The Daodejing is the most fundamental scripture of Daoism and a classic of world literature, as important to human culture as the Bible, the Quran, and the dialogues of Plato. It is at once a repository of ancient wisdom, a key to understanding present-day Chinese civilization and culture, and a source of astonishingly fresh perspectives on hot social topics and existential issues. In the Daodejing one finds discourses on life, death, sex, and human emotions, as well as war, capital punishment, and effective leadership.
Although traditionally ascribed to one author called Laozi, the Daodejing is really an ancient “hypertext,” with inputs from many hands over several centuries. It is profound and many-layered, but its poetic imagery, proverbs, riddles, and aphorisms converge on the central theme of wu wei or noninterference. Wu wei is based on the idea that active intervention causes more problems than it solves. The Daodejing preaches the virtue of noninterference and letting things evolve naturally. In personal life, it recommends avoiding physical and mental friction, preserving one’s energies, and staying healthy. In government, it warns against activist policies that waste resources and ultimately strengthen rivals. The human world and its social order are a natural part of the cosmos. Allowing events to unfold naturally is always better than striving and forcing change.
The Daodejing’s philosophical themes are revealed most fully in its imagery. The root, the wheel, the valley, water, and other metaphorical images recur frequently and are keys to unlocking its meaning.