A Comparison of Wisdom and the Wise As Found in The Apology and Tao Te Ching
Only faulting faults is faultless,
The Sage is faultless
By faulting faults,
And so is without fault.
- Tao Te Ching 71
When comparing 6th century Chinese and 5th century Greek thought, BCE, the hundred years of separation is the smallest gap to bridge. Thousands of miles of rough terrain and layers of political boundary kept either society from doing much more than imagining what lay far to the east or west. Philosophy, too, took widely variegated stances in both cultures, producing Confucianism, Taoism, Moism, etc. in the Orient, and Sophism, Socratic Method, Platonism, etc. in the Occident. Growing up as a student in a largely Occidental educational system, I have always been drawn to the “other,” wondering what folks on the opposite side of the planet were ruminating on when peripatetic dominated the Greek side of things. Here I will compare and contrast two influential schools and persons of philosophy, and by pitting Lao-Tzu and Socrates in the same arena I hope to gain a rounder understanding of the universal human condition. Two areas of thought will be examined: the nature of sagacity and the way of the sage.
On the nature of sagacity, Lao-Tzu and Socrates find surprising agreement. “[The] one among you is wisest, mortals, who, like Socrates, has recognized that he’s truly worthless where wisdom’s concerned” (NA 763). “Know not-knowing: supreme. Not know knowing: faulty” (TTC 71). Socrates was found to be wisest because he understood and embraced his own lack of wisdom. In understanding his own worthlessness and nothingness, he became worth more than nothing. In a vein of over-puffed self-importance, men of science and men of politics began to think they had the mastery over earth and the self. The god’s mission for Socrates was to understand the faultiness of this thinking and correct it by retreating to a humbler and more accurate picture of self. Taoism has long, perhaps always, seen itself as the balancing antidote to the other emergent 6th century BCE Chinese philosophical school, Confucianism. While Confucianism emphasized order, knowledge of world matters, and arduous righteous action, Taoism focused on a realization similar, in part, to what Socrates was given – the human mind is much healthier when it knows its limitations and accepts them. Though different methods were used to arrive at this realization, as will be addressed shortly, both schools of thought sought to chip or wear away at pride until it was gone. Sagacity, then, is found in not-knowing, or in other words, coming to an awareness of one’s own lack of wisdom.
The way of the sage consists of two main parts. First, “the way” describes the path that is taken to sagacity. Second, “the way” also describes the method(s) by which the sage imparts knowledge. Socratic method is decidedly and admittedly brash, abrasive, and to use the Eastern conception of gender, male. “It’s as just such a gadfly, it seems to me, that the god has attached me to the city – one that awakens, cajoles, and reproaches each and every one of you…” (NA 770). Socrates, having his own wisdom awakened by the god and confirmed by experimentation, seeks to impart wisdom by chipping away at the “wisdom” of his contemporaries through intense questioning and the occasional well-placed insult. Socrates’ invective against Meletus shows this style of teaching forcefully, as Socrates berates Meletus out of love for him and the audience in an attempt to help them experience humiliation and transform it into humility. Taoism takes a very different approach, one that is slower, without conflict, and, again in Eastern conception, female. “Nothing in the world is soft and weak as water. But when attacking the hard and strong nothing can conquer so easily. Weak overcomes strong, soft overcomes hard” (TTC 78) and “Pursue knowledge, gain daily. Pursue Tao, lose daily. Lose and again lose, arrive at non-doing. Non-doing – and nothing not done.” (48) Instead of chipping away at it, the Tao erases pride through the slow wear of erosion. To use a Taoist analogy, natural and patient methods get the Taoist to the other side of the river. In imparting wisdom of the Tao to others, rhetoric and debate are not permitted by Lao-Tzu. As stated at the outset, the Taoist sage is faultless through the faulting of faults, but the method of faulting faults is not through direct debate. “Good people do not quarrel. Quarrelsome people are not good… The Sage’s Tao acts and does not contend” (81). Direct Socratic confrontation is unthinkable in philosophical Taoism. How might a Taoist sage impart wisdom, then? “I do nothing/And people transform themselves” (57). The sage faults faults occasionally through writing or speech, but mostly does it through living without those faults. Taoism is the ultimate laissez-faire, trusting in people to make their own changes, while the Socratic method is a high form of hands-on teaching. In summary, Socratic wisdom comes and is further propagated through skilful abrasion, while Taoist wisdom is gained through natural erosion and shared through quiet example.
Taoism and Socrates’ philosophy, as examined, have some very similar goals and some very similar effects, yet they have been shown to approach their ideals through very different methods. Other similarities that stand open for exploration include the philosophical reasons for fearlessness, the non-tragedy of death, compassion as the ruling standard, and the use and abuse of the founders’ teachings by later propagates. Other dissimilarities include action vs. non-action, emphasis on ontology in Taoism vs. emphasis on epistemology in Socratic philosophy, and Taoist roots in nature vs. Socratic roots in thought. I find both philosophies to be engaging, inspirational, and worth further contemplation and emulation. In the spirit of Yin and Yang, it is not evident that either is necessarily superior, but it is sure that they both have their special uses when the situation demands.
 The Taoist story goes something like this: the Taoist and the Confucian both want to cross a river (even a Taoist has goals to accomplish). The Confucian swims hard in a straight line, battling the current with every stroke. The Taoist is leisurely in the swim, allowing the current to take him or her downstream. The Confucian reaches the other side first and flops down on the shore, exhausted and sucking air. The Taoist reaches the other side a little while later, though displaced downstream. The Taoist is not winded, but refreshed by the cool swim as he or she exits the river and begins walking to the final destination. The Confucian is still trying to catch breath when the Taoist reaches the goal.
 The later Taoist tradition, however, employed these methods extensively.
 Just as it is difficult to determine which of the words attributed to Socrates were actually his, Lao-Tzu’s writings and teachings are obscured by time and revisionist history.