert ourselves, on the contrary, says Tolstoy, we must abandon all exertion and become calm. If all men would only employ the tenth part of the energy that is wasted on the acquisition of purely material advantages, to settling the questions of their conscience, the world would soon be reformed.
A peculiar parallelism of Lao Tze’s Taoism with Christianity consists in Lao Tze’s belief in an original stat of innocence and paradisial happiness. He attributes all the evils that now prevail to a deviation form the original simplicity enjoined by the eternal Tao. The conscious discrimination between good and evil, the studied wisdom of the age, the prevailing method of teaching virtue which does not make men good, but merely induces them to be hypocritical, the constan interference of the government with the affairs of the people are the causes of all disorders. His ideal state would be a return to the paradisial innocence and simplicity, a society of simple-minded people who seek their happiness at home.
There are so many remarkable passages in the Tao Te Ching, such as the trinity in unity; the preservation of him who will not perish when he dies; that the weak conquer the strong; that we must become like little children; that the holy man knows himself as the child of the Tao; the the Tao can be had for the mere seeking of it; that the son of heaven (king or emperor) must bear the sins of the people, etc; but we must leave them to the reader who will find enough in Lao Tze’s little book that will set him to thinking.
The natural result of Lao Tze’s philosophy is the ethical ideal of the sage, the saintly man, who is also called the superior sage, or, as later Taoists have it, the Truth-Man, i.e. the man of truth or the true man.
Zhuang Tze says:
The human spirit goes forth in all directions, flowing on without limit, reaching heaven above, and wreathing round the earth beneath. It transforms and nourishes all things, and cannot be represented by any form. Its name is “Divinity (in man)”. It is only the path of pure simplicity which guards and preserves the Spirit. When this path is preserved and not lost, it becomes one with the Spirit; and in this ethereal amalgamation it acts in harmony with the orderly operation of Heaven.
There is a common saying, “The multitude of men consider gain to be the most important thing; pure scholars, fame; those who are wise and able value their ambition; the sage prizes essential purity”. Therefore simplicity is the denomination of that in which there is no admixture; purity of that in which the sprit is not impaired. It is he who can embody the simplicity and purity whom we call the True Man.
An exhaustive description of the True Man is given by Zhuang Tze in Book VI, where we read:
What is meant by ‘the True Man’?
The True men of old did not reject the views of the few; they did not seek to accomplish their ends like heroes (before others); the did not lay plans to attain those ends. Being such, though they might make mistakes, they had no occasion for repentance; though they might succeed, they had no self-complacency. Being such, they could ascend the loftiest heights without fear; they could pass through water without being made wet by it; they could go into fire without being burned; so it was that by their knowledge they ascended to and reached the Tao.
The True men of old did not dream when they slept, had no anxiety when they awoke, and did not care that their food should be pleasant. Their breathing came deep and silently.
When men are defeated in argument, their words come from their gullets as if they were vomiting. Where lusts and desires are deep, the springs of the Heavenly are very shallow.
The True men of old knew nothing of the love of life or the hatred of death. Entrance into life occasioned them no joy; the exit form it awakened no resistance. Composedly they went and came. They did not forget what their beginning had been, and they did not inquire into what their end would be. They accepted their lot and rejoiced in it; they forgot fear of death and returned to their state before life. This there was in them what is called the want of any mind to rest the Tao, and of all attempts by means of the Human to assist the Heavenly. Such were they who are called True men.
The True men of old presented the aspect of judging others aright, but without being partisans; of feeling their own insufficiency, but without flattery or cringing. Their peculiarities were natural to them, but they were not obstinately attached to them; their humility was evident, but there was nothing of unreality of display about it.
Lao Tze declares that the True Man is not hurt by fire or water, and that he need not fear either the rhinoceros or tiger, which is explained by Zhuang Tze in Book XVII:
Fire cannot burn him who is perfect in virtue, nor water drown him; neither cold nor heat can affect him injuriously; neither bird nor beast can hurt him. This does not mean that he is indifferent to these things; it means that he discriminates between where he may safely rest and where he will be in peril; that he is tranquil equally in calamity and happiness; that he is careful what he avoids and what he approaches;—so that nothing can injure him. Hence it said: “What is heavenly is internal; what is human is external”.
Virtue is in what is heavenly. If you know the operation of what is heavenly and what is human, you will have your root in what is heavenly and your position in virtue.
The sage is above death; he is one with the Tao:
Death and life are great considerations, but they could work no change in him. Though heaven and earth were to be overturned and fall, they would occasion him no loss. His judgement is fixed on that in which there is no element of falsehood; and, while the other things change, he changes not. The transformations of things are to him the developments prescribed for them, and he keeps fast of the author of them.
The same ideas are expressed by Horace in his ode Integer vitae in which the Roman poet praises the perfect and faultless man who needs no arms of any description, who may roam through mountain wilderness without fear of the wolf and will not suffer from the heat of the desert. Horace exclaims in another ode that the virtuous man would remain firm even if the world broke down upon him.
It was natural that in the course of the further development of the Taoist movement the old philosopher was more and more regarded as the True Man, beside whom all the others were mere aspirants for saintiliness. his life was adorned with tales which remind us of Buddhist legends, and he became the central figure of a triune deity called the Three Pure Ones, which are even in appearance very similar to the Buddhist Trinity of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.