Common to both Lao Tzu and Epictetus writings there appears the belief in a foundation for an ultimate reality. This ultimate reality is expressed in an infinite number of ways in all things around the human being who finds himself living a life in the midst of all this expression. Both viewpoints express this, either implicitly or explicitly that living a life in accordance with the nature of this ultimate reality necessarily leads one to a happier and more peaceful life. This sounds perfectly reasonable.
First, how are we to know this ultimate reality? If we cannot know it, how can one reasonably be expected to live in accordance with it? This is a fundamental difference between the two. For both viewpoints it is a matter of feeling. One knows one is living in accordance if one feels tranquil, at peace, content; however the road to each one is slightly different.
For Lao Tzu the road to living in harmony with the Tao is slowly reached by letting go of the notion of prescribing man-made ideas (often the result of cultural effects) onto the order of the Universe. First one is to understand that the Universe has a character all is own, that human needs and wants are not at the heart of the Universe; the Universe is not a place made for humans.
Epictetus is similar to Lao Tzu in that one begins to approach an understanding by letting go of attachment to things not in one’s power; these things are essentially everything that is outside of one’s own mind and heart (thoughts and emotions). The key difference, as I understand it, is that for Epictetus the Universe is constructed by the designs of the gods. It is a presupposition that the gods know best when it comes to our individual welfare.
This difference is far reaching into the very thoughts and actions of the adherents to each belief system. Let us use the example of a person on a boat out in the middle of the sea. For the first person, seeking harmony with Tao, the currents of the water, the wind in the sky, the swells, the fish, the location of islands, are all indifferent to the presence of man. The wise man would then shape his actions to be in harmony with the Te around him (manifestations of Tao, similar to Modes in Spinoza’s Substance perhaps?) by noting the direction of flying birds, the presence of vegetation floating in the water, the directions of currents of water and wind, and adjust his sails accordingly to find safe harbor on dry land. For the boatsman following the example of Epictetus, everything is the will of the gods and as such if he finds himself drifting for days without food or water, he cannot distress because it is the will of the gods. Everything happens for a reason as this is the best of all worlds (similar to Leibniz perhaps). Perhaps the boatsman might adjust a sail in order to find an island. How can he justify this action, for if it were meant for him to find the island, he surely would through the influence of the gods via wind and water. The true stoic could not bemoan going hungry any more than he can rejoice for finding land. If all things that occur are the actions of the gods, then all have equal divine importance and deserve reverence.
Of the two systems briefly outlined above, it should be immediately obvious that, while stoicism might offer advice for people in a stressful time when outside events are occurring to them, it is not a very good way to live a life. This leads to learned helplessness as exampled in Seligman’s experiments with dogs. While it is true that making one’s self happy in any situation makes one happy (happy is as happy does), this does nothing to alleviate the forces leading to this happiness, a critical problem with stoicism if we do not adhere to the belief that everything is determined by the will of the gods (or a singular god).
In looking at Epictetus’ world where things outside of the mind and heart were caused by the gods, human actions are then the domain of the individual. If this is such, that a person acting in a specific manner is of his own choosing, what divine decree is there in allowing such behavior to continue? It might be more easily overlooked that a volcano erupts because it is the will of the gods (ascribing such actions to a “natural order of things”) yet how could stoically accepting the tirades of a braggart (example, Rush Limbaugh) be the divine will of the gods? Discerning how to effect change with people like Limbaugh while simultaneously not desiring objects or situations that are “out of our control” is a daunting task.
Without effecting social change, the effects of social forces (example, toxic sludge in a river) are to be stoically accepted and once more it is the will of the gods. Again, stoicism might help alleviate the stress of a person undergoing treatment for poisoning from the sludge in the river, yet it will do nothing to prevent or change that sludge.
Approaching things from a Taoist perspective appears to be a much more beneficial route. Because the Universe does not operate with the welfare of humans as its sole concern, the wise man does not assume that everything will be okay and that one can continue to live life anyway he sees fit. The Taoist sees the river for what it is and attempts to live in harmony with that river. Perhaps this is the use of some of the water for agricultural needs, perhaps for electricity demands, perhaps as a place to take walks and fly fish while contemplating and approaching the Tao. The Taoist would not automatically reject a dam upon a river, unless that dam ran counter to what the river is. A river is, in this view, not a thing to be used for man’s needs, though man might indeed use a river as he might use shafts of bamboo to build a hut.
Should there appear toxic sludge in the river the Taoist would seek to discern whether this ran out of sync with the harmony of the Tao. If so then the Taoist would seek to instill change at the appropriate levels in order to bring the river back to a condition of harmony.
Lao Tzu and Epictetus both brought forth notions that underlying our human lives is the structure of a greater reality. Epictetus’ approach is one of passivity, whereas even the worst situations are part of the best world. Lao Tzu’s Taoist approach recognizes that things operate of their own ends. Since the whole is greater than man, man cannot change the whole and thus it is absurd and dangerous for man to doggedly and unbendingly attempt to change the whole. In the end he will only break himself in the process. Lao Tzu’s is a proactive approach.