Critical Response to the Tao Te Ching

Topics: Tao Te Ching, Taoism, Laozi Pages: 8 (2847 words) Published: April 9, 2013
Critical Response Paper
I would like to say that I chose the Tao Te Ching, however, it chose me. I was first introduced to this text one Christmas morning, many years ago, and it has been with me (in one way or another) ever since. Due to my lifestyle I was constantly losing my copy, and in my attempts to replace it I had the pleasure of owning a multitude of versions, and differing translations. Today I will be using the 1988 publication of the Tao Te Ching as translated by author Stephen Mitchell (as my primary source). One of the main reasons I chose Mitchell’s translation is because he uses “she” instead of the conventional “he” throughout his text. I found this to be refreshing and Mitchell explains this by in the forward to his book, “The Chinese language doesn’t make this kind of distinction; in English we have to choose. But since we are all, potentially, the Master (since the Master is, essentially, us), I felt it would be untrue to present a male archetype, as other versions have, ironically, done” (pp.ix, Mitchell).

After my initial reading I was left with a series of questions floating around my mind. I made a point of writing them down as they came to me and I will share them with you now. If the Tao cannot be spoken of, then what was the reasoning in ever writing it? And even after attempting to write it, how does one express the inexpressible? And after expressing said wisdom is action even possible (given the underlying current of passivity that flows throughout the Tao Te Ching)?

The Tao Te Ching (despite its unassuming length) is the most important text for both philosophical and religious Taoism. Officially, Lao Tzu authored this book in the 6th century BCE, however, a majority of scholars now regard the work as having being compiled around 300 BCE, most likely from an oral wisdom tradition. During the 6th century BCE, China moved toward a state of internal warfare as the ruling Zhou Dynasty was collapsing. This transformation created a new social class of administrators and magistrates within the courts (whose main concern was formulating new policies for ruling more effectively). The large body of ideas that was produced by these officials became known as the Hundred Schools of Thought. Their goal was to address the concerns of seeking stability in a constantly changing world and alternatives to what had previously been prescribed by religion. Chinese philosophy evolved from practical politics and was therefore concerned with morality and ethics. A stated by author Thomas Cleary in his book The Essential Tao, “The two essential philosophical classics of Taoism, Tao Te Ching and Chuang-tzu, were written in the latter part of the Chou Dynasty (1123-256 B.C.), when China was divided into competing states locked in power struggles that would consume the energies of the people for centuries to come. Both texts, responding to human emergencies, came to be regarded as political and social as well as spiritual classics” (pp.125, Cleary). The author (or authors) of the Tao Te Ching were critical of their current state of society due to its wars, government oppression, and taxation. The desire to compile this wisdom was born from the belief that government and society (having lost their way) had fallen from the Tao. One could surmise that the author(s) viewed the state (and its many functions) as an oppressor of the individual. The author(s) proclaimed that inaction was the proper function of the government and that by creating more laws they were only creating more criminals (Chapter 57, Mitchell). The Tao was greatly influenced by a desire for a small state government that would not exploit, dominate, or interfere with its citizens. As stated by author Eric Sean Nelson in his paper Responding With Dao: Early Daoist Ethics And The Environment, “The conventionalization and institutionalization of the ethical into codes, rules, and virtues, and its reduction to dualistic categories...

Bibliography: Cleary, Thomas. The Essential Tao. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Print.
Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching. 1st ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.
Nelson, Eric Sean. "Responding with Dao: Early Daoist Ethics and the Environment." Philosophy East & West. 59.3
(Jul2009): 294-316
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