Lao Tzu and Modern Western Philosophy

By Mackintosh, Paul St. John | Contemporary Review, June 1992 | Go to article overview
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Lao Tzu and Modern Western Philosophy


Mackintosh, Paul St. John, Contemporary Review


IMAGINE that the masterpiece of one of the fathers of philosophy -- say, Aristotle -- has been rediscovered in a copy made only fifty years after the sage's death, leap-frogging millennia of duplication, distortion and texual corruption. Imagine that this work is one of the world's best-loved classics, translated into many languages, read by millions. Imagine further that it gives a unique perspective on some of the most urgent concerns of modern thought.

Hence the excitement when, in 1973, archaeologists found two copies of the Lao-Tzu, the ancient philosophical treatise, in a hoard of silk manuscripts disinterred from a Han dynasty tomb at Ma-wang-tui, southern central China. Internal evidence dated the earlier copy to 206-194 BC, only some fifty years after the work's existence is first attested and predating all extant versions by at least two centuries. Furthermore, these later variants were transmitted through countless intervening copies, with much scope for corruption.

Transcriptions of the Ma-wang-tui Lao-Tzu were published in China from 1974 onwards. D. C. Lau, the noted translator responsible for the Penguin Classics edition of the Tao-Te-Ching, published an English version in Hong Kong in 1982. Now transcriptions of both scrolls have been published, together with notes and a lucid, concise parallel translation, in a handy and cheap paperback edition (Lao-Tzu, Te-Tao-Ching, translated and edited by Robert G. Henricks, Rider, 1991), bringing the general reader up to date with this revolution in sinology.

The Ma-wang-tui manuscripts differ substantially in structure, though not in meaning, from the canonical editions. They are unbroken texts, without the traditional division into 81 short chapters, which must now be taken as a later editorial convention. Some passages fall in a different order to the accepted sequence. Furthermore, the two halves (Tao and Te) into which the work is usually divided are trasnpored, so that the Lao-Tzu's other common title, Tao-Te-Ching, becomes Te-Tao-Ching. One proposed explanation is that two versions were in circulation around 200 BC; one of which commenced with the second, slightly more political section. Another is that the copyist responsible for the Ma-wang-tui texts simply switched the two parts by mistake. Overall, though, the Ma-wang-tui Lao-Tzu presents the same arguments as the later standard variants; only somewhat more clearly, thanks to the greater use of grammatical particles in archaic written Chinese.

What is this work, then; what does it say? It is the most popular book ever written in Chinese, almost as widely disseminated as the Bible. Its anonymous author, who lived around the third century BC, hid behind the name of Lao Tzu, a semi-mythical sage said to have instructed Confucius. It is addressed by implication to a Sage-King, although its contents range far from statecraft. The late Professor Angus Graham called it |a long philosophical poem or poem cycle, much of it rhymed'; he then went on to say |The question "What is it about?" is however not necessarily any more relevant to the Lao-Tzu to other poetry'. Facets of it reflect on politics, economics, stategy and technology as well as on philosophy and mysticism. Its central theme, though, is how to find and keep to the Way: the Tao of Tao-Te-Ching, a word with roughly the same meanings as the English |way'.

The Way was the goal of all Chinese philosophical enquiry; it was the way to live. Where the Greeks asked |How shall a man live?', the Chinese asked |What is the Way?' As with the Greeks, the Chinese began the search for the Way in the sphere of human public life. Confucius used Tao to denote the proper course for the gentleman to follow through the political and social life which, again like the Greeks, he saw as fundamental to man. Central to his theme was the |correction of names'. Names must be clarified so as to fit them properly to what they named; for discrepancies between name and named confused and misled men.

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