Virtue — tough word to define, but we know it means something good. Tao Te Ching verses 38 to 81 are dedicated to this word. That’s a lot of verses.

Verse 38 is the Tao’s introduction to virtue. I’ve read it over and over again and need to consolidate some thoughts around it. Let’s get into it.

Quick Breakdown

Verse 38 is twenty-nine lines long and is split into two parts.

The first half is dedicated to describing behavior. How does someone with high virtue behave? How about someone with low virtue?

The second half breaks behavior down into four levels, with virtue being at the top. There are three lesser levels of behavior:

Virtue -> Benevolence -> Righteousness -> Etiquette

The wording here is strange, probably just due to translation. Long story short — virtue is the highest level of behavior.

This post will only discuss the first four lines of the Verse 38. Four extremely simple lines of the Tao Te Ching.

Lines 1-4

High virtue is not virtuous

Therefore it has virtue

Low virtue never loses virtue

Therefore it has no virtue

High vs. Low 

True virtue is someone who practices virtue without thinking about it — it is integrated into their character. Since they are just themselves, there is no notion of being virtuous or not virtuous.

Someone with low virtue worries about losing it. 99.9% of us.

For us normals, virtue is measurable and we act accordingly to what we believe gains and loses it.  We dwell on our morals, struggle with doing the right thing, and try our best to make the best decisions we can.

To understand why we worry about “losing something”, we must understand detachment.

Detached Action

Tao discusses detachment often. Detachment from expectations, material objects, achievements, etc.

Low virtue is attached to something. We are attached to maintaining our honest moral compass, our image as a person, and the need to believe like we are being virtuous. With attachment, our actions have an underlying agenda.

These actions can still have good intent. Perhaps you want to save hundreds of adorable whales. A good action will always be a good action, but as long as it remains attached to something, that goodness is not integrated into your character yet.

Acting with virtue means acting without attachments. There is nothing to be lost.

This means being good for good’s sake. No recognition is needed. No trophies need to be awarded.

High virtue is taking action without expectations or agenda. At this level, your actions become detached.

External Factors

We often turn to external factors to remind us to act virtuously. This ranges from a religious deity to your mom yelling at you. This is an extreme spectrum, but I am referring to anything that is not you.

External factors provide rewards and punishments for acting a certain way.

For most of us, this works well because it’s an extremely practical way to remind us to be on our best behavior — it’s just not completely natural.


Let’s tread into dangerous waters and use a deity as an example. Here are two, out of many, ways you and your relationship with God can help you become more virtuous.

Bad Way

There is no point in practicing good morals if it is only please a deity. It is unsettling to hear: “God would want me to act this way…”

Do you want to act this way?

Good Way

Using a deity to remind ourselves that we should act virtuously is good. Using teachings as reference material can be very helpful.

There’s a story in the Bible that is similar to my situation, let me think carefully about this.


<Deity> wants me to do this or else I’ll be smitten.


True virtue never needs reminders. It is detached and there is never an expectation from anything other than yourself.

True virtue is embedded in your character and is completely natural.

Next level stuff. One day.

Discussions — One Response

  • Hannah April 24, 2017 on 1:34 AM

    Awesome! I am revisiting the teachings of the Tao and appreciate your breakdown of the verse.
    Also, very interesting perspective on the TAO Nightclub’s sexy rose petal bathtubs.