The great Way is all-pervading.
It reaches to the left and to the right.
All things depend on it with their existence.
Still it demands no obedience.
It demands no honor for what it accomplishes.
It clothes and feeds all things without ruling them.
It is eternally without desire.
So, it can be called small.
All things return to it,
Although it does not make itself their ruler.
So, it can be called great.
Therefore, the sage does not strive to be great.
Thereby he can accomplish the great.
It's Great to Be Small
Lao Tzu again describes the humble nature of Tao, the Way. Its greatness lies exactly in its modesty. It has made the world appear and keeps it from disappearing. Every creature exists because of it. Yet, it's discreet with its presence, as if hiding, and it allows us to follow it or not, as if we had a choice to alter the very laws of existence.
The first cause of the universe is quiet about its feat.
This grand example is for everyone to follow. The sage, knowing this, makes sure not to strive for greatness. What would at all be great compared to Tao? One learns Tao by imitating it, so the sage avoids greatness – not in order to accomplish it, but to be in accordance with Tao, the greatest of all. This imitation leads to great accomplishments.
It can also be described as behaving in accordance with nature. When we learn the natural way, we find solutions to problems no matter how big they are, and our actions meet no resistance. We still have the freedom to counter nature, and often we succeed. The question is what it costs us. And we continue paying as long as we want to keep it up.
We can fly, although it's not within our own nature. It took quite an effort to succeed, and it continues to be a complicated endeavor. Lao Tzu would have preferred us to remain on the ground. We change the courses of rivers, drill tunnels through mountains, drain lakes, and tear down forests. It's not for free.
That's Our Nature
On the other hand, this refusal to accept nature's order is part of our nature. That's how we are, evidently. We developed this big brain and need to use it. So, we replace nature by culture. Cities expand and we hurry between them at increasing speed.
It may pillage our planet, but we can't stop ourselves. We are victims of our own capacity.
Lao Tzu was surely aware of this paradox. Already in his days, this urge of ours had forced nature to retreat a few steps. He could see civilization grow, and didn't expect his fellow men to reverse the process.
Instead of restraining our urge to excel, maybe the solution lies in developing how this urge is expressed. If the brain is what causes it, why not turn the ambitions to it?
Instead of struggling with our outer world in efforts to improve it, which is a quest that seems endless, we might find greater satisfaction by working on our inner worlds. Our minds. They are worlds just as complex as the one we see around us.
Exploring the mind, cultivating our thoughts, contemplating our awareness – that's where we are the most likely to find the answers to the questions with the same origin. That's also how to satisfy our longing, without ravaging the world around us.
It could also lead to the discovery that there is not so much we need from the outside world.
Tao Te Ching 51 - Translated and Explained by Stefan Stenudd Tao Te Ching 51 - Translated and Explained by Stefan Stenudd
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 our lives.
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.