Chapter 18

The Way was lost
“Benevolence and righteousness” were put in its place
By skill and cunning (having lost original simplicity)
Great hypocrisy ensued
The chain of blood that was tied to the origin was broken
And was replaced with family sentiments
When the kingdoms fell into disorder
“Good ministers” became prominent.

Chapter 19

Remove (petty) wisdom, put prudence aside
And the advantage to the people will be very great
Humanitarianism and morality are not proclaimed
And a spontaneous solidarity [= from the family] will return to rule in society
Utilitarian goals will be devalued, self-absorbed action will be despised
And guilty acts will vanish in society.
(But even) these three particularly
Do not have to be followed to the letter
What is essentially necessary:
To be (oneself) in rough, natural, candour
Detached from particular ambitions, liberated from vain desires.


There is a visible continuity between these two chapters. Proclaiming “virtues” is for Taoism merely the sign of a corrupt society. See Chapter 38: “Superior virtues do not announce themselves as virtues.” It speaks instead of the “non-virtues of virtues”, the latter understood as artificial corresponding to a pedantic exterior that, more than restoring an integral life, will only increase the damage by favouring hypocrisy and cunning. The Taoist argument in that sense, not without reference to a second-rate or poorly understood Confucianism, often went beyond the sign. “Benevolence and righteousness” – ren and yi – are precisely the cardinal Confucian virtues. Even family sentiments reduced to conventional and obligatory behaviour are decadent. (Chapter 18) See Chuang Tzu (XIII,5):

These concerns about benevolence and righteousness recall a man who beats a drum while searching for a fleeing son, with the only effect of making him flee even further… Unite your influence to that of the Principle rather than imposing artificial virtues, and you will be able to achieve something.

From the last line of Chapter 19 the positive reference point is clarified: conduct derives from being oneself, rather than reflecting a norm of society. The elimination of desires, as vain desires, must not be understood here in an ascetic, forced, or renunciatory sense. It is the fundamental idea of Taoism, that in man a complex of desires, tendencies and interests is not at all “natural”, it is an error, it is something artificial and parasitic. One is truly oneself – and one is on the Path – when one is liberated from it. Then true virtues are also manifested. “Morality”, far from restoring this state of natural equilibrium, moves even further from it, adding to a stratification another stratification. An effective image:

The beginning is what I call the thaw (the dissolution of the concretion of the exterior I), after that the stream begins to take its course.” (Chuang Tzu, XXIII, 3)

In a certain way, the same double application is reaffirmed in the chapter that follows. Among the excrescences in respect to the natural state, which one must prune, the world of intellectualism and of the social distinctions between “good” and “evil” is also included. However, in contrast, being oneself is *described that brings you quite far, along the line of the Transcendent Man in his closed and impenetrable form. The reference, as will be seen, is in the first person – it is almost the only passage of the Tao Te Ching where the author speaks of himself: however with the visible intent of sketching out a model.

Chapter 20

The (discursive, reasoning) intellect is the source of sorrow
What consistency do dialectical distinctions have?
What is the difference between “good” and “evil”?
“To act like everyone else” – a norm based on fear.
No! (out of) this squalor.
People are carried away by a simple joy
A festival suffices for them
A panorama of spring which is seen from a terrace
I, instead, am anchored in the bottom of the current of sentiment
I remain serious and calm [beyond joy] like an infant who has not yet smiled
I live like this and go as if I belong to no place.
Everyone desires excess
While I am like one who possesses nothing
(I seem) ignorant, simple, without a practical spirit
Everyone lives in the light
While I am darkness
Everyone needs company
While I love only the solitary height
Indeterminable like the waters of the ocean
Like the wave I turn without pause
Everyone aspires to something
While I seem simple and incompetent
I am different from everyone
But, united to the original productive essence, only I am an I.

Chapter 21

The great Virtue which is manifested
Is only the exteriorization of the Principle
But the substance of the Principle
Is undifferentiated and unintelligible
Undifferentiated and unintelligible
It contains the seeds [the archetypes, the seminal possibilities of beings, constituting their indestructible element, their “heaven”]
Mysterious and incomprehensible
It contains existences [= beings who have passed to the formal state]
Deep and hidden
It contains essences [transformed beings – “spirits”]
As such it is the great Reality
The secure place (of all beings).
From the origin up to the present
It does not change its Name
The animating principle (of each thing) proceeds from it
What is the foundation of such knowledge?


Beings do not cease to live in the Principle and to have in it their “secure place” in the triple state:

  • In the preformal state “being part of Heaven and Earth” as archetypes or seeds (logoi spermatikoi)
  • In formal existence or existence in its proper and limitative sense
  • As pure forms.

Coexistence of the emission, of the eternal movement where those states and the mysterious, unintelligible, unmoved Unity follow each other.

To the unknowability and the unintelligibility which would be in the same way the predicate of the Principle is contrasted, in the last lines, with the form proper to a possible knowledge of its mystery: “this”, the  word refers to direct, metaphysical, and super-rational intuition (it appears again in Chapter 54). The expression tathata may be compared, which, when used with an analogous meaning in Madhyamika Buddhism, designated the content of the supreme, unpronounceable experience.