Tuesday, February 23, 2021

PHIL 158

The Tao Te Ching advocates the concept of wu wei, or non-action, while the Analects of Confucius propose ruling through ren (jen) and the enforcement of li. In what follows, I will highlight the contrast between these two ideals in matters of contemporary political disposition, while also putting forth that the Confucian Analects, in its proposition of ren and li, are comparatively more relevant to our modern political world, than the Tao Te Ching is.

According to the Tao Te Ching, the ideal situation is one in which a person strives for nothing, and the ideal person, often referred to as a Sage, is one who simply goes along in time, letting tao take its course. To a Sage, only the present moment exists and to find everything that one needs, one has to look within as it already exists and is flowing. The tao is not an external entity that has to be chased after, but is sought by finding one’s own purpose, by being present in oneself.

A person in the practice of tao would be in the habit of wu wei, refraining from setting things astir, and thereby supposedly maintaining harmony and peace. Without having done anything, one who lives in tao has already done all things as they have no desire to do more. The Tao Te Ching also proposes that governing a society well constitutes gentle advisory from the background instead of an institution or a political leader that’s in the limelight to control every move (Lao Tzu, n.d.). 

While the Tao Te Ching has merit to its teachings and may have been relevant at its point of conception thousands of years ago, the reality is that current modern society has evolved to a point of imbalance. The teachings within the Tao Te Ching do not serve to correct imbalances in a society and its virtues cannot be applied or reflected well in a society that has already been put out of balance and which needs a course back towards a fair and equitable situation for all members of that community. 

At the present moment, in the United States, the wealth divide among upper-income families and middle- and lower-income families is sharp and rising, and “the richest are getting richer faster” (Horowitz, Igielnik & Kochhar, 2020). Globally, the world’s richest 1 percent, those with more than $1 million, own 44 percent of the world’s wealth (Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, 2020).

Juxtaposing an ideal government from the Tao Te Ching into our current society would translate into allowing the prevailing wealth divide to exacerbate. Up to the 1980s, the economies of OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) member countries, including the United States, were generally more regulated than they are today. Governments of these countries have also trended towards taking more passive roles in the labor market. 

In the past, wage increments were sometimes negotiated at a federal level and there was relatively tighter regulation of how and when companies could let workers go. Today, market forces are generally allowed freer rein. These factors have tended to widen the wage gap, pushing down the wages of “low-skill” workers and pushing up the wages of “high-skill” workers. Part-time and temporary workers, in particular, are now covered by weaker employment protection laws than in the past (Keeley, 2015). 

While the above may expound only one manner of governmental intervention, wages are a significant and important factor of caring for society. A person’s wages directly affects the environment that surrounds them, the education and healthcare options available to them, and essentially their entire livelihoods. A governmental leader who is also a practitioner of tao would not deign to intervene in such political matters, as the teaching advocates moderate counseling instead of executing active and dynamic responses. Hence, the Tao Te Ching bears little relevance to the modern political world, which requires swift and sure arbitration, if an equitable society is the aim. 

Alternatively, the Analects of Confucius champion ren, a concept of strengthening relationships between human beings as well as supporting one another, as a means of elevating society and oneself. Ren functions based on the premise that a society is only as strong as its weakest link, and Confucian Analects appeals to its followers to empower one another, so as to uplift society as a unit. 

Excerpts from the Analects that directly demonstrate the concept of ren include “people who are ren are first to shoulder difficulties and last to reap rewards” and “the ren person is one who, wishing himself to be settled in position, sets up others; wishing himself to have access to the powerful, achieves access for others.” (Confucius, n.d.)

Within the past century, working conditions of modern society have largely been the creation of both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, who campaigned for the passage of fair labor laws. Henry Ford took the monumental step of raising the wages of workers to five dollars a day, a huge salary increase for factory workers at that time. Ford’s objective was to improve the conditions of the workers’ lives. Mohandas Gandhi, John Kennedy and Andrew Carnegie are all among the historical giants who rose to leadership heights by empowering people (Mumford, 2006). Almost all distinguished leaders in all walks of life have exercised influence and empowered their people. By empowering people, they were able to succeed in their aspirations for the world. This proves by and large similar to the teachings of Confucius from thousands of years ago. (Dhakhwa & Enriquez, 2008) 

A modern leader practising the philosophy found in the Analects of Confucius would be encouraged to head labor unions or transform legislation, for the cause of achieving fair and just treatment not just for him or herself, but also all the people they serve and work with. Governing in such a manner would have a more desirable impact, with the potential to eventually reduce existing wealth and income disparity. At the very least, taking swift action to uplift one another would be more helpful than having a passive stance whilst the current situation proliferates. In this aspect, the Analects would benefit modern society more and have more relevance than the Tao Te Ching.

The Analects of Confucius did contain limited ideas about women. During the Tang dynasty, two female scholars created a separate text based on his ideas, which became known as the Analects for Women. It cemented the idea that the roles of men and women should be distinct from each other. A study done by the International Monetary Fund in 2012 showed that only 9 percent of corporate management positions in Japan and South Korea were held by women, compared to 43 percent in the United States. (Worrall, 2015) 

This knowledge indicates that Confucius’ teachings may yet be lacking in several ways and would need to be supplemented with other philosophies for proper governance. However, comparing the Tao Te Ching and The Analects, the teachings of the latter would serve more good, to a much wider demographic of society. 


Dhakhwa, S. & Enriquez, S. (2008). The Relevance of Confucian Philosophy to Modern Concepts of Leadership and Followership. http://digitalcommons.unf.edu/ojii_volumes/5

Global Inequality. (2019). Inequality.org. https://inequality.org/facts/global-inequality/

Hinton, D. (1998). The Analects of Confucius. Washington, DC: Counterpoint.

Horowitz, J., Igielnik, R., & Kochhar, R. (2020). Most Americans Say There Is Too Much Economic Inequality In The U.S. But Fewer Than Half Call It A Top Priority. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/01/09/trends-in-income-and-wealth-inequality/

Keeley, B. (2015). “Why is income inequality rising?”, in Income Inequality: The Gap between Rich and Poor. OECD Publishing, Paris.

Mumford, M. D. (2006). Pathways to outstanding leadership: A comparative analysis of charismatic, ideological, and pragmatic leaders. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Worrall, S. (2015). Why Is Confucius Still Relevant Today? His Sound Bites Hold Up. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/150325-confucius-china-asia-philosophy-communist-party-ngbooktalk

Wu, J. C. H. (1961). Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. https://terebess.hu/english/tao/wu.html#Kap01