Lao Tzu is one of the most important philosophers of Chinese History. Although his life story and books have been subjects of many discussions for over 2500 years, his ideas and philosophy have certainly made a big impact on the lives of many people. His life story is filled with myths and uncertainties, but what is certain is that his mindset has been a source of enlightenment for many. He is considered to be the founder of Daoism and the writer of the famous book ‘Tao Te Ching’. Let’s take a look at his life story and dig into his philosophy.
The name Lao Tzu is composed of the word ‘Lao’ which means old and ‘Tzu’ which means master. He is also known as Lao Zı or Lao Tze. The famous historian, Sima Qian, who wrote in about 100 BCE and who lived during the Han dynasty has been the primary source of information about the life of Lao Tzu. However, even in his book titled ‘Shiji’ known as ‘Records of The Grand Historian’, he did not have solid evidence about when Lao Tzu lived or about his real name. He wrote about three different possibilities. The first one was that he lived before Confucius and that his name was ‘Laizi’. The second is that he lived at the same time as Confucius and he was a librarian named ‘Lao Dan’ during the Zhou dynasty. As a third possibility, Sima Qian wrote that Lao Tzu could be a person named ‘Laozı’ who lived 129 years after Confucius. However, out of these three possibilities the one Sima Qian believed the most is the one where Lao Tzu lived at the same time as Confucius and was a librarian named ‘Lao Dan’. In the book Shiji, it is written that Lao Dan’s last name was Li and his first name was Er. However, his birth and death dates are unknown. About his birth and death dates, the famous historian Hu Shi said that since we are sure about the birth and death dates of Confucius, if we rely on Sima Qian’s belief that he lived at the same time as Confucius and was about 20 years older than him, we can say that he was born around 570 BCE.
It is believed that Lao Tzu had a long life in the Zhou dynasty. But once he saw the dynasty weaken, he decided to leave. When he came to the border, an official called Yin Xi asked him to write a book where he explained his ideas. Lao Tzu wrote Tao Te Ching and left. No one knows where he went or when or how he died. There have been certain theories about what happened after he left. Some say that after he left, he went to India and met with Siddharta Gautama (Buddha). Some even say that Siddharta Gautama is actually Lao Tzu. However, none of these theories are confirmed and most information about Lao Tzu is still open for discussion.
During The Zhou dynasty, social problems started to occur and the government started to weaken. Famous historian Hu Shi explains the dynasties' situation in his book titled ‘zhongguo gudai zhexueshi’ (History of Ancient Chinese Philosophy); “Because of the long and tiring wars, people were facing many hardships. Competition between leaders had also become fierce and the fight for power caused many people to suffer.” During a time like this, Lao Tzu wanted to find ways to end the suffering and bring peace.
He thought the main reason for all these problems was that society lost its moral values and its sense of unity. He introduced the idea of ‘Dao’. He believed that Dao was the creator of all forms of life. What is important here is that Lao Tzu did not see ‘Dao’ as a god but more as a perfect system. Everything is brought to life and then taken away by Dao. One of the important parts of this philosophy is that Dao treats every living being equally. Humans do have superior characteristics that can lead them to disrupt this perfect system. The goal here, and the main idea Lao Tzu talks about in his book titled ‘Tao Te Ching’ is that humans need to get rid of their greed and be in harmony with Dao. Only then will humans be able to live in peace and in harmony with others. Lao Tzu also gives a lot of importance to simplicity. He thinks we should only have and use what we need and we should not want more than what we can afford. In his book, following these main ideas, he talks about politics, the universe, and human nature. Whether the book was written only by Lao Tzu or if there were multiple writers is still unknown; but even after so many years, it still continues to be one of the most important books of Chinese philosophy and literature and is being read in most countries around the world today.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Laozı
Accessed: 30 August, 2022
Encyclopedia Britannica, Laozı
Accessed: 30 August, 2022
Wikipedia, Records of the Grand Historian
Accessed: 29 August, 2022
Lao Tzu. Yol ve Erdem. İstanbul, Can Yayınları, Ocak 2022.
Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. İstanbul, İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, 2016.