Taoism is an ancient Chinese tradition which emphasizes living in harmony with what is referred to as Tao. The term Tao means “way”, “path” or “principle”. It can be found in Chinese philosophies and religions other than Taoism. In Taoism, however, Tao is believed to be both the source and the force behind everything that exists.
Although Taoism drew its cosmological philosophy from the School of Yin Yang, the Tao Te Ching by early Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu is considered by many to be its primary source. Tao Te Ching roughly translates to, The Book of The Natural Way and of Natural Virtues.
Written around 600 years before the current era, the Tao Te Ching presents a model of Wu-Wei, action without action, or non-action. WuWei is not the promotion of absence of action, but of the state of being in harmony with the nature of things, or Tao. Lao-tzu has been recognized as one of the earliest known anti-authoritarian thinkers. He espoused a very individualist philosophy, which saw social institutions as a hindrance, not a benefit for human beings. Lao-tzu’s writings explored the errors of prohibitions and government regulation many centuries before anyone else was challenging these concepts.
In Chapter 57 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tzu writes:
“If you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao. Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself. The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be. The more weapons you have, the less secure people will be. The more subsidies you have, the less self-reliant people will be. Therefore the Master says:
I let go of the law, and people become honest. I let go of economics, and people become prosperous. I let go of religion, and people become serene. I let go of all desire for the common good, and the good becomes common as grass.”
In Chapter 75, Lao-Tzu comments on the importance of self-governance:
“When taxes are too high, people go hungry. When government is too intrusive, people lose their spirit. Act for the peoples benefit. Trust them; leave them alone.”
In Chapter 31, Lao-Tzu references the principles of Non-Aggression and non- violence.
“Weapons are the tools of violence; all decent men detest them. Weapons are the tools of fear; a decent man will avoid them except in the direst necessity and, if compelled, will use them only with the utmost restraint. Peace is his highest value. If the peace has been shattered, how can he be content? His enemies are not demons, but human beings like himself. He doesn’t wish them personal harm. Nor does he rejoice in victory. How could he rejoice in victory and delight in the slaughter of men?”
Two centuries after Lao-tzu’ came philosopher Chuang-tzu, who took the teachings of his predecessor a step further. His writings became so popular that his intellectual services were sought far and wide, even among the aristocracy and monarchy. Eventually, Chuang-tzu received an offer from King Wei of the Ch’u kingdom to serve as his chief minister of state. Chuang-tzu passionately refused his offer and gave the following statement in response:
“A thousand ounces of gold is indeed a great reward, and the office of chief minister is truly an elevated position. But have you, sir, not seen the sacrificial ox awaiting the sacrifices at the royal shrine of state? It is well cared for and fed for a few years, caparisoned with rich brocades, so that it will be ready to be led into the Great Temple. At that moment, even though it would gladly change places with any solitary pig, can it do so? So, quick and be off with you! Don’t sully me, I would rather roam and idle about in a muddy ditch, at my own amusement, than to be put under the restraints that the ruler would impose. I will never take any official service, and thereby I will satisfy my own purposes,” (The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu).
Chuang-tzu put forward many bold anti-state positions in his writing, including the following statements, sourced by Murray Rothbard in his work Concepts of the Role of Intellectuals in Social Change Toward Laissez Faire:
“There has never been such a thing as letting mankind alone; there has never been such a thing as governing mankind with success. Letting alone springs from fear lest men’s natural dispositions be perverted and their virtue left aside. But if their natural dispositions be not perverted nor their virtue laid aside, what room is there left for government?”
He has also been quoted as saying that the world “does not need governing; in fact it should not be governed.”
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries philosophers like Proudhon and Hayek were pioneering the concept of “spontaneous order,” but even earlier, the Taoist teachings of Lao-Tzu and Chuang-tzu taught that, “Good order results spontaneously when things are let alone.” This balanced perspective of self-reflection and self-governance is a key aspect of both Anarchism and Taoism. Despite criticism from some scholars who believe that Taoism was a tool for the elite to pacify the peasant class, the philosophy is completely consistent with the ideas of withdrawing from the State and working with the natural flow of the world. Rather than solely fighting external battles against State powers, the lesson is to follow the Tao, the natural way. This natural state of humanity is of course one that lacks force and coercion as imposed by state institutions.
In his book, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, Peter Marshall writes:
“It is impossible to appreciate the ethics and politics of Taoism without an understanding of its philosophy of nature. The Tao te ching celebrates the Tao, or way, of nature and describes how the wise person should follow it. The Taoist conception of nature is based on the ancient Chinese principles of yin and yang, two opposite but complementary forces in the cosmos which constitute ch’i (matter-energy) of which all beings and phenomena are formed. Yin is the supreme feminine power, characterized by darkness, cold, and receptivity and associated with the moon; yang is the masculine counterpart of brightness, warmth, and activity, and is identified with the sun. Both forces are at work within men and women as well as in all things,” (page 54).
Taoism teaches that individuals who pursue balance with Nature will be happy, free people who do not wish to be oppressed or oppress others. Instead, students of the Tao find themselves content to walk their own path in harmony with the external world and to spread the gospel of the Tao.
(All quotations from Tao te Ching are reprinted from Stephen Mitchell’s translation.)