Tao Te Ching

The Power of Goodness, the Wisdom Beyond Words
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Chapter NumberContent

True words aren’t fancy,
Charming words aren’t true.
Good people don’t argue,
Proselytizers aren’t good.
The wise aren’t academic,
Scholars aren’t wise.
The foolish understand the words,
The wise understand the sense.

The wise don’t accumulate, hoard or grasp;
The more they do for others,
The more they fulfill themselves.
The more they give to others,
The more they have.

This way of life leaves no trace,
Sharpens without cutting,
Benefits without causing harm.
The wise act without effort,
Accomplish great things
Without striving or struggle.


The rate of change increases with time, population density, and technological advances. For an individual to successfully make their way in today's world requires more wisdom than the Seven Sages of ancient Greece combined. We need more skill to deal with just one person than was needed to deal with an entire population in former times.


Happiness requires a middle way path that includes both mind and spirit, intellect and feeling, strategy and emotion, reason and intuition, character and practical action. One without the other only creates unhappiness and failure.


Putting all our cards on the table face up diminishes our achievements, welcomes frivolous criticism, and makes us more vulnerable to failure. When we clearly describe a new venture too early, it attracts criticism and competition and—if it fails—can become doubly disastrous. Instead, mix a little mystery into everything you say and do, hold decisions in suspense for a time, and don't explain things too clearly. By holding decisions in check without declaring conclusions too soon, you create anticipation, cultivate admiration, wonder, and respect. "Cautious silence is the sacred sanctuary of worldly wisdom."


Wisdom and virtue are to our happiness like our hands and eyes are to our bodies. Because they represent the essence of immortal goodness, when we align with them, that goodness channels through us and that's what we become. However, one without the other means little. A person with skill but not understanding is like a world without light. A mind with understanding but without confident courage becomes useless.


When someone is thirsty they focus on finding water; but when they've satisfied their thirst, they turn their back on the well. After an orange is squeezed, it's thrown away. People esteem us and depend on us when we inspire hope; but once satisfied, gratitude, good behavior, and respect soon becomes forgotten. Hope has a good memory, gratitude a bad one—much better to have people need us than thank us. Always keep hope alive without completely satisfying it.


Life is a journey toward completeness—everyday we can move a little closer to a higher realization, a more clear understanding, a more mature judgment, a more firm will. We can join that rare fellowship of those who speak with wisdom and act with skillful judgment.


Many believe that by bragging and showing off they gain approval and respect. However, the opposite normally results. Crowing over accomplishments only invites resentment, even hatred. This becomes more extreme when the victory is over a superior or someone in a high place. Superiority in appearance or personality is more easily accepted but not that of intelligence. Much better to be like the stars, complementing but not rivaling the sun, to take Lao Tzu's advice and have "weak wishes and strong bones." Triumph and superiority over others only makes us a target for competition, criticism, and conflict. Much better to hide our virtues, our achievements, our competence like a person hiding their beauty in old clothes.


Most think of themselves as "free" but live their lives controlled by their passions and desires. Most of our feelings arise from our biological inheritance, most of our thoughts and opinions arise from our family, culture, and friends. To resist the power of these influences and find a more authentic and creative path in life represents the highest realization and quality of mind. There is no greater influence than influence over our own minds.


Like water that "knows no enemies" and absorbs at least a little of everything it passes through, our lives absorb the influences of our nation, culture, family, social position, and era. And all of these have a shadow, particular and shared faults that most blindly inherit. By becoming aware of these shared faults and correcting them in ourselves (or at least learning to hide them), we rise above the status quo and the expected. Because others expect to find a fault and instead see a virtue, the credit expands and esteem grows quickly.


Fortune is fickle but nurtures this life, shields against envy, and can increase with effort and desire. Fame—the shadow of giants—must be earned with constant effort; and, if gained, guards against oblivion by more easily enduring and influencing the lives of future generations. Fame however knows little middle ground and mainly follows either the great or the evil, inspires either hate or love. Working for fame after death instead of a more immediate reward demonstrates an uncommon and deep integrity.


The pleasures of conversation increase dramatically when the topics expand wisdom and knowledge, when we can learn from what we hear and can be understood and appreciated for what we say. Our friends can become circles of academic respect, oracles of good judgment, theaters of worldly wisdom, examples of both practical insight and noble behavior. A culture of greater goodness arises from sincere and open communication.


A continual artistic approach to our innermost selves, to our physical surroundings, and to our relationships saves us from meaningless barbarism. Only accepting—without listening to the inner, creative impulse to improve—confines us to herd-instinct conformity. All beauty can be enhanced, all excellence improved, all personal qualities refined. Art improves the negative, amplifies the good.


Scams, con-artists, and unscrupulous promoters of everything from religion to politics to cosmetics constantly entice us to believe in lies. This struggle pits wisdom against goal-oriented strategy. The strategic approach relies on deception, hides its intentions, and waits for an opportunistic moment to ambush and strike. The way of integrity and wisdom sees through this corrupt intent by not falling victim to these deceptions, by maintaining an open-minded skepticism, a hesitancy to believe without proof, an inscrutability that waits for the second or even the third level of confirmation. When lies are exposed, the liar dissembles by using truth, cheating by not cheating, using candor to promote fraud. But the watchful insight of wisdom sees the shadows concealed by light, reads the real intent under the deceptions. Like an arrow from the Greek national divinity, Apollo, penetrating insight cuts through self-deception and lies, discovers the hidden truths.


Substance doesn't go far without a good appearance. Even the most just and reasonable cause falters with an unsavory presentation. A little charm and grace, however, opens almost every door, gilds and sweetens the truth, wins over people's hearts, adds beauty to old age itself, and can—with only a simple expression or tone—help us out of many difficult situations. The "how" of the way things are done can be as important or more important than if they are done not.


Smart people learn from their mistakes. Smarter people learn from other people’s mistakes. The smartest people learn from smart people’s mistakes. And the smartest people are the smartest people because they have learned from the most mistakes. Instead of letting jealousy and competitiveness exclude; invite and recruit those more intelligent, skillful, and wise. If not in service, at least as friends they can protect from the dangers of ignorance, untangle complicated difficulties, distill the wisdom of the best books, and—with little effort on your part—confer the fame of an oracle. As many sages speak through your mouth as were consulted beforehand.


Skill without wisdom and good intentions poisons results, creates unnatural monsters, corrupts with more subtlety, and only ruins with more ability. Knowledge without good sense only makes failure more harmful.


With a rival or competitor, avoid predictability. It's easy to shoot a bird flying in a straight line, not so easy if they weave back and forth. Don't conform to predictable patterns always doing the same procedures in the same ways at the same times. And likewise, don't always act on either the first or the second impulse, the first or the second thought. Poker players don't play with their cards face up. Even more so, with an enemy watching, frequently change the way you do things.


Most value highly in collaborators their intelligence, skill, and experience. Attitude, however, often becomes more important. Often mediocre but dedicated people go further than skillfully superior people without the inspiration. In most—even the highest—positions, ability is rarely lacking, most-often the limiting factor becomes attitude. And to achieve any kind of greatness, we need both. It's understandable to prefer a small success in a great endeavor instead of a great success in a small one; but, to prefer a lazy mediocrity to an animated achievement is inexcusable. What requires little effort earns little reward.


When you start something new, be extremely careful about people's anticipation and their imagination. They need to know enough to become curious and inspired but not enough to arouse unrealistic expectations. We can never accurately imagine the future's reality. No matter how beneficial the project or how much integrity the person, they will always fall short of the public's desire-inspired imagination. Hope distorts the truth and transfigures reality, creates a pitfall for the famous, and conjures detractors and enemies out of colleagues and customers. The highest success arrives when the results climb higher than the anticipation, the taste proves better than the appearance, when the reward goes further than the goal. With evil people and activities, however, the opposite applies. Expectations of great calamity manifest as easily tolerable and the negative event brings relief instead of frustration.