The Quest for the Virtuous Life: Can Lao Tzu’s Wu Wei be Considered a Virtue?

Chris Dimatteo


The purpose of this paper is to explore the nature of wu wei (“nondoing”) as explained in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, and, using a comparison with the nature of virtue in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, show how the doctrine of wu wei can be considered a virtue. Due to the inherently unknowable nature of the tao, Lao Tzu does not provide a clear, explicit list of virtues, as Aristotle does. Instead of understanding virtue as dispositions to act, as Aristotle suggests, Lao Tzu proposes a disposition to not act. This is not inaction; he advises us to follow the course of nature, and take the path of least resistance in our actions. This must be seen as a virtue, because the doctrine of not acting is the only way in which the ideal life, government, and world can exist. Various Aristotelian objections are presented and refuted to show that, though Aristotle’s conception of virtue is entirely different from Lao Tzu’s, wu wei can still be regarded as such. The “appeal to nature” logical fallacy is raised: why is the doctrine of wu wei, acting in accordance with the natural way, desirable simply because it is “the natural way”? Since, however, the tao is both the reason for our existence, and the source and origin of all goodness and order in the universe, the only way to achieve goodness and order in our own lives is to follow its teachings. The tao is the guiding force of all that we experience; we must not resist it if we are to flourish. Furthermore, this application of logic is also against the tao itself; we must “exterminate learning” and make a leap of faith to the natural world in order to thrive.


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University of Victoria