“Water” in Taoism

I was just reading a book called “A Short History of Greek Philosophy” by John Marshall. In the first chapter, he introduced the philosopher Thales. The author coined him as the first philosopher, the first observer, because he was the first one to question “the beginning’ of things. One thing that Thales concluded was: water was the originative principle of all things, and that the earth rested on water.

His reasoning may have been facts of observations, as all forms of substance which promote life are moist, the heat itself seems to be conditioned by moisture, life-producing seed in all creatures is moist, and so on. There are other attributes, such as its readiness to take various shapes, its convertibility from water into vapor or ice, its ready mixture with other substances, amongst others.

This is quite a profound observation, especially for someone who lived during 624-546 BC. Moreover, Thales hypothesis on water reminded me immediately of Laozi and his Tao Te Ching. (Dear readers, I am sorry that I refer back to Laozi in almost all my blog posts, but my philosophy knowledge is rather limited, and Laozi is my favorite philosopher) Laozi was born in 601 BC, his death time was unknown, but Wikipedia says that he departed to the west in 531 BC. We can see that Laozi and Thales had overlapping lifetimes. It is amazing how both sages, one in the East and one in the West, realized the philosophical essence of water around the same time. While Thales also dabbled in math and astronomy, Laozi was a pure philosopher. However, (I may be biased) but I think Laozi’s idea of water is much deeper and more profound than Thales. Now I would like to share parts of Tao Te Ching and demonstrate.

section 8: 上善若水。水善利万物而不争,处众人之所恶,故几於道。居善地,心善渊,与善仁,言善信,正善治,事善能,动善时。夫唯不争,故无尤。

The kindest people is like water. Water keeps everything alive, but it does not compete with anything, it stays at places where no one wants to be. Therefore it is closest to the “Tao”. The kindest people remain calm, and can be difficult to understand. They are true to their friends, they are loving and altruistic, they are to be trusted, and knows how to govern a country. Because the kindest people never fight and is not competitive in nature, they do not make mistakes and no one hates them.

section 66: 江海之所以能为百谷王者,以其善下之,故能为百谷王。是以圣人欲上民,必以言下之;欲先民,必以身后之。是以圣人处上而民不重,处前而民不害。是以天下乐推而不厌。以其不争,故天下莫能与之争。

rivers and seas are the places where all rivers meet, it is because they are situated in lowly places, which enables them to be the kings of all bodies of water. Therefore, to be a leader of people, one needs to be humble, and put his interest after the interest of the people. This way, although the leader is at a higher place politically, the people do not feel suffocated or harmed. Because he does not compete with the people, no want would compete with him.

section 78: 天下莫柔弱於水。而攻坚强者,莫之能胜。以其无以易之。弱之胜强。柔之胜刚。天下莫不知莫能行。是以圣人云,受国之垢是谓社稷主。受国不祥是为天下王。正言若反。

The softest and most tender thing in the world is water. However, it is the best weapon to fight against the strongest of opponents. the weak is able to win against the strong, the soft is able to win against the hard, everybody knows, but no one can put it to action. Because of this, someone who knows the “Tao” would say: one can become the ruler of a country only if he can take on the disgrace of the whole country. one can become the ruler of the world only if he can take on all the disasters of the world. This is like saying the opposite.

Laozi emphasizes that water stays in lowly places, it nurtures others, but does not compete for glory. It is the softest thing, but because of this it is strong enough to penetrate the strongest. Laozi wants us to be like water, to be humble and helpful to others. by doing this we may appear weak, but deep inside we are the strongest of all. It is amazing that both Thales and Laozi both realized the important role of water in this world, while Thales looked at it from a Nature’s perspective, Laozi took it one step further and teaches us the virtue of water, and how we can apply that as a person or a leader.


(This is written on Christmas eve, merry Christmas everyone!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s