"The Way gives birth to them."
Tao Te Ching - Chapter 51
The Taoist Classic by Lao Tzu
Translated and Explained
The Way gives birth to them.
Virtue gives them nourishment.
Matter gives them shape.
Conditions make them whole.
Of all things,
None does not revere the Way and honor virtue.
Reverence of the Way and honoring virtue
Were not demanded of them,
But it is in their nature.
So, the Way gives birth to them,
Takes care of them.
It gives birth without seizing,
Helps without claim,
Fosters without ruling.
This is called the profound virtue.
All Things Are Nurtured
Tao as a source, out of which all things have come into
existence, is mentioned several times in the Tao Te
Ching. But virtue, te, giving them nourishment, is a somewhat
confusing perspective. Human beings need virtue as
nourishment for their character and perspectives on life. Perhaps
the same thing can be said for the animals – but how can it
be expected of plants and dead things?
What is hinted with the statement is either virtue as
a kind of principle for the growth and development of
all things, or some animistic standpoint, where everything
in the world is connected and in some sense alive.
Probably, it's a combination of both.
To Lao Tzu and his contemporaries, life was
something other than it is to us. All of nature, with its
movements, changes, and dynamics, could be seen as being alive.
Movement is everywhere, so is growth and decay. Therefore,
in many cultures it has been taken for granted that all
things possess some kind of life. Otherwise, how could
they change, and how could they be active, important parts
of the human conditions?
We are enclosed in the world and we relate to it
in countless ways, so it's definitely part of our lives. At least
in that sense, the world is alive and bound to the same
conditions as we are. The world is alive because it matters to
Also, since Lao Tzu sees Tao as something
encompassing all, behind all, he gives equal omnipresence to
virtue, the worldly manifestation of Tao. This relation between
Tao and virtue is expressed by the last line of this chapter.
How Tao behaves is called the profound virtue. So, Tao can
be said to have virtue, therefore virtue must be present
in everything born out of Tao.
Since Tao is the way things are and ought to be, it can
be called virtuous. Tao is the original state of
Te, virtue. The nature of Tao is virtuous, but not because it's bound by
virtue. That would make it second. It's virtuous of
itself, whereas the world coming out of it has virtue because of
its origin, like genes transporting heredity from parents to
children. The whole world and all things in it carry the
virtue of Tao with them.
So, there is just one form of virtue, which is from
Tao, and its essence is nothing but being in accordance with
Tao. We are virtuous when we follow the Way.
© Stefan Stenudd.
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