Tao Te Ching

The Power of Goodness, the Wisdom Beyond Words
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Virtue

We translate the Te in Tao Te Ching as "The Power of Goodness" but "virtue" is closer to the literal meaning. Ursula Le Guin talks about this kind of virtue in it's old, classical sense of the "inherent quality and strength of a thing or person" but cautions that because this word is obsessively applied to women's virginity and monogamy. The word has lost this original sense and "the word lost its own virtue." Will Durant traces how definitions for virtue and vice have changed through the ages based on needs of the time and radically changed from the ages hunting to agriculture, to industry and is now struggling for new definition in our new, information age. Evolutionary psychology describes how natural selection and survival of the species genetically influence our sense of ethics and virtue. For this theme, we look to the more universal meaning deeper than any age or relative advantage.

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Quotes (76)

“A man brings about real increase by producing in himself the conditions for it that is, through receptivity to and love of the good. Thus the thing for which he strives comes of itself, with the inevitability of natural law.”

Fu Xi 伏羲 c. 2852–2737 BCE via Richard Wilhelm, Hexagram 41
Emperor/shaman progenitor of civilization symbol
from I Ching

Themes: Virtue

“Some wicked men are rich, some good are poor,
We will not change our virtue for their store:
Virtue's a thing that none can take away;
But money changes owners all the day.”

Solon 638 – 558 BCE
Founder of Athenian democracy

Themes: Money Virtue

“Man’s duty is three-fold: To make him who is an enemy a friend, to make him who is wicked righteous; and to make him who is ignorant learned.”

Zarathushtra زرتشت‎‎ 628 – 551 BCE via Dawson
(Zoroaster)

from Avesta

“The whole of my teaching is simply making people recognize that what they mistake for conditions of health are really conditions of disease, that their virtues are really vices, that what they prize is really worthless.”

Lao Tzu 老子 604 BCE - via Arthur Waley
(Lǎozǐ)
from The Way and its Power

Themes: Virtue Health

71. Sick of Sickness

“The way to do is to be.”

Lao Tzu 老子 604 BCE - via Witter Bynner
(Lǎozǐ)
from Way of Life According to Lao Tzu

“When people lose sight of how to live, they create codes of virtue that give rise to great hypocrisy.”

Lao Tzu 老子 604 BCE - via Witter Bynner, Shan Dao
(Lǎozǐ)
from Way of Life According to Lao Tzu

Themes: Virtue

18. The Sick Society

“Do not overlook tiny good actions, thinking they are of no benefit; even tiny drops of water in the end will fill a huge vessel. Do not overlook negative actions merely because they are small; however small a spark may be, it can burn down a haystack as big as a mountain.”

Buddha गौतम बुद्ध 563 – 483 BCE
(Siddhartha Shakyamuni Gautama)
Awakened Truth

73. Heaven’s Net

“Justice is not a part of virtue, but virtue entire.”

Aristotle Ἀριστοτέλης 382 – 322 BCE

Themes: Virtue Justice

“The wise take Heaven as their ancestor, virtue as their home, and the Tao as their door and escape change.”

Chuang Tzu 莊周 369 – 286 BCE
(Zhuangzi)

Themes: Change Virtue

47. Effortless Success

“To act without needing a reason… to ride the current of what is – this is the primal virtue.”

Chuang Tzu 莊周 369 – 286 BCE via Stephen Mitchell
(Zhuangzi)

2. The Wordless Teachings

“The ancients ruled the world by doing nothing. This is the Virtue of Heaven — Heaven moves without moving.”

Chuang Tzu 莊周 369 – 286 BCE
(Zhuangzi)

Themes: Wu Wei Virtue

37. Nameless Simplicity

“Guest, thou shalt be happy here, for here happiness is esteemed the highest good.”

Epicurus ɛpɪˈkjɔːrəs 341 – 270 BCE via Will Durant
Western Buddha

Themes: Virtue

“Where you find the laws most numerous, there you will find also the greatest injustice. Virtue is its own reward.”

Zeno Ζήνων ὁ Κιτιεύς 334 – 262 BCE
(of Citium)

“Those who honor the Way and Virtue… are angered by nothing. They use kindness among neighbors and virtue among strangers. They conquer their enemies without fighting and command through humility.”

Heshang Gong 河上公 202 – 157 BCE
(Ho-shang Kung or "Riverside Sage”)

68. Joining Heaven & Earth

“Dark Virtue are so deep they can’t be fathomed, so distant they can’t be reached, and always do the opposite of others. They give to others, while others think only of themselves.”

Heshang Gong 河上公 202 – 157 BCE
(Ho-shang Kung or "Riverside Sage”)

Themes: Virtue

65. Simplicity: the Hidden Power of Goodness

“There are 3 dangers in the world: To have many privileges but few virtues… To be high in rank but low on ability… To receive a large salary without personally accomplishing much… So ‘people may gain by loss and may lose by gain.”

Liú Ān 劉安 c. 179–122 BCE via Thomas Cleary
(Huainanzi)
from Huainanzi

Themes: Integrity Virtue

46. Enough

“It is impossible to live pleasurably without living prudently, justly and honorably; without making friends and without being philanthropic.”

Philodemus Φιλόδημος 110 – 35 BCE via Giovanni Indelli
(of Gadara)
from On Choices and Avoidances

Themes: Virtue Friendship

“Virtue is the parent and preserver of friendship. Without virtue, friendship cannot exist at all.”

Cicero 106 – 43 BCE
from On Friendship

Themes: Friendship Virtue

“The Way is what things follow. Virtue is what they attain. ‘Dark Virtue’ means virtue is present but no one knows who controls it.”

Wang Bi 王弼 226 – 534 CE

Themes: Control Virtue

51. Mysterious Goodness

“They are satisfied with their food because they taste the Tao. They are pleased with their clothing because they are adorned with virtue. They are content with their homes because they are content wherever they are.”

Chéng Xuanying 成玄英 631 – 655 CE
(Ch'eng Hsuan-ying)

80. A Golden Age

“When the Sage's wealth accumulates, he gives it away. When his Virtue accumulates, he acts.”

Wang Zhen 809 – 859 CE via Shan Dao
from Daodejing Lunbing Yaoyishu, The Tao of War

Themes: Virtue Wealth

“Peace, calmness, and moderation - these are the height of virtue.”

Zhou Dunyi 周敦頤 1017 – 1073 CE via Wing-Tsit Chan
(Chou Tun-i)
from Penetrating the Book of Changes

“The reason the Tao is esteemed by the world is because it cannot be known or perceived. If it could be known or perceived, why should it be esteemed?... Thus sages wear an embarrassed, foolish expression and seldom show anyone their great and noble virtue.”

Lu Huiqing 1031 – 1111 CE

Themes: Virtue

70. Inscrutable

“It is not by being richer or more powerful that a man becomes better; one is a matter of fortune, the other of virtue.”

Heloise 1090 – 1164 CE

Themes: Power Virtue

“Outside, we govern others. Inside, we care for Heaven. In both, nothing surpasses the gardening of spirit… Only if we are still does virtue have a place to collect.”

Li Xizhai 12th century CE via Red Pine
(Li Hsi-Chai)
from Tao-te-chen-ching yi-chieh

Themes: Integrity Virtue

59. The Gardening of Spirit

“Like the aroma of sandalwood spread on the wind, virtue spreads far and wide through place and time.”

Sakya Pandita ས་སྐྱ་པཎྜ་ཏ་ཀུན་དགའ་རྒྱལ་མཚན། 1182 – 1251 CE via John T. Davenport, Shan Dao #415
(Kunga Gyeltsen)
from Ordinary Wisdom, Sakya Legshe (Jewel Treasury of Good Advice)

“Like a firebrand pointing downward but continuing to blaze up, the wise keep their integrity even when impoverished and maligned.”

Sakya Pandita ས་སྐྱ་པཎྜ་ཏ་ཀུན་དགའ་རྒྱལ་མཚན། 1182 – 1251 CE via John T. Davenport, Shan Dao #36
(Kunga Gyeltsen)
from Ordinary Wisdom, Sakya Legshe (Jewel Treasury of Good Advice)

Themes: Virtue Integrity

“The ten thousand creatures respect the Tao as their father and honor Virtue as their mother… the Way becomes Virtue… Virtue becomes the Way.”

Wu Cheng 吴澄 1249 – 1333 CE via Red Pine
"Mr. Grass Hut"
from Tao-te-chen-ching-chu

Themes: Virtue

51. Mysterious Goodness

“Rarely do great beauty and great virtue dwell together.”

Petrarch 1304 – 1374 CE

61. Lying Low

“And since you may not justly love deny, then take it as a virtue of the mind… For love at last must all constrain and bind… therefore pray take heed to follow love that best can guide and lead.”

Geoffrey Chaucer 1343 – 1400 CE via George Philip Krapp
“Father of English literature”
from Troilus and Cressida

Themes: Love Virtue

“Politics have no relation to Morals.”

Machiavelli 1469 – 1527 CE
(Niccolò Machiavelli)
from Discourses on Livy

Themes: Virtue

“There's a virtue born from suffering that dims and conquers the sense of pain.”

Gaspara Stampa 1523 – 1554 CE via Jane Tylus
from The Complete Poems

Themes: Virtue

37. Nameless Simplicity

“Virtue is its own reward, vice its own punishment.”

Balthasar Gracian 1601 – 1658 CE via Joseph Jacobs, #90
from Art of Worldly Wisdom

69. No Enemy

“It is harder to die to our virtues than to our vices… our attachments are the stronger as they are more spiritual.”

Madame Guyon Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon 1648 – 1717 CE via Thomas Taylor Allen
from Autobiography of Madame Guyon

“The difference is too nice - where ends the virtue or begins the vice.”

Alexander Pope 1688 – 1744 CE
Second most quoted English writer

Themes: Virtue

“Wisdom and virtue are the same thing.”

Benjamin Franklin 1706 – 1790 CE

Themes: Virtue

“To make a vow is a greater sin than to break one.”

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg 1742 – 1799 CE
One of history’s best aphorists

“When we destroy an old prejudice we have need of a new virtue.”

Madame de Staël 1766 – 1817 CE
(Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein)
"The greatest woman of her time"

“The more he saw, the more he doubted… courage was often rashness; and prudence, cowardice; generosity, a clever piece of calculation; justice, a wrong; honesty, a modus vivendi; and by some strange dispensation of fate, he must see that those who at heart were really honest, scrupulous, just, generous, prudent or brave were held cheaply by their fellow-men.”

Balzac 1799 – 1850 CE
(Honoré de Balzac)

“The highest virtue is always against the law.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803 – 1882 CE
Champion of individualism

“Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

Abraham Lincoln 1809 – 1865 CE

“A moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives - of approving of some and disapproving of others.”

Charles Darwin 1809 – 1882 CE

Themes: Virtue

“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

Abraham Lincoln 1809 – 1865 CE

15. Inscrutability

“sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.”

Herman Melville 1819 – 1891 CE
from Moby Dick or The Whale

“The Christian virtues inculcated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are nowhere exemplified in the Christian world... Meanwhile the vices which coarse-mouthed slanderers have attributed to Paganism, are current everywhere among Christian Fathers and Christian Churches.”

Blavatsky, Helena Еле́на Петро́вна Блава́тская 1831 – 1891 CE
Co-founder of Theosophy
from Isis Unveiled

Themes: Virtue

“To do good is noble. To tell others to do good is even nobler and much less trouble.”

Mark Twain 1835 – 1910 CE
(Samuel Langhorne Clemens)
America’s most famous author

67. Three Treasures

“Those men are best who are not remarkable either for vice or virtue... the most that can be truly said for virtue is that there is a considerable balance in its favor... but there is much pseudo-virtue going about, which is apt to let people in very badly before they find it out.”

Samuel Butler 1835 – 1902 CE
Iconoclastic philosopher, artist, composer, author, and evolutionary theorist
from Erewhon

Themes: Virtue

“Suffering — how divine it is, how misunderstood! We owe to it all that is good in us, all that gives value to life; we owe to it pity, we owe to it courage, we owe to it all the virtues.”

Anatole France 1844 – 1924 CE
(Jacques Anatole Thibault)
from The Garden of Epicurus

Themes: Virtue

78. Water

“Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.”

Oscar Wilde 1854 – 1900 CE

“Our virtues and our failings are inseparable, like force and matter. When they separate, man is no more.”

Nikola Tesla Никола Тесла 1856 – 1943 CE

“The bad man is the man who—no matter how good he has been—begins to deteriorate, to grow less good. The good man is the one who—no matter how morally unworthy he has been—is moving to become better. Such a conception makes one severe in judging himself, and humane in judging others.”

John Dewey 1859 – 1952 CE
The "Second Confucius"
from Reconstruction in Philosophy, 1920

“Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.”

W.B. (William Butler) Yeats 1865 – 1939 CE

39. Oneness

“Our virtues are not something free and independent that we can always call upon... if a new situation arises, it takes us off our guard and we haven't the slightest idea that those same virtues could be called into play.”

Marcel Proust 1871 – 1922 CE via Justin O'Brien
Apostle of Ordinary Mind
from Albertine disparue

Themes: Virtue

“Righteousness cannot be born until self-righteousness is dead.”

Bertrand Russell 1872 – 1970 CE
“20th century Voltaire”

Themes: Virtue

“If your virtues hinder you from salvation, discard them, since they have become evil to you. The slave to virtue finds the way as little as the slave to vices.”

Carl Jung 1875 – 1961 CE
Insightful shamanistic scientist
from Red Book, Liber Novus

“Man at his best, like water… loves living close to the earth, living clear down in his heart.”

Witter Bynner 1881 – 1968 CE
(Emanuel Morgan)

Themes: Virtue Water

8. Like Water

“Though in your winter you deny your spring... you are also as strong as your strongest link.”

Kahlil Gibran 1883 – 1931 CE
from The Prophet

Themes: Virtue

“The minor virtues, I reflected, are much more dangerous than the minor vices. If these two did not sing and play so well, they would not be invited to pafties, would not get drunk, would not fritter away their time, and they might be saved. As it was, singing beautifully, playing the guitar beautifully, they had started along the downgrade.”

Nikos Kazantzakis 1883 – 1957 CE via P. A. Bien
from Report to Greco

Themes: Music Virtue

“Die every day. Be born again every day. Deny everything you have every day. The superior virtue is not to be free but to fight for freedom.”

Nikos Kazantzakis 1883 – 1957 CE
from The Saviors of God, 1923

Themes: Virtue

“it is one of the most culpable oversights of nature that virtue and beauty so often come in separate packages”

Will Durant 1885 – 1981 CE
Philosophy apostle and popularizer of history's lessons
from Our Oriental Heritage

Themes: Virtue

“Probably every vice was once a virtue — i.e. a quality making for the survival of the individual, family or the group. Man's sins may be the relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall.”

Will (and Ariel) Durant 1885 – 1981 CE
from Lessons of History

Themes: Evolution Virtue

“To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: that is enough for one man's life.”

T. S. Eliot 1888 – 1965 CE

43. No Effort, No Trace

“Technology has tended to devaluate the traditional vision-inducing materials. The illumination of a city, for example, was once a rare event, reserved for victories and national holidays, for the canonization of saints and the crowning of kings. Now it occurs nightly and celebrates the virtues of gin, cigarettes and toothpaste.”

Aldous Huxley 1894 – 1963 CE

Themes: Technology Virtue

80. A Golden Age

“The minute you choose to do what you really want to do, it's a different kind of life.”

Buckminster Fuller 1895 – 1983 CE

65. Simplicity: the Hidden Power of Goodness

“My generation of radicals and breakers-down never found anything to take the place of the old virtues of work and courage and the old graces of courtesy and politeness.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald 1896 – 1940 CE
Prototype of "Jazz Age" exuberance
from Letters

“The right way is not always the popular and easy way. Standing for right when it is unpopular is a true test of moral character.”

Margaret Chase Smith 1897 – 1995 CE

Themes: Virtue Conformity

“If you have character, endeavor, personality, courage and the capacity for concentrated labor, you will do what is your destiny – and, perhaps, even do it well.”

Ariel Durant 1898 – 1981 CE
(Chaya Kaufman)

“The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same form of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”

Eric Fromm 1900 – 1980 CE
from The Sane Society

Themes: Virtue Integrity

71. Sick of Sickness

“Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again.”

Anais Nin 1903 – 1977 CE

26. The Still Rule the Restless

“Virtue is the manifestation of the Way. The way is what Virtue contains. Without the Way, Virtue would have no power. Without Virtue, the Way would have no appearance.”

Yen Lingfeng 1910 CE –
Author and Taoist scholar
from Lao-tzu chang-chu hsin-pien

Themes: Virtue

“Morality is the basis of freedom.”

Freda Bedi, Sister Palmo 1911 – 1977 CE

Themes: Freedom Virtue

“The only unqualifiedly good is extended vision, the enlargement of one’s understanding of the ultimate nature of things.”

Huston Smith 1919 – 2016 CE
from World's Religions

Themes: Wisdom Virtue

“The essence of morality consists, as in art, of drawing the line somewhere.”

Huston Smith 1919 – 2016 CE
from World's Religions

Themes: Integrity Virtue

“I consistently render the character te as ‘power.’ ‘Virtue’ (virtus, vertu) in its old sense of the inherent quality and strength of a thing or person is far closer to the mark, but that sense is pretty well lost. Applied obsessively to the virginity or monogamy of women, the word lost its own virtue.”

Ursula Le Guin 1929 – 2018 CE

Themes: Virtue

10. The Power of Goodness

“Lao Tzu sees rightful power as earned and wrongful power as usurped. He does not see power as virtue, but as the result of virtue. The democracies are founded on that view.”

Ursula Le Guin 1929 – 2018 CE

13. Honor and Disgrace

“According to the Taoist master, Liu Yiming, the Way comes to the best people before virtue, whereas virtue is needed by middling and lesser people before they can understand the Way.”

Thomas Cleary 1949 CE –
from Essential Tao

Themes: Virtue

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