Daodejing Chapter 39 breakdown: taking the humble as the root

Richard Brown
2 min readJan 15, 2024

Chapter 39 of the Daodejing hearkens back to a golden age of deep antiquity when the Dao was embraced by everything in the universe, from heaven and earth to all creatures and humanity. It goes on to warn of the dire consequences of failing to maintain unity with the Dao, calling for the ruling elite to rule with humility and simplicity to ensure that society does not descend into disorder.

Section 1
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.

The chapter begins by declaring that all the celestial, earthly, and human elements in the natural order were only able to achieve their optimal states by attaining unity with the Dao. Once this was achieved, peace and prosperity reigned over the world.

Section 2
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.

The text warns in hyperbolic terms that that any deviation from this unity with the Dao will inevitably lead to disaster. Heaven and earth will be torn asunder, with all forms of life eradicated.

Section 3
Without nobility,
Lords and kings would fall.
The root of nobility
Is in the humble.
The high has the low
As its base.
Nobles 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.

If members of the ruling elite were to abandon the Dao, they too will fall. To prevent this from happening, they need to stay humble and grounded by acknowledging their dependence on the common people for the stability and prosperity of the state. Rather than seeking ever greater power and glory, they should stay quietly in the background practicing wuwei, or effortless action, with “the dullness of a stone.”

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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.