Reject sophistry and discard knowledge;
The people will benefit a hundredfold.
Reject humanity and discard rightness,
And the people will rediscover filial piety and parental love.
Reject trickiness and renounce profit,
And there will be no thieves or bandits.
These three teachings are mere cultural adornments and inadequate.
The people need something that they can depend on.
Cherish simplicity and embrace the uncarved block of wood;
Reduce selfishness and minimize desires.
Through their philosophies, Confucius and Laozi were seeking a solution to the same problem: namely, what they saw as the imminent collapse of society. But although they both looked to the past for the answer, they had very different approaches to resolving it.
Confucius argued that the answer to curing society’s ills was to go back over 500 years and revive the values and practices allegedly followed by his great hero, the Duke of Zhou. In this chapter of the Daodejing, Laozi scathingly characterizes his teachings as “mere cultural adornments” and thus “inadequate” for the task of reviving society.
Laozi, on the other hand, advocated a return to a time when the world was governed by the nameless and formless way in which every plant and animal, including humanity, had an innate sense of the part they played in the grand scheme of things and thus all lived and worked together in perfect harmony. It was only when humans started to create their own ideas and ethical precepts that they started to deviate from the right path and society began to disintegrate.
Laozi’s answer, therefore, was that people needed to shed all the artificial intellectual and ethical baggage they had accumulated so that they could regain the natural essence of the way symbolized by the uncarved block of wood and lead a life of purity and simplicity.
On a visceral level, Laozi’s “back to nature” approach probably resonates more strongly than the “back to basics” advocacy of Confucius; but on a practical level, the reverse is probably true. After all, as much we may tell ourselves how much we long to return to our roots, very few of us would actually go as far as to permanently abandoning our creature comforts no matter how corrupt and hypocritical the society we live in is.