Those of the highest character do not think about virtue,
Which is why they are the most virtuous,
While those of lower character strive to attain virtue,
Which is why they rarely do.
The truly virtuous
Act without objective,
And thus have no need to be recognized.
Beneath them, the benevolent are moved by a code of valor,
And so must strive after honor and accolade.
Yet at least they do not impose morality upon others—
Beneath them, the righteous perceive themselves as moral guardians,
And so must strive to control and command.
Yet at least they are concerned with the living—
Beneath them, the holy are only interested in tradition and ritual.
Since no one really cares about any of that,
They must strive to establish their doctrines by force.
When Tao is lost, we hear about virtue,
When virtue is lost, we hear about benevolence,
When benevolence is lost, we hear about morality,
And when morality is lost, we hear about history.
It follows that:
Of all the methods to find the way in the world,
Hewing to traditional doctrine is by far the shabbiest,
And a portent of great troubles to come.
Any presumed wisdom is like a petal
On an enormous and unfolding tree of knowledge.
Mistaking the flower for the tree itself
Renders the system infertile,
Nurturing only ignorance and delusion.
This is why those of great character
Concern themselves with the pith instead of the peel,
The fruit instead of the flower,
The trunk instead of the twigs.
Electing sustenance, they shed the superficial.
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List of verses here