The one

The “One” (一) in this passage is clearly the Dao: it is not only the source of all things but also controls their fate. If they act in accordance with it they will be fine, but if they deviate from it disaster awaits.

This is the first time that spirits (神) feature in the text. They could possibly be gods, though their ranking below heaven and earth suggests that they are more likely to souls of ancestors, animals, or guardians of rivers, springs, or valleys rather than all-powerful deities.

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 “orphans”, “lonely”, and “unworthy” 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 doesn’t exactly give a definitive answer to it.

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

「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。」
Of those in the past that attained the One:
Heaven attained the One and became pure.
Earth attained the One and became tranquil.
The spirits attained the One and became divine.
The valleys attained the One and became fertile.
All things attained the One and came alive.
Kings and lords attained the One and the world became peaceful.
From this we may conclude:
Without purity, Heaven would soon have cracked.
Without tranquility, Earth would soon have broken apart.
Without divinity, the spirits would soon have perished.
Without fertility, the valleys would soon have become barren.
Without life and growth, all things would soon have become extinct.
Without moral leadership, kings and lords would soon have fallen.
Therefore, the noble takes the humble as its root;
And the high takes the low as its foundation.
Thus, kings and lords call themselves orphaned, lonely, and unworthy.
This is a case of taking the humble as the root, isn’t it?
For this reason, high renown is the same as no renown.
Do not strive to shine like jade;
Or to be as dull as a stone.

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