Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 38

Perhaps the most obvious indication that a work is a great work is that it seems relevant to the life you're living no matter when you read it. I underlined and commented on this section when I read it twenty years ago, and yet it almost seems ripped out of today's headlines

de Grazia translates Chapter 38 of the Tao Teh Ching:

The man of superior virtue is not [conscious of] his virtue,
And in this way he really possesses virtue.
The man of inferior virtue never loses [sight of] his virtue,
And in this way he loses his virtue.
The man of superior virtue takes no action, but has no ulterior motive to do so.
The man of inferior virtue takes action, and has an ulterior motive to do so.
The man of superior humanity takes action, but has no ulterior motive to do so.
The man of superior righteousness takes action, and has an ulterior motive to do so.
The man of superior propriety takes action,
And when people do not respond to it, he will stretch his arms and force it on them.
Therefore, only when the Tao is lost does the doctrine of virtue arise
When virtue is lost only then does the doctrine of humanity arise.
When humanity is lost only then does the doctrine of righteousness arise.
When righteousness is lost, only then does the doctrine of ritual arise.
Now ritual is a superficial expression of loyalty and faithfulness and the beginning of disorder.
Those who are the first to know have the flowers [appearance] of Tao but also the beginning of ignorance
For this reason the great man dwells in the thick [substantial], and does not rest with the thin [superficial].
He dwells in the fruit [reality], and does not rest with the flower [appearance].
Therefore he rejects that, and accepts this

while Van Over translates the same section:

About the Attributes
(Those who) possessed in highest degree the attributes (of the Tao) did not (seek) to show them, and therefore they possessed them (in fullest measure). (Those who) possesses in a lower degree those attributes (sought how) not to lose them, and therefore they did not possess them (in fullest measure).

(Those who) possessed in the highest degree those attributes did nothing (with a purpose), and had no need to do anything. (Those who) possessed them in a lower degree were (always) doing, and had need to be so doing.

(Those who) possessed the highest benevolence were (always seeking) to carry it out, and had no need to be doing so. (Those who) possessed the highest righteousness were (always seeking) to carry it out, and had need to be so doing.

(Those who) possessed the highest (sense of) propriety were (always seeking) to show it, and when men did not respond to it, they bared the arm and marched up to them.

Thus it was that when the Tao was lost, its attributes appeared; when its attributes were lost, benevolence appeared; when benevolence was lost, righteousness appeared; and when righteousness was lost, the proprieties appeared.

Now propriety is the attenuated form of leal-heartedness and good faith, and is also the commencement of disorder; swift apprehension is (only) a flower of the Tao, and is the beginning of stupidity.

Thus it is that the Great man abides by what is solid, and eschews what is flimsy; dwells with the fruit and not with the flower. It is thus that he puts away the one and makes choice of the other.


I don't think I've ever met anyone who I felt was a "true" Christian I didn't like, admire, and, perhaps, even, envy a little. They were invariably people who went out of their way to help others and who, though they attended church regularly, made little or nothing of being "Christian" because for them it was simply a given.

On the other hand, I have little regard for those who make a show of their "Christianity." I often suspect they must doubt their own beliefs when they feel a need to attack those who don't believe exactly what they believe and worship exactly the same way they do.

This section also reminds me that Jesus said "when thou prayest, enter into thy closet" and admonished against praying in public, probably for the very same reasons stated here. Those who truly believe and act according to their beliefs do not need ritual to insure their faith.

Avoiding hypocrisy may not fall under the Ten Commandments, but may well be the greatest danger in religion since it's far easier to advocate religious principles than it is to live them.

Of course, it's not much of a stretch to apply the principles of the Tao Teh Ching to other concepts like patriotism, for instance. When "Patriotism" is wielded like a sword to silence those who oppose current policies or to force dissidents to conform to the prevalent view, it undermines the true needs of the country while simultaneously promoting a false sense of well-being that may actually be the greatest threat of all.

No wonder Taoists taught these principles as the proper way to rule the Empire.

5 thoughts on “Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 38

  1. Thanks for the links, pf, and, yes, I, too, wish I could read Chinese, but am afraid that that will not happen in this lifetime.

    I think I prefer the first translation you offer, but it would be nice to know which of them comes “closest” to the original.

    I think the Japanese poet who complained about a Robert Hass translation of an Issa haiku was probably justified in being upset over the translation, but there’s certainly no easy way to determine which is the “correct” translation, or even if there is one.

  2. NOTE! To avoid confusion, I took the liberty of eliminating the brackets altogether.

    P.S., for Shelley, I did not in any way edit the comments or change their context 🙂

  3. This is perhaps one of the most difficult passages in the Tao for me. ;^)

    I happened to mention this to an e-mail correspondent the other day. From a Taoist point of view, my best weblog entries would be the ones I never wrote, that nobody read, and that everyone understood.

    I actually try to follow that guidance from time to time.

    Probably not often enough.

  4. The difference between the translations you posted makes me wish I knew Chinese.

    “(Those who) possessed in the highest degree those attributes did nothing (with a purpose), and had no need to do anything. (Those who) possessed them in a lower degree were (always) doing, and had need to be so doing.”

    is significantly different from

    “The man of superior virtue takes no action, but has no ulterior motive to do so.
    The man of inferior virtue takes action, and has an ulterior motive to do so.”

    and the former accords far closer with my own thoughts.

    A little googling turned up these variants:

    A good man seems to do little or nought,
    yet he leaves nothing undone.
    A foolish man must always strive,
    whilst leaving much undone.
    http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/gthursby/taoism/ttcstan3.htm#38

    True virtue does not “act”
    And has no intentions.
    Superficial virtue “acts”
    And always has intentions.
    http://www.human.toyogakuen-u.ac.jp/~acmuller/contao/laotzu.htm

    Superior virtuosity lacks deeming action
    and lacks that with which to deem.
    Inferior virtue deems it
    and has something with which to deem.
    http://www.hku.hk/philodep/courses/EWEthics/ttc.htm#38

    The former did nothing, nor had need to do. The latter did, and had need to do.
    http://deoxy.org/taowley.htm

    True virtue does not “act”
    And has no intentions.
    Superficial virtue “acts”
    And always has intentions.
    http://www.human.toyogakuen-u.ac.jp/~acmuller/contao/laotzu.htm

What do you think?