The Taoist writers sometimes employ the word in similar senses; for example: "The way of Heaven is to diminish superabundance and to supplement deficiency. Not so the way of man; he takes from those who have not enough to add to his own superabundance"; but in general Tao has in this school a different and distinctive meaning. It is not a descriptive or circumscriptive name, but a symbol for the nameless. "The Tao (way) that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name (Tao) that is named is not the enduring and unchanging name." The nearest approach to a definition of what it stands for is in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Tao-teh-king:
"There was a Something, undifferentiated and yet perfect, before heaven and earth came into being. So still, so incorporeal! It alone abides and changes not. It pervades all, but is not endangered. It may be regarded as the mother of all things. I know not its name; if I must designate it, I call it Tao. Striving to give it a name, I call it great; great, I call it transcending; transcending, I call it far off; far off, I call it returning. . . . Man takes his norm from earth; earth from heaven; heaven from Tao; the Tao from itself."
Chinese thought had hitherto taken the world as it found it, without asking how it came to be. In Lao-tse a speculative thinker appeared who tried to penetrate to the ultimate reality behind the world of appearance, the one beneath the many, the changeless being from which all becoming proceeds. Before the Most High Lord (Shang-ti), is a first principle (the αρχη of the Greek philosophers), which in its essential being is unknowable. As source of all being, ratio essendi, it is itself beyond being: "All existences in the universe sprang from Being (Tao, as active); Being itself sprang from Non-Being (Tao, as absolute)." It produces and nourishes all things, "by its outflowing operation," and to it, as to their origin, all things, when
they have run their course, return. It is the end as well as the beginning of all existences. "We look at it and do not see it, and we name it 'the Equable'; we listen to it and do not hear it, and we name it 'the Inaudible'; we try to grasp it and do not get hold of it, and we name it 'the Subtle.' With these three qualities it cannot be made the subject of any descriptions; and hence we blend them together and obtain the One."
Though the Absolute in itself is unknowable, its operations in the phenomenal world are within men's knowledge. Intelligent observation discovers in these operations a constant characteristic, a way, or method, of nature, in which we may discern to the character of the Being from whom nature and all its operations proceed. It is this which makes Tao the most appropriate word for the unnamable.
The quality which most impressed Lao-tse in the orderly operations of nature was that they are accomplished without effort or purpose. The Tao does everything without doing anything. It is the way of Heaven not to strive, yet it overcomes. It produces and sustains all, yet claims nothing to itself. Heaven and Earth endure because they do not live of, or for, themselves. Equally little are they prompted by benevolence: "they treat all things like grassdogs." This method of the universe is the norm for man. He should not merely take example from it and pattern his conduct after it: he should make it the inner law of his life, from which conduct spontaneously flows. Then he not only knows the Tao, but has it; the cosmic principle is in him ethical principle; his life is nature. This is the foundation of Taoist ethics and politics, which form the subject of the second part (Teh, 'Virtue') of the Tao-teh-king.
The corner-stone is the doctrine of "not doing," inaction Wu-wei). The common man thinks that for his own improvement or the bettering of the world he must always be doing. He reflects, plans, toils, strives, defeats himself, and knows not why. The wise man takes the opposite course: he will have no desires or ambitions, no aims, no purposeful and energetic activities; then everything will go right of itself. When man, with his conceit of wisdom and his selfish will, ceases to interfere with the order of the world and impede it, he will find that it goes on perfectly without him. The "practical" reformer, with his schemes for saving society, was therefore the most impractical of men; Confucius would have seemed to Lao-tse a fussy meddler in the affairs of the universe, while Lao-tse would have been, in the eyes of Confucius, a paradoxical dreamer.
The ethics of such a system are necessarily quietistic. The Taoist cultivates inaction; he is silent even about the Tao; he teaches without words; he renounces learning and wisdom; he has an air of indecision and irresoluteness, a vacant and stupid look. Gentleness marks his dealings under all circumstances; it is one of the three jewels of character, and overcomes where violence fails. He has learned that weakness is strength and strength weakness. "There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, yet for attacking things that are firm and strong nothing surpasses it."
The wise man humbles himself and is exalted, while the aspiring man asserts himself but is not honoured. "There is no guilt greater than to sanction ambition; no calamity greater than to be discontented with one's lot; no fault greater than the desire for gain. The sufficiency of contentment is an enduring and unchanging sufficiency."
The third jewel, with gentleness and humility, is frugality; and as by the way of opposites true courage springs from gentleness and humility leads to honour, so the counterpart of frugality is liberality. "The wise man does not accumulate. The more he expends for others, the more does he possess of his own; the more he gives to others, the more does he have himself."