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Confucius and Laozi, The Great Philosophers of the East

Tom Tai-Seale | Updated May 26, 2021

PART 11 IN SERIES Reconciling the Religions

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Tom Tai-Seale | Feb 12, 2014

PART 11 IN SERIES Reconciling the Religions

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

The exact details of the lives, teachings and histories of two of the great philosophers of the East – Confucius and Laozi – have been lost in the intervening millennia, but both of these influential figures are revered in China even today. Scholars of comparative religion have long struggled with a central question concerning both men – were they philosophers or prophets?

As far as we know, Confucius and Laozi both lived approximately five hundred years before the advent of Christ. The philosophy of Confucius centered around the ideas of justice, morality and sincerity, and emphasized the correctness of social relationships among people, which included ancestor worship and respect for elders. Confucius became known as a great moral reformer, and his teachings helped to build Chinese civilization and social order. But he made no claim to divine knowledge, and his learning, while vast, was acquired.

Confucius Analects
A page from Confucius’ Analects

Confucius reportedly wrote a large number of the classic Chinese texts, including all of the Five Classics, but his most popular and well-known book is still The Analects, a compilation of his sayings and aphorisms assembled long after his death. When you hear the phrase “Confucius says” followed by an aphorism, it probably comes from the Analects.

Laozi (also known as Lao-tzu or Lao-tse) lived at about the same time as Confucius, and his philosophy, expressed in the Tao Te Ching, founded Taoism and found its way into many traditional Chinese religions, as well. Although some ancient Chinese belief systems like Taoism venerate Laozi as a deity, most scholars and religious historians consider him a prominent philosopher who had a great influence on ancient Chinese thought.

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Laozi Yin and Yang
Laozi Yin and Yang

Laozi’s chief concern involved describing a way (Tao) of life that could be true to the natural order of God’s laws. A tremendous inspirational force, Laozi’s philosophical brilliance made him one amongst many of the great Chinese poet/philosophers who helped guide the Middle Kingdom along the ancient Middle Way.

Determining whether these two great leaders of thought were prophets or philosophers doesn’t promote or demote them, according to the Baha’i teachings. Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, has praised the work of the great philosophers of the past: Empedocles, Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Pliny. He even calls Plato, the “divine Plato”, but does not consider him a Manifestation of God.

In a similar way, Abdu’l-Baha cites the name of Confucius as a great leader and teacher:

Confucius became the cause of civilization, advancement and prosperity for the people of China.

He also wrote:

Blessed souls — whether Moses, Jesus, Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Confucius or Muhammad — were the cause of the illumination of the world of humanity. How can we deny such irrefutable proof? How can we be blind to such light?

Through the efforts of great thinkers and philosophers like Confucius and Laozi, millions of people have come to know of the one truth that envelops all. When religions decline or deteriorate, it falls to philosophers and poets to discern the one reality that animates all and to sing its melody.

RELATED: Aristotle’s Golden Mean and the Role of Moderation

For Baha’is, truth is truth and light is light wherever it appears. The light of a philosopher, if it is true, does not conflict with that of a Prophet of God it validates and augments it. The lasting works of Confucius and Laozi and other great philosophers reflect divinity, even though they may not fit into the category of a founder of a great world Faith. This is not a condemnation of the philosopher – instead, it is a testimony to the loftiness of their efforts and the greatness of their achievements.

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  • Mar 3, 2020
    Beautiful!, So well expressed that it puts life into place for me. I love the way you write. Please keep writing!
  • James Howden
    Feb 13, 2014
    Pardon me if you've read this before: I thought I was writing the response below to *this* article, but I put it in the previous article on Buddha: Man or Manifestation. The recent study my wife and I have done in the practices of Vipassana meditation, which claims to come from the "pristine purity" of the Buddha's teachings on self-purification, have warmed in us an appreciation of the greatness of His teachings. Below is what was intended for this article:
    I have really enjoyed this series, and learned a lot. Living in China
    as we do, plus travelling in ...Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, has us
    learning and thinking more about Buddhism, particularly. My wife and I
    have both done the ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat, which was an
    intense and intensely interesting way to dwell on the teachings and
    gifts of the Buddha. I have also done some really useful and
    thought-provoking reading of the words and life of Confucius (Kongzi),
    and also the Dao De Qing (pinyin spelling of the Tao Te Ching) of Laozi.
    I'm deeply impressed. It seems clear from Kongzi's own words that he
    regarded himself as a scholar, as one dedicated to renewing in China the
    great and ancient teachings of earlier Prophet/kings. The little I know
    of Emperors Shun and Yao (especially, I think, the latter) make me
    entertain the (possibly vain/useless) speculation that they were the
    Manifestations that founded the great early developments of Chinese
    civilization; they would have been at least 1500 years before Kongzi, I
    think. There's a story of Yao that sounds very Christ-like/Buddha-esque
    in its compassion, unrelenting forgiveness and love. Yet it is
    interesting to find Confucius mentioned in the quotes above, though
    other citations seem to place him more in the category where he seems to
    have placed himself: great reformer, philosopher, guide and mentor, and
    his effect on Chinese culture was profound. (Much later, of course, he
    becomes criticized, especially under Communism -- though his reputation
    is being restored in today's China, as witness the Confucius Institutes
    that are being established as beacons of Chinese culture around the
    world -- for being a supporter of patriarchal and elitist structures.)
    it comes to Laozi, though, I wonder. There is a story of Kongzi going
    to meet him just before the Daoist master's death, which strikes me as
    the visit of a great, capacious mind to the Source of mindfulness, a
    pilgrimage. I've read two translations of the Dao De Qing, and find it
    wonderful, mysterious, marvellous. It comes with a voice of authority
    that reminds me of the mystical writings of Baha'u'llah (Hidden Words),
    or the sayings of Christ. He's less known than Kongzi, and who knows
    why. I have a Chinese Baha'i friend who had respected the Dao before
    learning of the Baha'i Teachings, and who is now studying and trying to
    memorize it. The teachings of the Faith have really illumined her
    understanding of the ancient text, she feels, and she also has good
    enough English that she enjoyed reading and critiquing Laozi in
    translation. So: was Laozi a Manifestation of God? My study and my heart
    suggest that he very well might've been, though there's no way to
    confirm this. It is useful, though, as an example of the Baha'i (and
    Muslim, and Buddhist, and...) belief that there have been many
    Enlightened Ones, beyond counting and history, and for non-authoritative
    ME, Christ's "by their fruits ye shall know them" put Master Lao high
    on my list of speculative honour.
    Thanks, Mr. Tai-Seale, for this thoughtful work of yours.
    • ttaiseale
      Mar 19, 2014
      Hi James, sorry for the delay in responding. My daughter had surgery and I've been a bit occupied. I'm afraid I won't be able to add much to a discussion on Lao Tzu. It is true that in general Baha'is don't list him in our standard list of Prophets, and there is a letter written on behalf of the Guardian that indicates that he is not. Having said that, I think our standard list of Prophets is more suggestive than definitive and our problem with identifying him a Prophet may stem from the difficulties we have figuring out what is original to him. We seem to know so little about him with confidence. Also, I have trouble finding much of a living religion of Lao Tzu. The Lao Tzu that has made it into Chinese culture (my wife is Chinese) is overlayered with so much folk culture that whatever was original to him has been unable to survive independently. Taoism has all sorts of strange (but fascinating) things in it. My solution is to enjoy his teachings and not worry so much about if he was a Prophet. Certainly, he was very spiritually atuned.
      All the best
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