The best virtue (Te) is not virtuous and thus has virtue.
Lesser virtue is not distinct from its virtue and thus lacks virtue.
The best virtue is not contrived;
Lesser virtue involves contrivance.
The best relations (Ren) are not contrived;
The best justice involves contrivance;
The best conventions do not provide answers
and may even lead to use of force.
When Tao is lost, there is virtue (Te);
When virtue is lost we can fall back on good relations (Ren);
When good relations are lost there is justice;
And when justice is lost there are conventions.
Those who rely upon conventions are still trying to be honest and upright, but it is the beginning of disorder;
The way of the fortune teller leads to stupidity.
Therefore, a person of character dwells in his depths.
He does not stay with superficiality.
He does not dwell in showy appearance.
He lets that die away takes what is genuine.
The First Paragraph
Good Te is not Te and thus has Te.
If we take Tao Te Ching as being a Book of Tao and a Book of Te, then this is the first line of the Book of Te and it has some parallelism with the first line of the Book of Tao which was
The tao that you can tao is not the enduring Tao
Real thing cannot be entirely captured in words. What is genuine is not definable, cannot be reduced to a protocol or convention and is not a result of calculation.
Te essentially means “virtue”, not just in the moral sense, but in the old fashioned sense in which the virtue of something indicated its advantage, utility or special quality. Thus, one could say that a virtue of the Chinese language is that the pictographic aspect of the characters adds meaning to the words. We can see from this example that virtue refers to an ulterior benefit. So “The best Te is not Te and thus has Te” means that in the highest virtue, its virtuosity actually has nothing to do with any ulterior purpose or use - it’s worth is completely inherent - and it is for this very reason that it is actually useful and beneficial for innumerable ends. If you do something trying thereby to manipulate a certain result, then you might or might not succeed, but the act has no deep virtue in and of itself.
Thus, to take a topical example, when one votes tactically, one does not act in a totally honest manner. Thus, an electoral system that requires people to do so instils dishonesty in the population. Similarly, if a politician thinks, “On this occasion, I’ll be honest because it will get the result that I want,” this is not such a complete form of honesty as the honesty of a person who never gives a thought to the possibility of telling a lie. The utility or virtue of true virtue is great precisely because it is not done for the sake of its virtue.
The second line -
Lesser Te is not distinct from its Te and thus lacks Te -
is the other side of the same coin. Lesser virtue is virtue performed for the sake of its utility, like the politician. A gift given with the intention of obtaining a return is not a real gift. Love that expects a resulting benefit is not real love. Flattery spoken as manipulation is not real praise.
This means that there is a great difference between being genuinely good and merely playing the social game well. Superficially, in many situations, the two might be indistinguishable, and in some situations the person who plays the game might seem more virtuous than the naive or innocent person who may appear gauche or inept. However, from a Taoist perspective, the real thing is the real thing.
The third and fourth lines -
“Good Te is not contrived
Lesser Te involves contrivance” -
actually says “The wu wei of Good Te is without yi wei”. Wu wei means the real nature of something whereas yi wei refers to thought or calculation. The best virtue is virtue that you do not have to think about or agonise over. It is so much a part of the person that it does not require special calculation. This is a plea for spontaneity rooted in good heartedness.
The Second Paragraph
The next section of the chapter looks at how things decline. When there is just the Tao there is no need even for virtue (Te) because all happens naturally as it should. When Te deteriorates, we rely upon Ren 仁. Ren is a primary value of Confucianism. The character is made up of a picture of a person on the left and the character for “two” - two horizontal strokes - on the right. Ren refers to doing one’s duty to one another in a correct manner. If everyone does so society will function in a smooth way. Ren is sometimes translated as “humanity” - a call for us to be humane to one another.
When Ren deteriorates, we have justice and conventions. If people are not doing their duty we take them to court or even resort to coercion. Justice is a fall back for when Ren is not working. Our justice systems exist primarily to avoid having people take such matters into their own hands with the result of feuds and civil disorder.
Western social activism often takes justice as its goal. It tries to get “social justice” for this or that group. From a Taoist perspective, even if this were successful it would be nowhere near good enough. Modern society is built upon a theory of “rights” which are a legal fiction invented in order to assist the quest for justice, but from a Taoist point of view, even if everybody had what they have a right to this would still not necessarily be a society in which people at least do their duty and hopefully return to natural harmony.
Confucians would say that the modern problem is too much emphasis upon rights and not enough upon duty. Taoists go further and seek a society in which people can be at peace in their hearts with one another.
Confucians would like to see society more correctly regulated. Taoists will say that this leads to over-tight formalism. Conventions are mostly designed to stop bad things happening. They spring from negative expectations. Taoists prefer not to have such expectations. Trying to predict everything that could possibly go wrong and make provision for it - "the way of the fortune-teller" - can mean that far more energy goes into stopping people from doing things than goes into getting good things done. As society becomes more and more sophisticated, the proportion of people who are employed basically to prevent other people from getting out of line or doing the wrong thing escalates. Society becomes a hierarchy of people checking other people.
It is an unfortunate characteristic of humans that one of the times when one does see harmony manifest without such controls is within a group that is at war. During the war, people help one another spontaneously, are naturally generous, share what they have and cooperate one with another, not thinking that they are doing anything extraordinary by doing so, and with no need for a supervisor to instruct them, nor an official collecting statistics to see that they are doing it the right way. Yet, as soon as peace comes people put up fences, return to competing with one another and try to profit at one another’s expense. Taoism is advocating that we have such harmony and goodwill without needing to be at war in order to bring it about.
Typically, during peace time, things gradually get more and more regulated. A regulation or convention is established for every little detail of life. This makes society more and more into a kind of vast mechanism in which people do as they are required while spontaneity more and more disappears. It is an open question whether a society that has a long period of peace can avoid becoming stultified in this way. If we are ever to arrive at a world without war, this is a problem that needs to be solved. Taoism, therefore, does not advocate maximum order as the highest goal of society, but celebrates the value of spontaneity. For spontaneity to not simply be destructive anarchism it has to be grounded in the Tao and its Te.
The person of character, therefore, is not taken in by superficial appearance. She does not simply adopt an idea because it is popular. She does not follow leaders who do not live up to their own principles, or who promise things that could never be delivered. She does not get carried away by enthusiasm for things that have little or no importance. Mere show does not impress her as anything more than it actually is. She seeks a deeper basis to life.
The person who has such character is living out the Te. He is not doing so in order to appear virtuous. It is a natural expression of his interest in what is really true rather than what is merely superficial. His life is an investigation into truth, into what is deep and genuine. The more people there may be who live this way, the less need there is for rules and justice procedures. Things do not need so much regulation. Thus peace and creativity can co-exist.