Ever since the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, when the West began to be familiar with the Laozi, and the East with modern Western political theories, we have frequently heard the claim that the political philosophy of the Laozi is a kind of anarchist theory. The reason for this claim is that some would wrongly interpret the Laozi’s concept of wuwei as meaning that the ruler should do absolutely nothing.
This view today is almost common. Nearly every textbook on contemporary political philosophy hastens to mention that the Laozi is one of the first works which propounded anarchism, and this has become a popular understanding of the Laozi among the common people and an unquestionable fact. However, we can see in academic literature that there are disagreements on whether the political philosophy of the Laozi is an anarchist theory or not. This dissertation will try to challenge those who offer the anarchist interpretation and will also attempt to give an acceptable non-anarchist interpretation of the political philosophy of the Laozi.
In order to accomplish the above task I will first acknowledge that the political philosophy of the Laozi has a deep metaphysical basis, which is a common understanding of the philosophy of the Laozi, and when we discuss or interpret the political philosophy of the Laozi this metaphysical basis has a contribution to make. Thus, this dissertation will first discuss the metaphysical thought of the Laozi, e.g., the concepts of the dao (the way), wu (nothingness), you (being), de (the virtue) etc., and the problems of grasping the dao. Secondly, it will discuss the practical philosophy that emerges from this metaphysical basis, including the concepts of ziran (naturalness, self-so) and wuwei (non-action, having-no-action), and it will also offer a positive account of the concept of wuwei. Thirdly, it will present the political philosophy of the Laozi including the view of the Laozi on ruling the state and its advice to the rulers, and it will show that the role of the sage is to imitate or follow the natural principle that comes from the dao so that the state the sage-ruler establishes is in accordance with the standard of the dao.
Next, this dissertation will provide a non-anarchist interpretation of the political philosophy of the Laozi. At this point, I will present the most elaborate arguments for the anarchist interpretation so far, and I will try to find out their possible mistakes and gaps. It should also be known that the fact that the Laozi recognizes the existence of the ruler and the state is still not a convincing enough argument for some that it does not propound anarchism, because anarchism itself does not necessarily negate them. However, I will also show that the Laozi recognizes central and hierarchical political authority, and this is the very thing that anarchism wants to eliminate. Moreover, this dissertation stresses the theoretical and principal differences between the Laozi and anarchism. The former is that the philosophy of the Laozi has an elaborate metaphysical thought, especially ontology, while anarchism does not. The latter is that according to the political philosophy of the Laozi the ruler’s main principle of action is wuwei (having-no-action), while for Western political philosophies including anarchism, the opposite principle of youwei (having-action) is the key.
At the end, in Chapter 80 of the Laozi there is a description of a “small country with few people” and we cannot see the political authority in it
yet if we place it in the context of the whole text, other chapters concerning political authority can be used to eliminate the anarchist interpretation of this “ideal state”. Moreover, if we allow that Chapter 80 of the Laozi depicts a kind of state of nature, we can see that it is different from the one imagined by the Western philosophers in that the latter is a pre-political state, whereas the state of nature of the Laozi has a legitimate political authority.