Taoism: An Analysis of the Tao

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Taoism: An Analysis of the Tao

There is no single definition of Taoism in the Tao de Ching. The reader

realizes that she will not find one in the text after seeing the first sentence.

By saying that whatever can be described of the Tao is not the true Tao, its

author, Lao-tzu, establishes his first premise: the Tao is a force beyond human

explanation. However this assumption does not mean that he can't attempt to

describe it. Using the literary tools of contradiction, parallel structure, and

metaphor, Lao-tzu discusses the Tao in language regular people can understand.


In the beginning the Tao gave birth to both good and evil (Ch 5) and along with

that came all of the other pairs. In Chapter 36 Lao-tzu discusses action and


"If you want to shrink something,

you must first allow it to expand.

If you want to get rid of something,

you must first allow it to flourish.

If you want to take something,

you must first allow it to be given."

This excerpt ties into the statement in Chapter 30 that "for every

force there is a counter force" which is applicable to political situations.

For example, if a ruler noticed an uprising of disgruntled subjects, it would be

wise of her to let them organize, or expand, and state their grievances as a

whole before she individually addressed their complaints.

Lao-tzu also uses contradiction in Ch 22,

"If you want to become whole,

let yourself be partial.

If you want to become strait,

let yourself be crooked.

If you want to become full,

let yourself be empty.

If you want to be reborn,

let yourself die..."

In other words, if a person wants to succeed she must first understand the

opposition. This strategy is used often in war. In order to predict what the

enemy will do next, one can think like the enemy, be the enemy. Another way to

understand this contradiction is by applying it to modern day life. In many

cases those who are most against drinking are former alcoholics. They have, in

a sense, gone straight from being crooked, been reborn from having died.

In Ch 45 Lao-tzu uses contradiction to discuss human nature,

"True perfection seems imperfect,

yet it is perfectly itself.

True fullness seems empty,

yet it is fully present."

People are always in...

... middle of paper ...

... Receptive as a valley.

Clear as a glass of water."

With these similes he explains that as a Taoist the reader should be cautious

and kind, flexible and open, observant and straightforward.

He does not accept honor or glory as values. Unlike many other

philosophies/religions where the ideal person should be an example to others,

Taoism focuses on the individual herself. Also unlike many other philosophies

which view the commoner as a dullard, Taoism looks upon a moderate person


"The mark of a moderate man

is freedom from his own ideas.

Tolerant like the sky,

all-pervading like sunlight,

firm like a mountain,

supple like a tree in the wind..." (Ch. 59)

In Ch 39, "He doesn't glitter like a jewel but lets himself be shaped by the Tao,

as rugged and common as a stone."

This concept of the ideal moderate is mentioned a number of times. In

Ch 9 Lao-tzu admonishes extremism, "Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill.

Keep sharpening your knife, and it will blunt." A Taoist is not someone who is

driven by hopes for the respect and admiration of her people, but rather wants

to be humble and normal.

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