Thoughts on Book #1: The Tao Te Ching

(I finished my first book of the year! Whoo!)

Once again, I’ve read a book I can’t review. It’s positively ridiculous to do so. I can’t make comments on style, characters, or anything like that, or even really the ideas inherent within. No, the Tao Te Ching isn’t something you review; it’s a book you engage and take with deep introspection. I don’t know if I did such a good job with personal reflection here, but the Tao is a powerful book that even a person skimming it wouldn’t walk away without a thought unprovoked. It’s just not possible.

So, what is the Tao all about? Well, I’d love to tell you, but even the Tao can’t tell you what the Tao is, and Lao Tzu, it’s mysterious author, doesn’t want to tell you what it is, either.  For Lao Tzu, “The ways that can be walked are not the eternal Way (Tao).” To give definition to the Tao is to automatically not know it.

So how does anyone know about the Way?  Well, just because you can’t label it doesn’t mean you can’t know anything about it! The Tao is rooted in a principle known as wu wei, often translated into English as non-action, or “action without action.” This is often where one of the principle objections to Taoism arises; it inspires complacency because it encourages people to do nothing.  Naturally, this is far from the truth.  While there is a certain lack of action around Taoists, what wu wei is often compared best with water:

Nothing under heaven is softer or weaker than water

and yet nothing is better

for attacking what is hard and strong

because of its immutability
The defeat of the hard by the soft

The defeat of the strong by the weak

this is known to all under heaven

yet no one is able to practice it.


So, what’s going on here isn’t just people laying around doing nothing, but a return to a natural state, where humanity lives and communes with nature, rather than forcing itself upon the earth. This is wu wei.

Two things interest me with the Tao:

  1. The emphasis on mystery and unknowing. This is a tradition equally present in Christianity (as well as all other world religions), but which is neglected in the West.  We’re fixated on knowing, and if we don’t know it, we ignore it. We find it better to stick to what is known. However, what we fail to remember is our own finite capacity for knowledge, and our engagement with anything eternal and infinite is going to end somewhere in our minds, not with the eternal and infinite.  This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try; it means we must remember our place as mortals in this world.
  2. How neatly this lines up with my studies in anarchism.  Lao Tzu clearly had a lot of issues with government, and preaches pretty clearly that, if we adhere to the Tao government becomes unnecessary.  Pretty interesting perspective.

Anyway, this is one book I intend to return to at a later time (like when I’m not reading 52 books in one year) and study deeply.  Excellent pieces of wisdom.


3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Book #1: The Tao Te Ching

  1. How accessible would you say this book is for someone without a philosophy / theology background? I’ve been meaning to read it, and have read some other texts on Taoism, so I wouldn’t be wandering into it completely blind. But it always seemed a bit intimidating to get into.

    • Just read it like a poet would. Frankly, I think anyone who goes in and just reads it with the intention of learning will get much out of it.

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