The Mythological Lone Meeting Between Philosophers Confucius And Lao Tzu

Confucianism and Taoism are two of East Asia's most long-lasting and influential philosophies. Both schools of thought blossomed in China around the 5th and 6th centuries B.C., according to Britannica. So is there a chance their respective founders could have known each other? The idea that a meeting took place is tantalizing, and it is easy to imagine breezy and quasi-mystical Lao Tzu arguing with the more rigid and conservative Confucius.

Although they developed side-by-side, Taoism and Confucianism represent very different ways of looking at the world. According to National Geographic, Taoism is first and foremost about harmony — yin and yang — and it seeks to explain our place in the greater scheme of creation. Followers of both a religion and a philosophy, Taoists believe in a range of gods, as well as the life force Qi, according to Britannica.

Confucianism, on the other hand, is deeply grounded in human society and its structures. According to History Today, Confucius gave advice about the social hierarchies we live in, and was highly focused on education, ritual, and tradition. Today, his ideas have come to shape education in China, according to The Economist.

Confucius and Lao Tzu: A meeting of the minds?

According to some sources, the two philosophers did indeed once cross paths. Per the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Han dynasty historian Sima Qian records just such a tale. The story he tells goes like this: Lao Tzu was working as an archivist for the Zhou dynasty when a young Confucius came to find him. According to Purple Cloud Institute, Confucius later said, "I know that birds can fly, I know that fish can swim, and I know that wild animals can run. Those that run can be [trapped in] nets. Those that swim can be [caught by] fishing lines. Those that fly they can [be shot by] arrows trailing a silk string. But with dragons I cannot know if they ride the winds and clouds and ascend to the heavens. Today I met Lao [Tzu], who is just like a dragon!" 

Per Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the philosophical work "The Zhuangzi" also includes dialogues between Confucius and Lao Tzu.

Problems with the story

The most glaring problem is that Lao Tzu evidently never existed at all, according to National Geographic. A lot of stories about the legendary philosopher are pretty crazy and quite obviously unreliable, per BBC. For example, some accounts say Lao Tzu's mother was pregnant with the philosopher for up to 80 years (imagine the back pain). Today, Lao Tzu's foundational Taoist work the "Tao Te Ching" is believed to have been the product of a group of people and not one mind, per National Geographic.

Secondly, even if Lao Tzu did exist, the source material has a clear agenda. A substantial chunk of the "Zhuangzi" is dedicated to finding faults with the eponymous philosopher, per Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Regardless, while the 4th century "Zhuangzi" was written long after the supposed lifetimes of both Lao Tzu and Confucius, it gives us an interesting insight into the philosophical war of ideas that was being waged in ancient China at the time.