Tao Te Ching Book Summary - Tao Te Ching Book explained in key points
Listen to the Intro

Tao Te Ching summary

Lao Tzu

Taoist Philosophy for Peace, Contentment & Balance in Life

4.3 (131 ratings)
16 mins
Table of Contents

    Tao Te Ching
    summarized in 4 key ideas

    Audio & text in the Blinkist app
    Key idea 1 of 4

    A book or an anthology?

    It’s difficult to explain any sort of ancient text without getting into some of the background context. Certainly, this is the case with Tao Te Ching.

    On its own, there are 81 short chapters in Tao Te Ching. Each one contains a poetic passage that imparts a bit of wisdom. But beyond that, things get a little complicated. Every reader is sure to note that many of these tiny chapters bear similarities to one another. It’s almost like they're saying the same thing, but with different words.

    Take for instance this passage from chapter 22:

    “He does not show himself, and so is conspicuous; He does not consider himself right, and so is illustrious; He does not brag, and so has merit; He does not boast, and so endures.”

    Now let’s compare it to this passage from chapter 24:

    “He who shows himself is not conspicuous; He who considers himself right is not illustrious; He who brags will have no merit; He who boasts will not endure.”

    This is basically the positive and negative way of saying the same thing, and it’s not the only example of repetition with slight variation that appears in the text.

    These irregular qualities are why some scholars believe that Tao Te Ching is more of an anthology than the work of a singular author.

    Of course, the text has long been attributed to Lao Tzu, but there’s very little evidence to suggest that he was an actual historical figure. Further confusing the matter is that the name Lao Tzu roughly translates to “old man.” So it’s quite possible, if not highly likely, that Tao Te Ching is a collection of sayings that have been passed down and accumulated over the span of many, many years.

    It is also likely that most of the passages in Tao Te Ching are a combination of two things, a short bit of wisdom that had been passed down verbally, followed by a brief bit of text that kind of explains or underlines the meaning of the passage. Why do we think this? Well, many chapters are made up of a poetic section that, in the original language, has a rhyming pattern – which made it easier for people to memorize. This rhyming part is then followed by a very blunt summarizing section that doesn’t really flow with the previous part. This does make sense though because, as we’ll see, these poetic bits of wisdom can be a little cryptic. So when they were collected it is believed that a little commentary was included to make things clearer.

    Also, when we look back to the third century BC, we can see that this sort of anthologizing was common. The Analects of Confucius is a similar collection of sayings. Only in that case, each passage had a helpful beginning that attributed the saying to a particular person, either Confucius himself or one of his disciples. With Tao Te Ching, we only have the name Lao Tzu, and it may be the case that these are the kinds of sayings that captured the kind of wisdom that came from old masters who were valued in Chinese culture for their years of gained experience and insights.

    The collection that makes up the Analects also had the benefit of being somewhat thematically organized. But in Tao Te Ching, the organizing principle appears to be centered around the recurrence of certain words or phrases, even if the passages themselves convey different or even contradictory messages. For example, there are two passages in chapter five that use the phrase “heaven and earth,” yet the two passages convey different meanings and no attempt is made to connect them or create a transition.

    All of this is to say that, even though Tao Te Ching is a short work, it offers a lot to parse through and a lot to consider. So now that we’ve got some context, let’s get to those actual words of wisdom, shall we?

    Want to see all full key ideas from Tao Te Ching?

    Key ideas in Tao Te Ching

    More knowledge in less time
    Read or listen
    Read or listen
    Get the key ideas from nonfiction bestsellers in minutes, not hours.
    Find your next read
    Find your next read
    Get book lists curated by experts and personalized recommendations.
    Shortcasts New
    We’ve teamed up with podcast creators to bring you key insights from podcasts.

    What is Tao Te Ching about?

    Tao Te Ching (circa 400 BC) is one of the foundational texts of Taoism, the enduring philosophical and religious movement that can be traced back to around the fourth century BC. Throughout the ages, its poetic wisdom continues to be relevant, inspirational, and timeless.

    Who should read Tao Te Ching?

    • Spiritual or philosophical guidance seekers
    • People interested in living a more virtuous life
    • Admirers of Eastern schools of thought

    About the Author

    Lao Tzu has long been considered the principal author of Tao Te Ching, though both his authorship and his existence as a historical figure continue to be debated. Some believe he was a contemporary of Confucius, living in the sixth century BC, others believe his life dates back to the fourth century BC.

    Categories with Tao Te Ching

    Books like Tao Te Ching

    People ❤️ Blinkist
    Sven O.

    It's highly addictive to get core insights on personally relevant topics without repetition or triviality. Added to that the apps ability to suggest kindred interests opens up a foundation of knowledge.

    Thi Viet Quynh N.

    Great app. Good selection of book summaries you can read or listen to while commuting. Instead of scrolling through your social media news feed, this is a much better way to spend your spare time in my opinion.

    Jonathan A.

    Life changing. The concept of being able to grasp a book's main point in such a short time truly opens multiple opportunities to grow every area of your life at a faster rate.

    Renee D.

    Great app. Addicting. Perfect for wait times, morning coffee, evening before bed. Extremely well written, thorough, easy to use.

    People also liked

    Start growing with Blinkist now
    26 Million
    Downloads on all platforms
    4.7 Stars
    Average ratings on iOS and Google Play
    Of Blinkist members create a better reading habit*
    *Based on survey data from Blinkist customers
    Powerful ideas from top nonfiction

    Try Blinkist to get the key ideas from 5,500+ bestselling nonfiction titles and podcasts. Listen or read in just 15 minutes.

    Start your free trial