Lao Tzu: Biography, Philosophy & Impact on Literature

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the history of the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tzu, the philosophy he expounded, and the impact his religion, Taoism, had on ancient China.


Details in history, like in your favorite crime show, can sometimes be hard to pin down. Who did what? When did they do it? Why did they do it? Historians are constantly trying to answer these basic questions. When the evidence is incomplete - just like when your favorite TV detective is stumped - it can be hard to come to definitive conclusions.

Such is the case with the life of Lao-Tzu, whose very existence is sometimes questioned by historians. What is not in question is the impact of the ideas credited to that man, the purported founder of Taoism. In this lesson, we will explore Lao-Tzu and his influential teachings.


The traditional story of Lao-Tzu is that he was a 6th-century B.C.E. philosopher and teacher in China. Indeed, his very name means 'Old Master.' Lao-Tzu was a keeper of records for the Zhou Dynasty while he also taught philosophy to any who would listen. One of these, purportedly, was the giant of Chinese philosophy, Confucius, who in his own writings speaks of meeting with Lao-Tzu. After some time teaching and working, Lao-Tzu left the Zhou court to travel outside China. Before he left, however, he committed his teachings to a book, first simply called the Lao-Tzu but whose truth and wisdom later earned it the title, Tao Te Ching or Classic of the Way and Virtue in English. Then he crossed the border and disappeared.

Most historians today believe that this traditional story, offered by the late 2nd and early 1st-century B.C.E. writer, Sima Qian, is probably not true. Many believe that the creation of Lao-Tzu may be a result of the confusion of different important teachers of the period, including Li Dan and Li Er. Others credit the Tao Te Ching to several different writers all writing under the same pen name, Lao-Tzu. Still others do not believe that the Tao Te Ching dates from that period at all, but was compiled centuries later and represents the collective knowledge and accepted wisdom of a certain group or period.


Regardless of whether Lao-Tzu truly existed in the 6th century or not is immaterial to the truly momentous impact the Tao Te Ching has had on the world of philosophy, especially in East Asia. Central to Taoism, the Tao Te Ching is split into 81 chapters. Scholars generally break it into the two sections, as the first 37 chapters are devoted to more metaphysical or abstract issues while the remaining 44 deal with more concrete social or political issues.

The root of the teachings in the Tao Te Ching is that to act truly virtuous, to follow the 'Tao' or 'the Way,' one must eschew all outside forces and influences. According to Lao Tzu, a person's judgment and actions are clouded when they allow their actions and emotions to be affected by other events and people. Even the very act of learning about things misinforms the self. Through gaining knowledge and making judgments we are, according to Lao Tzu, acting on outside information and not in accordance with our true self, or Way.

The remedy for this problem was to discern the natural forces in the world, how they work, and to live in accordance with these mechanisms. To Taoists, (as followers of the Tao Te Ching came to be called) attempting to change the world is actually counterproductive. The further you try to change events through your own actions, the further you are straying from the natural path and the natural order of things, and the further disgruntled one can become.

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