The Philosophy of the Daodejing / Edition 1

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For centuries, the ancient Chinese philosophical text the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) has fascinated and frustrated its readers. While it offers a wealth of rich philosophical insights concerning the cultivation of one's body and attaining one's proper place within nature and the cosmos, its teachings and structure can be enigmatic and obscure.

Hans-Georg Moeller presents a clear and coherent description and analysis of this vaguely understood Chinese classic. He explores the recurring images and ideas that shape the work and offers a variety of useful approaches to understanding and appreciating this canonical text. Moeller expounds on the core philosophical issues addressed in the Daodejing, clarifying such crucial concepts as Yin and Yang and Dao and De. He explains its teachings on a variety of subjects, including sexuality, ethics, desire, cosmology, human nature, the emotions, time, death, and the death penalty. The Daodejing also offers a distinctive ideal of social order and political leadership and presents a philosophy of war and peace.

An illuminating exploration, The Daodejing is an interesting foil to the philosophical outlook of Western humanism and contains surprising parallels between its teachings and nontraditional contemporary philosophies.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy - Philip J. Ivanhoe

Moeller has done a commendable job of taking this text seriously and drawing out a range of valuable themes and issues.

Journal of Chinese Philosophy - Erica Brindley

Intriguing and worthwhile.

Religious Studies Review - Russell Kirkland

an intriguing rumination upon the 'meaning' of the Daode jing (or Laozi), and upon how 'we'-that is, the postmodern Western intellectual-ought to approach it.


Intelligent, readable, and relevant... Highly recommended.


Intelligent, readable, and relevant... Highly recommended.

Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy

Moeller has done a commendable job of taking this text seriously and drawing out a range of valuable themes and issues.

— Philip J. Ivanhoe

Journal of Chinese Philosophy
Intriguing and worthwhile.

— Erica Brindley

Religious Studies Review
an intriguing rumination upon the 'meaning' of the Daode jing (or Laozi), and upon how 'we'-that is, the postmodern Western intellectual-ought to approach it.

— Russell Kirkland

Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy
Moeller has done a commendable job of taking this text seriously and drawing out a range of valuable themes and issues.

— Philip J. Ivanhoe

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231136792
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 4/25/2006
  • Edition description: ANN
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 184
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Hans-Georg Moeller is associate professor of philosophy at Brock University in St. Catharines, Canada. He is the author of three other books on Daoism, including Daoism Explained: From the Dream of the Butterfly to the Fishnet Allegory.

Columbia University Press

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Read an Excerpt

The Philosophy of the Daodejing

By Hans-Georg Moeller


Copyright © 2006 Columbia University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-231-13678-1

Chapter One

The Dao of Sex

The Laozi talks about sex, and it does so frequently. It talks about sexuality because the Dao, as a "way," is a way of living and dying. It is also a way of fertility. As such, there is a sexual dimension to it and, accordingly, a number of poetic images in the Laozi are directly or indirectly sexual. Images of motherhood and femininity-for instance in chapter 6: "The spirit of the valley does not die / This is called hidden femininity"-are immediately related to sexuality and reproduction. Chapter 28 connects the image of the fertile and "female" valley by speaking of the river that runs through it:

Know the masculine and maintain the feminine- be the world's river.

The "river" of the world is the source of its fertility-all life emerges from water. The river, as the spring of life, is here paralleled with the twoness of the sexes. It encompasses the masculine and the feminine. Obviously, the structure of fertility requires a united duality. If one wants to understand how a continuous process of production and reproduction is possible, one has to know about sexual duality. The unity of becoming and passing away also has adual structure, and this is what the above quoted lines allude to.

Reproduction is the result of the conjunction of the sexes, and to be able to come together they have to be different. The sexual distinction between masculinity and femininity is manifested by different but complementary characteristics. Chapter 61 says:

The female overcomes the male by constant stillness. Because she is still she is therefore fittingly underneath.

Obviously, these lines are about sexuality. In sexual intercourse-at least from a Daoist perspective-stillness and movement come together. Male sexuality goes along with movement, and female sexuality with stillness. This distinction is accompanied by a second one, a distinction of positions. The female is suited for the lower position while the male is suited for the higher one. But in the Daoist context, this distinction by no means indicates a subjection of femininity. The opposite is the case. In Daoist imagery-and especially in the Daodejing-the lower position is both more prestigious and mightier than the higher. That which lies low holds power. This is why the female overcomes the male in the performance of sexual intercourse. The male exhausts himself and loses his life energy, which is in turn absorbed by the female. In stillness, the female "acts without acting"-just as prescribed by the famous Daoist maxim "wei wu wei." By not acting she takes the male 's energy and becomes the place of fertility that produces life.

In this way, chapter 61 of the Laozi provides a background for the later male Daoist practice of holding back semen in sexual intercourse. By preventing an ejaculation, the man learned not to squander his energies but rather to concentrate them within his own body. The retention of semen was supposed to increase male power and potency. Sexual intercourse was perceived as a kind of sexual struggle lost by the male partner, and accordingly-from a male perspective-a strategy had to be to adopted that had female qualities. This included the reduction of movement and averting of ejaculation. In the sexual struggle, the winner was not the one who fecundates, but rather the one who managed to be fecundated and thus to give birth.

The imagery of chapter 78 in the Laozi also seems to indicate a "struggle of the sexes." The first two stanzas are:

Nothing in the world is smoother and softer than water; but nothing surpasses it in tackling the stiff and the hard, because it is not to be changed.

That water defeats the solid, That the soft defeats the hard: Nobody in the world who does not know this, but still nobody is able to practice it.

I do not think that one has to be a Freudian to detect a sexual meaning in these verses. In the Laozi, and in Daoism in general (as well as in many other traditions around the world), images of femininity and water are immediately connected with each other. Their connection is due to their common characteristic of being fertile, which is the sexual characteristic per se. Chapter 61 already alluded to their common qualities when it spoke of that which lies low. When chapter 78 describes water as the smooth and soft element that attacks the stiff and the hard and thus "defeats the solid," it also suggests a sexual interpretation of the same imagery. In the sexual act, the female triumphs not only because she lies low and still but also because she is soft and remains unchanged. This is opposed to the higher and moving male who lets himself be changed into stiffness. Everybody in the world, as the text reminds us, knows about this; however, there is hardly anyone, or more precisely, any man, who consequently practices the different "female" sexuality of stillness and retention. This line resonates with the line in chapter 28 that asked the reader to know the male but maintain the female.

In the Laozi, sexual intercourse is a competition of the sexes won by the female. This is described as an obvious fact; however, it is not well understood. In real life, men usually do not alter their behavior and continue their sexual strategies of activity, rigidity, and "lying on top." Daoist sages, on the contrary, will be aware of the struggle of the sexes and the resulting structure of sexual intercourse. They will "know" the male but "maintain" the female. Therefore, the ideal Daoist man is neither a sexual athlete nor a womanizing macho man; he rather resembles a human figure that precedes virile masculinity-he resembles an infant. The Daoist superman is a baby:

One who holds the fullness of efficacy is like an infant.

Chapter 55 begins with these lines and continues to describe the sagelike Daoist child:

Bones and muscles are soft and weak- but the grip is firm. He does not know about the union of the male and the female- but the penis is erected. This is the maximum of Qi.

The Daoist infant "does not know about the union of the male and the female." He is presexual or not yet sexually active. This sexual non-activity of the male infant proves that it "knows the masculine" but "maintains the feminine." The infant maintains the female traits of softness and weakness in his muscles and bones-simultaneously, he has a permanent erection. But since he does not "know about the union of the male and the female," he does not lose his potency. The infant never ejaculates. Therefore, as the text says, "it holds the fullness of efficacy" and maintains "the maximum of Qi." The Daoist boy applies the "female" strategy of non-action, stillness, and of "lying low." Chapter 28 says:

If the continuing power does not leave you, you return to the state of infancy.

The Daoist infant serves as an illustrative image to the reader (or listener) of the Laozi. By following its example, one will retain and thus increase one's energies, powers, and efficacy. By following this Dao of sex, one will maximize one's De.

One could object that if everyone followed this example there would be an end to all fertility, to all reproduction. Fecundation would never take place, and the cycle of reproduction would come to an end. Such an objection, however, overlooks a crucial aspect of the Laozi. It was not meant to be studied by everyone. It was composed, in the strict sense, for only one type of person: the Daoist sage-ruler. Daoist sage-rulers act without acting. While they remain totally passive, all activities in society go on without disturbance or interference. Their non-action is paralleled by the perfect action of all others-wu wei er wu bu wei ("non-action, / but nothing is undone"), as chapters 37 and 48 say. The non-active Daoist ruler is at the center of the perfect Daoist society. Similarly, the non-sexual Daoist sage is at the heart of Daoist sexuality. The sexuality of the Daoist sage is represented by the maximum of potency of the male infant whose penis is erected but who does not ejaculate, and who-as an infant-precedes the distinction of the sexes as it is manifested in the sexual act. This sagelike infant affirms and enables all sexual activity even though (or just because) he himself is sexually inactive. He thus resembles the Daoist ruler who, by being inactive and indistinct, affirms and even enables all the distinct social activities.

The sexual abstinence of the Daoist sage is therefore essentially different from, for instance, Christian chastity. The sexual abstinence of the Daoist sage is utmost sexual latency and potency. It is the "root" (to use another important Daoist image) of Daoist fertility and reproduction. This sexual abstinence is not against sexuality, but rather the paradoxical anchoring of the sexual in the non-sexual.

The Dao is the continuous process of growth and withering, of becoming and passing away, and thus it is also a sexual process, a process that entails the division of the sexes and their "struggle" for fertility. This struggle is depicted as a natural contest that leads to procreation by the triumphant female. With female fecundation the contest ends-and begins anew, because fecundation is the turning point at which new life and new sexuality arise. The cycle of sexuality is based on duality and on change, but it is also dependent on something unchanging for its permanence-just as the turning spokes of a wheel are dependent on the hub and the bellows is dependent on its empty center (to use two other images from the Laozi). The Daoist sage, as depicted by the presexual infant, embodies the empty center of the sexual cycle, the non-sexual potency in between sexual activity, a never-exhausted spring or root of fertility.

The Dao of sex in the Laozi is not predominantly a Dao of human sexuality. Since this is the case, it is not concerned with gender issues. The sexes are, from its perspective, not socially but cosmically defined. It is not the distinction between men and women that serves as the guideline. When the Laozi speaks of the masculine and the feminine, such as in chapters 61 and 28, it does not mean men and women in particular but the masculine and feminine in general. The Chinese words pin and mu (in chapter 61) and xiong and ci (in chapter 28) were normally used in the realm of fauna. Daoism does not look at the world from an anthropocentric perspective, and this is also true for its view on sexuality. Human beings are sexual beings, but their sexuality is only part of a larger sexuality that encompasses all of nature. The best-known Chinese metaphor for human sexuality expresses this non-anthropomorphic way of thinking: it is called "the game of clouds and rain" (yunyu). Sexuality takes place within a cosmos of sexuality. Sexuality is not only not confined to human beings, it is not even confined to the realm of the biological in a modern scientific sense. Everything between heaven and earth takes part in processes of growth and withering. This applies not only to humans, animals, and plants but also to "non-organic" things such as the four seasons, the weather, and stones. From this perspective, in other words, everything that "is," "becomes," or is "produced." The term sheng, which is often translated as "life" or as "to be born," is not limited to the biological world. The cycle of the "five phases of change" (wu xing) is a cosmic cycle of fertility that describes the general order of fertility or "birth." The whole cosmos is a continuous process of fecundation and birth, and within this process the art of "wind and water"-or Fengshui-illustrates at which times and locations things will best "grow."

Since human sexuality is not essentially different from "natural" sexuality, it is neither good nor bad. It is in no way better than the copulation of animals, it simply produces new life. There is nothing sinful or "dirty" in human sexuality either. There is also nothing particularly "satisfactory" about it, and so there is a lack of a semantics of "sexual fulfillment" in the Laozi. Human sex is not so much human as it is simply natural. That the Daoist sage is depicted as a presexual or sexually inactive infant does not imply that sex would morally spoil him. The infant's sexual inactivity is only an aspect of its general inactivity, of its wu wei. The sexual inactivity of the Daoist sage is not an evasion of a presumably "brutish" sexuality. It is rather, as stated above, a paradoxical affirmation of a thoroughly sexual cosmos.

The Laozi's non-anthropomorphic concept of sexuality allows for "sexual" interpretations of passages that, at first sight, do not seem to have sexual content. Chapter 23, for instance, talks about a "thunderstorm" and a "whirlwind." These events are portrayed as untimely and unproductive natural "outpours." They seem to be, so to speak, the premature ejaculation of the weather. Early emissions of energies lead to disaster and catastrophe. Even in regard to the intercourse between heaven and earth there has to be caution. If everything between heaven and earth holds on to its position and goes along with the rhythm of natural change, then the cosmic begetting and conception will be in tune. Chapter 23 of the Laozi describes how the intercourse between heaven and earth may result in a "harmonious giving and taking" that in turn produces fertility and procreation. This cosmic giving and taking encompasses not only mankind but everything under heaven.

Sexuality and procreation emerge when there is a duality of giving and taking. The male and the female are the two elements that constitute this continuous way (or Dao), and they rest on or circle around a central unity-which is a dual unity. This unity is represented by the image of the Daoist sage-the presexual infant that contains, without waste, all potency in itself.

This image of the infant corresponds to other images in chapter 28 that can also be read sexually. The second part of this chapter says:

Be the world's valley and constant efficacy will suffice. When the constant efficacy suffices, you will return again to the state of uncarved wood.

The image of the valley represents fertility and emptiness. The valley manifests the unity of the two fertile slopes that surround it. Like the image of the jug, or the image of the wheel, the image of the valley represents the Daoist structure of productive order: an empty center surrounded by a full and useful periphery. The valley, like the infant, precedes sexual duality. It is the asexual unity that is at the heart of sexual duality. The river that runs through the valley nourishes the procreation of everything that grows on the two slopes. The image of the Daoist infant thus corresponds to the valley and to the river. One should here remember that chapter 28 begins with the phrase: "Be the world's river." The images of the valley and of the river are supplemented by the image of the uncarved wood. This image can also be understood in a sexual dimension. The same "constant efficacy" and unsquandered potency that characterizes the infant, the valley, and the river is also ascribed to the "state of uncarved wood." The uncarved wood is also, in a way, presexual. It has not yet taken on a specific form and so precedes duality. Laozi 28 ends with the words:

When the uncarved wood is parted, then tools come into being. When the sage makes use of them, he becomes the leader of all officials. Well, great woodcarving does not carve anything off.

The uncarved wood represents the state before sexual separation, the state of unity. Once the wood is parted, "tools" come into being, and these tools are used in the house and in agriculture. They are the tools that are used by men and women in their work. Thus, these tools are also images of femininity and masculinity. The male and the female, in turn, are the two most general "tools" of both society and procreation. Daoist sages precede duality and make use of tools without squandering anything, without carving anything off. They constitute the unity of the duality. They themselves are asexual but affirm and constitute sexuality.


Excerpted from The Philosophy of the Daodejing by Hans-Georg Moeller Copyright © 2006 by Columbia University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface : the philosophy of the Daodejing
Ch. 1 How to read the Daodejing 1
Ch. 2 The dao of sex 21
Ch. 3 Yin & yang, Dao & De 33
Ch. 4 Paradox politics 55
Ch. 5 On war 75
Ch. 6 Masters of satisfaction (desires, emotions, and addictions) 87
Ch. 7 Indifference and negative ethics 99
Ch. 8 Permanence and eternity 111
Ch. 9 Death and the death penalty 121
Ch. 10 "Without the impulses of man" : a Daoist critique of humanism 133
App. 1 A note on the textual history of the Daodejing 147
App. 2 A note on English translations of the Daodejing 149
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