Daodejing 38 Redux


With this poem, we begin the Book of DE
(the second part of the Daodejing, the poems on virtue or excellence). 

#38*

Magnificent excellence (DE):

Acting without thinking
of being excellent.
Acting thus is
authentic excellence.

Debased excellence:

Keeping up the
appearance of excellence.
Acting thus is
inauthentic excellence.

Authentic excellence keeps
by doing-without-doing (WU WEI),
with no deliberate
manifestation
of doing excellence.

Debased excellence keeps
doing and ever
manifests itself
doing.

Magnificent
benevolence [1]
never boasts of
this benevolence.

Yet magnificent
righteousness does boast
of this righteousness.

And magnificent
propriety takes
offense at improper
response, ready to
roll up the sleeves. [2]

Thus, lose the Great Way (DAO)
then comes excellence (DE).
Lose excellence,
then comes benevolence.
Lose benevolence,
then comes righteousness.
Lose righteousness,
then comes propriety.

Propriety results
from insufficient
loyalty and faith
and results in the
first step to disorder.

Foresight puts gilding (HUA)
upon the Great Way
and is the beginning
of stupidity.

Thus, the authentic person
makes a thick dwelling
and dwells not in thinness. [3] 

Hence, the authentic person
makes a simple dwelling
and dwells not by gilding. [4]

Therefore, abandon
that and take this. [5]

[1] Beginning with this stanza, Laozi examples his meaning on the degeneration from authentic virtue to inauthentic virtue. The farther we go down on the list, the showier the agent’s actions become.

[2] With this example, Laozi incorporates what is still today a habit we see when someone takes umbrage: the insulted party rolls up his/her sleeve and gets ready to fight. This puts on a show of doing virtue.

[3] This is one of those instances where going with what Laozi actually says will not make much sense to folks. But let us honor the Master by not “gilding” the translation. He means here with “thickness” that which has depth (profundity) and with “thinness” that which is only surface (shallowness). 

[4] The uncarved block reappears in contrast to gilding. Another reason to be careful with how we translate the Master into English where words often require so many adjectives to distinguish them or render them carved as distinct (e.g. sexual love, spiritual love, puppy love, Platonic love, etc).

[5] Laozi refers to back to the previous stanzas: that = the thinness of gilding; this = the thickness of simplicity, or the uncarved block.

*Translation by LU Wenlong & Keith Wayne Brown, ©2013.

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26 Comments

    1. Thanks Simon! I beginning to think this Poem is trying to tell me something… First, I left off four stanzas the first time I posted it (thus Redux), and I have corrected many spelling errors in it. LOL

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