Taoism (sometimes Daoism) is one of the great philosophical traditions of China.
Lao-Tse, the founder of Taoism, said “Those who know do not speak, and those who speak do not know” So, by that criterion, I can say a something about Taoism, since I know very little. Taoism is one of the greatest and oldest philosophies of China. The big figures were Lao-Tse and Zhuangzi. And their books, the Tao-Te-Ching and the Zhuangzi, are very readable and thought-provoking classics, still widely read in Chinese and, as translated, in all the other major languages.
Looking at things on a somewhat grand scale, Taoism belongs to the same period as Socrates and Plato in Greece. Lao-Tse was a sixth century B.C. philosopher, maybe a bit later, but before Socrates. Zhuangzi was born about thirty years after Socrates died.
In a way, we all know a bit about Daoism, because there are lots of quotes from Lao-Tse’s Tao Te Ching that are among the wise things our parents and teachers tell us, mostly without knowing where they come from.
“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
“Great acts are made up of small deeds.”
“Silence is a source of great strength.”
This last pearl of wisdom was something my father often said to me. Come to think of it, Ken often tells me this too. And Frenchie, my wife. Who would have known they were all Taoists?
But Taoism isn’t just a bunch of homilies. As mentioned, the two key texts are the Tao-Te-Ching and the Zhuangzi, the latter named for its author. The first contains a lot of quotable sayings, and the second a lot of stories, parables and paradoxes. But the philosophy of Taoism really emerges from what later Chinese thinkers made of those texts.
Neither Lao-Tse nor Zhuangzi ever heard of Taoism. And, most likely, Zhuangzi never knew about Lao-Tse. But together they inspired Taoism. The term comes from later scholars, to capture what they saw Lao-tse and Zhangzi as getting at.
“Tao” is translated as “the way”. The Way, as I get it, is basically the way things happen. The way things happen in nature is more basic, and should provide a guide for, the way humans do things and human institutions work. So, the philosophy of Daoism at least, is naturalistic. It also sounds conservative: when in doubt don’t do anything new or innovative, follow the way.
But historically it was pluralistic, egalitarian, and non-authoritative --- more or less contrasting with Confucianism. Taoists are less likely to enunciate moral principles, and more likely to think about what sort of validity such things could have, given the way the world works. Such habits of mind, when things go right, lead to tolerance, pluralism and, often enough, keeping one's mouth shut.
But you should keep in mind that I am only speaking because I am ignorant. For real information and insight about Taoism, listen to Sunday’s program!