Study Guide

Tao Te Ching Themes

  • Awe and Amazement

    The Tao of the Tao Te Ching is about as awesome and amazing as something can possibly be. To Taoists, the Tao is everything: the stuff in your room, the cars in the street, the squirrels in the trees, the ocean, the whole friggin' Universe. The Tao is you, us, and everyone who's ever lived, is living, or will live. The Tao is the mother of everything that was, is, and will be.

    As if that's not enough, the Tao is not only being, it's also non-being. It's everything that exists and everything that doesn't exist. Ultimately, the Tao is the great flow that puts everything together and takes it back apart. Kind of makes your brain hurt, right? That's what being awesome and amazing is all about.

    Questions About Awe and Amazement

    1. In what ways do Taoists think of the Tao as the mother of all things?
    2. How can something be being and non-being at the same time?
    3. What differences does the Tao Te Ching draw between the Tao's essence and manifestations?
    4. Compare and contrast the idea of the Tao to the concept of the divine in another religion. For example, how is it similar and different to the God of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity?

    Chew on This

    The idea of the Tao is compatible with every other religion; it even works for atheists.

    The existence of the Tao is supported by modern-day science, in particular astrophysics.

  • Humility

    If the Tao Te Ching could only say one thing, it might be something like, "Yo, get over yourself." Well, it would probably say it more eloquently than that… which it does over and over again throughout this ancient Chinese text.

    One of the TTC's main messages is that we have to eliminate the self before we can truly become one with the Tao, a.k.a. the great big flow of everything that is. By being humble and not going around talking about how great we are, we ultimately join something far greater than we can understand.

    Questions About Humility

    1. How does the Tao Te Ching define humility?
    2. In what ways does the TTC use the example of the Tao itself as an example of humble living?
    3. According to the TTC, what are the consequences of being arrogant?
    4. What's so great about being humble? What can we gain for ourselves by being selfless? What examples does the TTC give to support these ideas?

    Chew on This

    The Tao nurtures all things without bragging; if we follow its example of humility, then we will live fuller and more peaceful lives.

    The Tao Te Ching is totally wrong about humility being a good thing; if you do something well, what's wrong with talking about it?

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: Wu Wei

    You're probably saying, "Isn't all of Taoism a philosophical viewpoint?" Here's a nebulous answer (a shocker, we know: the Tao Te Ching is normally so cut and dried!): yes and no.

    The idea of wu wei is one of the key concepts of the Tao Te Ching, and it's such a slippery concept that no other theme can quite contain it. It's been translated a bunch of different ways over the years as Westerners struggle to understand it. Unattached action, the action of non-action, effortless action—all these terms have been slapped onto the wu wei.

    Basically (and we mean basic), when a Taoist achieves wu wei, s/he is at one with the flow of the Tao and can succeed in life without ripping his or her hair out over outcomes.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: Wu Wei

    1. How is it possible to be actively non-active?
    2. In what ways is the idea of the wu wei similar and different to the philosophy of pacifism?
    3. How does the Tao Te Ching use the Tao itself as an example of wu wei?
    4. How does the theme of humility tie into the practice of wu wei?

    Chew on This

    Sometimes the wu wei is used as an excuse for sheer laziness, but that's not what it's about.

    In the same way that the Tao achieves everything without effort, so too can we achieve everything through the wu wei.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    The Tao Te Ching teaches that being super judge-y of everybody else is a terrible way to go through life. The great Tao nurtures everything there is, whether it's a bad thing or a good thing. So we all ought take a cue from the Tao on this one.

    Some rude dude might call you a dirty name. The TTC would tell you to learn from his mistakes rather than insult him back. And if you see him on the side of the road with smoke coming out from under his hood, you're going to do way more good for yourself and the world if you give him a ride to the gas station than if you roll down the window and yell, "See ya, sucker!" as you drive past.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. How are the Tao Te Ching's views on compassion similar and different from the ones found in the Christian Bible?
    2. How does the TTC think we can learn from our enemies?
    3. How does the idea of forgiveness fit into a philosophy that's based on selflessness and humility? If we're all supposed to lower ourselves, are we ever in a position to forgive? Why or why not?
    4. What does the TTC mean when it says that we have to get rid of righteousness?

    Chew on This

    The Tao Te Ching advises that being generous with others is the ultimate gain.

    By not judging everyone we meet, we can understand more about humanity as a whole and learn new ways to help others.

  • Greed

    To the Tao Te Ching, greediness definitely falls on the dark side of the Force. (See: Emperor Palpatine.) Taoism is all about getting over yourself and being humble, so the idea of packing your bank account with cash and cramming your house with expensive stuff just doesn't fit into the Taoist mindset.

    The TTC points out that there's totally no point in lusting after material possessions because 1) you're just setting yourself up for loss, 2) you make yourself a target for theft, and 3) eventually everything fades—you, your stuff, etc.—so what's the point in placing value in material things?

    Questions About Greed

    1. In what ways does the Tao Te Ching say that greediness can be dangerous?
    2. How does the TTC say that we can actually gain the most in life?
    3. The TTC warns us not to place value on things that are hard to find. What would a society look like that actually stuck to this principle?
    4. Is the TTC right when it says that the want of profit is the cause of crime? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    It's idealistic to think that human beings will ever stop valuing things that are hard to find; wanting what we can't have is fundamental to our nature.

    The Tao Te Ching is right to condemn greediness since greed is the cause of almost every problem we have in society.

  • Warfare

    The Tao Te Ching comes down hard on warfare, basically saying that war is awful and ultimately pointless since it only causes more war down the line. We can also take all of the TTC's anti-war stuff and apply to our own lives.

    The TTC will tell you that punching a dude in the face might feel good in the moment, but more than likely he's coming at you tomorrow with a two-by-four. All that said, it's a mistake to say that the Tao Te Ching is completely and totally pacifist. While it strongly advises against war, it's also chock-full of tips on how to win one.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. What are some of the qualities that the Tao Te Ching says make a good general of an army?
    2. In the TTC, what's a surefire way to lose a battle?
    3. What is the TTC's view on how an army should treat a victory?
    4. Do you think the TTC and the NRA would get along? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    While the Tao Te Ching advises against war, it also shows how the wu wei can be used to win them.

    The Tao Te Ching contradicts itself when it advises against people having weapons, but later says that the people of a small country be well-armed.

  • Power

    The Tao Te Ching has tons of advice for all you rulers out there, the key point being that the more you try to control your people with force, the more they'll slip from your control. From the TTC's perspective, you'll actually be lucky if they slip from your control.

    There's been more than one tyrannical dictator to get taken out in a bloody rebellion led by either dissatisfied civilians or another dictator-to-be. We can also use Tao Te Ching's advice in our own lives, even if we aren't the ruler of a country. How? Click on, dear Shmoopers, and all mysteries shall be revealed.

    Questions About Power

    1. What are some examples of rulers in history whose power-hungriness caused their downfalls? How does the best kind of ruler rule according to the Tao Te Ching? The worst? The ones that are sort of so-so?
    2. What's the TTC's view on taxes?
    3. What does the TTC predict will happen to rulers who rule through cunning and manipulation?

    Chew on This

    The Tao Te Ching is naive to think that any ruler can rule without using manipulation; a totally transparent government isn't actually good for the people.

    The Tao Te Ching correctly points out the way in which stricter and stricter laws create crime and stifle a country's productivity.

  • Knowledge and Wisdom

    Here's a little irony for you... even though the Tao Te Ching is considered by a ton of people to be one of the wisest books ever written, the book itself totally criticizes the wisdom of seeking wisdom. To the TTC, simplicity is the best way to find oneness with the Tao, and complex intellectualism is just a bunch of hooey that stands in the way of true enlightenment.

    So maybe next time you don't bring your homework into class, you can tell your teacher that you were too busy finding oneness. Yes, that probably wouldn't work, but to a Taoist the pursuit of knowledge takes on a much different look than the way we usually think of it.

    Questions About Knowledge and Wisdom

    1. What does the Tao Te Ching say is the danger of pursuing knowledge?
    2. Why does the TTC advise against traveling to seek wisdom?
    3. To the TTC, what's the difference between an intelligent person and an enlightened one?
    4. Why does the TTC think it's usually better to be silent than to speak?

    Chew on This

    If everybody followed the Tao Te Ching's advice on seeking knowledge, our society would be backward and ignorant.

    The Tao Te Ching is correct when it warns that over-intellectualizing can obscure the simple truths that are all around us.