“Higher Virtue isn’t virtuous
thus it possesses virtue
Lower Virtue isn’t without virtue
thus it possesses no virtue
Higher Virtue involves no effort
or the thought of effort
Higher Kindness involves effort
but not the thought of effort
Higher Justice involves effort
and the thought of effort
Higher Ritual involves effort
and should it meet with no response
then it threatens and compels
virtue appears when the Way is lost
kindness appears when virtue is lost
justice appears when kindness is lost
ritual appears when justice is lost
ritual marks the waning of belief
and the onset of confusion
augury is the flower of the Way
and beginning of delusion
thus the great choose thick over thin
the fruit over the flower
thus they pick this over that”
(Taoteching, verse 38, translation by Red Pine)
HAN FEI says, “Virtue is the Tao at work.”
WANG PI says, “Those who possess Higher Virtue use nothing but the Tao. They possess virtue, but they don’t give it a name.”
YEN TSUN says, “Those who embody the Way are empty and effortless, yet they lead all creatures to the Way. Those who embody virtue are faultless and responsive and ready to do anything. Those who embody kindness show love for all creatures without restriction. Those who embody justice deal with things by matching name with reality. Those who embody ritual are humble and put harmony first. These five are the footprints of the Tao. They are not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is not one, much less five.”
WANG P’ANG says, “Kindness is another name for virtue. It differs, though, from virtue because it involves effort. The kindness of sages, however, does not go beyond fulfilling their nature. They aren’t interested in effort. Hence, they don’t think about it.”
LU HUI-CH’ING says, “Higher kindness is kindness without effort to be kind. Kindness is simply a gift. Justice is concerned with the appropriateness of the gift. Ritual is concerned with repayment. When ritual appears, belief disappears and confusion arises.”
SU CH’E says, “These are the means whereby sages help the people to safety. When the people don’t respond, sages threaten and force them. If they still don’t respond, sages turn to law and punishment.”
FAN YING-YUAN says, “‘Augury’ means to see the future. Those in charge of rituals think they can see the future and devise formulas for human action, but they thus cause people to trade the spirit for the letter.”
WU CH’ENG says, “The Tao is like a fruit. Hanging from a tree, it contains the power of life, but its womb is hidden. Once it falls, it puts forth virtue as its root, kindness as its stem, justice as its branches, ritual as its leaves, and knowledge as its flower. All of these come from the Tao. ‘That’ refers to the flower. ‘This’ refers to the fruit. Those who embody the Tao choose the fruit over the flower.”
RED PINE adds, “And yet the plastic flowers of civilization still deck a billion altars.”
We finished up last week saying, “Let the world fix itself!” It was an admonition to rulers, and all of us, really, not to intervene, not to interfere, not to use force, not try to control. That gives us a strong indication of what Lao-tzu is explaining in today’s verse regarding virtue. For, in today’s verse, Lao-tzu teaches there is virtue, and then there is Virtue.
As I was reading through today’s verse, I was reminded of what Lao-tzu said previously. “All the world knows good. But if that becomes good, this becomes bad. The coexistence of have and have not … is endless.”
The highest Virtue, with a capital V, is a virtue that is virtuous without being virtuous. If that seems odd, consider all of Lao-tzu’s teachings regarding the practice of wei-wu-wei. Doing without doing. Knowing without knowing. Competing without competing. And he does go on to explain this is exactly what he means by a virtue that isn’t virtuous. It doesn’t involve any effort. Not even the thought of effort. It is a natural virtue, an effortless virtue.
He contrasts that with Lower virtues. Lower virtues take effort. They are virtues that strive to be virtuous. The lower virtues could be further explained as what we perceive as virtue, as contrasted with Higher Virtue which isn’t perceptible.
Here, Lao-tzu talks about three different perspectives on what is virtuous: Kindness. Justice. Ritual.
Each of these “virtues” have their advocates.
I happen to be pretty big on kindness. Often wondering to myself, “Why can’t people just treat people like they want to be treated?”
For many, justice is the be all and end all virtue. This virtue focuses on what is right and what is wrong. And how wrongs can be made right.
Then, there are those for whom ritual is the most important virtue. This virtue is all about the appearance of virtue. It speaks of humility and harmony. Today, I think the name for it is virtue-signaling. It trades the “spirit” for the “letter,” in an effort to keep up appearances.
Of course, what is most common is that we advocate for some combination of these three virtues.
Lao-tzu takes them one by one, however, and seems to suggest a kind of hierarchical order to them, as well. But keep in mind, these virtues, however high they might be, are all much lower than the Higher Virtue Lao-tzu talked about first.
Kindness is perhaps the highest of the lower virtues. It involves effort, but without giving a thought to the effort involved in being kind. Hence, my constant wonder of why it isn’t easier for people to practice.
Justice involves effort, and it is always thinking about the effort it involves. What is right? Once, you start naming what is right, what is wrong surely follows.
And then there is ritual. I am just going to go ahead and say it. Ritual is the ugliest of the lower virtues. Quite frankly, I find it difficult to call it a virtue. That is kind of what I was feeling as I was reading Su Ch’e’s commentary on today’s verse. Should we really be calling “Su ch’e’s sages” sages? They certainly don’t seem to possess any virtue, given Lao-tzu’s definitions in today’s verse. Yes, ritual requires effort. And, when it doesn’t meet with the expected response, “Watch out!”
The lower virtues only appear because the Great Way has been lost. Remember, the highest form of Virtue? The natural kind, the one which doesn’t involve any effort at all, the one that is a virtue without trying to be virtuous? Well, that is only going to be realized as a result of following the Tao.
Kindness appears when Virtue disappears. Justice appears when kindness is lost. Ritual appears when justice is lost. When things have spiraled downward to where all you have left in the way of virtue is ritual, that is the mark of just how far our belief in the Tao has waned. It is the onset of confusion. Ritual thinks it can see into the future by dwelling on what is past. But that is nothing but the flower of the Way. It is the beginning of delusion.
Thus, choose the thick over the thin, the fruit over the flower: Pick this over that.
Red Pine introduces the following sage with today’s verse:
FAN YING-YUAN (FL. 1240-1269). One of the first scholars to examine variations in pronunciation and wording in the Taoteching. Lao-tzu tao-te-ching ku-pen-chi-chu.