Daodejing Chapter 38 breakdown: the fruit of the Dao

Richard Brown
3 min readJan 14, 2024

Chapter 38 of the Daodejing is the first chapter of the second half of the received version of the text. It provides a framework for evaluating the personal effectiveness of people, placing ones with “higher power” (上德/shàngdé) at the top and ones who subscribe to ritual (禮/lǐ) at the bottom. The passage concludes with a call to dive deep beneath the surface or “flower” of the Dao to find the substance or “fruit” of it.

Section 1
Higher power
Does not strive for power,
So it has power.
Lesser power
Does not let go of power,
So it has no power.

The chapter begins by highlighting the paradox that the more you try to impose your authority over others, the greater the chance you have of losing it. True power comes from letting go rather than actively seeking control or dominance. The harder you push to get things done, the less you accomplish because you are going against the flow of nature and the Dao.

Section 2
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.

The chapter goes on to present a hierarchy of qualities and behaviours in a descending order of effectiveness and distance from the Dao. Higher power is at the top because it is the embodiment of wuwei, or effortless action. The Confucian values of benevolence, rectitude, and ritual are at the bottom, with the latter inviting particularly scornful criticism because of its coerciveness.

Section 3
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.

The text describes how easily a state can reach the brink of collapse when it strays from the Dao. Once people lose touch with the natural flow of the world, they soon find themselves relying on the superficial moral values and forms of rectitude and ritual that can be easily distorted by ambitious members of the ruling elite to sow distrust and conflict between different individuals and groups.

Section 4
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.

This imposition of these artificial values and forms causes most people to look no further than the surface or “flower” of the Dao. Only a “great man”, in contrast, is willing to ignore conventional wisdom by searching for its “fruit” or substance.

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Daodejing Chapter 38: higher power

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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.