High Virtue is non-virtuous;
Therefore it has Virtue.
Low Virtue never frees itself from virtuousness;
Therefore it has no Virtue.
High Virtue makes no fuss and has no private ends to serve:
Low Virtue not only fusses but has private ends to serve.
High humanity fusses but has no private ends to serve:
High morality not only fusses but has private ends to serve.
High ceremony fusses but finds no response;
Then it tries to enforce itself with rolled-up sleeves.
Failing Tao, man resorts to Virtue.
Failing Virtue, man resorts to humanity.
Failing humanity, man resorts to morality.
Failing morality, man resorts to ceremony.
Now, ceremony is the merest husk of faith and loyalty;
It is the beginning of all confusion and disorder.
As to foreknowledge, it is only the flower of Tao,
And the beginning of folly.
Therefore, the full-grown man sets his heart upon the substance rather than the husk;
Upon the fruit rather than the flower.
Truly, he prefers what is within to what is without.
This is an extremely challenging passage, and I can only interpret it based upon other mystic/occult ideologies with which I am somewhat familiar. Specifically, I see this as a parallel with the concept of emanation as put forth by Plotinus.
Emanationism is an idea in the cosmology or cosmogony of certain religious or philosophical systems. Emanation, from the Latin emanare meaning “to flow from” or “to pour forth or out of”, is the mode by which all things are derived from the first reality, or principle. All things are derived from the first reality or perfect God by steps of degradation to lesser degrees of the first reality or God, and at every step the emanating beings are less pure, less perfect, less divine.
So in emanationism, the Divine One is in the center of all existence, and then there are series of emanations moving away from the source, each being less divine than the previous. I see Lao Tzu’s example as being similar: the Tao is the divine center, and all other virtuous forms that emanate out are less and less like the Tao, until we get to the point where there is nothing but a shell of what was once the Tao.
If this is the case, we can use this hierarchy as a map to get back to the Tao, or center. If we begin by practicing ceremony, we may attain morality. If we continue living moral lives, then we may reach humanity. Once humanity is incorporated, we can work towards gaining Virtue. Finally, as we reach the state of High Virtue, we can step across the threshold to the Tao.
This is some very heady stuff, and I again emphasize that this is only my interpretation. For me, it makes sense, but I am open. If you have other insights into this passage, I would love to hear them. Feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments section below.
Blessings, and thanks for stopping by.