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Lao Tzu (also known as Laozi) is one of the biggest and most respected names in Chinese history and philosophy. Gifted with a great mind, he lived his life searching for ways on how men can follow the path of natural goodness. Natural goodness in this case means letting the course of things naturally fall into place. This is one of the main teachings of Daoism, the philosophy where Lao Tzu was regarded as the most dominant. By Daoism, he implies that not-doing is the Tao (Dao), and by not-doing, the course of things moves freely.
His words were directed towards the Tao (The Way) and how to follow it and keep track of it.
Te (De) stands for virtues, and Ching (Jing) means laws. Thus, the Tao Te Ching can be directly translated as the “The Law or Canon of Virtue and its way” or “The Classic way of virtue” (Majka). Lao Tzu’s concept of not-doing or non-action is known as the wu wei (chebucto).
In practicing wu wei, Lao Tzu encourages people to do nothing and just let the natural course of things to take place. Lao Tzu writes: Being and non-being create each other. Difficult and easy support each other. Long and short define each other. High and low depend on each other. Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the Master acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything. Things arise and she lets them come; things disappear and she lets them go. She has but doesn’t possess acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it. That is why it lasts forever (chapter 2). This passage from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching explains that a master becomes a good master when s/he allows the natural and the proper order of things to take place. One becomes a good master when s/he learns and teaches others to let go of their desires and ambitions so that they can let fate rule upon them and hence, be free.
Considering his principles, Lao Tzu seems to be a follower of Fate. He encourages people to do nothing, for he believes that the course of fate is the proper course of things. However, contrary to Lao Tzu’s teachings, most people of the modern times take hold of their lives as they direct their decisions and priorities towards how they want to live and what they want to happen with their lives. For them, living today is like deciding whether they want to live or die the next day. If they decide to live and go on, they will have to strive hard and do their work; if they decide to die out of hunger, then they can leave everything up to fate.
Thus, by doing things according to their will, people of the contemporary society deviate from the right path of the Tao rather than follow it. This is how different the modern lifestyle is compared to when Lao Tzu proposed the principle of not-doing. Hence, while Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching insists that inner peace and harmony with the world’s natural course of events will lead us to the right path, the concept appears to be not applicable in the modern day life and in the concept of managing personal responsibilities nowadays.
In relation to personal responsibilities, Lao Tzu’s principle also somehow contradicts how people work on obligations nowadays. At present, people deal with responsibilities like gasoline to automobiles. Just as automobiles cannot run without fuel, the life of the current human being would not run nor improve without him/her attending to his/her responsibilities and obligations. To cite an example, as a mother of two growing children, and I can very well say that I have my own dose of personal responsibilities.
Being a mother, I do not just work for myself. On top of everything else, I keep my children as my number one priority, and I do my tasks well and efficiently for their sake. Thus, if I follow Lao Tzu’s principle and practice his beliefs, I believe that I would not be able to provide what I can give right now to my children. Lao Tzu persuaded people about his way of life—escaping from the world and the worldly things—since he saw that men were beginning to crave for power, wealth, and possession as time passes (“The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu”).
Due to their arrogance, there were men of Lao Tzu’s time who came to believe that they know everything when they cannot even explain a thought that they were saying. More and more people killed for power and authority. Aside from this, poverty persisted despite the never-ending improvisations and developments in technology. This pushed Lao Tzu to open people’s minds to escape and to give up all the worldly urges, fantasies, and cravings they had in order to free themselves of the foolishness and hardships in life which brought misery upon them.
Lao Tzu emphasized this in the following passage: If you over-esteem great men, people become powerless. If you overvalue possessions, people begin to steal. The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion in those who think that they know (chapter 3). The passage above also mentions his thoughts on emptiness, and this is one of the virtues that Lao Tzu stressed in most of his teachings.
In this context, emptiness signifies purity; that is, purity of the mind and the soul. In such emptiness, he reiterates that a person can enjoy the pleasures of retreat and silence through meditation (Way of Perfect Emptiness). However, when this practice s compared to the modern context of life, I personally see this quite difficult and nearly impossible. With all the chaos, problems, and daily hustles and bustles that our responsibilities and work give us, I find it hard to tell if people will still be able to find a more empty and silent soul and mind.
Lao Tzu’s teachings have been renowned and have inspired a lot of great minds all over the world through the years. However, putting present reality into consideration, it seems to me that the application of these teachings are already not as suitable to our daily living today compared to the daily living of people in Lao Tzu’s time, when majority of things are still not as complicated as they are today. In analyzing the highlights of the Tao Te Ching’s principle, it may appear that people are being deprived of choice in their decision making and in a lot of other things.
Though the teachings of Tao Te Ching concerns and greatly contributes to freeing people from all the burden, chaos, and disasters caused by worldly human desires, his teachings are in contrast to one of the most important concepts of the modern times—personal responsibility. According to Aughen and Bierhoff in their book “Responsibility: The Many Facts of a Social Phenomenon,” responsibility can either be accepted or denied. Thus, the choice still lies solely on the person—whether to accept or deny his or her responsibilities.
Aside from this thought, the authors also mentioned about the effects of internal and external factors on how people see and attend to their responsibilities. External factors involve that of fate and the more powerful people which possess the power to control and influence the environment. On the other hand, the internal factors involve one’s conviction and realizations of plans in order to fulfill his/her goals (Aughen and Bierhoff, pg. 2). This perspective has no place in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.
Since Lao Tzu taught people of riding to the flow of nature and eliminating all earthly desires and thoughts behind, even responsibilities, obligations, and aspirations, the choice of how we would want to live our lives is being set aside. As a mother, I have a lot of dreams and plans for my children as well as for myself, and how I want our lives to go. Just like most people nowadays, I believe that one thing in life which can be considered significantly important is choice. It is through our choices that we decide how to take over our lives and how to do our responsibilities.
We cannot always rely on destiny, fate, or nature’s flow in dealing with our lives. Vyasa once talked about destiny and exertion in the Mahabharata. Everything can be secured by Exertion; but nothing can be gained through destiny alone, by a man that is wanting in personal Exertion. Even so does one attain to heaven, and all the objects of enjoyment, as also the fulfillment of one’s heart’s desires by well directed individual Exertion. Riches, friends, prosperity descending from generation to generation, as also the graces of life, are difficult of attainment by those that are wanting Exertion (Anusasana Parva).
Lao Tzu’s principles in Tao Te Ching may appear inapplicable to how people deal with the modern life nowadays. However, we should also consider that the Tao Te Ching was born during the time when life was a little less complicated. Therefore, whichever way we look at personal responsibility as a parent, student, son, daughter, or whatever role we play, the choice of whether to accept or deny or to leave the responsibility to the course of nature will still depend on one of the greatest things given to us living; that is, free will.
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