"The highest benevolence acts without purpose."
Tao Te Ching — Chapter 38
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
The highest virtue is not virtuous.
Therefore it has virtue.
The lowest virtue holds on to virtue.
Therefore it has no virtue.
The highest virtue does nothing.
Yet, nothing needs to be done.
The lowest virtue does everything.
Yet, much remains to be done.
The highest benevolence acts without purpose.
The highest righteousness acts with purpose.
The highest ritual acts, but since no one cares,
It raises its arms and uses force.
Therefore, when the Way is lost there is virtue.
When virtue is lost there is benevolence.
When benevolence is lost there is righteousness.
When righteousness is lost there are rituals.
Rituals are the end of fidelity and honesty,
And the beginning of confusion.
Knowing the future is the flower of the Way,
And the beginning of folly.
The truly great ones rely on substance,
And not on surface,
Hold on to the fruit,
And not to the flower.
They reject the latter and receive the former.
The Highest Virtue
Here the focus is not on Tao, the Way, but on the
second best: Te, virtue. Lao Tzu makes it very clear that virtue,
although seemingly splendid, is what to follow in the
absence of contact with Tao. This is true even for the very
highest virtue. It's a symptom of deviation from the Way.
In our Western understanding, virtue is an old
Latin concept with its roots in Ancient Greek and Roman
thought. That's surely not what Lao Tzu considered in his choice
of the Chinese word te. We have to examine carefully what
the Chinese word might have meant to him, so that we
don't automatically assume similarities with the Western concept.
But upon examination, the Chinese and the Latin
words are not that far apart at all. The pictogram for
te is a complex one, consisting of 14 brush strokes, which is a lot. It
has three parts, each with its own separate meaning when
not combined: to walk, to look straight forward, and the
heart. To follow the heart in a straight walk forward.
We would think of walking the narrow road, as in
Matthew 7: "The way is narrow that leads to life, and there
are few who find it."
It's also quite interesting that the word Lao Tzu uses
for what to do when the Way is lost, also contains the
concept of walking. We have to walk through life, all of us who
are born into it. How to find the correct direction? Virtue is
to follow one's heart, and not deviate from this conviction.
But then we have a new problem of linguistics. Is
the heart the same to the Chinese as it is to us?
In Western tradition, the word is rarely used just to
point out that muscle pumping the blood around in the body.
We have given the word connotations relating to
emotions, ethics, conviction, and personal commitment. The
Chinese have done something similar. The word is used for
mind, intelligence, soul, stamina, character, and such things.
Not that far from the Western use.
In short, to follow one's heart is equally
commendable to the Chinese as it is to us.
For the above reasons, I dare to conclude that the
Chinese word te is surprisingly near to our idea of virtue.
So, virtue can be used rather safely in the translation of the
Tao Te Ching. That's also the case in most translations of
Virtue as a Substitute
Lao Tzu makes sense when speaking about virtue as an
inferior thing to Tao itself. When we lose track, when
the proper order of the universe is not evident to us, we have
to trust our virtue, our sense of proper conduct. It's
certainly not as safe as seeing the Way ahead of us.
We get lost repeatedly, because we are easily
convinced of ideals that seem right at the time, but lead us astray.
We listen to words, although Lao Tzu has warned us of
their shortcomings. We use a lot of words.
Holding on to virtue is to trust it more than the Way
itself, when it's revealed to us. Virtue is a poor
replacement for the real thing, but it can be very seductive. So, many
of us hurry to decide what's virtuous and what's not, and
then take pride in holding on to their course without ever
questioning it. Tragedy is a very likely result, as history
has shown us again and again.
When we are convinced of being virtuous, we easily
lose compassion as well as common sense. It's better to
regard virtue with caution, so that we immediately discover
when it leads to intolerance, prejudice, cruelty, and other
deviations from Tao.
Tao is infinitely yielding, but virtue tends to be quite
the opposite, when we hold on to it without any questioning.
Four Steps Down
Lao Tzu presents a descent in four steps from Tao. If Tao
is lost, we only have virtue to guide our steps. If virtue is
lost, we should try to behave benevolently, thereby causing
the least damage possible in our confusion.
Benevolence needs no reason, since it acts from
our hearts, our compassionate instincts. We want to do good,
for no other reason than that good is superior to bad. We
might not always know to separate the one from the other,
but what we perceive as good we do without any other
If benevolence is lost, we turn to righteousness,
but without benevolence and virtue it becomes a very
risky business. Such righteousness can quickly lead to
oppression and inhuman laws.
Righteousness always contains some purpose. We
do this to accomplish that. The end justifies the means,
although whenever this argument is put into use, it tends
to lead to sacrifices surpassing the benefits of the outcome.
When even righteousness is lost, what remain are
rituals – the ignorant commitment to customs and beliefs
that have lost their meaning. That is mankind at its lowest,
repeating things of old just because of habit, sticking
desperately to outdated fragments of thoughts, as if their lack
of reason were proof of their elevation. As if ignorance is bliss.
When rituals rule, force is always used to uphold
them. They are not to be questioned, because there is no
explanation to them. Unfortunately, it happens frequently that
our society degrades to such practice.
The Folly of the Future
Lao Tzu ends the chapter with a warning about the
future. Knowing it can be a splendid manifestation of the
knowledge of Tao. When you are familiar with the Way, you
know where it leads. But this is superficial. It's not where it
leads that's important, but how the voyage is, at each small
step of the Way. The present is what truly counts.
The future is just another word for the outcome,
which is the excuse used by righteousness, as mentioned above.
If we focus on what will happen later, we allow ourselves
to mess up the present. Even if our view of the future is
accurate, we have no reason for staring at it. It will come, in
We do much better to keep our attention on the
present. That's also the safest method to ensure that we reach
the future we seek.
Tao is not about the future, although it rules that, too.
It's about how everything works and should work at
every moment of time. To follow its fruit instead of its
dazzling flower is to adapt to Tao now, not at some other time.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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