28. Confucius on the Tao

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Confucians and Taoists emerge from common root of Chinese thought of which Tao is part

We’ve spoken about how Confucianism and Taoism are complementary Chinese philosophies. One reason is because they emerge from the common base of Chinese culture. Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Islam all begin with the Biblical foundation and then diverge over interpretation. Similarly, the Confucians and Taoists begin from the common root of Chinese culture.1 We’ve seen how the concept of sage is one of these universal Chinese themes that every Chinese philosophy deals with in some way. Another theme is the Tao itself. As with Taoists, Confucius includes the Tao in his worldview. In this section, we are going to examine what Confucius has to say about the Tao.

Concept of the Tao primary to philosophy of Confucius

The concept of the Tao is primary in the philosophy of Confucius. The Chinese Classic, the ‘Analects’ of Confucius, contain all that we reliably know about Confucius and his thoughts. In this work, he mentions the Tao regularly throughout the collection of sayings and beliefs. There are the 30 odd quotes that contain the ideogram for Tao. Let us look at a sampling of these quotations to refine our understanding.

“Great Man calculates in terms of the Tao2, not in terms of earning a living. Agriculture is inspired by the fear of hunger; study, by an interest in salary. Great Man is concerned about the Tao; not about poverty.”3

According to Confucius, the Great Man focuses upon the Tao before earning a living, before prosperity and before poverty. The Tao is his primary focus, not something incidental. He is not saying that we should renounce earning a good living, just that the Great Man focuses upon the Tao first.

Confucius: ‘Great Man concerned about Tao, first.’

In Confucian thought, following the Tao is of paramount importance. He suggests that rulers insist on following the Tao, even if it is difficult4. The leader must follow the Tao to inspire his followers5. Further if the state is not following the Tao, then one must not serve it6.

Heaven uses Confucius to ring the bell for Tao

Indeed as this next quotation shows, the reason Confucius is on the planet is to call people’s attention to the Tao.

“The world has been in ignorance of the Tao for a long time; but Heaven7 is going to use your master (Confucius) as a baton with which to strike the bell summoning men to instruction.”8

Confucius here to lead us to study the Tao

Confucius even says that he wouldn’t need to change the world if it were already aligned with the Tao.

“If the world were following the Tao, I should not be doing my part to reform it.”9

Confucius: Attend to fundamentals and Tao arises

If the Tao is so important, how does one both identify and follow it? To align themselves with the Will of Heaven, Taoists frequently employ both the Great Oracle, the I Ching, and quietude. According to Confucius, the individual approaches the Tao through attendance to fundamentals.

“Great Man applies himself to the fundamentals, for once the fundamentals are there the Tao comes into being.”

According to Confucius, the Tao is an emergent phenomenon that arises from tending fundamentals. This quote almost seems Taoist.

Confucius speaks about Tao, but not a Taoist

While Confucius speaks extensively about the Tao, Master Ni says, “He is not a Taoist.” Why is this?

Confucius: ‘filial duty fundamental’

For Taoists, the fundamentals tend to be physical. What are the fundamentals that Confucius refers to?

“It is filial duty and fraternal duty that are fundamental to Manhood-at-his-best.”

While the Taoists consider body practices fundamental, Confucius considers the respect for family fundamental. Confucius even extends this filial responsibility into a type of social responsibility. He points out that serving the family institution also serves the state.10

Moral behavior can be taught

Confucius emphasizes proper moral behavior towards family and state. He believes that this morality can be taught. For Confucius, following the Tao seems to mean adopting proper human moral behavior, which has an absolute definition. Most of the time when he speaks about the Tao, he is speaking about the tao of a state or country.

Confucius emphasizes the tao of the state

While Confucius talks about the Tao, his primary concern seems to be what to do when your state does not follow the Tao. Is it appropriate to provide services for a government who has abandoned the Tao?

“When a state is following the Tao, one enters its pay. If one enters the pay of a state which is not following the Tao, it is shameful.”11

This is just one example of his many references to the Tao of the state.

Not body practices

Confucius considers the ‘fundamentals’ as adherence to a somewhat absolute moral code based upon respect for family and state. In contrast, Taoist stress body practices and quietude as their fundamentals. Confucius does not focus upon the body, except in a secondary fashion. While the Taoists emphasize body practices, Confucius emphasizes the family to strengthen the foundations of society. While the Taoists ask that the body be aligned, Confucius asks that our thoughts be correct.

“Let our thoughts be correct.”12

The Taoists would wonder how one’s thoughts could be correct without proper body alignment.

Lao Tzu: “Enough already: Tao nameless.”

It could have been in reaction to all this discussion about the Tao that led Lao Tzu to make his famous statement that the Tao is nameless. This disclaimer would limit the endless discussion about what the Tao was.

Expert on Tao of Man

Cheng Man-ching, as mentioned earlier, said that Taoists focus upon the tao of Heaven and Earth, while Confucius focuses upon the tao of humans. For Taoists, the Tao is nameless and indefinable because the Tao they refer to is that of Heaven and Earth, while the tao of humans is definable.

Confucius: tao of state includes adherence to ritual, not Tao of Heaven

One way that Taoists and Confucians are similar is their emphasis upon ritual. Confucius felt that ritual is a necessary feature of a state that is following the tao of government, as ritual binds society together. Similarly, Taoist priests led the Chinese Empire in specific rituals that were designed to align the state with the tao of Heaven to insure peace and tranquility.

However, the emphasis of the two religions is slightly different. Confucius focuses primarily upon the tao of man and his institutions to achieve good government. Taoists believe that rulers achieve the best results for the populace if they align with the tao of Heaven. Practically speaking, the political aim of both philosophies is very similar – peace, tranquility, and a happy, well-fed citizenry.

Confucius: Humans can tap into the potentials of the Tao

We never want to underestimate Confucius. In the following Confucian quote the Tao of Man is mixed subtly with the Tao of Heaven and Earth to create a stimulating idea.

Quote: Ware’s translation

It is a very simple statement.

Ware’s translation:

    “Man can make System great; it isn’t System which makes Man great.”13

Or retranslated

    “Man can make the Tao great, the Tao doesn’t make Man great.”

The first tao of the phrase refers to the Tao of man, while the second refers to the Tao of Heaven. It is saying that humans have the ability to create a great ‘way’ or method of living, a great Tao, while the Tao of Heaven will not create a great human. In other words, we are free agents. We can create our own Tao, great or small. The Tao of Heaven can’t do this for us. The Tao of Heaven is impersonal. Humans exert themselves to take advantage of the potentials of the Tao.

Retranslated again:

    “Man can make his Tao great, the Tao doesn’t make Man great.”

Chinese direct translation

Let us look even deeper at this somewhat enigmatic phrase and its implications by examining the Chinese. It is only 8 characters long and only employs 5 words.

In Chinese: Ren néng héng tao, feí tao héng ren.

Literally this means: Man/ has the ability to/ enlarge /tao/, not/ tao/ enlarge/ man. Loosely translated:

“Humans have the ability to tap into the potentials of the Tao, but can’t rely upon the Tao for assistance.”

This statement is not fatalistic and is instead incredibly proactive. We must exert ourselves to catch the wave of the Tao. If we are passive, it passes us by.


In summary, the collected sayings of Confucius, i.e. the Analects, and the Taoist’s Tao te Ching both deal with similar Chinese issues. Both philosophies are concerned with the nature of the Tao. While Confucius tends to focus upon the Tao of Man, the Lao Tzu focuses more upon the Tao of Heaven and Earth.

Both philosophies describe what it is to be a sage, and what it means to align with the Tao.  Confucianism and Taoism, instead of being mutually exclusive, are instead complementary. Each religion offers solutions to different parts of the same Chinese puzzle. While Taoists focus upon a person’s individual relation to heaven, Confucius focuses upon a person’s collective relation to society. While coming up with different solutions to similar problems, they deal with the same universal Chinese issues. Let us move on to see how these philosophies play themselves out in the coming centuries.


1 The 'Three Doctines', i.e. Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, are an integral part of Chinese culture. Buddhism, Yoga and the diversity of beliefs called Hinduism, grew from the foundation of thoughts connected with the Indian subcontinent. Buddhism, which was grafted onto the Chinese plant, eventually merged with Taoism to become Chan or Zen Buddhism, a uniquely Chinese blend, which has had great influence in Eastern Asia, especially Japan.

2 Ware: System = Tao. In Ware’s fine translation, he uses the word ‘System’ for the ideogram for Tao. As we’ve seen, our English words have whole different set of connotations from the Chinese. Because of this fact, the English words tend to mislead the reader into a false sense of understanding. For this reason, we will instead use the Chinese word, Tao, when we read System in Ware’s translation. While Tao has its own Western connotations, at least, it is the word. This discussion will refine our understanding of the word Tao, rather than piling more loaded English words on top, which will only serve to confuse the issue.

3 The Sayings of Confucius translated by James Ware, professor at Harvard University, 1958, Confucius Publishing Co., p. 164

4 Confucius, p. 134

5 Confucius, p. 120

6 Confucius, p. 138

7 While Ware uses the word ‘Sky’, we will use the word ‘Heaven’ in the translation. We have already established a meaning for Heaven in the context of this paper, which is obscured when another word is used.

8 Confucius, p26

9 Confucius, p. 192

10Note in the following pages how many emperors, including Mao in the 20th century, enforce the exact opposite of this concept, believing the family to be a threat to the government.

11 Confucius, p. 138

12 Confucius, p.10

13Confucius p. 164


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