Against Confucius

Chapters 17, 18, 19, 23, and 38

The four groups of Daodejing chapters discussed above speak of private and spiritual things and make little or no reference to public affairs or to government, except to reject them. These chapters, however, took simplicity 樸, quietness 希 言 and wuwei 無 為 , which had originally been proposed as methods of self-cultivation and life-enhancement, and s tarted to transform them into the approach to government which eventually would be called Huanglao. The ruler should minimize his interventions and proclamations and work from behind the scenes, with as little fuss as possible.

These chapters are polemically anti-Confucian, anti-Mohist, and anti-Legalist. In chapters 18 and 19 the Confucian virtues of benevolence 仁, righteousness 義, propriety 禮, knowledge 智, and even Sageliness 聖 are simply rejected, and in chapter 38 these are all subordinated to 道 Dao. (This rejection is the only mention of Sageliness in the Early Dao chapters). Mohist top-down reforms and Legalist attempts at maximum exploitation are also tacitly rejected, as is these two schools’ reliance on argument 辯, acuteness 慧, craft 巧, and cleverness 快 in the pursuit of profit or advantage 利 . Both the Confucian virtue system and the Mohist and Legalist governmental methods use words to mark differences, establish categories,and exhort or command the populace, but in chapters 17 and 23 of the Daodejing the ideal ruler is described as a nearly-unknowable and almost silent practitioner of a kind of laissez-faire (wuwei 無 為). Historically Huanglao governance was beneficial, since it put an end to the exorbitant taxation and constant warfare of earlier approaches to government.

While wuwei superficially sounds like the Western principle of “limited government”, in the West limited government favors competition and economic enterprise, while the Daodejing rejects competition (爭, usually translated “contention”) and ambition (notably in chapters 03, 12, 53, 75, and 80 ) and proposes a kind of cooperative traditionalism kept harmonious by behind-the-scenes wise men. it is doubtful that this approach would work today. The Daodejing’s anti-intellectualism and minimization of public debate would preclude both public participation in government and the rule of law, and attempts at following this ideal tend to produce a quasi-traditionalist, paternalistic, and in the end authoritarian government ruling an ignorant populace whose happiness is simply assumed (see chapter 65).

17-18 (joined in GD and BD texts)

太 上下 知 有 之知
其 次親 譽 之
其 次畏 之
其 次侮 之

信 不 足 焉 有 不 信

猶 兮 其 貴 言 也

成 事 遂 功
而 百 姓 皆 曰
我 自 然 也

故 大 道 廢 (Chapter 18)
安 有 仁 義
智 慧 出
安 有 大 偽
六 親 不 和
安 有 孝 慈
邦 家 昏 亂
安 有 正 臣
The greatest ruler is just known to exist;
The next best is praised and loved;
The next best is feared;
And the worst is treated with contempt.

The untrustworthy can trust no one.

How few are his pronouncements!

He attains his goal the does the job,
and the people just say
“We did it!”

Thus: When the Great Way fails
you get benevolence and righteousness.
When wisdom and craft appear
you get the Big Lie.
When family relationships are unsettled
you get deference and filiality.
When the state is in chaos
you get upright ministers.

畏: 15, 17, 20, 53, 57, 72, 74.
信 08, 17, 21, 23, 38, 49, 63, 76, 81
成 事 遂 功 (phrase) 02, 09, 17, 34, and 77

功 02, 09, 17, 22, 24, 34, 77, 78.
百 姓 05, 17, 49, 75
自 然 17, 23, 25, 51, 64
仁 05, 08, 18, 19, 38, 64
義 18, 19, 38
智 18, 19, 27, 38, 65 (知 much more common).
偽 18
親 17, 18, 44, 56, 79
和 02, 04, 18, 42, 56, 78, 79
孝 18, 19
慈 18, 19, 67
邦 18, 36, 54,57, 58, 61, 65, 78, 80
家 18, 54, 57
昏 14, 18, 20, 57, 58
亂 03, 18, 38, 64
正 08, 16, 18, 22, 32, 37, 39, 45, 57, 58, 67, 78


侮 之: the MWD texts read 母之 “treat as a mother” – “treat as a mother: take for granted, take advantage of”? I have not seen this interpretation suggested elsewhere.

信 不 足 焉 有 不 信: also seen in chapter 23.

貴 言: “honors words” = gives them a high value and uses them sparingly. The word 愛 “love” can also be used here with the meaning of “begrudge”. “be stingy with”.

成 事 遂 功: There are echoes of this phrase in chapters 02, 09, 17, 34, and 77, with many variant forms in the different texts.

百 姓: commoners. In the rest of the Daodejing the word 民 is mostly used for this meaning (for example in chapter 19 here). This may be is evidence that chapter 19 is a separate chapter commenting on chapters 17 and 18, rather than joined to them as it is in the BD text.

The 故 particle in most texts of chapter 18 makes it reasonable to assume that it is attached to the preceding chapter 17, and in the GD text and BD texts these two chapters are joined. (In BD 17,18, and 19 are joined).

智 慧 出: also 知快 出 and 智惠 出. This line is not part of the GD text, and all versions of it are a word short.

正臣: also 貞臣 and 忠臣. Probably for reasons of royal taboo reasons, the word 正is often replaced by one of many synonym (more or less) substitutes: 政, 貞, 定, 忠, 直, 闐, 寘, 鎮, 靜, or 沖. This is only one of a number of substitutions of this type in the Wang Bi version.

自 然 (chapters 17, 23, 25b, 51, and 64). “Self-so, natural” – what happens of itself without the action of any agent. The Daodejing advocates wuwei 無 為, in the awareness that the human order is not the product of government but is prior to government and is too complex to be understood or controlled by any individual, though careful interventions are possible here and there. 自 然 eventually became a metaphysical term and is now the Chinese word for “nature” considered as a whole. (In chapters 32, 37, and 57 the phrases 自化, 自正, 自富, 自樸, etc., refer to the results of wuwei).

Chapter 17-18 comment:
By contrast to Confucian, Mohist, or Legalist rulers, the Daoist ruler is elusive and invisible, and Daoist methods can be used anywhere in the social order, as when you say something like “John is the formal leader of the department, but Robert is the one you go to if you need to get something done”. The Daoist doesn’t make promises and doesn’t take credit for things but takes the minimal steps to see that things turn out right.. He uses words sparingly — that is, he doesn’t send out a lot flood of edicts, exhortations, and proclamations, but he makes the ones he does send out count. “The untrustworthy can trust no one”: a ruler who tries too much, says too much or claims too much loses credibility, since some of his attempts will fail and some of his claims will not be believed. (This is still the case today) But in chapter 17, however, the ruler actually does played a role, but behind the scenes; he just lets the people believe that they did it themselves or that it “just happened”.

Chapter 18 seems to confuse cause and effect, but I think that this is deliberate. Moralism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and if there’s a lot of talk about righteousness and propriety this is usually evidence that righteousness and propriety are being violated or ignored. However, it is also true that if you insist on strictly enforcing fine points of righteousness and propriety, you will make wrongdoers out of people who would otherwise be harmless. Likewise, a government which widely publicizes detailed bodies of law written by intelligent men will produce a class of intelligent mercenaries looking for loopholes.

**19 (joined to 17 and 18 in *BD text)


Get rid of sageliness and cast off wisdom
and the people will be a hundred times better off.
Get rid of benevolence and cast off righteousness
and the people will return to filiality and compassion.
Get rid of cleverness and cast off calculation
and there will be no more thieves and bandits.

These three sayings aren’t quite enough,
so an addendum is necessary:
display the pure and embrace the simple,
minimize selfishness and reduce desire


盜 03 19 53 57
賊 19 57 65
樸 15 19 28 32 37 57
無欲 01 03 34 37
欲不欲 57 64
私 07
GD version of opening:

The GD text of chapter 19 is significantly different than the other, later versions of this chapter. The Confucian virtues 聖, 仁, and 義 are not mentioned, and the attack focuses instead on t 辯 “disputation”, 偽 “deception”, and 慮 “reflection, apprehension”, and 智 “learning” (which is the sole Confucian term). All of these terms (along with two terms mentioned in both versions of chapter 19, 巧 “craft” and 利, “calculation of advantage”together with two terms seen in some texts of chapter 18, 慧 “discernment” and 快 “quickness”), have to do with quickness, cleverness, cunning, discernment, or simply erudition and intelligence and are more characteristic of Mohism, the Jixia schools, and Legalism than they are of Confucianism, and all go against the wordlessness and nondiscrimination advocated by Laozi.

In general, these 3 chapters and chapter 38 reject two types of activity characteristic of all other Chinese schools of the time: the establishment of graded hierarchies (聖, 仁, 義, and 禮) and the making of fine points of distinction (智, 辯, 慮, 巧, 利, 慧, and 快: 偽 “deception” here is just a pejorative lumped in with the others to make them look bad). *HENRICKS

While chapters 17, 18, and 19 are closely connected, there are signs of internal debate. In chapter 18 孝 filiality and 慈 compassion are symptoms of decline, whereas in chapter 19 they are treated as a positive goal (民復孝慈). This probably means that chapter 19 is of different origin than chapters 18 and 19. The appendix (所屬) also has the effect of softening the polemical tone of these chapters by concluding on a positive note and probably was also added late.

**23 (Not BD)

希 言 自 然
故 飄 風 不 終 朝
暴 雨 不 終 日
孰 為 此 者?
天 地
天 地 弗 能 久
而 況 於 人 乎?

故 從 事 於 道 者
同 於 道
德 者 同 於 德
失 者 同 於 失.


信不足焉 有不信
To speak briefly is natural.
Thus, a whirlwind doesn’t last all morning
and a sudden shower doesn’t last all day.
Who is behind these?
Heaven and Earth.
If Heaven and Earth can’t make things last,
How much less can man?

Thus, a man who acts according to Dao is at one with Dao,
a man of Virtue, at one with Virtue
The man of loss, at one with loss.

The man of virtue,
Dao surely gets him.
The man of loss,
Dao surely loses him.

The untrustworthy can trust no one.


I found this chapter hard to place, but ended up putting it with chapters 17, 18, 19, and 38 because of the term 自 然 “nature / naturally”, the line 信 不 足 焉 有 不 信, and the advocacy of sparingness of speech, all shared with chapter 17 together with the 德 / 失 antithesis shared with chapter 38. However, it is not an anti-Confucian polemic the way the other chapters in this group are and I cannot be sure that it belongs here.

The opening message of chapter 23 — caution and restraint restraint in the light of uncertainty — is pervasive in the DDJ and fits with the wuwei message of chapter 17. I have not divided this chapter, but the second part of this chapter may be unrelated to the first part. It may be connected to the message of chapters 27, 49 and 62, in which it is argued (in opposition to Confucian and Mohist moralism) that if you take people for what they are, you can still employ them despite their faults.

The words 德 “virtue / power” and 得 “gain” were pronounced identically during the Classical Chinese era, and the two words are densely entangled, with overlapping meanings (since “virtue” has an aspect of success and power) and frequent puns. The 德 / 失 antitheses in chapters 23 and 38 are part of this, as is peculiar use of the word 德 in chapter 49 where it seems simply to mean 得.

I find the word 德 hard to translate and hard to fully understand. It combines the ideas of goodness, efficacy, and generosity and sometimes seems to have a magical aspect, like the Polynesian word mana, which Scott Barnwell’s historical study is a good place to start when approaching this topic.


The first part of this chapter deals with trancience and impermanence, a frequent theme in the Daodejing. The general idea of the second part is something like “You don’t have to liveby Dao if you don’t want to, but there will be consequences”.

**38 (NOt BD)

上 德 不 德
是 以 有 德

上 德 無 為 而 無 以 為
上 仁 為 之
而 無 以 為 也
上 義 為 之
而 有 以 為 也

上 禮 為 之 而 莫 之 應 也
則 攘 臂 而 扔 之
故 失 道 而 後 德
失 德 而 後 仁
失 仁 而 後 義
失 義 而 後 禮

夫 禮 者 忠 信 之 薄
也 而 亂 之 首 也
前 識 者 道 之 華 也
而 愚 之 首 也
是 以 大 丈 夫 居 其 厚
而 不 居 其 薄
居 其 實 而 不 居 其 華

故 去 被 而 取 此
The highest virtue does not make gains,
So it has virtue;
The lesser virtue holds to its gains so it lacks virtue.

The highest virtue does not act
and does not impose categories,
The highest benevolence acts
but without imposing categories
The highest righteousness does things
by imposing categories

The highest propriety does things
and if anyone fails to respond
it rolls up its sleeves and and drags them.
So you lose Dao and get Virtue,
Lose virtue and get benevolence,
Lose benevolence and get righteousness,
Lose righteousness and get propriety.

Now propriety is the husk of reliability
and the beginning of confusion,
Foreknowledge is the blossom of Dao
but the beginning of stupidity.
Thus a big player resides in the solid
and not in the flimsy,
holds to the fruit
and not to the blossom,

So old to the former and let go of the latter.

WB and BD have an extra line between line 3 and line 4 which I have not included here, 下 德 不 失 德,是 以 無 德. This is probably an editor’s attempt to extend the parallelism, which I think that is unnecessary.

攘 臂 This phrase is also seen in chapter 69, which presumably refers back to this chapter.

去 被 取 此: 12, 38, 72.

The 道 > 德 > 仁 > 義 >禮 hierarchy here is effectively anti-Confucian. The Confucian hierarchy is actually the same, but in Confucianism there’s no sense that the lower orders of goodness ( 義 and 禮 ) are actually worthless or harmful; they’re just lesser and subordinate forms of good. But the Daodejing rejects these forms of judgmental naming and distinction, both because they are unnecessary and false, and because they’re harmful.

This chapter explicitly establishes wuwei 無 為 / wuyiwei 無 以 為, a principle latently there in chapters 17 and 23 of this group, and explicitly present in chapters 02, 03, 37, 43, 48, 57, 63, and 64. It is interesting that wuwei is seen only in the later sections of Early Dao and the earlier sections of Sage Dao, but not in the earliest Yangist, Vitalist, and Maternalist chapters at the beginning of early Dao or in the closing chapters of the book, chapters 57-81.

Wuwei 無 為

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