Commentary on Laozi's "The Tao Te Ching", Article 3: Sections 22-31 "Virtue in Individual, Professional, and Political Life"

in literature •  15 days ago 
He who stands on his tiptoes does not stand firm; he who stretches his legs does not walk (easily). (So), he who displays himself does not shine; he who asserts his own views is not distinguished; he who vaunts himself does not find his merit acknowledged; he who is self-conceited has no superiority allowed to him. Such conditions, viewed from the standpoint of the Tao, are like remnants of food, or a tumor on the body, which all dislike. Hence those who pursue (the course) of the Tao do not adopt and allow them.

Hello everyone! This is the 3rd article in my series of commentaries on Laozi's the Tao Te Ching. If you have missed either of the previous two, they will be linked at the bottom of this article. I would ramble some more, but I don't have much to say, and these articles tend to reach 3,000 words. . . So. . . Let's get into it!

Here is my review and commentary on Sections 22-31 of Laozi's "The Tao Te Ching":

[Image Source:, License: CCO Public Domain]

Text Source, The Tao Te Ching by Laozi

Sections 22-31

The Increase Granted to Humility

  1. The partial becomes complete; the crooked, straight; the empty, full; the worn out, new. He whose (desires) are few gets them; he whose (desires) are many goes astray.
  2. Therefore, the sage holds in his embrace the one thing (of humility), and manifests it to all the world. He is free from self-display, and therefore he shines; from self-assertion, and therefore he is distinguished; from self-boasting, and therefore his merit is acknowledged; from self-complacency, and therefore he acquires superiority. It is because of this he is thus free from striving that therefore no one in the world is able to strive with him.
  3. That saying of the ancients "the partial becomes complete" was not vainly spoken: all real completion is comprehended under it.
  1. The point of this is that humility leads to improvement.
  2. As a result of this, a virtuous person will not focus on being an example, and, as a result, they will become an example. He will not try to establish solely his opinion in a discussion, and, as a result, his opinion will be much more eminent. He will not gloat, and therefore will be honored. He does not seek satisfaction, and therefore becomes superior. It is these lifestyle choices that define him superior amongst all others.
  3. This view is filial and worthwhile.

Absolute Vacancy

  1. Abstaining from speech marks him who is observing the spontaneity of his nature. A violent wind does not last for a whole morning; a sudden rain does not last for the whole day. To whom is it that these (two) things are owing? To Heaven and Earth. If Heaven and Earth cannot make such (spasmodic) actings last long, how much less can man!
  2. Therefore, when one is making the Tao his business, those who are also pursuing it agree with him in it, and those who are making the manifestation of its course their object agree with him in that; while even those who are failing in both these things agree with him where they fail.
  3. Hence, those with whom he agrees as to the Tao have the happiness of attaining to it; those with whom he agrees as to its manifestation have the happiness of attaining to it; and those with whom he agrees in their failure have also the happiness of attaining (to the Tao). (But) when there is not faith sufficient (on his part), a want of faith (in him) ensues (on the part of the others).
  1. The point of this passage is that not speaking is a check on impulsiveness. This is a point which I, and many others I presume, could learn a thing or two from.
  2. As a result of this, the Tao (order of the universe) should always be respected by all (whether impulsive or not).
  3. In these situations, those who agree in interpretation of the Tao are happy in their agreement; those who agree in application of the Tao are happy in their agreement; and those who admit having failed in executing the Tao, are happy in their agreement. If he is not faithful, those around him will want him to be. I think the point of this third passage is finding common ground with both your allies and your enemies.

Painful Graciousness
He who stands on his tiptoes does not stand firm; he who stretches his legs does not walk (easily). (So), he who displays himself does not shine; he who asserts his own views is not distinguished; he who vaunts himself does not find his merit acknowledged; he who is self-conceited has no superiority allowed to him. Such conditions, viewed from the standpoint of the Tao, are like remnants of food, or a tumor on the body, which all dislike. Hence those who pursue (the course) of the Tao do not adopt and allow them.

This passage makes a similar point to XXII. It starts with a point similar to Confucianism, that point being, if you are to do something, you must fully do it if it is to be a meaningful extension of your moral values. The passage then reiterates XXII's points in regards to humility.

Representations of the Mystery

  1. There was something undefined and complete, coming into existence before Heaven and Earth. How still it was and formless, standing alone, and undergoing no change, reaching everywhere and in no danger (of being exhausted)! It may be regarded as the Mother of all things.
  2. I do not know its name, and I give it the designation of the Tao (the Way or Course). Making an effort (further) to give it a name I call it The Great.
  3. Great, it passes on (in constant flow). Passing on, it becomes remote. Having become remote, it returns. Therefore, the Tao is great; Heaven is great; Earth is great; and the (sage) king is also great. In the universe there are four that are great, and the (sage) king is one of them.
  4. Man takes his law from the Earth; the Earth takes its law from Heaven; Heaven takes its law from the Tao. The law of the Tao is its being what it is.
  1. The mother of all things came before heaven and earth, and it was an embodiment of "mystery" (paradoxes).
  2. We call this order: the Tao, or synonymously: the Great.
  3. The Tao indefinitely continues. As a result of this, it achieves a celestial existence. Being celestial, it is unforgotten. As a result of this, there are 4 truly Great things in the universe: The Tao, the Heavens, the Earth, and the virtuous ruler.
  4. These great things are a hierarchy: Man -> Earth (nature) -> Heaven -> The Tao

The Quality of Gravity

  1. Gravity is the root of lightness; stillness the ruler of movement.
  2. Therefore, a wise prince, marching the whole day, does not go far from his baggage wagons. Although he may have brilliant prospects to look at, he quietly remains (in his proper place), indifferent to them. How should the lord of a myriad chariots carry himself lightly before the kingdom? If he do act lightly, he has lost his root (of gravity); of he proceed to active movement, he will lose his throne.
  1. This makes the point again that opposition creates definition. Something cannot be light without gravity to show the heaviness of other objects in comparison. Something cannot move without first having been still.
  2. As a result of this, a ruler will live up to these definitions.

Dexterity in Using the Tao

  1. The skillful traveler leaves no traces of his wheels or footsteps; the skillful speaker says nothing that can be found fault with or blamed; the skillful reckoner uses no tallies; the skillful closer needs no bolts or bars, while to open what he has shut will be impossible; the skillful binder uses no strings or knots, while to unloose what he has bound will be impossible. In the same way the sage is always skillful at saving men, and so he does not cast away any man; he is always skillful at saving things, and so he does not cast away anything. This is called "Hiding the light of his procedure."
  2. Therefore, the man of skill is a master (to be looked up to) by him who has not the skill; and he who has not the skill is the helper of (the reputation of) him who has the skill. If the one did not honor his master, and the other did not rejoice in his helper, and (observer), though intelligent, might greatly err about them. This is called "The utmost degree of mystery."
  1. Specialization means mastery of understanding and application of a field. As a result, the virtuous will always try to teach the non-virtuous rather than disowning them.
  2. Because of this, mastery is only perceived by those who are have not learned a field. Reputation comes from this perception. As a result of this, there should be a mutual respect between the observer and the master.

Returning to Simplicity

  1. Who knows his manhood's strength,
    Yet still his female feebleness maintains;
    As to one channel flow the many drains,
    All come to him, yea, all beneath the sky.
    Thus he the constant excellence retains;
    The simple child again, free from all stains.
    Who knows how white attracts,
    Yet always keeps himself within black's shade,
    The pattern of humility displayed,
    Displayed in view of all beneath the sky;
    He in the unchanging excellence arrayed,
    Endless return to man's first state has made.
    Who knows how glory shines,
    Yet loves disgrace, nor e'er for it is pale;
    Behold his presence in a spacious vale,
    To which men come from all beneath the sky.
    The unchanging excellence completes his tal;
    The simple infant man in him we hail.
  2. The unwrought material, when divided and distributed, forms vessels. The sage, when employed, becomes the Head of all the Officers (of government); and in his greatest regulations he employs no violent measures.

This passage discusses obtaining virtue with humility. It ends with the point that unwanted materials can be scrapped for further use, and the virtuous leader will hold power without utilizing violence.

Taking No Action

  1. If anyone should wish to get the kingdom for himself, and to effect this by what he does, I see that he will not succeed. The kingdom is a spirit-like thing, and cannot be got by active doing. He who would so win it destroys it; he who would hold it in his grasp loses it.
  2. The course and nature of thins is such that
    What was in front is now behind;
    What warmed anon we freezing find.
    Strength is of weakness oft the spoil;
    The store in ruins mocks our toil.
    Hence, the sage puts away excessive effort, extravagance, and easy indulgence.
  1. You cannot achieve power by wanting it. If you want it, you are not in it for the right reasons, and destroy the virtue of a kingdom by overtaking it because of want.
  2. As a result of this, the sage does not do more work than required, seek more than what he deserves, or indulge in privilege.

A Caveat Against War

  1. He who would assist a lord of men in harmony with the Tao will not assert his mastery in the kingdom by force of arms. Such a course is sure to meet with its proper return.
  2. Wherever a host is stationed, briars and thorns spring up. In the sequence of great armies there are sure to be bad years.
  3. A skillful (commander) strikes a decisive blow, and stops. He does not dare (by continuing his operations) to assert and complete his mastery. He will strike the blow, but will be on his guard against being vain or boastful or arrogant in consequence of it. He strikes it as a matter of necessity; he strikes it, but not from a wish for mastery.
  4. When things have attained their strong maturity they become old. This may be said to be not in accordance with the Tao: and what is not in accordance with it soon comes to an end.
  1. You cannot assert power through force, and adhere to the Tao.
  2. War leads to bad times for all, and contradict the lessons of the Tao.
  3. The virtuous only fight when fighting in defense. In the event of victory, they do not seek more battle in order to gain complete power. The virtuous fight for defense, not for power.
  4. Something which is mature, is also old.

Stilling War

  1. Now arms, however beautiful, are instruments of evil omen, hateful, it may be said, to all creatures. Therefore, they who have the Tao do not like to employ them.
  2. The superior man ordinarily considers the left hand the most honorable place, but in time of war the right hand. Those sharp weapons are instruments of evil omen, and not the instruments of the superior man-he uses them only on the compulsion of necessity. Calm and repose are what he prizes; victory (by force of arms) is to him undesirable. To consider this desirable would be to delight in the slaughter of men; and he who delights in the slaughter of men cannot get his will in the kingdom.
  3. On occasions of festivity, to be on the left hand; on occasions of mourning, the right hand. The second in command of the army has his place on the left; the general commanding in chief has his on the right; his place, that is, is assigned to him as in the rites of mourning. He who has killed the multitudes of men should for them with the bitterest grief; and the victor in battle has his place (rightly) according to those rites.
  1. Weapons serve an evil purpose and should only be used in defense of the Tao.
  2. As a result of this, the superior man does not seek military command unless it is in defense of the Tao.
  3. In troubled times, seek military command in order to defend the Tao. When mourning, one should mourn even the enemies who have been killed out of necessity to uphold the Tao.

Previous Posts

The Tao Te Ching (2019: Senior Year)

The Confucian Analects (Early 2018: Sophomore Year)

The Art of War (Early 2017: Freshmen Year)


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