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Naturalism: Core ideas of Laozi on education

Author  :  ZHANG XUEQIANG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-05-23

Laozi put forward educational ideas that viewed nature as law. His theory was that “nature is the Way of the universe.” He proposed a series of ideas on the function, purpose and methods of education as well as ways to learn and nurture oneself, which are contrary to Confucian educational ideas. The educational ideas of Laozi are important part of traditional Chinese education philosophy.

Nature as law

From Laozi’s view, the extrasensory Tao, which translates to “the Way,” is shapeless, soundless and bodiless. The Tao has two fundamental connotations—the Tao generates the myriad things and the Tao takes nature as its law.

“The Tao generates the myriad things” means that the Tao is the origin of everything in the universe. Laozi said “The Tao generates the Unique; The Unique generates the Double; The Double generates the Triplet; The Triplet generates the myriad things. The myriad things recline on yin and embrace yang while the vacuous qi holds them in harmony.” In regard to the idea that Tao takes nature as its law, he said “Humans imitate the earth; the earth imitates heaven; Heaven imitates the Tao; the Tao imitates her natural self.” The Tao takes nature as its law, and the Tao is natural law, which impels nothing and everything will follow voluntarily.

Education also follows the supreme principle of “Tao takes nature as its law.” The natural inactivity (wuwei) law is also applicable to human education, nurturing natural men and maintaining the order of natural operation of human society.

Natural, artificial

Laozi’s cultural ideas are established based on his idea of natural Way. The Way of nature is the origin and operational way of the myriad things in the universe. It is not only the manifestation of the operational order of nature but also the state in which social operational order should be and an individual should pursue as a way of living.

In other words, human social culture should also be natural, which requires rulers to govern a nation, while individuals should tackle interpersonal relationships and nurture personal virtues all by doing nothing that goes against nature.

Laozi supported “natural” culture but opposed “artificial” culture. Artificial culture includes all material, technological, institutional and spiritual culture created by human beings, especially the moral culture advocated by Confucianism. Laozi said: “The more prohibitions there are, the more ritual avoidances, the poorer the people will be. The sharper weapons are, the more benighted will the whole land grow. The more cunning craftsmen there are, the more pernicious contrivances will be invented. The more laws are promulgated, the more thieves and bandits will appear.” Here, prohibition, ritual avoidances, sharp weapons and laws represent all artificial culture, which Laozi views as cultures that go against nature.

Laozi viewed Confucian moral culture as a negative product of social degradation. He said: “After the Tao was lost, then came power; After power was lost, then came human kindness; After human kindness was lost, then came morality; After morality was lost, then came ritual. Now ritual is the mere husk of loyalty and promise-keeping and is indeed the first step toward brawling.” The moral norms advocated by Confucianism, which Laozi opposed, are fundamentally not in accordance with the ways of nature.

Education, human nature

The fundamental characteristics of the Tao include inactivity (wuwei), softness and weakness (rouruo), non-competiveness (buzheng), uncarved and other traits. The uncarved state of an infant when she is innocent and without desire is the best possible condition of a human being. The bad habits of greed, selfishness, cunning and cruelty in real society are the harms caused by social factors on natural humanity. What education can do to an individual is to “bring him back to the state of the infant.”

The prerequisite for all of society to return to its ideal state is for everyone to return to his or her natural state. The small country with few inhabitants is actually a simple and primitive society composed of individuals rejecting human civilization.

From Laozi’s view, restoring human nature is a process of subtraction. The process of practicing Tao is completely different from engaging in learning. The worldly learning process is one that increases knowledge, which impairs human nature. Only through the process of subtraction, can we restore our human nature. That is what Laozi says: “Learning consists of adding to one’s stock day by day. The practice of Tao consists of subtracting day by day. Subtracting and yet subtracting until one has reached inactivity (wuwei).”

What is subtracted is the greedy desires and cunning mind as well as the moral dogmas advocated by Confucians. Human beings lose their human nature in the process of pursuing reputation, interest and sensual pleasure. By eradicating all of these, the sage believes we can restore our natural humanity. Moral education advocated by Confucians also impairs human nature. Education also plays a role in restoration of humanity by gradually subtracting the influence of Confucian moral education. Laozi said: “Banish wisdom, discard knowledge, and the people will benefit a hundredfold. Banish human kindness, discard morality, and people will be dutiful and compassionate. Banish skill, discard profit, and thieves and robbers will disappear. If when these three things are done, they find life too plain and unadorned, then let them have accessories: give them simplicity to look at, the uncarved block to hold, give them selfishness and fewness of desires. Banish learning, and there will be no more grieving.”

Mystical epistemology

Laozi defines learning as pursuing knowledge and skills about concrete things while “practicing the Tao” as comprehending the Tao, which generates myriad things. He advocates practicing the Tao and objects to learning and comprehending the objective world through sensory organs. From Laozi’s view, people pay too much attention to learning concrete knowledge and skills, boasting about their erudition and wisdom in distinguishing right from wrong, which are all despised and rejected by those who practice the Tao.

The differences between practicing the Tao and learning, as Laozi said, are “The world is full of people that shine but I alone am dark. They look lively and self-assured but I alone am depressed.” On the surface, those who practice learning are wise and observant and those Tao practitioners are benighted and undiscerning. However, learning practitioners deviate from the Way while the Tao practitioners follow it. It is exactly the pursuit of concrete knowledge and skills that hinders the comprehension and perception of the Tao.

Laozi believes Tao is unspeakable and cannot be comprehended by sensory organs, nor can it be comprehended through wide practical experience. Even rationality is incapable of comprehending Tao. Laozi said: “Without leaving his door, he knows everything under heaven. Without looking out of his window, he knows all the ways of heaven. For the further one travels, the less one knows. Therefore, the Sage arrives without travelling, sees all without looking, does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone.”

Laozi believed that various things, despite their complexity, always circle and return back to their roots, and that is the fundamental Way for things to change and develop. In order to comprehend this Way, people’s minds should be peaceful, quiet, void, free from the disturbances of the outside world. In this way, we can silently comprehend the Tao. As Laozi put it: “Push far enough towards the void and hold fast enough to quietness. And of the ten thousand things, none but can be worked on by you. I have beheld them, whither they go back. See, all things howsoever they flourish returned to the root from which they grew. This return to the root is called quietness; Quietness is called submission to fate; What has submitted to fate has become part of the always-so, and to know the always-so is to be illuminated.”

Comprehending the Tao means to exclude all personal subjective feelings and to know things as they are. Laozi said: “So through the household one may contemplate the Household. And through the village, one may contemplate the Village. And through the kingdom, one may contemplate the Kingdom. And through the empire, one may contemplate the Empire.”

Comprehending Tao also involves learning from others. People, good or bad, are all necessary teachers and assets when comprehending Tao. Laozi said “Truly, the perfect man is the teacher of the imperfect and the imperfect is the asset of the perfect man. He who does not respect his teacher and he who does not take care of his assets, much learning though he may possess, is far astray. This is the essential secret.”

In the meantime, comprehending Tao also means to carry out wordless teaching according to the axiom “those who know do not speak, and those who speak do not know.” The Tao is indescribable and can only be silently perceived. Therefore, it is vain to utter and convey ideas about the Tao. As Laozi said, “The sage relies on action-less activity (wuwei) and carries out wordless teaching.”


Zhang Xueqiang is from Center for Studies of Education Development of Ethnic Minorities, Northwest Normal University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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