Two schools of thought that arise around the same time in Ancient China are Confucianism and Daoism. Each teaches that people have certain responsibilities; however, they teach different types of responsibility. Kungfuzi, or Confucius, argues that every person has a responsibility placed on his shoulders to help improve society in the here and now. While Lao Tzu, the originator of Daoism, believes that each person has a responsibility, he believes that that responsibility is in regards to oneself rather than society.
He believes that a person must work within themselves to reach peace with their Selves and with nature. Reaching this peace is something that does not take effort to achieve. The contrast between the two schools of thought becomes narrowed down to the concept of action versus inaction to improve society. Because of these differences, we can see that Confucius regards humans as highly capable of working within their respective classes, but that Lao Tzu believes that humans must be at peace with nature in order to reach their full potential.
Confucius’ ideas arise only a short time before Lao Tzu explains his beliefs. According to the Confucian teachings, people are capable of being taught and changed as long as they are taught the right way. The things people should be taught are things such as being virtuous and acting on what they teach while also keeping a healthy sense of morals and being aware of and willing to help other individuals in need. Confucius believes that each person should be held accountable for his actions in each field.
This belief is supported by the fact that he thinks that the government should “lead [people] by means of virtue and regulate them through rituals [so that] they will have a sense of shame and moreover have standards” (“Confucian Teachings” paragraph 51). He believes that each person has the capacity to excel at each endeavor because societies were made to work in harmony. Essentially, Confucius believes that each person has a responsibility to maintain a healthy and progressive relationship with others within that particular society.
They all work toward a similar, well-known goal which is social harmony. As everyone begins to work together toward the greater good, this social harmony can be achieved. Thus, he places a call to action on everyone within a society to actually act on their teachings in order to reach harmony. This also means that a person must operate within his class to perform his duties in a manner that will be an advancement toward the social harmony Confucius stresses. The issue of each person’s responsibility depends on his class and his job within society.
While Confucius believes strongly in the social hierarchy, he believes that every person must contribute in some way toward reaching social harmony. Even children must contribute through their respect for their elders. Elders must be obeyed because they have received the Mandate of Heaven—permission by Heaven to rule over the people (“Confucian Teachings”). Because each person has such responsibilities, he should act according to his abilities. Once those actions work collectively, they form social harmony.
As that social harmony is reached, that is when people are most fully themselves, most fully human because they have reached the potential created for them by Heaven. This idea of a person acting according to his abilities means that Confucius believes in a policy of action in order to achieve this goal. People’s actions are what bring them closer to harmony within a society. Therefore, humans were created in order to strive toward this goal of peace. The relationships humans must form with each other suggest that humans are meant to live with each other rather than with nonhuman nature, as Lao Tzu believed.
While Confucianism is a belief that is strongly rooted in the ability of people to work in society toward a greater good which is essentially the goal of life, Daoism is the belief that people’s ultimate capacity is achieved through reaching harmony with nature. In Daoism, people are encouraged to follow the Dao, or the Way, which is everything that exists in this world. They follow whatever way they feel nature is calling them to go. This path will eventually lead them to internal peace as well as peace with nature. Unlike Confucianism, Daoism is not concerned with the ability of humans to be actively taught.
Humans cannot teach each other because all knowledge originates with the Dao which is in nature. Since all morals, virtue, and ethics stem from the Dao, people do not need to be taught these values by other humans. In fact, Lao Tzu believes that the government should not have a hand in teaching people at all, but rather that the people should learn from nature. He states that the government should “engage in no action and order will prevail” (“Daoist Teachings” line 41). Thus the concept of inaction is once again encouraged by Lao Tzu.
No active teaching should be done by the government in order to enable people to discover their true place in nature. The human responsibility held within Daoism is that people must maintain a relationship with nature in order to achieve harmony. A need to connect with nature suggests that humans and nature were created to be together. This melodiousness does not come through competition or even support of a social hierarchy, in fact, according to Lao Tzu, people should not “honor the worthy/And the people will not compete” (“Daoist Teachings” lines 30/31).
This is in direct contrast to Confucian teachings, where Confucius encourages people to maintain their standard social classes as a means of prospering society. Since the government cannot hold people accountable for certain responsibilities, Lao Tzu claims that the only responsibility people have is to understand the power of nature and to learn from it. This brings about another distinction between Confucianism and Daoism: the difference in the necessity of a social hierarchy. The concept of a social hierarchy is very unnecessary when living according to the Dao.
Because people have a responsibility to maintain a good relationship with nature, the necessity for having a healthy relationship with others is lessened. Essentially, Lao Tzu debunks the social hierarchy. He actually believes that each community should be relatively small and “its people few” so that there are few distractions and a strong desire to learn from nature (“Daoist Teachings” line 109). A smaller community, although it is still susceptible to having a hierarchy, is easier to work within toward this common goal of serenity with nature. As the differences between social classes decrease, each person’s individuality also decreases.
Despite the fact that Confucianism and Daoism have many distinctive differences, there are also some similarities. One such similarity is the idea that each person is simply a being that is a part of a whole. In Confucianism and in Daoism, each person must shed his individuality in order to contribute to a greater purpose. For Confucius, the greater purpose is reaching social harmony in order to please the Heavens. For Lao Tzu, this purpose is to gain a realization of the relationship between man and nature and to find a harmony with nature through simply being in nature.
The goal of each is to reach Heaven through this relationship. Each school of thought also follows the Way. This Way is the force behind all things. According to Lao Tzu, “the Way is eternally nameless” because it is simply a force that cannot be seen or felt (“Daoist Teachings” line 74). The Way simply exists. When a person follows the Way he can reach that harmony whether it is between himself and society or himself and nature. The main purpose behind each of these schools of thought is to ensure that each person reaches his full potential.
Whether it be through actively working to improve society or simply creating a relationship with nature, a person must reach this harmony in order to get into Heaven. As we can see, despite the fact that there are differences between Confucianism and Daoism (such as the concept of action versus inaction), they both have a similar end goal. Having this goal to work toward creates a more stable society than one that is not at peace and a more stable individual than one who is not in harmony with either society or nature.