In A Little History of the World, art historian E.H. Gombrich attempts to provide an accessible, comprehensive history of the world for younger readers. It’s a delightful read that makes me want to see the places around the world where the stories he describes took place. Here is a beautiful passage about Lao-tzu.
A wise man lived in China at about the same time as Confucius. His name was Lao-tzu. He is said to have been an official who became tired of the way people lived at court. So he gave up his job and wondered into the lonely mountains at the frontier of China to be a hermit.
A simple border guard at a frontier pass asked him to set down his thoughts in writing, before leaving the world of men. And this Lao-tzu did. But whether the border guard could make head or tail of them I do not know, for they are very mysterious and hard to grasp. Their meaning is roughly this: in all the world–in wind and rain, in plants and animals, in the passage from day to night, in the movements of the stars–everything acts in accordance with one great law. This he calls the ‘Tao,’ which means the Way, or the Path. Only man in his restless striving, in his many plans and projects, even in his prayers and sacrifices, resists, as it were, this law, obstructs its path and prevents its fulfillment.
Therefore the one thing we must do, said Lao-Tzu, is: do nothing. Be still within ourselves. Neither look nor listen to anything around us, have no wishes or opinions. Only when a person has become like a tree or a flower, empty of all will or purpose, will he begin to feel the Tao–that great universal law which makes the heavens turn and brings the spring–begin to work within him. This teaching, as you see, is hard to grasp and harder still to follow. Perhaps, in the solitude of the distant mountains, Lao-tzu was able to take ‘doing nothing’ so far that the law began to work within him the way he described.