Lao-tse and Western philosophy

Yolanda asked:

How has taosim (Lao-Tzu) influenced western cultures? I’m writing an extended essay for the International Baccalaureate (IB) and am finding it hard to find resources. Could you also link websites or books if you have any to help answer the question?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Having an interest in classical Chinese thought, I once set out on the same road as you and found the same dearth of source materials. I’m afraid if this is your target, you are going to be disappointed. A few Westerners over the last 200 years have delved into, and translated, Lao-tse’s philosophical wisdom; but they are few and motivated by a private, rather than academic interest.

Among sources sources translated into English, the classic is still Fung-Yu Lan, “A Short History of Chinese Philosophy” which I believe has more recently been enlarged to 2 volumes. There is also Dirk Bodde: “Chinese Thought, Science and Society” (1991). Of course, Lao-tse is relatively briefly dealt with. So you may find, as I did, that Lao-tse’s influence on western culture is nil.

Sorry to be so discouraging, but you still have two choices available. One involves refocusing the essay you wish to write to the question of “Why is Lao-Tse almost totally unknown to Westerners?” It is difficult, but possible if you pit the sentences of the old Sage against a few Western mystics (e.g. Meister Eckart, Angelus Silelius), because they never “got through” with their message either, except on a very small scale. The other choice is to pursue your question through the merger of Taoism with Buddhism and western interest in Zen Buddhism. I concede that this is a far cry from what you set out to do. For all I know, Lao-tse himself (if there was such a man) might not have felt that this alliance has anything to with him.

3 thoughts on “Lao-tse and Western philosophy

  1. JL replies: I had a look at the German Wikipaedia; but I found no genuinely useful pointer to an influence on Western culture in it. The fact that a number of German writers (Klabund, Buber, Hesse, Döblin and Brecht) began writing about, or were influenced in their writings by, oriental culture is not specifically oriented on Laotse, but rather more widely on Daoism in general and on Zen Buddhism. Moreover, a lot of this is ambiguously lumped into one basket with the “Wisdom of Asia”, which tends to be diffuse and nebulous at the best of times. I don’t believe that an association with the hippie-cult can be made to stick – might as well blame opium addition on it too! In other countries, e.g. USA, the same pattern prevailed, all of it redolent of Zen Buddhism, and it should be stressed, to stay within the questioner’s orbit, that none of this is authentic classical Chinese Taoist doctrine.

  2. I guess there must be quite some influence. At least there was a high number of different translations, so there must have been a lot of people reading it. According to the German Wikipedia article on it, there are about 300 English and about 100 German translations and about 300 other translations (about 70 Spanish, 60 French, 50 Italian and 50 Dutch). There is perhaps not much influence in the academic world (e.g. in academic philosophy), but the Dao De Ching (look for other transcriptions as well, as Tao Te King) must have had quite some influence outside academic circles. Many of the translations where made not by experts but by amateurs. So these translations and the comments of their authors (forewords etc.) form part of the influence. The main influence is probably in movements like the hippies and their forerunners (e.g. in 1020s Germany) and in esoteric movements. You might finds something in used book stores on the internet.
    The German Wikipedia article about Daoismus (Daoism) contains a section on “Daoismus im Abendland”. You may translate that using a translation tool like Deepl. Names mentioned include the philosopher Karl Jaspers and the Psychologist C.G. Jung.

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