Daodejing Chapter 21: the greatest virtue

Daodejing Chapter 21「孔德之容,唯道是從。道之為物,唯恍唯惚,惚兮恍兮,其中有象;恍兮惚兮,其中有物。窈兮冥兮,其中有精,其精甚真,其中有信。自古及今,其名不去,以閱眾甫。吾何以知眾甫之狀哉?以此!」
The greatest virtue is achieved by following the Dao and the Dao alone.
As a thing, the Dao is,
Elusive and intangible;
Intangible and elusive!
Yet within it is an image;
Elusive and intangible!
Yet within it is a substance;
Dim and dark!
Yet within it is an essence;
The essence is real;
And within it is something that can be trusted;
From ancient times until now,
Its name has never disappeared.
Through it, I can see the beginning of all things.
How do I know how all things began?
Because it is here within me.

Chapter 21 features the first appearance of德 (dé), the second character in the title of the Daodejing (道德經). This is generally translated as “virtue”, but could also be rendered as charisma, magnetism, and even power.

Laozi doesn’t explain what he means by virtue in this chapter, but he does make it clear that it can only be achieved by dedicating yourself to the way and only to the way. Just to make sure you understand what this involves, he then goes on to describe the characteristics of the way in much the same vein as in Chapter 1: namely, that although it is elusive, intangible, dim, and dark, the way is real and has existed since the beginning of time.

Perhaps he is also making the point that virtue is just as indefinable yet real as the way itself. This is a question that will be explored in later chapters of the text.

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