My life in Western society contrasts greatly with the values and beliefs of Lao Tzu’s philosophy, which emerged around 600 B.C. as a contrasting viewpoint to Confucianism.
The Tao Te Ching, written by Lao Tzu, promotes a solitary life centered on simplicity, peace, and inaction to understand the elusive Tao. Embracing these principles would profoundly transform our familiar world. In contrast, Western society values concepts such as success, progress, and rationality.
Originating from the intellectual revolution of 17th century Europe, possessiveness and selfishness have become highly valued in society. These qualities, whether viewed positively or negatively, cannot be denied in our culture. Personally, I too display these traits. In our society, individuals constantly aim to accumulate as much as they can to enhance their self-perception and satisfy their desires. Frequently, our actions and pursuits are driven by the desire for socially praised rewards or results.
Our anthropocentric worldview, in which we take great pride, clashes with Lao Tzu’s philosophy in the Tao Te Ching. Nevertheless, like the concept of action without attachment in the Baghavad Gita, Taoism advocates for non-action or action without seeking rewards. The most fitting interpretation is that Tao embodies the path of nature or the heavens.
Taoism focuses on recognizing the remarkable patterns found in nature and striving to attain unity with its rhythms. Accordingly, living an ideal existence involves abstaining from behaviors that oppose the inherent order. This encompasses adopting humility, tranquility, detachment, modesty, and adaptability—traits that would greatly reshape the way a typical Western person lives. Specifically, our current culture highly values self-importance and self-worth.
The Tao Te Ching presents a contrasting perspective to the prevalent trend in society of buying self-help books and promoting self-esteem in children, regardless of their accomplishments. Lao Tzu’s writings criticize this form of self-promotion and instead endorse a humble and authentic way of life. He praises the sages for their absence of self-praise.
Not taking pride in themselves, they last long (Tao Te Ching, ch. 22). Furthermore, while our current culture seems to teach children that they are the center of attention and the anthropocentric worldview holding that humans are the most superior species on earth, the Tao Te Ching again advocates humility by stating, I have three treasures that I keep and hold: one is mercy, the second is frugality, the third is not presuming to be the head of the world (Tao Te Ching, ch. 67).
According to the Tao Te Ching (ch. 23), human beings tend to view themselves as superior to others in the world community instead of recognizing themselves as equals. Often, we prioritize our own needs and desires without considering the possible flaws in this perspective. The Tao Te Ching emphasizes that those who boast about their accomplishments lack true worth, and individuals who are excessively proud cannot sustain their success.
By embracing the philosophy of humility and reverence for nature found in the Tao Te Ching, our lives would undergo significant changes. One notable outcome would be a transformation in our relationship with the environment and other non-human entities. Currently, western society’s behavior reflects a highly anthropocentric perspective towards nature, which involves a blatant disregard for its welfare.
The constant expansion of the human cement empire is leading to the destruction of natural habitat. This behavior is justified by the belief that humans are superior to other species and that the environment exists for our benefit. However, followers of Taoism embrace a laissez-faire principle that allows nature to follow its own course. Consequently, environmentalists, naturalists, proponents of natural food or vegetarianism, and wildlife protectors all adhere to and reference the philosophy outlined in the Tao Te Ching text. They agree with quotes from this text such as “The superior person respects the Earth as her mother, the heavens as her father, and all living things as her brothers and sisters.”
Chang Tzu’s works offer additional evidence of the reverence for nature. According to Chang Tzu, if one desires to nurture a bird, it must be allowed to exist freely and in accordance with its own inclinations. This viewpoint harmonizes with the laissez faire philosophy found in the Tao Te Ching and would lead to an enhanced regard for the wholeness of the natural world. Ultimately, this approach would result in diminished encroachment on natural habitats, decreased environmental contamination, improved conditions within factory farming, and various other ethical considerations that profoundly affect our lives. Furthermore, the Tao Te Ching censures possessiveness—an attribute frequently observed in Western society.
In a capitalist society, Americans are well-acquainted with a life centered around consumerism. Primarily, we play the role of consumers in both the economic system and the philosophy of life which prioritize profit maximization. In Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu states that all beings work incessantly unless they live without possessiveness, act without presumption, and refrain from fixating on success. By embodying such detachment, success will naturally be sustained (Tao Te Ching, ch. 2).
The Tao Te Ching, chapter 19, advocates abandoning profit, lessening selfishness, and diminishing desire. Applying these principles of simplicity to our current society would have a mind-boggling effect. The Taoist message is reminiscent of transcendentalism in American literature.
The intent is to divert focus from external enjoyments and belongings towards inner tranquility. Henry David Thoreau may be seen as an example of an American rejecting western ideals in favor of key Taoist principles. As a result, he became a man liberated from the longing for extravagant homes, clothing, and other luxuries, and instead, found contentment in living the most straightforward life imaginable. Thoreau’s existence, in numerous ways, embraced numerous facets of Taoism.
He lived at Walden Pond, free from duty, as endorsed by Lao Tzu in Tao Te Ching, ch. 19 (abandon duty) and ch. 24 (disdain for excess activity). If applied to the average American’s life, these principles would have a devastating impact.
The unconventional and unproductive lifestyle that Thoreau adopted at Walden Pond is often viewed as strange and unsettling by most people. Similarly, any shift towards embracing Taoist principles of simplicity and detachment from material possessions would also be seen as odd by the majority of individuals I have encountered. This would entail rejecting the modern norm of working long hours in order to indulge in luxury items such as designer clothing and expensive vehicles. Instead, Western society is moving farther away from Taoist principles rather than gravitating towards them.
Many people in our society fail to recognize the presence of different lifestyles across the globe. It is crucial to acknowledge that most individuals do not live like us, and throughout history, only a small portion have led comparable lives. Taoism differs from Western philosophy in various ways. Two notable examples highlighting the conflict between Taoist principles and our society are Taoism’s refusal of arrogance and attachment.
From these two qualities, it becomes evident that our anthropocentric worldview and profit-driven lifestyles stem. Incorporating the Taoist values of simplicity and humility into Westerners’ lives would dismantle everything we are familiar with. Nevertheless, I am willing to acknowledge that the profound transformations that would occur could potentially improve the quality of our lives.