“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 all know them. Heck, we may even be them. People who go out of their way to show just how virtuous they can be. Ah, the virtue-signaling is strong these days. Maybe it was strong in Lao-tzu’s day, too. Hence, we have today’s verse, which shows us a different path to virtue. Will you dare to take the high road? Or, will you remain stuck on the low road?
Higher Virtue, says Lao-tzu, isn’t virtuous. What? What he means is it doesn’t appear to be virtuous. It doesn’t try to be virtuous. It is effortless. In other words, Higher Virtue is simply following the Tao. As Han Fei says, it is the Tao at work. And as Wang Pi says, we practice this virtue by using nothing but the Tao. It is following Nature’s Way. Going with the natural flow. It doesn’t force itself on others. Yen Tsun says those who embody it are empty and effortless. It is being, without having to even think about it.
Lower virtue, on the other hand, isn’t without virtue. And thus, it possess no virtue. All of that virtue-signaling, that appearing to be virtuous, that trying to force itself on others, through acts of kindness, and justice, and the ritual itself, of being virtuous. This kind of virtue requires effort. It is hard work to go against the flow of nature. It really is.
The differences between Higher Virtue and lower virtue couldn’t be more profound. It is like comparing a fruit to a flower, or thick to thin. Just take a look at the lower virtues and I think you will immediately see the difference.
Kindness, at its highest, involves effort. You have to work to be kind. Though you may not give a thought about the effort, you still have to work at being kind.
And Justice; you know, that thing we all demand when we believe we have been wronged, but hope to evade when we have been the one doing the wrong — that requires great effort. It requires so much effort, it requires a great deal of thought, too. Justice is far too important not to require the greatest minds being devoted to it.
And then there is Ritual. The lowest of the virtues, I think. Ritual takes doing for the sake of appearances to its extreme form. Not content with simply appearing virtuous, it insists on being lauded for its virtuosity. And if the people don’t respond, watch out.
Now, I know I am taking a rather dim view of these lower virtues, kindness, justice, and ritual. Our commentators today see the virtue in both kindness and justice; and well, I do too. It isn’t like I want you to be unkind or unjust. And I don’t practice being unkind or unjust, either. But please understand what Lao-tzu is describing for us in today’s verse.
These lower virtues only appear because the great Way has been lost.
First, kindness appears. But when kindness is lost, justice appears. And when justice is lost, ritual appears. It is how things devolve over time as the Tao, and the practice of its Virtue, has been forgotten. It is the waning of belief. And try as we might to fill that void with some kind of substitute, nothing quite works like we want.
Confusion is the order of the day. We are so confused we think we can foretell a bright future. But that is just a flower. Pretty, maybe. But give me the fruit. That alone will sustain me.
Pick thick over thin, the fruit over the flower. Pick this (Higher Virtue) over that (lower virtue.
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.