The Role of Lee in Representing Lao Tzu's Philosophy in "East of Eden"


John Steinbeck, a prominent American author, and Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher, may seem unlikely bedfellows, but as Shimomura (1982) highlights, they share a remarkable similarity in their non-teleological perspectives and holistic views of humanity. Steinbeck's interest in Lao Tzu's philosophy remains somewhat mysterious, given his American upbringing, yet in "Journal of A Novel," he places Lao Tzu alongside esteemed figures such as Plato, Buddha, Christ, Paul, and the Great Hebrew prophets. This admiration suggests that there was a fertile ground within Steinbeck's indigenous thinking where the seeds of Lao Tzu's philosophy found purchase, germinated, and eventually blossomed into a captivating and fragrant flower, particularly appealing to the Oriental reader.

Consequently, this paper seeks to delve into the character of Lee in Steinbeck's novel "East of Eden," elucidate the relationship between non-teleology and Lao Tzu's philosophy, and demonstrate the intimate connection between Lao Tzu's philosophy and the concept of "timshel."

Lee as a Servant and Philosopher

Steinbeck's literary oeuvre features several Chinese characters, including Lee Chong, a grocery store owner, an unnamed Chinese man in "Cannery Row," and the character of Lee in "East of Eden.

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" While each of these characters plays a distinct role in their respective narratives, it is Lee who merits substantial attention due to his active and influential role in shaping the destinies of the central characters in the novel. Notably, Lee, often seen as a spokesperson for Steinbeck himself, becomes the conduit through which Oriental philosophy profoundly impacts the unfolding of the narrative.

Lee's introduction to the story occurs in Chapter 15 of "East of Eden" when he assumes the role of a faithful servant within the Trask family.

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However, it is during a chance encounter with Samuel Hamilton that Lee transcends the conventional confines of a mere servant and begins to assume a more significant role within the novel. This encounter holds particular significance as it serves as the platform for Lee to articulate his overarching perspective on life, effectively speaking as the author's mouthpiece. Even in his initial conversation with Samuel, Lee intuitively recognizes Samuel as a person worthy of trust.

As they exchange a few words, Lee discards his previously used pidgin English, shedding the protective linguistic facade he had maintained until that point. Throughout their conversation, he spontaneously imparts his unique philosophy on the nature of servitude, declaring, "I don't know where being a servant came into disrepute. It is a refuge of a philosopher, the food of the lazy, and, properly carried out, it is a position of power, even of love. I can't understand why more intelligent people don't take it as a career - learn to do it well and reap its benefits..."

Lee's philosophical stance on servitude, conveyed through the voice of a Chinese character, essentially reflects the author's fundamental worldview. It is conceivable that Steinbeck's portrayal of the ascendancy of servitude over mastership is rooted in the principles of relativity he espoused, a product of his affinity for non-teleological thinking. This perspective posits that any standard, particularly those constructed around artificially contrived value systems, loses its intrinsic significance when scrutinized through the lens of a non-teleological perspective. According to this viewpoint, individuals occupying socially esteemed positions of power are not immune to the possibility of their power dissipating when viewed from an alternative perspective.

Furthermore, it is plausible that a person in a lower social stratum, despite initial disempowerment, may ultimately exert substantial influence over those occupying higher social ranks. An intriguing aspect of this dynamic lies in the apparent passivity of the lower position. An individual in a lower social position, initially vulnerable in isolation, gains agency and authority by assuming the role of a servant to someone in a higher social echelon. This transformation in the master-servant relationship, as articulated by Lee, implies that once employment is secured, even a seemingly powerless individual begins to fulfill their own function and eventually exercises control over their master.

In this context, the master ceases to be the unequivocal authority, and the servant transcends their subjugated status. In the course of the narrative, this dynamic manifests in Lee's ability to exert control over Adam in various situations, effectively subverting the traditional roles of master and servant.

Lee as a Spokesman of Lao Tzu's Philosophy

In a striking parallel to Lao Tzu's philosophical perspective, found in the collection of wisdom known as the Lao Tzu, written around the fourth century BC (Fukunaga, Hachiya, Takahashi), a similar inversion of conventional values can be discerned within one of the eighty fragmentary writings. Chapter 78 of the Lao Tzu elucidates:

"In the world, there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong, nothing can surpass it. This is because there is nothing that can take its place... That the weak overcomes the strong, and the submissive overcomes the hard, everyone in the world knows yet no one can put this knowledge into practice. Therefore the sage says, One who takes on himself the humiliation of the state is called a ruler worthy of offering sacrifices to the gods of earth and millets;... Straightforward words seem paradoxical."

This passage from Lao Tzu underscores the victory of the submissive and the weak over the hard and the strong, mirroring the ultimate triumph of servantship over mastership, a theme profoundly echoed in Lee's philosophy. Evidently, there exists a significant alignment between Lee's overarching approach to life and Lao Tzu's counsel to hold steadfast to the submissive. This shared belief emerges from the conviction that human-made values are fundamentally relative, a relativity stemming from their endeavor to ground their perspectives in a realm as free from human-centered constructs as possible.

It is beyond doubt that Steinbeck strategically crafted Lee to serve as a pivotal determinant of the narrative's outcome, especially within the context of a story framed around the dichotomy of good and evil. Lee's introduction into the narrative is a manifestation of the author's keen awareness of the relativity that underpins the concepts of good and evil. This becomes patently evident when Lee imparts words of encouragement to Adam: "What your wife is doing is neither good nor bad... There's no springboard to philanthropy like a bad conscience."

Moreover, Steinbeck and Lao Tzu share another commonality in their depiction of this relativity. Both authors emphasize the predominance of the weak over the strong, underscoring the belief that the weak aligns more closely with the natural processes of the universe than the strong. In Lao Tzu's philosophy, water symbolizes the epitome of adherence to the Tao, while Steinbeck's non-teleological thinking positions Lee as an embodiment of an ideal life stance.

Given the assumption that Lee's worldview inherently embodies this relativity, it is compelling to observe that the term "timshel," signifying "thou mayest" in English, is introduced through Lee's discourse in the novel. One of the most memorable scenes in the narrative unfolds when Lee, Samuel, and Adam convene to determine names for the twins. Situated at the narrative's center, this naming scene effectively marks a pivotal juncture from which "East of Eden" embarks on its exploration of the interplay between good and evil, a theme that permeates the story until its culmination.

During this scene, Samuel reads a lengthy passage from the Old Testament, encompassing the Cain-Abel narrative, igniting a discussion about the concept of original sin, particularly Cain's sin of slaying Abel. Lee is profoundly impacted by this narrative, perceiving it as "a chart of our souls," albeit without direct reference to it during this particular scene. The Lord's words to Cain following his rejected sacrifice resonate deeply within him: "And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him." This naming scene, closely linked to the Cain-Abel story, ultimately leads to a subsequent scene in Chapter 24, where Lee offers a new interpretation of these words.

Interpreting "Timshel" from an Oriental Perspective

Chapter 24 in "East of Eden" demands meticulous examination for two significant reasons: firstly, it further develops the motif of the Cain-Abel narrative discussed in the previous scene, and secondly, it exerts a pivotal influence on the trajectory of the narrative. This chapter unveils Lee's intensive contemplation of the story, spanning nearly a decade since his profound discussion with Adam and Samuel.

A specific aspect of the Lord's words to Cain has vexed Lee over this extended period, namely, "thou shalt." In the course of these years, he sought assistance from Chinese scholars to study Hebrew, seeking a more appropriate interpretation of this phrase. In this scene, Lee eagerly conveys the significance of his discovery to Samuel, his hands trembling as he fills the delicate cups. He then exclaims, "Don't you see? The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in 'Thou Shalt,' meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word 'timshel' – 'Thou mayest' - gives a choice. It might be the most important word. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if 'Thou mayest,' - it is also true that 'Thou mayest not.' Don't you see?"

Lee's revelation, as quoted above, vividly mirrors his perception of the relativity that underlies the concepts of good and evil. To commence, Lee, long vexed by "Thou shalt," concludes that this phrase fails to alleviate the burden of guilt carried by individuals afflicted by a sense of sin. The primary reason for Lee's departure from "Thou shalt" lies in the assumption that it remains inexorably bound to a human-centered viewpoint. When the Lord utters "Thou shalt" to Cain, the fundamental idea underlying these words is that of love.

However, even this universal and fundamentally different form of love is not entirely free from human perspective, given that the Lord in Christianity embodies a personified deity. Essentially, this divine love, akin to one side of a coin, unavoidably rests on the flipside of hatred. Consequently, even when "thou shalt" is bestowed upon humanity by the Lord, their actions have already been subjected to a qualitative judgment of being either good or evil, as determined by an artificially constructed system of values that fundamentally lacks a sense of relativity.

Viewed from an alternative perspective, these actions may appear to be good, as they may harbor inherent goodness. Ultimately, "thou shalt" facilitates man's salvation in a teleological manner. In contrast, Lee's reinterpretation demonstrates an indifference on the part of the Lord towards human behavior. It neither explicitly commands man to overcome evil nor offers any pledge of redemption. This characteristic of Lee's interpretation could potentially plunge individuals into despair, as it initially appears devoid of love and lacks an intention to guide them towards liberation from their committed sins.

However, Lee contends that it is precisely this indifference that leads to genuine salvation of the soul. "Timshel," a product of Lee's painstaking exploration of the Cain-Abel narrative, rests upon the principles of relativity, akin to non-teleological thinking and Lao Tzu's philosophy. This is evident in the fact that "thou mayest" inherently carries the complementary condition of "thou mayest not." In essence, it posits that there exists no absolute categorization of human conduct as either entirely good or entirely evil. Moreover, it underscores the crucial notion that every human action encompasses elements of both good and evil.

"Thou mayest" merely grants individuals the agency to proclaim, "This is relatively good, while that is relatively evil." In this manner, Lee, as Steinbeck's spokesperson, "non-teleologically" posits that "timshel" unifies good and evil into a singular entity. Steinbeck's conceptualization of good and evil in "East of Eden" is fundamentally rooted in the belief that both emanate from the same source. Steinbeck staunchly adheres to the tenets of non-teleological thinking, eschewing the notion of a logical theory that neatly delineates good and evil through laws of the excluded middle.

He steadfastly situates his perspective in a realm of chaos where neither good nor evil holds sway, subsequently applying this viewpoint to human actions. The ultimate consequence of this perspective is that an individual, whether virtuous or wicked, merits salvation through the same mechanism. While Steinbeck's optimistic outlook, borne from his indigenous philosophy, has faced criticism for purportedly disregarding the gravity of evil, he contends that good and evil are relative. Consequently, evil is merely a negative state devoid of inherent goodness, or rather, a paradoxical condition lacking a firm consciousness of goodness.

The Utilization of Non-Teleological Thinking in East of Eden

Steinbeck's non-teleological conception of good and evil, when applied as the foundational framework for "East of Eden," manifests itself in a novel interpretation of the Cain-Abel narrative and the introduction of the word "timshel." These elements serve a dual purpose: first, they awaken Adam, symbolizing Abel, from his illusory dreams into stark reality, and second, they liberate Caleb, symbolizing Cain, from the shackles of sin. This treatment of the dichotomy between good and evil bears a striking resemblance to the philosophy of Lao Tzu, who posits that "the good man is the teacher that the bad learns from; and the bad man is the material the good works on."

Steinbeck's perspective on the world is characterized by a detached viewpoint, akin to what can be termed "the infinite whole." Similarly, Lao Tzu's philosophy introduces the concept of the Tao, intended to dismantle human-centered worldviews. This shared endeavor has yielded a congruent outcome, one in which both authors arrive at a common conception of humanity's true place within the universe and its relationship with the surrounding world. This understanding emphasizes the interconnectedness of individuals with the whole and treats individuals as entities valuable in their own right.

Such treatment of individuals is succinctly encapsulated in the notion that "everything is an index of everything else" and the axiom that "the heavy is the root of the light." Ultimately, the essence of Steinbeck as a novelist undeniably lies in his adept use of non-teleological thinking as the underlying structure of his literary works. This method does not guarantee unwavering success in his endeavors, but it does empower him to scrutinize human behavior from the most comprehensive and elevated vantage point possible. Lao Tzu aptly characterizes this perspective through paradoxical terminology, employing negative terms such as "Nothing" and "The Nameless" to convey its essence.


In the intricate tapestry of John Steinbeck's literary exploration, marked by its profound non-teleological perspective on human existence, one finds a compelling resonance with the timeless philosophy of Lao Tzu. This essay has ventured into the depths of Steinbeck's work, "East of Eden," to reveal how his non-teleological ideology finds a kindred spirit in Lao Tzu's wisdom, enriching the narrative and offering a novel interpretation of the eternal struggle between good and evil.

Steinbeck's creation of the character Lee, an embodiment of his own philosophical stance, serves as a conduit through which his non-teleological thinking finds expression. Lee, initially introduced as a faithful servant, transcends his traditional role, emerging as a profound philosopher who challenges conventional perceptions of power and servitude. His worldview aligns remarkably with Lao Tzu's philosophy, emphasizing the dominance of the weak over the strong and underscoring the relativity of human values.

The introduction of the term "timshel" within the narrative marks a pivotal moment. It symbolizes the freedom of choice, the inherent duality of human actions, and the absence of absolute categorization into good or evil. This profound revelation has a transformative impact on the characters, awakening them from their illusions and leading them towards self-discovery and redemption.

Lao Tzu, in his ancient wisdom, also emphasizes the interconnectedness of opposites and the paradoxical nature of existence. His philosophy resonates with Steinbeck's non-teleological thinking, as both authors embrace a holistic perspective that transcends rigid dualities. They both recognize that human-made values are inherently relative and seek to liberate individuals from the constraints of a human-centered worldview.

In conclusion, John Steinbeck's utilization of non-teleological thinking as the underpinning framework of his novels, exemplified here through "East of Eden," allows him to perceive the complexities of human conduct from a broad and elevated standpoint. This philosophical approach, akin to Lao Tzu's teachings, invites readers to ponder the intricate interplay of good and evil, the subtleties of choice, and the inherent unity of opposites. Both Steinbeck and Lao Tzu, though separated by time and culture, converge in their commitment to viewing humanity as an integral part of a greater whole, inviting us to contemplate our place in the universe and our relationship with the world around us. Through their shared exploration of non-teleological thinking, they offer us a profound invitation to reflect on the profound complexities of the human experience and the ever-evolving dance between light and shadow in the human soul.

Updated: Nov 08, 2023
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The Role of Lee in Representing Lao Tzu's Philosophy in "East of Eden". (2016, Nov 01). Retrieved from

The Role of Lee in Representing Lao Tzu's Philosophy in "East of Eden" essay
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