Daodejing Chapter 38: higher power

Richard Brown
3 min readJun 26, 2023

Higher power
Does not strive for power,
So it has power.
Lesser power
Does not let go of power,
So it has no power.
Higher power does not act,
So it leaves nothing undone.
Lesser power acts,
So it leaves things undone.
Higher benevolence
Acts without a purpose.
Higher rectitude
Acts with a purpose.
Ritual acts,
Yet when nobody responds,
Rolls up its sleeves,
To force everyone to comply.
When the Dao is lost,
There is power.
When power is lost,
There is benevolence.
When benevolence is lost,
There is rectitude.
When rectitude is lost,
There is ritual.
Ritual leads to
Skin-deep loyalty and trust
And the beginning of chaos.
Prophecy is but
The flower of the Dao,
And the beginning of folly.
The great man abides in
The substance,
not the surface,
The fruit,
Not the flower.
He rejects the latter,
Adheres to the former.

「上德不德,是以有德。下德不失德,是以無德。上德,無為而無以為;下德,為之而有以為;上仁為之而無以為。上義為之而有以為。上禮為之而莫之應,則攘臂而扔之。故失道而後德,失德而後仁,失仁而後義,失義而後禮;夫禮者,忠信之薄,而亂之首。前識者,道之華,而愚之始。是以大丈夫處其厚,不居其薄,處其實,不居其華,故去彼取。

Imagine a pyramid. At its apex are the people in your office who are so far “in the zone” that they are not even conscious of it. They could include the CEO, a brilliant engineer or designer, or perhaps even a salesperson who lives for nothing more than the thrill of the daily customer chase. Or, perhaps more likely, they could include nobody at all for achieving such a rarified state of natural spontaneity is almost impossible.

According to Laozi, these are people who possess “higher power” (the character 德 is often also translated as “virtue”). Next come people who embody “benevolence” by working selflessly for the good of the company and their colleagues. They are the ones who walk the walk and should not be confused with the group underneath them who Laozi contemptuously dismisses as people of “higher rectitude” because they use fine words and impenetrable jargon to hide their true character and motives. Let’s hope that you don’t have to list too many of those!

Right at the bottom are the box-tickers, the petty bureaucrats who love nothing more than wielding their miniscule levels of power to stop you from doing that little bit extra to please your customer or from going home a little early because your child is sick even though you have completed your daily work.

Laozi caustically describes such individuals as people who love “ritual”: the often-unwritten rules and customs that govern official ceremonies and the daily social interactions between people. Let’s hope that you don’t have to list too many of those, either, because if you do it means that the rot has already set in and it’s time to look for another job.

To finish off the exercise, why not mark where you stand in Laozi’s hierarchy? Or better still the level you are aiming for. Just remember that you should not allow yourself to be distracted by the flowers as you strive to attain it.

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.