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Was Lao Tzu an Anti-Intellectual?
Looking into the Tao Te Ching

Was Lao Tzu an Anti-Intellectual?
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, "Abandon learning, and you will be free from trouble and distress." (The Saying of Lao Tzu, p. 45) Another version has the same lines translated as "When we renounce learning we have no troubles...The ancients who showed their skill in practicing the Tao did so not to enlighten people, but to make them simple and ignorant." (The Story of Civilization, p. 653)

In book three of the J. H. McDonald translation of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says, “The Master leads by / emptying people's minds, / filling their bellies, / weakening their ambitions, / and making them become strong. / Preferring simplicity and freedom from desires, / avoiding the pitfalls of knowledge and wrong action.”

But what is learning? What is knowledge? Does Lao Tzu denounce all knowledge and learning, facts, studies, education, et. al, or does he point to the pitfalls of an arrogant dependence on them? In the scope of governance, historian Will Durant sees the Tao's anti-intellectual leanings as such: "The worst conceivable government would be by philosophers; they botch every natural process with theory; their ability to make speeches and multiply ideas is precisely the sign of their incapacity for action." (p. 653)

In recontextualizing the Tao for contemporary thinking, the question must be raised: was Lao Tzu anti-intellectual in the same way we understand anti-intellectualism today? Richard Hofstadter defined the current model in his seminal work Anti-intellectualism in American Life: "Anti-intellectualism is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it, and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life." (Read our past exhibit on anti-intellectualism here)
Paradoxes unlock Lao Tzu’s teaching and mindfulness begets each paradox. This is made clear right off the bat, in book one of the Tao. A. S. Kline’s translation reads, “The Way - cannot be told. / The Name - cannot be named. / The nameless is the Way of Heaven and Earth / The named is Matrix and Myriad Creatures.” The Tao translates as “the way,” which is the essence of Lao Tzu’s philosophy. The Tao cannot be named, therefore language is suspect (not to mention the many varied interpretations and translations birthed over the years). If language is suspect, then the specified type of learning and knowledge specific to language is also suspect. 

But simultaneously, as you, the reader, read these words, so it must be made clear that the structure of every paradox is mapped out with words. Lao Tzu’s version of anti-intellectualism outlines the pitfalls of knowledge through knowledge. Similar to the saying “you must know the rules in order to break the rules,” in order to not be deceived by knowledge, one must understand how knowledge works: what effects it has on you and by what tools we both generate and consume knowledge. 

Language itself, as the identifier, vehicle, and key for knowledge, stumbles on its own feet. Language frames thought, thus distorting reality. For instance, how does one explain color to another person? Or how about explaining abstract concepts such as love, beauty, and freedom? Lao Tzu recognized that words misrepresent abstract meanings, and, furthermore, compartmentalize and misrepresent the Way.

For further translations and reading on the Tao, read The Texts of Taoism, Taoist Texts, Ethical, Political and Speculative, and the Tao Te Ching translated by Ron Hogan.

By Thad Higa

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