Wednesday, February 23, 2011

38: The Highest Virtue


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...

Here is my full commentary on this Tao Te Ching chapter:
Tao Te Ching Chapter 38 Translation and Commentary


  1. I stumbled upon this blog as I was looking at part 38 for releif. I agree with your comments, and appreciated the bible verse. Matthew 7: "The way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it." This sounds like those who are enlightened.

  2. I am interested in presenting the Tao Te Ching to some people I work with. I think it would be beneficial in leading them to the right path. I would like to spread the inspiration it has given me. Your translation is easily understood, thank you

  3. Did you translate it from Chinese?

  4. The character 德 has 15 strokes, not 14. I noticed that the 德 that you use on your site is the Japanese variant of the character. Even in the original 道德經, you can see that they use the proper 15-stroke character 德.


    Please correct this small mistake. Thanks!