Daodejing Chapter 67: compassion and courageousness

Richard Brown
3 min readSep 24, 2023

All-under-heaven says
That my Dao is great
Because it resembles nothing.
It is because it is great,
That it resembles nothing.
If it resembled something,
It would long ago
Have become small.
I have three treasures
That I hold and cherish.
The first is compassion.
The second is frugality.
The third is refusing to
Put yourself above everyone.
Compassion allows you to be courageous.
Frugality allows you to be generous.
Refusing to put yourself above everyone,
Allows you to become
The leader of all-under-heaven.
Courageousness without compassion,
Generosity without frugality,
And leadership without
Refusing to put yourself above everyone,
Are fatal mistakes.
With compassion comes
Victory in offence,
And impregnability in defence.
Heaven saves,
Compassion protects.

「天下皆謂我道大似不肖。夫唯大故不肖,若肖久矣,其細也夫。我有三寶,持而保之,一曰慈、二曰儉、三曰不敢為天下先。慈故能勇,儉故能廣,不敢為天下先,故能成器長。今舍慈且勇,舍儉且廣,舍後且先,死矣!夫慈以戰則勝,以守則固,天將救之,以慈衛之。」

One of the great benefits of studying the Daodejing is that it encourages you to delve deep beneath the surface and examine the interplay between seemingly contradictory ideas through its liberal use of paradoxical statements that challenge conventional wisdom.

Chapter 67 provides some excellent examples of this approach, starting with the opening statement that true greatness is found in being indefinable or incomparable. For me, however, the most interesting paradox concerns the connection the author draws between compassion and courageousness.

Compassion (慈) is the first of the “three treasures” or qualities required to lead a meaningful life that Laozi highlights in the chapter. In very basic terms, it means showing kindness and empathy towards all beings.

On its own, there is nothing particularly remarkable about singling out compassion as a key quality that anyone who wants to lead a good life should possess. It is when Laozi says “compassion allows you to be courageous” that the discussion becomes interesting.

Compassion is about a lot more than blandly declaring your heartfelt sympathy for people less fortunate than you are and making the occasional donation to charity. It also means standing up for others when they most need it, even if, in the ultimate worst-case scenario, it requires going to war to defend them against an aggressor.

Once a conflict has started, however, it can be all too easy to forget the reason why you originally became involved in it. Acts of bravery without the anchor of compassion can cause unnecessary losses and destruction for both parties and create deep resentment within your enemy that can come back to bite you when you least expect it.

This is why Laozi describes courageousness without compassion as a fatal mistake and concludes the chapter with the lines:

With compassion comes
Victory in offence,
And impregnability in defence.
Heaven saves,
Compassion protects.

When your actions are driven by compassion, you will not only achieve victory because you are fighting for a just cause. You will also minimize death and destruction on both sides by bringing the conflict to a timely close and reaching an enduring peace settlement.

By connecting compassion with courageousness, Laozi reminds us of the need to take a balanced approach to addressing challenges in our complex world. Even the most positive of qualities can morph into negative ones if they are taken too far on their own.

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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.