Daodejing Chapter 39: attaining the one

Richard Brown
2 min readJun 29, 2023

Look at those
That attained the one
In the past:
Heaven attained the one,
And became clear.
Earth attained the one,
And became tranquil.
The spirit attained the one,
And became potent.
The valleys attained the one,
And became fertile.
The myriad things attained the one,
And became alive.
Lords and kings attained the one,
And brought order to all-under-heaven.
From this we may conclude:
Without clarity,
Heaven would collapse.
Without tranquillity,
Earth would be destroyed.
Without potency,
The spirit would perish.
Without fertility,
The valleys would dry up.
Without life,
The myriad things would be extinct.
Without nobility,
Lords and kings would fall.
The root of nobility
Is in the humble.
The high has the low
As its base.
Lords and kings call themselves,
Orphaned, abandoned, and destitute.
This is taking the humble as the root,
Is it not?
The highest renown is
The same as no renown.
Do not desire the glamour of jade,
But the dullness of a stone.

「昔之得一者:天得一以清,地得一以寧,神得一以靈,谷得一以盈,萬物得一以生,侯王得一以為天下正。其致之也,謂天無以清將恐裂,地無以寧將恐廢,神無以靈將恐歇,谷無以盈將恐竭,萬物無以生將恐滅,侯王無以貴高將恐蹶。故貴以賤為本,高以下為基,是以侯王自謂孤寡不穀,此非以賤為本邪?非乎!故致數譽無譽,不欲琭琭如玉,珞珞如石。」

The “one” (一) in this passage is clearly the Dao, the source of all things. If they act in accordance with it, they will be fine, but if they deviate from it, disaster awaits.

The second half of the passage is problematic, particularly the last three lines, and the source of much scholarly debate. Do the kings and lords Laozi mentions call themselves as orphaned, abandoned, and destitute out of genuine humility or are they acting like an ancient Uriah Heep and using such words to emphasize how special they are in reality? This is the crux of the question, but Laozi does not give a definitive answer to it.

My take on it is that he is advising people to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to themselves through ostentatious displays of wealth or false modesty.

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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.