The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tse, also known as Laozi, was born in the sixth century B.C., but scholars have been unable to assign a more specific birth year. Some historians believe that he may have lived two centuries earlier. Regarded as the author of the classical Chinese work Tao Te Ching, Lao Tse is known today as the founder of Taoism. As the philosophy of Taoism took root, it also became a popular religion and Lao Tse has since been referred to in some Chinese quarters as a deity.
The earliest reference to the philosopher stems from roughly 100 B.C., but the dates surrounding Lao Tse have been debated by scholars for centuries. The earliest writings about Lao Tse reveal that he was a contemporary of the great Chinese philosopher Confucius, but this is also widely debated. Tradition holds that Lao Tse’s early career was spent as an imperial official who worked in the archives for the court of the Zhou Dynasty. Other early sources refer to him as an important historian and well-known astrologer. Whatever the truth of his occupation, most scholars concur that he left the east for the west after becoming disenchanted with the moral decline of his civilization.
Tradition holds that Lao Tse spent time in the west living as a hermit and compiling his philosophical thoughts. His beliefs were later recorded in his magnus opus, Tao Te Ching, but the authorship of this celebrated work is also contested, but usually ascribed to Lao Tse. Translated, the work’s title means “the way.” The work is one of ancient China’s most famous texts. As a philosophical work, the text offers everything from advice for rulers to helpful suggestions for everyday people living their lives. It became highly influential and supported the transformation of Taoism into a religious system of beliefs.
Lao Tse’s teachings reflected many themes. Some of these suggest a return to nature whereby people might live a more pure and unhampered existence. He warned of the dangers of too much technological progress and also encouraged people to practice humility and search for true wisdom. Lao Tse was concerned with the practice of virtue. Tradition holds that he shunned fame and sought a life free of convention where he could lead a virtuous life. Along with Confucianism and Buddhism, Taoism became one of the pillars of Chinese philosophy. Even though Lao Tse is credited with its authorship, he is sometimes viewed as completely legendary. No text exists that definitively maps out his life.