Daodejing Chapter 81 breakdown: a fitting conclusion

Richard Brown
2 min readNov 28, 2023

Chapter 81 provides a fitting conclusion to the Daodejing, reminding you not to be deceived by beautiful words, superficial talk, and shallow intellectualism. By acting in harmony with the natural order of the Dao, you will lead a long and meaningful life without harming others.

Section 1
Trustworthy words are not beautiful.
Beautiful words are not trustworthy.

The chapter begins by contrasting straight talk with eloquent speech, warning you to beware of elaborate and lyrical language that can be used to manipulate and deceive you through charm and flattery.

Section 2
The good are not silver-tongued.
The silver-tongued are not good.

By extension, Laozi advises you to distinguish between people who just talk the talk and those who also walk it. The best way to learn about someone’s true character is to observe their actions rather than just listen to their words. You will soon find out what they are really about.

Section 3
The wise are not learned.
The learned are not wise.

Wisdom does not come from the accumulation of knowledge, but understanding deeper truths that cannot be found in formal education or scholarly pursuits. Just because someone has an advanced degree from a prestigious school does not mean that they are better equipped to engage meaningfully with the world than anyone else. In fact, too much chasing of fashionable academic theories can easily distort their view of reality.

Section 4
The sage does not hoard.
The more he serves,
The more he has.
The more he gives,
The more he receives.

True abundance comes from supporting others rather than accumulating masses of wealth and possessions. The more you give, the more you receive both materially and spiritually.

Section 5
The Dao of heaven is to
Benefit but never harm.
The Dao of the sage is to
Accomplish but never contend.

Life is not a competition. It is about reaching a state of harmony with the people and world around you by giving rather than taking, helping rather than harming, and serving rather than contending. When your actions are in sync with the natural order of things, you will achieve amazing things.

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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.