Te, or Virtue - an introduction
One of the most common interpretations of Te is to call it virtue. If you do your homework to translate virtue, you’ll find it as a composite of two characters, with the first one, preceding Te, meaning beautiful or nice.
So Te is virtue. But what’s virtue? The answer, as with many things, is, “it depends.”
In this context, we can generally say that virtue is a characteristic of a person who becomes one with the Way, how do we identify this person? And how do we use words to define The Way?
That’s what this section is about.
Before we get started on Te, a few notes on this significant part of the Tao Te Ching –
If you begin an online search, you’ll find well over 100 English translations and interpretations of the Tao Te Ching. There are undoubtedly other excellent ones that have never been placed online. All were created with varying degrees of skill and purpose, aimed at different audiences. Most of the major public domain versions use their authors’ widely varying editorial judgements in describing Te. More recent versions return to old texts, either adding commentary or letting readers make their own decisions.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, how do we translate the symbol for Te?
德 Te combines the symbol for a footstep with those indicating heart and straight – or direct. Since it’s used in conjunction with Tao, the way, the footstep is an easy bridge and we can use multiple interpretations of straight/direct to tie following a path to one’s heart.
So here’s our exercise, along with a few starter definitions. We’re going to work with Tao’s verse 38, which contrasts Te with the Confucian rituals of its day. In fact, it could be called the document’s most anti-Confucian verse. The unthinking practice of ancient – but now meaningless – rituals really hasn’t changed much from then to now.
First, I’ve replaced the archaic and academic translations you’ll find in many books with a more contemporary one. Then it’ll be your turn to create your personal Tao, your personal path. Whether it’s from your own knowledge, what you find in this essay, in another translation, or from a thesaurus or dictionary, replace my suggested word with one of your own. Then read the verse again.
Does it make sense to you? Great. Think about the steps you can take to incorporate your Tao into your everyday life. To make your life a reflection of your Tao. And if doesn’t make sense to you? Then work with it some more.
To help you make some sense of the exercise, we’ll first look at the verse’s structure. If you remember Tao’s roots spring from older, oral, traditions, you’ll recognize its point/counterpoint pattern, one that makes it easy to recite, easy to remember. This verse begins by recognizing Te in its highest form, creating a contrast with its next lowest form. As you read or recite the following verse, you’ll see that the “next lowest” is compared to an even lower form of Te, and so on until we reach full Confucian ritual without meaning or love. To qualify different levels of Te, you’ll also see the use and misuse of wu-wei, or non-action.
So…as you replace these words with your own, you’ll see the progression from a state of being for its own sake to a state of doing because you feel that outside forces demand it of you. Your motivation is reflected in your action or non-action.
Here’s the progression, using words you may find in various translations.
道 Tao – path
德 Te – the nature of one who follows the path
仁 Ren – universal humanity, virtue, kind heartedness, benevolence. On a higher level, this can be a form of Te.
义 Yi – group righteousness, not universal humanity, but localized or tribal. The organized, structured, approved social constructs that we use to “fit in”
礼 Li –propriety. Doing something because it’s expected of us, without understanding its reason or meaning. Think of ritual for the sake of ritual, not its original intrinsic meaning. [Like focusing on the finger, rather than the goal it’s pointing to.]
Let’s also look at Tao’s use of “high” and “low”. Are they directions, distinctions or values? Your answer here may affect your choice of substitute word. And what about Te? Here are my suggestions –
Te – virtue, integrity, innocence, power, inner power, moral power, excellence, special, unique, good character.
High Te– organic, self-contained. Virtue or good character that exists for its own sake. Think of the attitude embodied in wu-wei [non-interference]
Low Te – is conscious of the world, which makes it apart from us. Again, using Judeo-Christian imagery, think of Adam and Eve gaining knowledge of good and evil; of feeling shame and separateness from creation.
You may also want to consider the moral attributes of a person travelling their Tao – and how these attributes evolve, based on experience and learning. Or consider Te as mankind’s original unsullied condition, before eviction from the Garden of Eden, if you want to continue with the Judeo-Christian reference.
And a suggestion: since the verse isn’t that long, find your favourite translation and type it out, double-spacing with a large easy-to-read font. Then use search/replace to substitute words. It’s important that you read the results aloud, making selection changes until you’re comfortable with the sound and meaning you’ve discovered. Substitute your own words for benevolence, righteousness and propriety, above. See how these substitutions affect the verse’s meaning. Is it possible to have multiple meanings, depending on the translation you use – or the context you’re applying it to?
This verse is adapted from several of my favourite translations. What they share is structure and emphasis, while varying in their wording. The first two comparisons are between high and low Te. They’re followed by three patterns of behaviour and attitude, declining in their adherence to Tao and Te. And if the listener doesn’t get the point in the first section, it’s followed by a review showing the consequences of leaving Tao and reminding us that we can’t tell a book by its cover. [Therefore…]
While you can use this interpretation as a starting point, it’s important to find a translation – a guide or path – that suits your journey. Hopefully you’ll find a point in your journey where you’ll write your own path, different from mine, different from those of other translators and interpreters.
Those of highest Te aren’t conscious of it. They are virtue. [They are “in the zone” – in a state of being, rather than a state of consciousness.]
Those of low Te seek virtue’s appearance. They lack true virtue. [They are conscious of their being or condition.]
Those of highest Te practice non-action.
Those of good Te act, even if they don’t need to. [Now we go down a step, from virtue for its own sake to humanity, which entails a self-awareness and identity with others. This has also been called lower virtue or inferior character.]
Those of lesser Te – or highest morality – act, without any ulterior reason.
Those of highest righteousness act, with a reason or action.
Those of good appearance act, and respond with force when no one responds to them.
When we lose Tao, Te follows.
When we lose Te, humanity follows.
When we lose humanity, imposed rules, regulations and law follow.
When we rely on outside forms we become stupid.
Therefore those of highest Te recognize substance beneath the skin. They reject appearance and accept substance.
Not happy with your – or my – interpretations for Te? Here are some more thought starters that I’ve seen people use. When you finally find one that you’re comfortable with, use it until you grow out of it. Then start again!
- Energy [“the force”]
- Inner Peace from self-acceptance
- Intrinsic excellence
- Personal Power
- Personal Vision
- Truth Seeker
And one more thing. As you browse this section, you’ll see quotes used as headlines. They’re from public domain translations of the Tao te Ching available online. Remember that each of Tao’s verses may cover several topics and that I’ve selected just part of the verse that refers to Te.
John H. McDonald – a modern translator. In the spirit of Tao, he’s hidden any personal information from public view. Several other sites claim his work is in the public domain, so I’ll continue their practice. Mr. McDonald, thank you for your wonderful work. Please feel free to contact me if I’m wrong.
Lin Yutang – 20th Century Chinese/American scholar. From the age of 40 he lived primarily in the U.S., popularizing Chinese philosophy and customs. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1940 and 1950.
Want to learn more about how Te is part of the Tao te Ching? Simply click on one of these boxes, below. You’ll find contemporary reflections on Tao’s verses dealing with the Te. Feel free to read them with – or without – your favourite version of the Tao-Te-Ching. Remember, these are thought-starters, not solutions. Solutions to your issues can only come from you.